Why Musical Theatre Can Make You Feel Seen, Even as an Adult

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As many of you know, I spent a couple years working at a big corporation. When I first started there, I had a classic “new MBA”-type job – lots of spreadsheets, lots of research, and lots of time in a cubicle with my headphones on. I loved the job, especially coming off the crush of doing my law degree and MBA concurrently. I adored those long hours drinking office coffee, trying to not be terrible at Excel, and generally enjoying the fact that I didn’t have 400 pages of cases to brief at a time.

But what I really, truly loved about that time was the musical Hamilton.

Did I mention the headphones? Oh yes. Like many big companies, mine had chic, modern offices with – oh you know it – open-concept floor plans. We had ergonomic, super-functional cubicles with… glass half walls. One of my favourite things about law school was the fact that the second floor of the law library was STRICTLY silent study only. AKA, heaven on earth. And now, I was surrounded by people on bluetooth headsets taking phone calls and standing up to talk to colleagues two rows over. It was an adjustment.

Cue the headphones. As I said, even with my new noisy neighbours, I really enjoyed that job. I loved doing what I still affectionately call “tucking in” – settling in for several hours on a big project. Is there anything better than knowing you get to really dig into something, even if (okay, sometimes especially if) it’s something monotonous? I find it so satisfying, especially when you’re joined by…

ALEXANDER HAMILTON!

You see, the musical Hamilton had just come out, and I listened to the soundtrack Every. Damn. Day. I would start at the beginning and let that bad boy roll through all the triumphs and drama. I would occasionally catch myself mouthing the rapid-fire rap from “Guns and Ships” while I colour-coded and key-commanded. I would have to duck down under my monitors to dab at my mascara during “It’s Quiet Uptown.” It was a marvellous time.

But the thing that meant the most to me about Hamilton was how incredibly seen I felt when I listened to it. From the first time I listened through, I was stunned… and also, really self-conscious. I almost felt like Lin Manuel Miranda must have been following me around my whole life, reading my mind. Either that, or I was the reincarnation of a flawed founding father. One of the lines that is repeated throughout the show is, “why do you write like you’re running out of time?” I still sing that line to myself all the time…

Why? Because I’ve always felt like people around me don’t understand that there isn’t enough time every day. Time is the resource I’m greediest about – I always want more of it, I’m so offended when people don’t respect it, and I value it above everything. And the biggest reason I see the world this way is because I feel like I have so much to do and never enough time to get all my ideas out, to make everything I want to make, to do everything I want to do. 

Here I was, in a job that, while I enjoyed it, was clearly not right for me in the long run, in my suit and pantyhose and perfect hair and pumps, really feeling seen every day from something I was just listening to. Something that felt like it reached into my heart like songs used to do in high school and absolutely devastated me in the absolute best way possible. That made me feel not so weird for the feelings I had deep inside. That made me feel human.

If you were a musical theatre nerd in high school or maybe early college, these are probably familiar feelings that you might have tucked away somewhere while you’re busy being an “adult.” I used to belt Les Misérables in the car so loud people would hear me in the other cars at red lights (remember: I did go on to become an opera singer). I would cry every time I sang “On My Own,” because – hello! – I was a teenager who belted Les Misérables in the car, and I kind of understood where Éponine was coming from with the whole unrequited love thing. I knew every single word to Rent, and Mark, the filmmaker, was my favourite character: detached, observing, more comfortable giving relationship advice than having a relationship himself. Sixteen-year-old me understood him the most, so I sang his clever narrations and tender asides with the most care. One summer in undergrad, I saw Lin Manuel Miranda’s first big musical In The Heights in New York a couple days after it won the Tony, then proceeded to listen to the soundtrack every day while I studied in Italy for the summer. “It Won’t Be Long Now” is my forever go-to shower jam, but it was the character Nina I most related to, dealing with the enormous pressure of her family’s hopes for her.

Musical theatre is not just about big emotions, show-stopping numbers, and snappy comebacks… it’s about feeling understood. That’s why it’s so beloved by teens: not because it’s written for young adults, but because young adults need it the most. 

So forget the stereotype of the “theatre nerd” high school kid and embrace listening to musical soundtracks as an adult. You never know when a character might shock you into feeling really, really seen. To get you started (especially if you’re a musical theatre newbie), here’s my list of my ten favourite musicals of all time, in no particular order. Start anywhere, listen to the first couple of songs, and see if you get hooked. If you’re feeling it, take my approach to listening to musical theatre: quickly skim the plot on Wikipedia (so you know what’s going on), then just keep listening to the soundtrack in order (remember – it’s a play! There’s a story!). Musicals are great for commutes, routine office work, or doing stuff around the house. Extra bonus points for car singalongs.

My Top 10 Favourite Musicals (to Get You Started Toward Being a Musical Theatre Fan)

  1. Rent

  2. Les Misérables

  3. Avenue Q

  4. Dear Evan Hansen

  5. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

  6. In The Heights

  7. Hamilton

  8. Company

  9. Wicked

  10. Jesus Christ Superstar

Honourable mention to Urinetown, Little Shop of Horrors, Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story, The Music Man, and A Chorus Line.

My favourite way to listen to a musical (or any album, come to think of it) is to beat it to death until I know every word, so next up on my own “go deep” listening list are Waitress and The Book of Mormon. I know, I know – how have I not devoted myself to them already?! Not enough hours in the day…