I recently went to the theater to see one of these shows and a friend of mine who sat next to me insisted she didn’t like the show. She said she disagreed with it, and it didn’t leave a happy message. Yes, I know going to the theater is supposed to give an escape to the real world. But Must every musical have a toe tapping number that makes you feel good. Isn’t theater just suppose to make you feel? Here are 10 thought provoking and Powerful musicals that don’t have a happy ending but will make you feel and think and breathe.
Dear Evan Hansen
Dear Evan Hansen is a Tony Award winning musical that is taking the world by storm. Evan Hansen, a depressed high school senior gets mixed up in a situation when he finds out one of his classmates Connor, commited suicide. Connor happened to have a note that Hansen wrote to himself tilted Dear Evan Hansen. Connor’s parents assumed he wrote it to Evan as a cry for help. In a lonely and panicked state it is Evan who reached out for help. He pretends he and Conner were best friends in their equally lonely worlds. In doing this, Evan gets the family that he never had, as Connor’s family takes them under his wing and the girl he never knew he could have, Connor’s sister Zoey.
All does not end well. While Evan’s cry for help makes good things happen, such as bringing Connors family back togerher in a way, creating a Facebook page in Connors Memory, making a gorgeous speech (“You are not Alone”) to let every high school kid out there know that everyone always needs help, and he even helps create an apple orchard in Connor’s memory, his lies eventually come to a halt as his mother, and Connor’s family start reading between the lines. The end of the play leaves you feeling a little bit empty and angry, and yet a little bit like you know exactly what Evan has felt at some point as a high school kid who is lost. This powerful musical will get your juices flowing and brain ticking whether you have stood in Evan’s shoes or argue with everything he stands for.
You think you may know the story of Wicked. After all it is a musical based off of the wizard of Oz. Wicked, follows the story of the wicked witch, named Elphaba. And if you have seen this powerful musical, you may think it ends happy, but it really doesn’t. We meet Elphaba the green witch as she enters college. She becomes the best of friends with Glinda the Good witch. Most importantly, Elphaba in wicked. Not yet. Elphaba wants to do some good in the world and join forces with the wizard, only to find out that he it the one making evil choices in Oz. In her rebellion her and Glinda have to part ways but remain loyal to each other as much as they can.
In the Wizard of oz, We hear that the Wicked witch has turned the tin man to tin without a heart, and has made the cowardly lion who he is and turn the scarecrow in to straw But Wicked tells another story that in each of those attempts, she was trying to save them. In Wicked, the scarecrow is a man named Fiyero, with whom the wicked witch is in Love with. She turns him into straw to save his life. Right before Dorothy invades the castle, Glinda meets up with Elphaba to make sure she knows what she is doing. They agree to stay true to their hearts and take the consequences that have come their way. We see Dorothy throw water on the wicked witch who “melts’. In the end, the wicked witch doesn’t melt, but goes beneath a trap door where her a Fiyero can escape. That might sound like a happy ending, but instead they have to escape into banishment. No one, not even Glinda can know they survived. A powerful musical with a not always happy ending.
Into the Woods
Into the Woods although about fairy tales is not meant for children. This powerful musical discusses really big, important choices in a fairy tale world. We meet several fairy tale characters like Jack and the beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, the Baker and his Wife, the Witch and Rapunzel not name a few. All of them want to something, and all of them have to go through something to get it, no matter the consequences. Jack wants to be rich, Little Red wants to get to granny’s house, the Baker and his wife want a child while the Witch wants to be beautiful again. But each meet their own issues that eventually affect not just them, but everyone.
At the end of act one, it looks like they all get their wishes, only to find out in act two they each come with grave consequences as Jack has let a giant loose in the kingdom destroying everything. They all set off to see if they can save their kingdom and the things they wanted and tried so badly to get. In the way, there is death and pettiness and hardship. Little Red Riding hood loses her granny house, Jack, now rich and wealthy loses his mother, Cinderella loses her castle and her prince, the Baker now with a son, loses his wife killed by the giant and the Witch who has gained her beauty in turn loses her magical powers and Rapunzel. The rest vow to remain together to stay strong, but all are heartbroken and now know if they ever asked for more they would still have what they had then. It’s a very literal and powerful musical to get your brain flowing on how we might ask for too much when we have what we already need.
West Side Story
West Side Story is a modern day Romeo and Juliet. Need ? say more on how it qualifies on the list of Powerful musicals. It follows the story of Tony and Maria. Tony is an all american boy and falls in love with Maria an immigrant Puerto Rican being raised in 1940’s New York. Their are two gangs. Tony’s gang the Jets definitely do not want to accept the new un-american Sharks, a gang ran by Maria’s brother Bernardo. In true Romeo and Juliet Fashion the whole story revolves around the people who do not want Maria and Tony to be together. Tony accidently kills Bernardo in a rumble or fight but it was actually self defense. In Revenge, Tony dies at the hands of a member of the Sharks named Chino leaving Maria is despair threatening to kill herself and everyone around her. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Maria lives but heartbroken. And each gang has taken a loss and a huge horrible lesson has been learned. This Powerful Musical will open your eyes up to true love, discrimination and your views on whats right and wrong.
Hamilton has taken the country by storm and will be on of the most powerful musicals for many years. It follows the story of Alexander Hamilton. As a founding father of our country, he was treasury of state and a wanna be president. This story follows his uphill battles and falls. While Hamilton has many amazing qualities, it doesn’t exactly have a completely sad ending. We follow Hamilton’s triumphs as he joins George Washington to build our country, while he has heated battles with Thomas Jefferson and struggles with his family as he couldn’t marry the sister he wanted.
He fights in the battle of Yorktown, helps write the majority of the constitution and then gets his named Slandered around town misleadingly that the people think he has stolen money from the treasury forcing him to resign and all hopes of becoming president. IF that wasn’t bad enough he and the vice president Burr have always disagreed and that many years of disagreements turns into a duel. Hamilton dies at the hands of one man in a duel. His legacy lives on but not as strongly as some of the men who surpassed him. We see his wife at the end, try to continue his legacy. After such an uplifting story of uprising, it is such a quick and sad ending to an inspiring story. Not only has the powerful musical brought History to life, it tells the glorious and tragic story of a man who could have been president.
A turn of the century story has Power Musical written all over it. Following 3 families through the early 1900’s we watch a white middle class family as their life gets turn upside down when they find an abandoned black baby in their garden. Finding the mother of this child, and taking them in is not approved by the father of the house but he is away on work. We see the struggles of the black family as they try to prove themselves as worthy educated american’s in a changing country. We also meet an immigrant family and they also try to succeed in the land of the free. Watching the country in growing pains and how these three families attempt the understand the changing world around them, In some ways, their are a few happy endings, but a lot of empty questions loom behind and some things in the dark. A powerful Musical about the turn of the century and how multiple families try to adapt.
Merrily We Roll Along
This tricky powerful musical has us thinking backwards. It is actually a show in reverse. We see the unhappy outcome at the beginning. It follows three friends who want to get a start in the entertainment business. In the end, ( or beginning rather) we see that one of the three has succeeded but left the two behind in the dust. We see the trials and errors of their careers go by through the story, at and the end of the show we see the three friends meeting and sharing their dreams of the life they are want to have someday. It ends on a very hopeful note, but knowing where that hopeful note takes them makes the ending, not really a happy one after all.
A Chorus Line
For the longest time I thought A chorus Line was just a glitzy musical about show business. That it until I saw a full production and realized it’s more about life that show business. If you don’t believe me ask the 70 year old man who sat next to me who was totally engrossed in the show and in tears by the end. A Chorus Line is a powerful musical that takes us through auditions into a dance ensemble. We meet all kinds of characters who are all there for different reasons. An aged dancer who can’t find work for herself again, an over-looked dancer who was told she would be “Nothing”, an injured dancer looking back on his choices and career and hopes of coming back to that, or a short feisty ethnic dancer who just wants an equal shot. A Chorus Line is an emotional piece as each dancer gets a chance to share what makes them unique. Each story is not happy and neither is everyone’s ending. You realize some of those peoples career ends today if they don’t get this job. Each person has their own story and A chorus Line makes that clear.
If/then is not only a powerful musical, it has some of the most beautiful, powerful and poignant music in it as well. A very underrated musical it follows the two chances one woman named Elizabeth could have taken in her life that would have determined where her life ended up. We follow the stories of Liz and Beth and the paths she could have chosen. In one life, she randomly meets the same guy twice in one day. This man is a solider and while he might be the man of her dreams, she is too scared to take the risk. Luckily for her, He isn’t scared. Their lives go on unexpectedly as she become pregnant with their child and he is so excited they decide to make ti true and get married. Their lives seem to be going in the right direction as they have another child together and everything seems to fall into place. But then he gets the call the report overseas. We see some of the most real and harsh moments a person can feel when they know they have to say goodbye to their loved one. Alas he dies over seas and Liz becomes the most real person you have ever met when someone dies. Whether you lose them in a war, or unexpectedly, she has some songs that will tug at every heart string you have. But what about Beth? THe other option in the story is Beth. If she never went in the other direction. She never meets her soldier, she climbs ahead in the business, flirts with her boss (as she has done for many years) and then suffers the consequences. Her best friend tells her he has loved her for years and she can never see past the friend part. He sings a gut wrenching song that says, you don’t need to love me, in the way I love you. The end of the musical will leave you wondering why and how and question your own decision making. The songs hit home in every way imaginable.
Miss Saigon is one of the most powerful musicals out there. It takes places during Vietnam where a US soldier falls in love with a Vietnamese girl. They “get married” on Vietnamese soil, but an air raid attack pushes all US troops to withdraw immediately. He can’t get to her and ends up leaving her behind in Vietnam. As life goes on the the US, and years go by he remarries and american, and his girl he left behind in a war torn country is raising his child that he never knew he had. He finds out through the embassy that she is alive as well as his child and he and his new wife head back there to find out. Upon his arrival, Kim the mother of his child sees that he has moved on and has no intention of coming back for them as a duo. Her thought to get her son a life she cannot provide is to send him back to America with his father. He refuses to take a child from his mother, so she turns to desperate measures. The story ends with her killing herself, leaving his american dad no choice, but to take his son back to America. It is the ultimate sacrifice in a war torn city that has no better offers. The music is powerful and the story is gut wrenching.
Do you think all musicals should be happy and glitzy? Not every Musical is power and not every musical has a a happy ending? As a writer I think it’s important that each story tells something important or powerful No matter the outcome. What do you think?
Featured Image: httos://www.denvercenter.org/sincerely-me-greg-moodys-letter-to-dear-evan-hansen/
Hello. My name is Laurie. I’m a Denver native who love spending my free time in the Rocky Mountains. My background is Theater and Art. I love to travel, write and explore. I spend most of my time with my husband and our two beagles named Hambone and Baroo. Being an artist, I have a comic strip about them called “The Beaglemans: The adventures of Hambone and Baroo.” That you can follow on Instagram. I also have written 2 full length plays, and love to dabble in short stories and kids books. I am a proud published playwright and children’s illustrator and love expanding my opportunities wherever they come from!