2020 has not lived up to the Roaring Twenties revival we all hoped for. It has been rough. And the theatre industry has been hit significantly, with many closures and redundancies threatened. In a situation in which things will likely get worse before they get better, we could all do with a bit of escape and a bit of hope. This is what I’ve aimed to curate in this “New World” playlist. And no, sorry, Aladdin’s “A Whole New World” won’t make an appearance. These theatre tunes are more than romantic longing; they’re about the dream of a better world on the other side of tragedy, oppression, and even war. They show that even in the darkest of times, something better is waiting – somehow, someday, somewhere – on the other side.
“Somewhere”, West Side Story
West Side Story transplants the well-known tragedy of Romeo and Juliet into 20th century New York City, replacing family feuds with the racial tensions between the Puerto Rican “Sharks” and the WASP “Jets”. The song’s message of love, forgiveness, and hope transgresses the immediate racial context, and has struck a chord with all those longing for an accepting and harmonious future. For these reasons, “Somewhere” has found itself a poignant home in the LGTBQ+ community, featuring regularly at Pride events, and an interesting account of the queer history behind West Side Story can be found in David Speakman’s genremag.com article. Quite simply, “Somewhere” is beautiful. Just beautiful. Both in its lyrics and its music. Cynthia Erivo gives the best vocal performance of it I’ve come across (and a sweeping orchestral accompaniment) but for a real punch to the tear-ducts check out Titus Burgess’ rendition in tribute to the Pulse, Orlando victims. West Side Story will make its cinematic revival later this year, adapted by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner.
“I Know Where I’ve Been”, Hairspray
With the struggles faced in Hairspray’s 1960s Baltimore repeating in the 21st century, it is easy to sink into the feeling that we have made too few steps far too slowly. Where my generation has George Floyd, my mother’s had Stephen Lawrence – it has happened before and will happen again. “I Know Where I’ve Been” takes this pain, and the feeling of unending struggle, and creates a passionate rally for the new generation to not give up and to not lose hope. It’s a perfect listen for this Black History Month. Jennifer Hudson’s version washes clean all the stains left from Cats (and is that the little girl from Us??).
“The Last Night of the World”, Miss Saigon
Set at the end of the Vietnam war, Miss Saigon is full of characters dreaming of escape into a new world. Whilst “The Movie in My Mind” and “The American Dream” are both 10/10 pieces, “The Last Night of the World” takes its place on this list for its optimism. It is a song that makes you feel in love. Just like West Side Story’s “Tonight”, it captures the overwhelming romance of one perfect, unending night; we know it is set for tragedy but we’re happy to indulge in it until then. It features one of the best saxophone solos you’ll hear in a musical: best enjoyed at night, staring out your bedroom window at the moon. When the world’s falling apart in front of you… have a (socially distanced) snog and a dance. The best version is the 2014 cast recording with Eva Noblezada and Alistair Brammer but, in all seriousness, treat yourself to an evening in and watch the full 25th anniversary recording. It’s epic and intense and a flawless production. (Better than Les Mis. Just saying).
“I’m Still Here”, Follies
Set in the ruins of a closing theatre, the National Theatre’s sold-out Follies revival in 2017 now seems tragically ahead of its time. Ok, not quite a “New World” here, but “I’m Still Here” is perfect for this moment. It’s a song about living; seeing everything come and go; about struggling and surviving, and staying standing throughout it all. Though many of the references may be lost to our generation, its message of perseverance and enjoying the whole wild ride of it translates effortlessly.
These songs give just a slither of the power theatre has for providing escapism, entertainment, and hope. Whilst the likes of these large-scale musical theatre pieces may be some of the last to return to our stages, there is plenty of new and adaptive creativity emerging to fill the void. Theatre is currently in a dire situation, and it needs all our support: donations, bums in seats, box office sales. Things will get better, but for now we must all do what we can.
Check out Sam’s playlist on Cherwell Spotify (@cherwellmusic)