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Mar 21

Showtunes and Parallels

It is no secret that in musical theater, just like in any other art form, writers and creators are constantly inspired and influenced by each other’s work. In the world of musical theater, this often leads to similarities between songs and all kinds of parallels between different musicals. In a way, those connections create a bridge between different generations of theater and unite musicals that might initially seem completely different within the same musical tradition.

It would be impossible to list every single similarity between different show tunes, and choosing a “Top Five Best Show Tune Parallels,” for example, would be completely unfair to all of the songs that would end up left out. This is why my Top Five is a matter of personal choice. Those parallels are simply my favorite ones, and ones that always get me really exciting and talking about the beauty of inheritance in musical theater to anyone who is willing to listen. This is always a good way to start a discussion, and hopefully prompt other people to notice similar trends with other shows and songs as well.

1. The Circus Dream sequence (Lady in the Dark, 1941) / “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” (Book of Mormon, 2011)

The obvious similarity here is that both musical numbers happen outside of reality, in the main character’s dream world. Similarly to “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”, where all of Elder Price’s fears appear personified in his dream (yes, even the coffee cups), the Circus Dream sequence, which consists of four songs, expresses the fears of the main character in Lady in the Dark, Liza Elliott. While the problems and fears, which concern the two characters, are completely different, the way they are represented through song is quite similar. The way the Circus Dream sequence is staged in most productions often parallels the original Broadway staging of “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” – it’s all about flashy costumes, creepy-looking ensembles and surrealism. Lots of red sequins and horrifying glamour seem to appear in both, too.

(Speaking of horrifying dream sequences, I have to give a honorary mention to “Tevye’s Dream” in Fiddler on the Roof (1964)… It follows the same pattern of creepy surrealism and a huge, terrifying ensemble, and I would totally include it in the discussion if it were an actual dream, and not just Tevye lying to his wife. You’re making things up again, Tevye!)

2. “I Got Life” (Hair, 1968) / “La Vie Boheme” (Rent, 1996)

This is a parallel I have mentioned before, and is probably one of my favorite musical theatre parallels of all time. In both musicals, those songs are sung by groups of “underdogs” – bohemians and hippies – who celebrate life and everything that life has to offer. If you look at the film version of Hair, the parallel grows even more because there, the hippies crash an expensive party and piss the rich people off, just like the bohemians in Rent annoy Benny and his father in law when they sing. In this version of “I Got Life”, similarly to “La Vie Boheme”, there’s a lot of dancing on tables involved as well. Both songs are list songs, (which is a tradition that was made popular by Cole Porter first… thanks for that, Cole Porter!), and they don’t really contribute to the narrative of the musicals: their function is simply to express the character’s values and celebrate the things they find important.

Honorary mentions for Fiddler on the Roof seem to be a running theme in this article. The song “To Life” follows most of the same trends as “I Got Life” and “La Vie Boheme” and is, once again, an ensemble song where a community of poor people sings about the good things in their lives, “even when there’s nothing to be joyful for”. It is also interesting to notice that in all three songs, the word Life is present in the very title of the musical number. Because, after all, regardless of the context of the song, all three of them boil down to this: People singing together, and all singing about life.

3. “Christmas Bells” (Rent, 1996) / “Blackout” (In The Heights, 2007)

It is interesting to see how Rent sits in such a place in the tradition of contemporary musical theatre that it is both influenced by older musicals, and old enough to have left its mark and inspired more recent shows. The parallel between “Christmas Bells” and “Blackout” is an interesting one, because it’s not as obvious as some other parallels might be.  Here, the themes of the songs are different but they are united through their setting, and their musicality. The differences are striking: you have a freezing cold winter and the horrible heat of mid-summer, different time periods, different communities. What unifies those songs, however, is that both of them are communal numbers where seemingly everyone appears to be singing at the same time, and it all takes place in the streets of New York. The musical aspect of the parallel is the most important thing in this case: the way both songs function is through layering various melodies and hence, representing various storylines that are all, almost chaotically, developing at the same time. You could easily compare Mark’s singing “But I am over her!” with Nina’s “I don’t need anything tonight”, all the while the rest of the community sings about its own concerns – be it power, or money, or love.

And also, Lin-Manuel Miranda himself once confirmed that he had “Christmas Bells” in mind when he wrote “Blackout”. So— there’s that.

4. “Wig in a Box” (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, 2001) / “Not My Father’s Son” (Kinky Boots, 2013)

With Hedwig coming to Broadway so soon, it’s impossible to overlook this parallel. The song “Wig in a Box” is the moment when Hedwig realizes that all she has done since moving to America has been pointless, and what starts out as a heartbreaking ballad grows into a powerful celebration in which she sings about her gender expression and femininity, which seem to always help her through tough moments in life. Similarly, Lola’s “Not My Father’s Son” is a ballad which acknowledges the hardships that she has had to face, the lack of acceptance and the fact that she has found a way to deal with it, and feel better, through simply expressing herself and being herself. An interesting parallel in the lyrics which directly reflects this celebration of self-expression and femininity is Hedwig’s “I put on some make-up (…), put the wig back on my head”, compared to Lola’s “But the world seemed brighter six inches off the ground”.

“Wig in a Box” also compares interestingly to one of Lola’s other solos, “Land of Lola”, because of the similar tendency of the characters to compare themselves with celebrities and pop culture figures. While Hedwig sings about becoming Miss Midwest Midnight and Miss Farrah Fawcett, Lola mentions Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, all of which create a similar pattern of comparing the two characters to popular figures. Ultimately, just like with “Not My Father’s Son”, this parallel is, again, all about the songs’ being about Hedwig and Lola’ self-expression.

5. “The Bitch of Living” (Spring Awakening, 2005) / “Revolting Children” (Matilda, 2013)

Yes, yes we’ve all heard jokes about Matilda’s being “basically Spring Awakening but with children”, (or at least, I have), but anyone who likes those two musicals could probably give you a two-hour lecture about how that’s so far from the truth it’s not even funny.

If there is one thing in those musicals that is really similar, however, it’s those two songs. In both cases, students in uniforms are singing about stuff while jumping on desks and doing choreography that seems easy when you watch it on YouTube and proves pretty much impossible when you try it in your bedroom. (Just me? Oh. Okay…) Actually, this similarity is quite interesting because the revolt of all of those angry students seems to be what connects the two groups of characters, even though their classrooms are in different countries, in different time periods, and the things that piss them off are—well, completely different. Even so, it’s interesting to talk about the fact that anger and revolting seem to unite those young characters and, regardless of their circumstances, their feelings manifest themselves through rock musical numbers, hand-held microphones and lots of jumping around.

At least, that’s what happens in musicals. Complaining about bad teachers on Facebook’s not nearly as fun.

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