I inherited my love of musicals from my mom, who was raised on them, and who in turn raised me on them. My family traveled almost constantly for the first 10 years of my life, so I was in the car a lot, usually either reading or watching movies. I’m an only child, so the books and movies (and also my cat, “Pumpkin” – R.I.P.) became my BFF’s. Since musicals were a mainstay in our house, they became really important to me. We went to stage musicals as often as we could, but, for the most part, I saw the majority of the musicals I watched on film. When I found one I liked, I was obsessed. I’d watch it non-stop until I had all the songs memorized (there was never really anyone to make fun of me, since, in addition to being an only child, I was home-schooled through the third grade). Sooo, fourth grade was probably not my best year, but I was soon welcomed into the drama department and continued to be involved in theater throughout most of my years in school.
Musicals are often dismissed by “serious” music lovers because of their tendency to be cheesy (see: High School Musical, Glee, etc…), but whether or not this is always true, it is undeniable that music has a way of mainlining our emotions in ways words alone sometimes fail. Never mind the fact that the actors are insanely talented, having to be adept at dancing, singing, and acting usually all at the same time – musicals touch on a massive spectrum of themes ranging anywhere from AIDS and sexuality to religion to puppy love, making them highly accessible via music as their medium. Lighthearted or somber, musicals nearly always end on an uplifting note (literally), making an even larger statement about life. So, cheesy? Yes, usually. Important? Yes, definitely!
To enjoy musicals even at all, you must be able and willing to temporarily suspend reality. Some people cannot, some people will not, and some people are dying to. I’m in that third escapist category. Even if you’re not, I really think we all need a little bit of whimsy now and then to break up the monotony of reality. So, let me assist in your evasion — here are some excerpts from musicals that I love dearly, and that I hope you will watch and then go see in their entirety, if you haven’t already. I chose two “classic” favorites and three more recent favorites, although I could have easily made a Top 100 (yes, I am that nerdy).
Funny Face (1957)
When writing this piece, the question was never whether or not an Audrey Hepburn musical would be included, it was only which one. Audrey is my childhood idol and remains one of my favorite people to this day. Utterly adorable and always enchanting, I love every single one of her movies. In Funny Face, Audrey plays an intellectual who agrees to go Paris and star in a photo shoot, but only because she wants to attend a lecture by her favorite modern philosopher. Fred Astaire (only the best ever of all things musical) plays the photographer with whom she falls in love along the way. They’re so cute together, it hurts your eyeballs to watch. Watch this clip from the closing scene of the film to see what I mean. (Make sure to watch the whole movie to see Audrey do an awesome/hilarious modern dance in a French underground club. Or just watch it here.)
I know you’ve seen this one, which means you either love it or hate it. I love it. Cool city kid, played by the adorable Kevin Bacon, moves to a small town where dancing and rock music are banned by the town and condemned by its heavily influential preacher. Everything gets stirred up when the preacher’s daughter falls for the boy with the boombox and *gasp* starts dancing. In the end, the preacher decides that dancing is a good idea after all (even using scripture references) and lets those crazy teenagers run amok by having a legit prom. It’s all very scandalous. This one is obviously all about dancing, not singing, and I love it because 1. the music selections rule (if you love ’80s pop), 2. everyone is the cutest, and 3. this closing scene with all the glitter and dancing is a completely ridiculous, entirely amazing ’80s vision of the world’s best prom. I can’t even handle it.
Rent tells the story of a group of “bohemian” friends living in NYC, trying to survive life. Some of them have AIDS, some of them just have commitment issues, or are battling “The Man.” Jonathan Larson wrote it in the early 1990s, based on Puccini’s La Boheme, so ’90s “boho” cliches run rampant. I love Rent because, at its core, it’s about celebrating love and life today, right now. It’s inspiring and funny and the cast of the film version are all original except two. I love every song and literally every performance in this film, but I chose the song “I’ll Cover You” and its reprise because of its energy and fantastic vocals, mainly by Collins (Jesse L. Martin). The first time it’s performed is when they’re crazy in love, and Angel is healthy, so it’s upbeat pop in style. The second performance of this song is at Angel’s funeral, so it’s more of a mournful ballad backed by a choir of Angel’s dearest friends at the end. “I’ll Cover You” is beautiful and moving both times, only in different ways.
This is probably the most “realistic” musical I’ve ever seen. Once is the story of an Irish songwriter/busker who meets a Czech immigrant and immediately knows there’s chemistry — both musical and romantic. The pair become close and even form a band to record a studio session. The stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, actually collaborated before the filming and wrote all of the songs together, and then literally fell in love while shooting the film. So, the chemistry you’re seeing on film is real (*girl squeal*). They became a couple as a result and toured together as folk duo The Swell Season after the film started a frenzy over their passionate and endearing music; they later split, but both have successful, impressive solo careers now. This is the electric opening scene which showcases Hansard’s knack for knocking you off your feet with only his guitar and intensity.
Les Miserables (2012)
I grew up watching the 1998 film version of Les Miserables, which is great, but when I saw this one in theaters, I lost my head. I then proceeded to see it four more times, once with my mom (her review: “Loved it, but Thenardier was too vulgar.”). But seriously, I’ve never been so moved by any film as I was this one. The performances are so incredible. Not gonna lie, I still cry through at least 50% every time. The theme of compassion and love moves me like nothing else. One of my favorite subplots within the story is the one of Eponine’s unrequited, aching love for Marius. Her solo scene featuring “On My Own” might be my favorite of the movie not only because of Samantha Barks’ perfect vocals, but also her ability to render an entirely believable, exceptionally endearing character, especially with this scene.