10 Showtunes That Prove Musicals Aren’t Just Smiles And Rainbows

Featured image courtesy of Joan Marcus

Trigger warning: If you’re easily triggered by discussions of suicide, sexual assault, emotional abuse, and similar topics, be cautious reading this blog.


It’s a common misconception that showtunes are happy, perky, or just plain cheesy. In fact, this is the main reason why I hate the word “showtune.” It comes with a connotation of happiness and living carefree. The real truth, though, is that not all musicals are happy, and not all showtunes are cheesy dance numbers.

Here are 10 such showtunes that prove musicals aren’t simple perky toe-tappers. Once again, this isn’t intended to be a complete list:

1. “Not My Father’s Son” – Kinky Boots

An emotional song in a musical full of up-tempo dance numbers, “Not My Father’s Son” describes what it’s like to be self-conscious when you’re not the picture-perfect child that your parents dreamed of. Generically, this song is for people who have struggled with being themselves because they’re afraid of what other people might think.

2. “Hope” – Groundhog Day

One of the most fascinating showtunes I’ve ever heard (and seen), “Hope” seems like it’s going to be a positive and uplifting song but it absolutely is not. Phil Connors, the character who sings this song, tries over and over again to kill himself, trying not to give up hope that it will eventually work. So, yeah, you could say this one is pretty dark.

3. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” – Cabaret

Here’s another song that’s supposed to be uplifting, but it’s sung by Nazis in this musical that takes place in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. Maybe don’t get too inspired by this one, especially because Neo-Nazis still sing this song despite it being written by Jewish composers John Kander and Fred Ebb.

4. “The Dark I Know Well” – Spring Awakening

This song is a duet between teenage girls who were sexually and physically abused by their fathers. Though this selection is certainly more toe-tappery than some of the others on this list, it’s the lyrics themselves that definitely set this one apart from happy and catchy showtunes.

5. “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”- Les Misérables

To be honest, choosing the most depressing song from Les Misérables is a whole task in itself. Above all the others, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” makes the list because of how truly heart-wrenching it is. Here, we listen to the grieving of a young man in his twenties whose best friends have all been killed at the same time. Consequently, every single lyric in this song is difficult to listen to.

6. “How Could I Ever Forget?” – Next to Normal

Just like Les Misérables, it is damn near impossible to pick the most depressing song from Next to Normal. Picking five songs wouldn’t be doing the show justice, but if I had to choose one, it would probably be “How Could I Ever Forget?”. In terms of sadness level, it would be hard to top parents recounting the tale of their baby dying (though you could argue Les Misérables might).

7. “Telephone Wire” – Fun Home

I find this number to be a particularly moving one in this show. Big Alison, who’s stepping in the place of Medium Alison, is desperately trying to find a way to make some kind of a connection with her father. However, he’s lost in his own thoughts, and it ends up being their last night together before he kills himself. Not only is the subject matter emotional, but “Telephone Wire” earns a spot on my list simply because of my ongoing struggle of wanting nothing more than to be seen and heard.

8. “Sonya Alone” – Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Of the songs in this musical, “Sonya Alone” has always resonated with me the most. It’s all about a woman who knows her friend is about to make a life-changing mistake, but feels powerless to help her. She ends up deciding to help her friend, even if it means ruining their friendship forever. This is a struggle friends have been facing long before 1812 and will be facing long after, and that’s why this song is so significant.

9. “What Would I Do?” – Falsettos

I’m not sure how much I need to explain about this gorgeous song. It’s essentially a duet between a man and his lover who died from HIV/AIDS about whether or not they regret their relationship, despite everything they went through. If listening to this song doesn’t at least make you tear up, you’re definitely a robot.

10. “You Will Still Be Mine” – Waitress

This is a showtune that I still find difficult to listen to to this day. Like some of the other choices on this list, you wouldn’t know “You Will Still Be Mine” is a symbol of a husband’s emotional abuse from the lyrics alone unless you actually know the context of the show. That’s precisely what makes this song so poignant; it’s feels extremely representative of real-life emotional abuse in the way it’s written and presented.

What are some other songs you feel should make the list? I’ll include your picks in a part two!

4 Comments

  1. I once thought ALL musicals were HAPPY- but capable of sad songs. I truly believed that. It was just how I interpreted the musicals I saw.
    Then Les Mis entered my life. I realized that SOME musicals are TRAGIC. I learned that I was 100% blind to heartbreak- it did help that I already was aware of sad. Heartbreak is a deeper level of sad that can hit you like a pile of bricks and can reduce you to tears, and Les Mis achieves that perfectly. Les Mis disproved many things I once thought a musical was- those are reasons why Les Mis means a lot to me.

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  2. Love this list! I love that you showed this because showtunes do have that rep. My favorites that show the more raw side of Broadway are Itesuita from Allegiance, Still Hurting from The Last Five Years, Stay I Pray You from Anastasia, Choosing Not to Know from In Transit, Sorry Grateful from Company, Judas’s Death from Jesus Christ Superstar, and Welcome Home (Reprise) or Right This Way from Bandstand. Looking forward to part 2!

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  3. “Pretty funny” from Dogfight hurts my souls every time I hear it.. as well as “Come Back”; there is so much emotion in both songs and it just leaves you with chills at each climax..

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  4. Next to Normal is a whole new level of Sad and I agree with your pick, but for me I Dreamed A Dance and He’s Not Here has the tears flowing. For Falsettos, I agree, too and all of Act 2 is constant tears, but I Never Wanted To Love You and Canceling The Bar Mitzvah really hurts
    All of The Last 5 Years is capable of being on here, but If I Didn’t Believe In You is so sad because you Know the relationship is over and they know it, too

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