5 Brilliant New(ish) Musicals That Aren’t Hamilton

Musical theater is not like Glee! A child of musical theater aficionados, I grew up listening to an array of beautiful stories that transported me to other worlds.  I worry that for those unfamiliar, musicals have a bad reputation. They seem overly dramatic, plots have a reputation for being thin, and the characters have a reputation for being annoying. However, like any type of art, there exist plenty of bad examples, but there are also some incredible stories that can be watched and listened to over and over. I want to share five of my favorite musicals written in the past couple decades. These shows portray life in all its glorious disasters and moments of euphoria.

1. The Last Five Years

This show tells the story of a relationship between an ambitious writer and a struggling actress, except the woman is recounting the relationship backwards and the man is living it forwards. It’s very profound but has plenty of funny moments. If you enjoy Anna Kendrick, you can watch a fairly well-made movie version of it on Netflix!

A song worth listening to: "I Can Do Better Than That." It’s about chasing your dreams and yet somehow avoids being cheesy, which is rare for a song about chasing your dreams. My housemates are almost certainly sick of hearing me sing this one around the house because it’s so good.

2. Avenue Q

This show is maybe why people think musicals are weird. It stars several (risqué) puppets but is nothing like Sesame Street. Avenue Q tells the story of a recent college grad coming to terms with the fact that life is really hard and people walk around unsatisfied. It is hysterically funny, featuring such unforgettable songs as “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.” I also have a special place in my heart for Avenue Q because I was in it my freshman year at Skidmore.

A song worth listening to: “It Sucks to Be Me,” the opening number. It’s funny and very #real for those of us about to graduate.

3. Waitress

Did you know Sara Bareilles wrote this musical? (This is a joke because people call it The Sara Bareilles musical.) I saw Waitress two summers ago when it was in previews in a small theater in Cambridge. I’ve been a huge Sara B fan for many years and I fell in love with the beautiful-pop-harmony girl power spirit of her music when translated into a play.

A song worth listening to: “When He Sees Me.” I had a hard time choosing one song here because the whole soundtrack is terrific, but this song is unusual. It’s about being utterly terrified before going on a date because you’re thinking about what they’ll think of you and what you’ll think of them.  What if they don’t like you? What if they do like you? #Vulnerability!

4. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

This show may be one of the most perfect little capsules of the transition between childhood and adulthood. Six middle schoolers (and some audience members when the show is performed!) compete in an outrageous spelling bee. This show does an unbelievable job of developing weird and lovable characters that you end up rooting for and wanting to take care of.

A song worth listening to: The I Love You Song. Important -- this should be watched as well as listened to. I don’t want to spoil anything, but this girl Olive’s parents didn’t make it to the spelling bee and then she imagines what it would be like if her family supported her. I have listened to this song over fifty times. I still tear up.

5. Tick Tick Boom 

Tick Tick Boom is by Jonathan Larson, the same guy who did Rent. It’s a 3-person show about the passage of time, and the music is wonderful rock you can belt out.

A song worth listening to: “30/90,” the closing number. It an upbeat powerful song about the scary passage of time, specifically turning 30 in 1990.  A lyric that sums it up? “They’re singing happy birthday; you just want to lay down and cry.” Also, if piano is one of your favorite instruments, you should appreciate this song.

If you can see productions of any of these shows live, that’s amazing and I highly recommend them, but the wonderful thing about musicals is that their soundtracks do a terrific job of telling their stories.