I am into musicals. Like, really, really into them. At any moment, I’d estimate that I am made up of four or five original cast recordings stacked inside a trench coat, masquerading as a human person. I know though, that whilst I love musicals often more than I love breathing, they aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. I also know that I am probably irritating the people in my life as I spend many hours attempting to convince them to listen to my favourite soundtracks, but I honestly think that if you are someone who professes to not like musicals, you just haven’t found the right one yet.
This selection of five is far from comprehensive, but it is a selection that I think are either great gateway soundtracks or something a little bit different to whet your appetites.
1. Avenue Q
Avenue Q is on this list for one simple reason; it is HILARIOUS. As in, I am hard pushed to think of another musical soundtrack that matches this one joke for joke, apart from maybe The Book of Mormon. First performed in 2003, Avenue Q is a show about ordinary people on an ordinary street, people who grew up being told that they were special and could do whatever they wanted, and are starting to realise that just maybe it might not be as easy as all that. It sounds a bit depressing, when you sum it up like that, but it is anything but. For a start, most of the characters are Jim Henson style puppets, which kind of tells you all you need to know.
Featuring songs such as the instantly relatable, ‘Schadenfreude’ – a song about how great it is when other people screw up – or the glorious ‘The Internet Is For Porn’, Avenue Q is an upbeat, zany ride. It also finds time to dwell on things that all millennials are likely to relate to, whether it’s the brutally honest ‘What Do You Do With A BA in English?’ or ‘It’s A Fine, Fine Line’, a song about love and knowing if it’s time to let go. Avenue Q is like a giant meme, with so many moments that make you sit up and say ‘same’, that it is hard to believe it was written over thirteen years ago. It feels as fresh and relevant now as it must have done then, and even if the topics hit a little too close to home sometimes, you still end up smiling by the time the last song ends.
Three More Great Songs: ‘My Girlfriend, Who Lives In Canada’, ‘Mix Tape’, ‘I Wish I Could Go Back To College’.
2. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Sweeney Todd is the oldest musical on this list, but it’s so great that I just had to include it. It is probably the soundtrack that would be most familiar to someone who doesn’t know an awful lot about musicals in general, or at least they would know the basic premise. That premise is this: Sweeney Todd comes back to London after being sent to Australia for a crime he did not commit. The wife he is expecting to be waiting for him is dead and their daughter is living as the ward of the man who caused the wife’s death. Sweeney hooks up with a local pie maker and together they make a business out of killing people and baking them into pies. It’s brutal, it’s unapologetic and it is, quite frankly, wonderful.
Written by Stephen Sondheim, a master of the form, what Sweeney Todd really has to offer to the ears are some cracking lyrics, great choruses and layers of music that play off each other and give you something new every time that you listen. There are seven reprises of the opening song, ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’, all of which add up to a giant crescendo by the end of the soundtrack. There are also really good characters, quite aside from Sweeney himself who is an unlikeable grump. Mrs Lovett, the pie maker, introduces herself with the hilarious ‘The Worst Pies In London’, and Judge Turpin, Sweeney’s enemy, sings the creepily creeptastic ‘Johanna (Mea Culpa)’. Sweeney Todd is a soundtrack to make you appreciate what the musical form can do.
Three More Great Songs: ‘A Little Priest’, ‘No Place Like London’, ‘Epiphany’.
Matilda came straight into the world from the brain of Tim Minchin, and if you are at all familiar with his work then you already know that is awesome. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, it is a marriage of minds that absolutely delivers everything that it promises. Matilda is the brilliant, neglected child of the comically terrible Wormwoods, whose intelligence is recognised by her teacher, Miss Honey. Together they take on Miss Trunchbull, the most evil of evil headmistresses, and there is of course a happy ending. Just because the ending is happy, however, doesn’t mean the journey is all plain sailing.
Tim Minchin’s strengths as a musician and comedian lie in his ability to do things with words, to play games and couple those words with simple but memorable tunes. Matilda’s big solo, ‘Naughty’ is one such example of this. With lyrics such as ‘Jack and Jill, went up the hill, to fetch a pail of water/So they say, the subsequent fall was inevitable’, you really start to appreciate Minchin’s deftly woven internal rhymes and sharp sense of humour. Before Matilda, he was also demonstrating the ability to really tug at the heartstrings, and songs here such as ‘When I Grow Up’ and ‘This Little Girl’ provide welcome textures in the soundtrack, full of longing and characters wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Matilda is, in my opinion, the best thing that Minchin has ever written.
Three More Great Songs: ‘Quiet’, ‘The Hammer’, ‘Revolting Children’
4. The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden is included on this list because I knew I had to get one of my top five favourites in there somehow, and this is the one that not many people have heard of. Based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden is special because it was created by that rarest of musical theatre phenomena – an all-female creative team. Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman turned the book, the story of a spoilt young girl who is moved to distant family in Yorkshire and ends up effectively saving the lives of her uncle and cousin, into a show that is so full of heart, it is impossible not to be smiling by the end of it. The soundtrack does it particularly good justice, as far as storytelling goes; I don’t feel like anything is missing, no part of the story untold, when I listen to it.
There’s an awful lot of strands to this deceptively simple story, following the lives of Mary and her cousin Colin, as well as giving a generous amount of time to her uncle, Archie and his grief at the loss of his wife, Colin’s mother. It is this grief that makes this show feel more grown up than Matilda, with burning songs such as ‘A Bit of Earth’, ‘How Could I Ever Know’ and ‘Come To My Garden’. There is also light, with the songs sung by the children particularly lovely; ‘Wick’ and ‘Round Shouldered Man’ are so provocative and illustrative of their little lives. The strength of The Secret Garden is that it takes everything you feel after reading a Victorian novel and distills it into song form. You’ll have the entire experience of that right here with this soundtrack.
Three More Great Songs: ‘Lily’s Eyes’, ‘Hold On’, ‘Race You To The Top of The Morning’
OK, let’s be honest here – unless you’ve been living literally under a rock for the last two years, you must have at least heard of Hamilton. It’s kind of a big deal? One of the biggest shows to hit Broadway for decades? Essentially a revolution in musical format? Yeah, that Hamilton. Telling the life story of Alexander Hamilton, the ten dollar founding father, using hip-hop, R’n’B and rap and, crucially, casting actors of colour in all of the leading roles. Hamilton, the masterpiece of Lin Manuel Miranda, is about claiming something back and oh boy, does it manage that. Once you’ve listened to the Marquis de Lafayette rapping his way through the War of Independence in ‘Guns and Ships’, you won’t be able to imagine the war as happening any other way. King George the Third, a Brit-pop invader, will always be there in your head, singing ‘You’ll Be Back’.
So much has been said about Hamilton already that I don’t even know where to start. The soundtrack does, I am reliably told, tell the entire story from start to finish, with only one line of dialogue that is not included on the recording. If Sondheim is a master of layering, and Minchin an expert on lyrical wordplay, Miranda must be some kind of amalgamation of the two. I have been listening to this musical for the best part of a year and a half and I am still finding references, both lyrically and musically, that I haven’t heard before. ‘Alexander Hamilton’, the opening number, is a four minute masterclass in how to introduce a character and tell his story, and it all just goes uphill from there. With so many references, you’ll be forgiven if you don’t exactly get the show the first time you hear it – I certainly didn’t. I can guarantee you though that something will keep dragging you back and pretty soon you will be as obsessed as I am. It is impossible not to be.
Three More Great Songs: ‘Burn’, ‘Satisfied’, ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’.