Musicals That Move You (But Not in a Fosse Sort of Way)

Good theater moves you.

When I was a theater critic I always asked myself if the play moved me emotionally. (The last play to move me emotionally was “The Birthday Party” at Steppenwolf, which both me and my companion enjoyed. Prior to that, “Othello” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.) The greatest failure a piece of theater can make is make me feel numb for the entire thing.

Musical theater is a genre that I have mixed feelings for. When it works, it works astoundingly well. When it doesn’t work, it is really bad or very silly. The best musicals for me either make me cry or make me feel incredibly happy after watching them, as is the case with my favorite musical, “My Fair Lady.”

But let’s focus on musicals where you cry.

I can think of every musical I’ve cried during. “Into the Woods” at the Waterloo Community Playhouse, the first two times I saw “Wicked,” “Company” and three-fourths of “Next to Normal” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Then there are the cast recordings I’ve cried while listening to. I can no longer listen to “Sunday in the Park with George” on my commute because I’ll start sobbing in the car at numerous points in the music.

Today I was listening to the music for “Falsettos” in an attempt to relax after a very busy week. This was successful on that front, but I also burst into tears in the car while listening to certain songs.

This rarely happens. It’s not like how I know that every other week I’ll cry while listening to “Hello Helicopter” by Motion City Soundtrack. The last time I wanted to cry while listening to the music for “Falsettos”–which is split into “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland” because that’s the only way it’s been released–was while riding a Metra train to Kenosha. I was reading the paper on the quiet car and found I was the only person left on the car. As I got to the song “You’ve Got To Die Sometime,” I found myself wanting to cry.

But here I was, a 21-year-old woman driving around East Lansing crying to a musical that is best known as being a musical written by the guy who wrote “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” (I like to think of it as “The Other Musical from the 1990s Involving AIDS.”)

To quickly inform you of what the musical is about, it’s about a man named Marvin who has recently left his wife, Trina, and son, Jason, to be with his male lover, Whizzer. As Marvin strives for a “tight-knit family,” his psychiatrist, Mendel, falls in love with Trina. Relationships form and disintegrate. Lesbians from next door are introduced, bar mitzvahs planned. As all of this is going on, a mysterious disease in the early 1980s appears in normally healthy men and Whizzer is victim to this disease. (The audience knows this is AIDS, but the characters do not.)

That very brief plot summary has either enticed you or terrified you because this probably sounds like the weirdest musical to appear on Broadway. It ends on a down note. No one comes back to life because their friend tells them to turn around from the light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s realistic, which is probably why I like it.

There are three specific moments in this musical where I’m prone to feeling the most moved. Two are in Act One and are the songs “The Games I Play” and “I Never Wanted to Love You.” The other comes in Act Two when a character accepts that death is approaching him and he sings “You’ve Got to Die Sometime.” A couple of numbers prior to this, my favorite lyric appears:

Let’s be scared together.
Let’s pretend that nothing is awful.
There’s nothing to fear.
There’s nothing to fear.
Just stay right here.
I love you.

The lyrics aren’t as complex or subtle as Sondheim, but there’s still a great truth that strikes one as you listen to them, which is why I find it to be endlessly listenable.

For me the musicals that work the best are the ones which are incredibly realistic even when dealing with fantasy themes, such as “Into the Woods.” They move me and are the ones I’m left breathless after seeing. So whether it’s a musical about an incredibly immature Jewish man who wants a close family or a painter struggling to complete his masterpiece, I celebrate the musicals that make me cry and not even in a silent way.

What do you think makes a good musical? And what musicals move you?

(By the way, I’m not sure why I was mostly unmoved by the most recent time I saw “Wicked.” I attribute it to me being more cynical than I was in the past, but I was also cheering for Galinda throughout the entire musical, which I don’t think I’m supposed to do.)