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5 Showtunes I Relate to as an Autistic Person

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Since I was a little girl I’ve loved musicals. My parents are both big musical fans, so I was exposed to them a lot. I also happen to live just outside the Twin Cities, one of the best areas in the country for musical theater. The amount of small local theaters here is ridiculous and it gives me a chance to see so many shows, including ones few people have even heard of (let alone seen). Just a couple weeks ago I saw “The Toxic Avenger,” and by the time this is published I’ll have seen “Assassins.”

Now, I’m not the type of musical fan who’ll gush about actors or what’s new on Broadway. What I love most about musicals are the songs. I love words. I love lyrics. I always have. And one thing musicals have going for them is great lyrics. Unlike some other genres, where lyrics are just thrown together to sound good (or left out entirely), musicals need good lyrics. Oftentimes the lyrics are necessary to keep the plot moving, or at least to add to the plot. Because of this, and the sheer number of musicals out there, I firmly believe there are showtunes out there for everyone. Everyone has a song that could become their personal anthem if they give musicals a chance. Below I’m sharing a few songs that I love and relate to, and why.

1. “Why Not Me?” from “Carrie: The Musical”

“Carrie” is sort of an infamous musical. Those who know about musicals, and the original premier of this show, know it was basically the “Plan Nine from Outer Space” of musicals (on a side note… has that been made into a musical yet? I bet it will be, if not.) The original “Carrie” was supposed to not be so great, and there’s a long story behind it which I won’t get into, but the 2012 revival version is great. I saw a local production several years ago and the songs Carrie and her mother sing are just mesmerizing.

But one song that stood out to me, that made me cry when we saw it, was “Why Not Me?” Carrie sings it as she’s preparing to go to prom and I related to it so much as a girl with autism. During the song Carrie laments the life she’s so far spent on the sidelines, wondering why other girls are able to go to things like dances while she can’t. Growing up, dances were hard for me. They were often a source of embarrassment and anxiety, but I always went. And “Why Not Me? pretty much sums up why.

Oh I anticipate the snickers,
And I expect the kids will stare
But they won’t rattle me
No matter what they do

I know I may not be welcome
But at least I will be there
And if other girls belong then I do too

When I was going to my first dances I often wondered why I wasn’t like the other girls who seemed to love dancing and showing off their pretty outfits. I wasn’t like them and I’m sure there were kids who didn’t understand why I went to the dance since I mainly sat, chatted with friends, and people watched. In the end, I think I went there because I belonged there as much as they did — even if I enjoyed the experience in a different way.

2. “What Would You Do?” from “Cabaret”

It was a hard choice between this song and “So What” from the same show, but eventually I settled on this one. It’s not a happy song, I know. Heck, if all you know from the show is the titular song than it may be a surprise to you that it’s not a happy show! I mean, it takes place in Berlin in the 30s… you can probably see some of the problems already. Hint: there are swastikas. Anyway… This song is really powerful. It’s sung by the character Fräulein Schneider (“Fräulein” is the German equivalent of “miss” in English) as she explains why she won’t be fighting to marry the man she loves who is, unfortunately at the time, Jewish. While I can’t relate to the exact lyrics or her exact situation… that’s kind of the point of the song. That it’s easy to tell people what they should do, what you would do. I know I’ve been told many times what I should do and who I should be. But it’s easy to give your opinion when you’re not in their situation, when you don’t know all the facts at play. This song is a haunting reminder that not everything can be simplified down to a simple textbook problem to solve. Not when you’re dealing with real people with real problems.

3. “I Am What I Am” from “La Cage Aux Folles”

This is one of those songs I think everyone can relate to in some way. It’s such a powerful and relatable song that I know it’s been sung and recorded outside of the musical, probably most famously by Gloria Gaynor. That being said, as big of a musical fan as I am, I think it’s necessary to take the song in context to fully appreciate it. The song is sung by the character of Albin, in his dragqueen character of Zaza. Albin’s just been told by his partner, Georges, that their son is engaged and wants them to meet his fiance and her family… but that Albin, being as flamboyant as he is, can’t meet them because they’re very conservative.

So Albin, as Zaza, goes to perform on stage, only to throw everyone else offstage and break into this solo number. It’s his way of saying he won’t be ashamed of who he is, even when it feels like everyone in the entire world is telling him to be. I could pretty much take any of the lyrics to quote, but I’ll use these:

I am what I am
I am my own special creation
So come take a look
Give me the hook or the ovation

I’m not a drag queen. I’m in a very different position than Albin. But I can relate to this song with my autism. So many people want autistic people to hide, or at least blend in, but this song reminds me that I don’t have to. I can be me, an autistic woman, because I am my own special creation. I wasn’t made like everyone else and that’s OK.

4. “You Don’t Know” from “Next to Normal”

If you’re not familiar with “Next to Normal,” please look it up. It’s an amazing musical about a woman with bipolar disorder and her struggles. I cannot praise the show enough. Like all the shows on the list I was lucky enough to see it live and it is so amazing. I think I spent the entire show in tears, because even though I don’t have bipolar disorder, I can relate to Diana’s struggle with mental health. It gives a very sympathetic and realistic (though some might say extreme) view of bipolar I disorder and also features one of the most realistic and positive portrayals of electroconvulsive therapy (though Diana’s reaction to it is, again, a bit extreme). Even if you have no experience with bipolar disorder, if you have any experience with mental illness and the struggle to find the right treatment, you’ll find something to relate to in this show.

This song, “You Don’t Know,” directly bleeds into the next song (as most of the show consists of songs) and is quite short. But it’s still so powerful. In addition to autism I also have major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, which can (but don’t always) go along with autism, and I relate to this song through my struggles with them. Diana sings this song as her husband, known for being a low-key man, tries to tell her he knows what she’s going through. Diana disagrees by singing about why he doesn’t. This song sums up what it’s like for someone to try and calm you from a low-point in your mental illness by saying they understand, when they clearly don’t. Because even if they have experience with the same illness you do, let alone if they don’t, they can never fully understand your struggle. Diana feels alone, and she outlines her struggles to her husband:

When a world that once had color
Fades to white and grey and black…
When tomorrow terrifies you
But you’ll die if you look back.

That part reminds me of my struggles with depression and anxiety. With depression the world can seem to lose color, and anxiety makes even existing a terrifying experience. When you’re in the thick of fighting these illnesses it can be next to impossible to put the struggle into words. But this song does it so, so well. Seriously, if you don’t know this show, look it up.

5. “Shine Like the Sun” from “Nine to Five”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been underestimated or misunderstood. I’ve had teachers tell me I’ll “never amount to anything,” words that still haunt me to this day. The main women in “Nine to Five” all face their own problems and struggle to prove themselves in a male-dominated world. In this song, they take their power back, albeit in a rather dramatic (and illegal) way. The women sing this song while kidnapping their boss, basically. But if you’re not in the mood for a felony, you can see this as them getting rid of the things holding them back and taking charge of their own lives.

I think it’s safe to say those of us with autism are often pushed aside and disregarded. People also tend to expect a lot less from us, and often don’t want to give us the chance to prove them wrong. This song is a great reminder that you don’t have to let others define you. Only you can truly define you and no one can tell you what you’re capable of besides you. Even if people continue to put you down and tell you you’re worthless, you can still prove them wrong:

I will prove my own worth,
Heal the damage and hurt
That’s been done.
When the crying’s all done,
I’m gonna shine like the sun!

As goofy and over the top as this musical is, it still has important lessons to teach in its own way. I think it’s also especially relevant in this day and age, when women are finally getting a chance to stand up and say “no more” to harassment and assault.

I’m sure as soon as this article is published I’ll think of a dozen more songs I should have put on this list. After all, I’ve seen a ton of musicals, but nowhere near all of them. There are also a million more songs I want to share with all of you that didn’t fit into this article. But no matter what happens, these songs will still be relevant to me and my experiences with autism. And while everyone has their own experiences, I hope at least a few of you can find something to relate to on this list!

Getty image by Right Frame Photo Video.

Originally published: March 27, 2018
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