Mental Health Music Jam part 3- Musicals to lift your soul
Updated: May 22
As I've mentioned in past blog entries on oldies and contemporary music, there is plenty of evidence that music improves not only mental health but an entire host of cognitive processes. In the book Brain Rules by John Medina, the author lays out the research that shows how important music can be to the brain, especially when actively involved through playing music actively.
- Musicians are better listeners
- Music training boosts language skills
- Music lessons improve social skills
- Musicians are better at detecting emotions in others
- Music makes students more empathetic
- Music improves spatial reasoning skills.
- Listening to music releases dopamine, the feel good chemical and decreases cortisol, the stress chemical.
Humans have been producing music for as long as we've walked the earth, and no one knows exactly what the evolutionary advantage is that music provides, but it has to be there or it would have disappeared long ago. Flutes have been found in Germany that were over 40,000 years old, and every society on earth today incorporates music into ceremonies and recreation.
For my last dive into inspirational and uplifting music that is pertinent to mental health, I turn to one of my own favorite genres- musicals. Musical theater has a big advantage over concert or popular music in that it incorporates storytelling into its presentations. Stories give our lives meaning and have a powerful influence over how we look at the world. Inspirational stories stick with us forever, while facts, data, and random songs get forgotten much faster.
Musical theater evolved gradually from opera, and the first recognized production in America of a musical was The Black Crook in 1866. The form has grown in popularity since then to dominate Broadway, and from there spread all over the world. Songwriters like Rogers & Hammerstein paved the way for shows that told a compelling story while including song and dance numbers. Today the genre includes two popular formats- jukebox musicals where the songs from popular culture are dominant and story is less important, or traditional musicals where story is king and songs are written especially to compliment it.
As with other musical genres, mental health is not mentioned until well into the 21st century, but almost all musicals can be counted on to provide at least one show-stopping, inspirational tune to brighten up the day. With that said, here are 10 songs from musicals that embody inspiration for the human spirit.
1- My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music 1965
The Sound of Music manages to combine a light, fluffy story about a wayward nun and her adoptive family with one of the darkest periods of human history- the rise of Nazi Germany. The contrast is fascinating, and helped the movie win five Oscars including Best Picture. My Favorite Things gives sound advice for any depressed or anxious person- don't dwell on what scares you- dwell on things that make you happy. And watch out for Nazi's.
2- Who Will Buy? from Oliver! 1960
Charles Dickens wrote some dark, depressing tales, and Oliver Twist was certainly one of them. Oliver! tackled the immense task of transforming that sad tale of an orphan and a society that didn't care into a beautiful and heartwarming song and dance experience. There's no more uplifting song than Who Will Buy?, a stirring and wonderful rendition that builds from a boy's quiet wonder out his window, into an entire town dancing and singing in joyful unity. The movie version, where this clip is from, won the 1968 Best Picture Oscar.
3- Finale from Les Miserables 1982
Les Miserables is an emotional journey through history and tragedy. Through three hours of noble deeds and emotional gut punches, we grow to care greatly about the characters and their fates. There are many great songs that could qualify as inspirational and uplifting, but the finale is my favorite. All the characters that you've seen die come back one more time for a stirring song that says some of the most beautiful words ever put into song:
Take my hand
And lead me to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
The truth that once was spoken:
To love another person is to see the face of God
Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise
4- Seize the Day from Newsies 1992
Newsies was a 1992 Disney movie musical that turned out to be a box office bomb. Somehow, it attracted a devoted fan base, and in 2012 Disney revived it as a Broadway production. With new songs and expanded dance sequences, the stage musical went on to get 8 Tony award nominations and eventually tour the country.
Newsies tells the true story of the newspaper strike of 1899, and how young men at the time were being beaten down by the system they loved. Seize The Day is an anthem to optimism in the face of tough odds. The dancing number adds welcome extra energy, and the stage version of the song is much longer than the film version portrayed below, giving full attention to the wonderful dancing of the cast.
5- Always Look at the Bright Side of Life from Spamalot 2005
Monty Python's Flying Circus was a huge hit on BBC during the 1970's and it ignited a loyal fan base that supported four major motion pictures. The third of the four, Life Of Brian, included this strangely upbeat and dark look at life with all of its absurdities. The song, written by Python Eric Idle, was so popular that it was included in live performances and eventually into the Python's only Broadway play- Spamalot. Spamalot is a silly take-off on the knights of King Arthur, and Bright Side is one of the highlights, where the audience is invited to take part and sing along.
Always look on the bright side of life Always look on the right side of life
For life is quite absurd And death's the final word You must always face the curtain with a bow Forget about your sin Give the audience a grin Enjoy it, it's your last chance anyhow So always look on the bright side of death A just before you draw your terminal breath
6- Light from Next To Normal 2008
When it comes to mental health in musicals, Next To Normal was the first one to truly dive in head-first and tackle the thorny issues. The show's heroine is dealing with bipolar disease and a dead son that only she can see, while the show deals with depression, grief, suicide, drug abuse and pharmacology. It's a tough show to watch sometimes, but cathartic for those whose stigma keeps them from seeking help.
Light comes at the end of the show, and is a stirring anthem that showcases the progress its heroine and her family have made.
It's the price we pay to feel
But still we pay
We love anyway
And when the night has finally gone
And when we see the new day dawn
We'll wonder how we wandered for so long, so blind
The wasted world we thought we knew
The light will make it look brand new
7- Raise You Up from Kinky Boots 2012
Kinky Boots is the story of a dying shoe company that stumbles onto making kinky boots for crossdressers and transsexuals to survive. It is an inspiring story of accepting yourself and others, and it culminates in the fantastic and joyful song Raise You Up, portrayed below as it showed on the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.
Raise You Up gives the entire cast a chance to sing and dance while wearing colorful, high-heeled boots, and it's about as joyful and life-affirming as a musical number can be. Check it out.
8- Let It Go from Frozen 2013
Frozen was a Disney animated movie that told the story of two sisters, one of which thinks that she's cursed with dangerous powers. The movie powerfully reconciles the two sisters while Queen Elsa learns how to live with her powers and accept herself.
Originally made in 2013, the movie has inspired a sequel and a Broadway show. The video below has over 2 Billion views (2,211,801,956!) and obviously speaks to and inspires a lot of girls, (and boys) with its message.
Let It Go was originally sung by Idina Menzel, and it is the most popular song from the show, with some calling it a coming out anthem for a new generation. Little girls have gravitated to Elsa and this song, and it's empowering lyrics are stronger than much Disney fare that came before.
My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I'm never going back
The past is in the past!
Let it go, let it go
And I'll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone!
Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway!
9- You Will Be Found from Dear Evan Hansen 2016
Dear Evan Hansen won the Tony award for best musical in the year it debuted, and it's honest look at social anxiety has made it a favorite. The main character, Evan Hansen, feels anxious and alone all of the time, lies about a relationship to get attention and a girl, eventually tells the truth, and faces the inevitable consequences.
You Will Be Found is a first act closing number that speaks to all lonely and anxious people, and it is beautiful. "You are not alone" the song repeats over and over, and you can't watch the video below without getting some serious "feels". Two different casts of the musical got together to produce the video, and it is joyous. (My favorite moment is at 1:44 when the sound guy says "Wow" to himself and grins sheepishly.)
Even when the dark comes crashin' through When you need someone to carry you When you're broken on the ground
You will be found!
So when the sun comes streaming in 'Cause you'll reach up and you'll rise again If you only look around You will be found
10- This is Me from The Greatest Showman 2017
This inspiring song came not from a stage show but from a motion picture- The Greatest Showman. (A stage version is still being discussed) It was sung by a bearded lady played by Keala Settle and was the highlight of the film. This is Me is an anthem for anybody who's different and has been looked down upon, as the freaks of the PT Barnum circus in the movie had lived their entire lives. The song has inspired millions and has appeared on every televised singing competition numerous times, winning the Golden Globe award that year for best song.
When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown 'em out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I'm meant to be, this is me
Look out 'cause here I come
And I'm marching on to the beat I drum
I'm not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me
11- Best Day Ever- Spongebob the Musical 2016
How do you turn a children's cartoon about an optimistic sponge into a Broadway musical? Try not to think too hard and just go with it. Sponges can't talk, much less sing, but the Spongebob musical captures much of the childlike optimism of its main character. This song encapsulates his entire philosophy.
Sometimes the little things Start closing in on me When I'm feeling down I wanna lose that frown I stick my head out the window And I look around
Those clouds don't scare me They can't disguise This magic that's happening Right before my eyes
Soon Mr. Moon will be shining bright So the best day ever can last all night Yeah, the best day ever's gonna last all night now
It's the best day ever (best day ever) It's the best day ever (best day ever)
12- You Learn- Jagged Little Pill 2019
The newest entry on this list comes from a new musical based on a 1995 Alanis Morissette album of the same name that became a classic. The musical deals with pain, healing and empowerment and this song just keeps drilling out the lesson that we learn from all of our experiences and hopefully grow from them. Jagged Little Pill came out at the height of the Covid epidemic, got a few Tony awards, and disappeared along with most of Broadway. This song and its choreography are inspiring nevertheless.
Honorable mention- This list could be much longer, but add any of these to your playlist if you want to feel inspired.
WHEN I GROW UP- MATILDA
SEASONS OF LOVE- RENT
BEFORE THE PARADE PASSES BY- HELLO DOLLY
YOU CAN’T STOP THE BEAT- HAIRSPRAY
BEAUTIFUL DAY- FINDING NEVERLAND
BEAUTIFUL- BEAUTIFUL- THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL
NO ONE IS ALONE- INTO THE WOODS
OVER THE RAINBOW- WIZARD OF OZ
ELECTRICITY- BILLY ELLIOT
PURE IMAGINATION- WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
DEFYING GRAVITY- WICKED
SOMEWHERE- WEST SIDE STORY
COME FROM AWAY- THE WHOLE DAMN SHOW- (IT'S THAT GOOD)
SO MUCH BETTER- LEGALLY BLONDE
THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM- MAN OF LA MANCHA
WHAT I DID FOR LOVE- A CHORUS LINE
HOPE- GROUNDHOG DAY
BE THE HERO OF YOUR STORY- BIG FISH