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5 Broadway Show Tunes to Lift You Up Depending on What You Need

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When I was 14 and thought I was going to die, there was one thing that could still bring a smile to my face: a worn “La Cage aux Folles” CD, featuring the Broadway revival cast.

At the time I was suicidal, in a constant fog, and in a perpetual state of mental and physical pain. My anhedonia was raging and I couldn’t imagine enjoying anything ever again. The only exception was that one Broadway CD. I had purchased the album for my dad’s birthday that November and it felt great to share that musical with him, despite the challenges I was facing. My dad promised me that if I were to work on myself, go to my appointments, participate in therapy, and take my medications, he would find some way to take me to see “La Cage.”

Well, here I stand, 11 years later, having had the privilege of seeing Harvey Fierstein portray Albin in “La Cage aux Folles.” “I Am What I Am” has been an anthem of mine since that dark and difficult period of my life, and I continue to turn to show tunes when I need something to lift me up.

If you could use a little something to lift you up, I hope the following five songs give you something to sing, dance your heart out to, and make your world a little brighter. Here are my recommendations, depending on what you need.

1. For when all the odds are against you but you keep pushing through: “I’m Still Here” from “Follies.”

“I’m Still Here” is a one-woman showstopper with simple choreography: the actor takes her place downstage and belts out this powerful tune. The role of Carlotta, who is responsible for this number, is traditionally played by a veteran of the Broadway stage who has seen it all.

This song helped me through my journey in a partial hospitalization program this past fall. I would listen to it on repeat, especially on the more challenging days, just to remind myself that “Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all/And my dear, I’m still here.”

Sing this song to remind yourself that you’re fucking making it in this world! You’re doing it! It’s hard and messy and dirty, but you’re still here!

2. For when you’re working on accepting your identity: “Changing My Major” from “Fun Home.”

This song has everything: A queer relationship! Self-discovery! Sex positivity! More than that, however, this song perfectly encapsulates the thrilling and nerve-wracking moment of realizing that yes, you are different from others, but it’s OK. In fact, it’s great.

“Changing My Major” is sung by college-aged Alison the morning after she has sex with a woman for the first time. Alison can’t help but sing, at the same time scolding herself in hushed tones so as not to wake the sleeping Joan. She exclaims, “I’m dizzy. I’m nauseous. I’m shaking. I’m scared./Am I falling into nothingness,/or flying into something so sublime?”

Self-acceptance, validation, and celebration can take so many forms and it’s refreshing to see an example of the anxious, beautiful, and messy thought process behind this experience so explicitly stated on the Broadway stage.

Do you know how many times I’ve sung this song at full volume in the shower? A whole bunch. As a queer woman, this is one of my go-to anthems and it brings a smile to my face every time it comes on.

Listen to this song to embrace yourself and everything that you are.

(As a bonus, if you want to cry your eyes out, check out “Telephone Wire,” also from “Fun Home.”)

3. For when you need to make a hard decision: “Where Do I Go?” from “Hair.”

Did I listen to this song in my wired headphones on repeat while wandering around Colonial Williamsburg, debating dropping out of grad school? Yes, yes I did. (Spoiler alert: I did drop out of grad school.)

“Where Do I Go?” closes the first act of the show, as our protagonist, Claude Hooper Bukowski, has to decide whether he is going to tear up his draft card along with his found family or ultimately go to war in Vietnam, thereby abandoning his friends, their values, and everything they’ve been fighting for.

While I’m not saying you should base important moral and ethical decisions on a song from a Broadway musical, this song is perfect to belt out when you have a tough decision ahead of you and need to release your pent-up emotions.

(Hot take: I think the movie is better than the stage musical.)

4. For when you feel like you’re letting everyone down: “Breathe” from “In the Heights.”

Shortly after returning to my small hometown after dropping out of grad school, this song became the next tune I had on repeat. I felt like a huge disappointment and a failure (still working on that in therapy) and I was ashamed to show my face in public, let alone answer the question, “So, what have you been up to?”

Listening to Nina lament about letting down her family and community by leaving Stanford — even though her concerns were ultimately unfounded — comforted me as I faced the emotional fallout of my decision.

Although I try to be good about practicing my opposite-to-emotion DBT skills when I’m going through a tough period, sometimes you just have to listen to a sad, emotionally raw song and cry along.

Listen to this when you’re making a difficult journey or returning somewhere that has a lot of emotional baggage waiting for you. And, just like Nina, remember to breathe along the way.

5. For when you’re ready to take your power back: “Six” from “Six.”

This musical is an instantly iconic concert-style performance with the six ex-wives of Henry VIII. “Six” opens with the song “Ex-Wives” and ends with “Six,” demonstrating the transformation the former queens go through, starting with their roles in relation to Henry VIII, and then as they join forces to define themselves as their own queens, separate from the way they are painted by patriarchal history. This shifts the tone of the show from one of women who have been victims at the hands of a man and misogynistic society fighting one another, to one of powerful queens reclaiming their places in history and lifting one another up.

Listen to this song to remember just how amazing and powerful you are as you surround yourself with others who lift you up and help you be the best version of yourself.

Show tunes have been there with me through every challenge and celebration I’ve faced. There’s nothing quite like being the first one home after school and turning the entire house into your stage (my dogs loved my preteen rendition of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” I swear). Belting out your favorite ballad or playing every part in “One Day More” can provide an amazing emotional release. Show tunes speak to the human experience — the good, the bad, the ugly, the romantic, the confused, and the fabulous — and there’s room for everyone on this stage.

Getty image by opolja

Originally published: June 7, 2023
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