Musicals as soundtracks for the times

Alex Klaushofer
6 min readJan 2, 2024

Contrary to stereotype, musical theatre is not a light art form. Its songs and stories cover the range of human experience, capturing complex emotions that often go unnamed in other forms of popular culture. I’ve loved musicals all my life but over the past few years my appreciation of them has deepened as I’ve come to see them as emotional resources for difficult times. Below, I offer some examples and suggestions.

My first choice goes back to my fourth birthday party when my grandmother carried a plastic record player into our North London house. With it came the first record I owned and could play at will: Chim Chim Cheree from Mary Poppins. The section about the rooftops of London recalls my historical and topographical roots — something that is always grounding, whatever happens to the place, or to us, subsequently.

But what about now? Are there songs in musicals that speak to these strange, particular times?

In January 2020, I sat in a West End theatre watching Wicked for the second time. I’d had a sense, seeing it in company the first time, that it was somehow significant and I’d gone back to sit in a good seat alone and give it my full attention. I was really enjoying the show, admiring how cleverly Stephen Schwarz played with conventional ideas about good and bad, conformity and difference when a sudden insight struck. ‘It’s about authoritarianism,’ said an inner voice. It was accompanied a strange sensation in my chest which in turn was followed by the thought: ‘I hope this isn’t a premonition’.

Since then, Wicked has become my go-to musical for the times, with the song Something Bad perfectly capturing the first signs of authoritarianism and the denial that prevents people from nipping it in the bud.

‘It couldn’t happen here … in Oz,’ sings Elpheba equably, as the persecution of a scapegoated minority — in this case the animals of Oz — begins.

Many birthdays later, in fact, just last month, I saw the Stephen Sondheim memorial show Old Friends. The first half was a series of mini-musicals, including a section from his modern take on fairy stories Into the Woods. In ‘I Know Things Now’ Bernadette Peters as Red Riding Hood reflected on her experience of being lured off the path by the wolf and slipped down his throat to join her grandmother.

And I know things now, many valuable things, that I hadn’t know before

Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood

They will not protect you the way that they should

And take extra care with strangers

Even flowers have their dangers

And though scary is exciting

Nice is different than Good

The Innocent and the Predator — what better archetypes of our times? Both Sondheim and Schwartz pinpoint a defining quality of modern westerners, the gullibility that comes from wanting to appear ‘good’ while actually is only displaying the ‘niceness’ of social conformity.

There’s been a lot of wondering about the psychology of evil in the past few years. Do musicals have much to say about that? I find ‘My Friends’ from Sweeney Todd almost unbearable in its exquisite expression of pain and longing. The psychopathic barber who slashes the throats of his customers and turns their flesh into pies sings a love song to the knives that will become the murder weapons. You can hear his yearning for connection, a longing so distorted that it inverts the relationship with the Other.

The warmongering spirit is all too apparent in ‘Glory’ from Pippin. Tone, words and dissonant sound all combine to convey a lust for blood, a relish in destruction and a celebration of power that sounds Satanic. Great on stage … not so good in the outside world.

This is not to suggest that bad leaders are necessarily evil. ‘And the money kept rolling in’ from Evita captures the impetus of a corrupt system once set in train, with good intentions mixed in with a love of status and a sense of entitlement.

Then there’s the fighting back. I’d put off seeing Les Miserables for decades because I believed it would be dispiriting. In 2022 I finally saw it in Bristol and discovered that its effect was quite the opposite. I find it hard to put my finger on the magic of Les Mis, but it’s something to do with the way it combines two contrasting emotions — misery and determination — and sustains them through a long performance in a way that is truly cathartic. Courage and altruism survive the most gruelling treatment at the hands of others. I can’t choose a single song — they’re all different facets of a complex, very human, emotional whole. I came away with the feeling that the human spirit — unless de- or trans-humanised! — can survive anything. We are, it turns out, very special creatures.

And highly emotional ones. Experiencing deep, difficult feelings is part of the experience of being alive (pun on the Company song unintended). ‘Close every door’ from Joseph expresses the sense of exclusion some members of western societies recently experienced for the first time. Two winters ago, I hosted a regular online meeting for a small group of people suffering under vaccine mandate and passport regimes in various countries. The brave faces we all put on didn’t quite conceal the shock and hurt we felt at the way our respective societies were treating us. But the experience also took us, as exclusion did Joseph, to a place of inner resilience.

Sometimes people leave you

Halfway through the wood

Many people lost relationships due to their refusal to have the Covid products or their views about what was going on. ‘No One is Alone’ from Into the Woods speaks to the resulting sense of abandonment while offering a consoling perspective on going it alone.

I can’t speak for the other members of the group, but I can testify the emotional outcome of that experience was a sense of liberation. By the time the Portuguese government lifted the requirement, I no longer cared about going to restaurants and cultural institutions and had found new activities and people. Full membership of a papers-please society had little appeal and I’d acquired something of the exultant shrug of Elsa from Frozen in ‘Let it Go’: Let the storm rage on … the cold never bothered me anyway.

At times, grievous situations call for action. While I was preparing to leave Britain in late 2020, ‘Morning Glow’ from Pippin became my theme song. Its lyrics and pacing mimic the sense of possibility and expansiveness that comes when you realise you can change your reality.

So many steps need taking … so many plans need making

Hesitancy and thinking things through gives way to decisiveness and a sense of optimism:

I think I will … I think I will

While I’m still discovering musicals, the ones I’ve known all my life remain fresh. As with books, they change with the level of awareness you bring to them. The first few times I saw The Sound of Music I thought it was a nice story. Imagine my surprise when, on the umpteenth watch, my parents — who had experienced both sides of World War II — told me that in ‘So Long farewell’ the von Trapp family were not just singing a charming goodbye but fleeing the Nazis.

This was a much bigger shock than learning the truth about Father Christmas. But eventually I processed the information and grew up to write a PhD about the holocaust.

I’ll leave you with a surprise. Not from a musical, this is a new song by a very well-known singer-songwriter. She felt ‘called’, she said in an interview, to write it for the present times.

I think it could be the soundtrack for 2024.

You can find more of my work about the current times on Substack at Ways of Seeing