In addition to being a SF geek, I am also a musical theater nerd. I love to see live shows, but since that doesn’t happen very often, I do just fine with soundtracks; I can sing all the parts along with the best Broadway or West End cast, especially when I am in the car or doing some cleaning. Musical theater is traditionally seen as a happy genre - people would not be singing and dancing so much otherwise - so this article listing a number of “Surprisingly Depressing” musicals drew my attention when I came across in my Facebook news feed the other day.
First on the list, not surprisingly at all, is Rent, which is about people dying of AIDS and overdosing on heroin and living in squalid lofts. It is followed closely by Les Miserables, which, just as it says on the tin, depicts the struggles of some miserable people in 19th century Paris. Miss Saigon and its doomed love story in the middle of the Vietnam War, check. Chicago’s cast of homicidal women prisoners, yep, they’re in there too, just as you’d expect.
What I didn’t expect was to see shows like The Sound of Music or Fiddler on the Roof or Annie, all three of which appear on the list as well. While it is true, as the article reminds us, that they involve Nazis, antisemitism, and poor mistreated orphans, respectively, these are never prominent enough themes to label the musicals as blatantly depressing, unless, of course, you’re an internet writer who needs to fill in the gaps in your latest click-bait top 10 list.
It’s the music that makes it better, isn’t it? When the latest in a long line of governesses makes dresses from the drapes, covers for you instead of turning you in when you sneak in after spending time with your boyfriend in the gazebo, and teaches you and your siblings to sing while roaming around Salzburg, you know that everything will be alright even if you do have to sneak away from the Nazis in the middle of the night. When being a poor milkman in a poor Russian village is all you’ve ever known, you may sing about your wish to be a rich man but you also quite contentedly celebrate the ordinary milestones of life with your family and friends. And when you are living a hard knock life, at least you are able to sing about it as you scrub the orphanage floors with the hope that hard knocks aren’t all there is and life will get better one day.
This also holds true in the most depressing shows on the list. The truly horrid conditions you’re living in don’t seem nearly so bad when you give your lifestyle a French name and sing about the best parts of it while dancing on a restaurant table surrounded by your friends. Likewise, the fact that you most likely won’t survive the night defending the barricade is insignificant next to the strong feelings of camaraderie and friendship between you and your compatriots as you sing with such conviction about the cause you all believe in so deeply.
It’s not a new idea, this desire to sing in order to lessen the effects of an otherwise depressing situation. In the Bible, Psalm after Psalm repeat a theme that goes something along the lines of, “I have enemies on every side and the outlook is really bad right now, but despite that I sing praises to God because I trust him and have hope that he will take care of everything.” It is a good lesson to heed, whether we take it from the Psalmist or our favorite stage actor: even when my soul is downcast and disturbed, I will yet sing, in praise my savior and God and to remind myself that life is never all bad.