25 Musicals That Are Darker Than You Think

Sometimes people tell me – apologetically, but not really – that they don't really like "the new musicals." They like Rodgers & Hammerstein because they "just want escape." You know, like the "escape" of World War II in the Pacific, or the "escape" of watching the King of Siam lose his culture and then his life, or the "escape" of watching Jud Fry buy pornography from Ali Hakim, then try to murder Curly and Laurie, then die in a knife fight...

Escape is awesome.

But it's not just Rodgers & Hammerstein. Jerry Herman's shows are just as dark. Hello, Dolly! is about an aging widow so desperate to remarry she'll lie, cheat, and manipulate to get what she wants And she does.

So I thought, wouldn't it be fun to take a new look at musicals that people love and expose their stories for what they really are.

Por ejemplo...

The Music Man is about a con artist who tries to cheat a town full of honest, hard-working people, using their kids as bait, until he gets caught thinking with his dick.

Carousel is about a serial womanizer and abuser, and petty repeat offender, who dies in the commission of a violent crime and leaves behind a wife with PTSD and a fucked-up daughter who tries to find validation in the arms of other men.

Man of La Mancha is about a psychotic old man – or in a more charitable interpretation, an old man with Alzheimer's – who surrounds himself with enablers and repeatedly places them in danger with his delusions.

Mame is about a nonconformist who is repeatedly forced to conform.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is about a bunch of kids who are drowning in a sea of moral relativism and bullying.

Avenue Q is about a bunch of whiny millennials who over-share.

Pippin is about a whiny college grad who moves back home until he can find his dream job, which he never finds...

Wicked is about two sisters from a dysfunctional home who take incompatible paths.

Anything Goes is about the debasing of religion by turning it into show biz, and the American habit of treating violent criminals as cherished celebrities.

Annie Get Your Gun is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men.

Kiss Me, Kate is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men.

Guys and Dolls is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men.

No, No, Nanette is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men.

My Fair Lady is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men. Or to be more specific, My Fair Lady is about a narcissistic misogynist who keeps a young woman hostage in his apartment, using psychological torture to break her will and brainwash her, in order to make her socially acceptable.

Camelot is about the attempted burning-at-the-stake of a strong woman by an insecure man, for the crime of being sexually active.

Beauty and the Beast is about a young woman with Stockholm Syndrome, imprisoned by an insecure monster.

The Sound of Music is about a damaged young woman who falls for an angry, abusive, distant daddy figure.

Once Upon a Mattress is about how women have to be twice as good as men to get the same job.

Bye Bye Birdie is about the danger of commercializing teenage sexuality.

42nd Street is about labor abuses in New York theatre before labor unions.

The Drowsy Chaperone is about a lonely old man who has nothing left but memories and friends that aren't real.

Tell Me on a Sunday (Song and Dance) is about a woman who has learned to define herself only in terms of the men in her life.

Maybe my hidden agenda behind this exercise is to restate one of my central themes – audiences do not go to theatre (or movies) for escape; they go for connection. To quote my own recent post:
I think this fundamental lack of understanding is connected to the idea that audiences want "escape." That's not true. If it were, New Line would have gone out of business years ago. Humans tell stories for a really specific set of reasons, and none of those are escape. We want connection, not disconnection. From the seemingly most mindless zombie movies to King Lear, storytelling is fundamental to human existence and survival. We go see romantic comedy movies not to escape our lives, but to be reminded that we all face the same emotions, obstacles, setbacks, fears, etc. Seeing others confront and tackle the obstacles of life (even on Tatooine) helps us in our own lives. Seeing others find love keeps alive our hope that we can find love. . . We do ourselves a disservice when we consider what we do anything less than important, when we give our audiences anything less than what they deserve, when we think of our work as "just" entertainment or "just" escapism. We are the storytellers. We are the shamans. We are the light.

It really bothers me when I hear professional theatre artists dismissing what they do as "escape" when I know it's so much more than that. Nobody actually goes to the theatre for escape; whether or not they're conscious of it, they go for connection.

The main point of this game was to have fun, but I think it also reveals a truth that is often ignored. The still widespread perception that musicals are silly and shallow is demonstrably untrue. Even Anything Goes has a considerable dark side in its pointed social criticism.

Which is why we New Liners are talking seriously about producing Anything Goes at some point. It really is a New Line show; it's just that nobody knows that yet...

Long Live the Musical!