2017 Favorites: Music and Musicals
Welcome to my 2017 in review posts!
R.E.M.: Lifes Rich Pageant
Early in 2017, thanks to Spotify, I rediscovered R.E.M. Automatic for the People has always been one of my favorite albums (and it still holds up!), while I was also familiar with a few of their other hits (“Losing My Religion,” “Shiny Happy People,” “The One I Love,” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” of course). Of the new songs I listened to, I found myself gravitating to the Lifes Rich Pageant album. It’s heavier than Automatic (which I still think I prefer) and full of optimism and making a difference. “These Days,” for instance, is all about how young people do care about the world and want to do something good with it as they construct their own identities.
Favorite songs: “I Believe,” “These Days,” “Fall on Me.”
Soundtrack to Arrival (Johann Johannsson)
Technically I discovered this in 2016 when I saw the movie, but I don’t know if I listened to this or not until this year. Regardless, I wanted a little more variety on this list. This movie relied on sound and music for atmosphere and the soundtrack is SO GREAT, although really intense and creepy at points. So I do not recommend listening to it when you’re looking for more peaceful music to write a paper to though!
P.S. I also recommend the movie and it’s currently on Hulu!
Pippin (Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Book by Roger O. Hirson)
In April, I saw the Broadway tour performance of Pippin (the acrobatic-intense 2013 revival, which adds a final scene not in the original that’s thematically important). It was at my college and I thought it would be fun, plus I had friends who liked it and the music. And it was certainly fun, but by the end of Act II I was blown away by the story, which originally confused and disappointed me at the beginning of that act because it seemed to be undoing some of the stakes and settling into “love is the solution!” But I was wrong. Really, what Pippin does is literally tear down (and I mean literally) the hero’s journey and accept that life might not be as grand as you hope it will be. It was a little on-the-nose at the end, but I loved the metatheater and found it an inevitable point of life I’ll have to face sometime, as I’m sure my writing and teaching careers won’t pan out exactly as expected. It helped I was studying postmodernism and really clicking with some of the philosophy at the time, too–particularly the part about questioning and dismantling master narratives.
Favorite Songs: “Magic to Do,” “Corner of the Sky,” “No Time at All,” and “Finale.”
Falsettos (Music & Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Finn & James Lapine)
If you’ve talked to me at all in the second half of this year, you probably know about my love for Falsettos. It all started with the release of the trailer for the PBS broadcast of the 2016 revival, which I’d previously heard good things about it. I managed to see the recording in a theater in July and you bet I’ve got the PBS recording from October saved on my DVR permanently.
I previously discussed it here, where I got carried away talking about some of ways it addresses gender roles. Look, this musical was basically made for queer musical and literary nerds. (I admit I am not Jewish, and when I watched it with a friend of mine who is, he pointed out a lot of little jokes and references that had gone completely over my head.) It’s intensely character-focused, using repetition and motifs like games/sports and cooking to show how strict gender roles and homophobia are affecting everyone. (It’s all sung-through.) Some lines from Act I (originally written and performed in 1981) are mirrored in Act II (from 1990, before the two were combined for the originally 1992 Broadway production), displaying character development. The set changes to express the state of the family. Serious issues and real-life history are handled head-on, while other scenes feature more abstract caricatures of masculinity. And did I mention the harmonies are lovely? The soundtrack is basically filled with bops and tear-inducing ballads.
It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, but ultimately it just fills me with hope and happiness at how much this family went through and grew together.
Favorite Songs: …I have to choose? Fine. “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” “This Had Better Come to a Stop,” “I’m Breaking Down,” “Jason’s Therapy, ” “The Chess Game,” “The Games I Play,” “I Never Wanted to Love You,” “Father to Son,” “Falsettoland/About Time,” “The Baseball Game,” “A Day in Falsettoland,” “Everyone Hates His Parents,” “What More Can I Say?”, “Something Bad is Happening,” “Holding to the Ground,” “Unlikely Lovers,” “You Gotta Die Sometime,” and “What Would I Do?”…yeah, look, this was hard, but there’s 34 songs so I narrowed it down, right?
Something Rotten! (Music & Lyrics by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, Book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell)
I really discovered this last year, but I saw the tour over the summer (with Adam Pascal aka Roger from RENT as Shakespeare!) and it the soundtrack has now become a staple in my family. “Welcome to the Renaissance” has been such an earworm, and I returned to it frequently this semester as I studied many of the poets and playwrights mentioned in the song. Basically, the show is a humorous interpretation of Shakespeare (represented as a rock star, performing some of his famous poetry in rock anthem style) by focusing on his rivals who get a soothsayer to tell them what Shakespeare’s next play will be, except they get it mixed up with musicals and breakfast food (“Omlette…Ham…Danish”). While I do prefer more emotionally intense musicals, this was basically made for both the musical and English geek in me. There are so many references to various musicals and Shakespeare plays! And I’m sure I’ll use some of these songs in my own classroom for fun.
Favorites: “Welcome to the Renaissance,” “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” “Will Power,” “A Musical,” “Hard to be the Bard.”
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Music & Lyrics by Stephen Trask, Book by John Cameron Mitchell)
This one was a long time coming until I got fully into it over Labor Day weekend. I first discovered the beautiful and epic song that is “Origin of Love” when skipping to a random segment of a recording of an Anthony Rapp concert on YouTube. I didn’t quite know what it was about, but I loved what I was hearing, and I looked it up on Spotify and found the Neil Patrick Harris 2014 Hedwig album (labelled “Original Broadway Cast,” as John Cameron Mitchell’s recordings are under the Off-Broadway and the movie albums). But I mostly just listened to that song for a while. I also knew “Sugar Daddy” because a friend showed the Tony performance to me previously.
Even though the show contains a lot of improv and it’s an unusual format for a “musical”–more like a rock concert with Hedwig and Yitzak telling the story of her life, sometimes playing multiple characters–listening to just the 14 songs on the album (though I usually omit the instrumental intros and the Hurt Locker joke song) tells such a story. The music and metaphorical lyrics, especially in the last 4 songs, illustrate Hedwig’s breakdown and acceptance of herself so beautifully. It’s a story of healing and being yourself with an awesome rock score.
Also, shout out to Lena Hall, who has become my newest inspiration because she can play both a man (though written for a female voice) who impersonates other men, as well as Hedwig herself (written for high tenor) and rock out. I think I’ve finally found role(s) I can play as an alto?
Favorite Songs: “The Origin of Love,” “Sugar Daddy,” “Wig in a Box,” “Wicked Little Town,” “The Long Grift,” and “Midnight Radio”
Penderecki: St. Luke Passion
I got the privilege to see this performed at my college with Penderecki in the house (he was supposed to direct but was advised not to by his doctor, so someone close to him direct it instead). It’s the story of the Crucifixion focusing on the emotional human aspect. My choir director (who was in one of the choirs performing it) told us how the score is very experimental and strange, and that definitely came through–especially the chilling moments of loud chattering (and banging from the orchestra) that represented the crowd. I really enjoy classical choir pieces! That said, like Arrival, this is another piece that isn’t recommended to listen to when you’re studying because of its intensity.
Singular Songs and Honorable Mentions
- “Kia Hora Te Marino” (Christopher Tin): This is SUCH fun piece we did in choir this semester. The lyrics are from a Maori text. Here is a great performance of it.
- “Tshosholoza” (arr. Jeffrey Ames): Another blast to perform from choir this semester, and you can see a similar performance here. It’s South Africa’s unofficial national anthem, and we sang it right after their official one.
- “The Book Report” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (only the 1999 revival I believe): I love how this illustrates the 4 types of students writing essays for class: trying to hit the word count, getting off-topic, overachieving, and ANXIETY! (Charlie Brown’s the last one and I find it very relatable, plus he’s played by Anthony Rapp!)
- I’ve only just started listening to more of Come From Away, but I love “Welcome to the Rock,” “Me and the Sky,” and “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere.” I’d love to see it sometime, and I’m glad they’re making a movie.
- Dear Evan Hansen I tried to get into shortly after it came out, but there wasn’t a plot synopsis on Wikipedia yet and I didn’t get through the whole thing. Then suddenly it blew up and like Hamilton last year, it was hard to make something for myself out of something so popular. I also feel like the context for the songs is extremely important and so I would need to read the script (or see it, but that’s unlikely) to fully appreciate it. BUT I do listen to “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will Be Found” regularly and was blown away by Ben Platt’s emotional singing in “Words Fail.”
- Kinky Boots: I got to see this in October because it stopped on tour at my college. It was a lot of fun, and I found myself surprised that I actually liked the music more than the story. Don’t get me wrong! The story was enjoyable enough, but it was the music that stood out to me. Even though it’s Cyndi Lauper (who I like well enough, but she’s known for a different style), it’s much more rock than pop, which is a style I LOVE in musicals. That said, I haven’t listened to it much at all since I saw it, so it didn’t feel right to include it on this list.
Any recommendations? I know I need to listen to all of The Great Comet; I only know a couple of songs so far. It’s definitely a play I would have loved to experience…