As a current drama major, I feel an obligation to tell prospies everywhere that, contrary to popular belief, musical theatre is much more than disfigured musical geniuses seducing opera divas from the rafters, oddly-costumed felines in spandex, and little orphan Annie tapping away her problems. In fact, the contemporary musical theatre soundtrack can play a vital role in your college admissions playlist. Even beyond the fairly obvious selections, like Legally Blonde: The Musical and it’s hilarious “Harvard Variations” or Wicked and its sanctimonious “Dear Old Shiz,” Broadway has plenty to offer the prospective college student currently drudging through dozens of applications.
In short, the musical Fun Home — an adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic — tells the story of Alison Bechdel, resident lesbian cartoonist, as she draws and captions her way through her confusing childhood relationship with her father. In a way, she’s writing a long-form, illustrated college essay about finding her identity, so the Fun Home soundtrack will definitely get you in a narrative mood. When you’re editing your college essays, rewording entire paragraphs to evoke just the right tone, Alison’s character in the present day is editing right alongside you, struggling to find the perfect phrasing: “Caption: ‘my newfound queerness was –’ no. ‘Unable to process the tsunami-like revelation that my father –’ no. Tsunami-like? No.” The frustration is mutual, Al.
Beyond the narrative design of Fun Home’s score, the themes present in the musical couldn’t be more relevant to students either in or approaching college. “Changing My Major” tells the story of Alison’s first night with her first girlfriend, “Telephone Wire” shows Alison struggling to relate to her father on one of her college breaks, and “Days and Days” shows Alison’s mother, lamenting the life she’s spent covering up her sham of a marriage and warning her daughter, “Don’t you come back here / I didn’t raise you to give away your days / Like me.”
So, Fun Home certainly isn’t lighthearted listening, but it won the 2015 Tony for Best Musical for a reason — give it a listen when the application stress starts to get to you and have a nice therapeutic cry before getting back to work.
In the Heights
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights might be the polar opposite of Fun Home in terms of aesthetics — rather than focusing on the deceptively serene private life of a suburban family, it centers on the entire bustling community of Washington Heights, Manhattan — but the music is just as powerful, and the major themes aren’t so different.
In the Heights is just as much a musical about identity as Fun Home, but it asks different questions: can you rise above your circumstances without forgetting your roots and leaving home? Where the hell is “home” anyway? In “When You’re Home,” character Nina worries, “I thought I might find the answer out at Stanford / But I’d stare out at the sea / Thinking, Where am I supposed to be? / So please don’t say you’re proud of me / When I’ve lost my way.” In “Breathe,” Nina returns home from a disastrous semester at Stanford and frets about what her neighbors will say when they discover she dropped out, and in “It Won’t Be Long Now,” Vanessa, a friend of Nina, fantasizes about leaving Washington Heights for bigger and better things — something ambitious prospective students can certainly relate to.
Beyond providing plenty of gold-standard “I want” songs (always good for a productive essay-writing session), In the Heights is a solid prospie listening choice for its focus on “home.” In a few short months, when college applications are long over, a lot you will be leaving for school, where many of you will be living apart from your family and childhood friends for the first time. You’ll be interacting with unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar place, and the In the Heights soundtrack will continue its thematical relevance to your life. So give it a home on your Spotify playlist a little early.
The Last Five Years
You might look at Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years and wonder, “Okay, so if this whole musical is about divorce, how on earth will it psych me up for college admissions?” Well, beyond chronicling the romantic rise and fall of characters Cathy Hiatt and Jamie Wellerstein (it’s not a spoiler if it’s mentioned in the show’s first line!), the musical focuses on the ways people deal with wild success and humiliating failure — something every prospie has experience with.
Every college hopeful who’s dealt with the intimidating world of college interviews will relate to Cathy, a struggling actress drudging through auditions and summer stock roles that leave her with the sinking feeling that her career is going nowhere. She’s got a fabulous “I want” song in “I Can Do Better than That,” and in “Climbing Uphill,” she nervously sings – mid-audition – “I should have told them I was sick last week / They’re gonna think this is the way I sing / Why is the pianist playing so loud? Should I sing louder? / I’ll sing louder! / Maybe I should stop and start over / I’m gonna stop and start over.” In one way or another, we have all been there, and cringeworthy as it is to listen to someone sing about it, it’s cathartic in the end.
Cathy struggles to relate to her husband, Jamie, who practically drips ego after his early success as a novelist; however, he does worry about his perfect empire crumbling. He sings in “Moving too Fast,” “I’m never worried to walk the wire / I won’t do anything just half-assed / But with the stakes getting somewhat higher / I’ve got a singular impression things are moving too fast.” And even his perspective is relatable, because even after your acceptances roll in, the college application angst doesn’t quite dissipate. You still have to make a stressful decision, no matter how great all your options are.
Hamilton (release date: October 16, 2015)
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s critically acclaimed musical Hamilton is the story of “just another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom,” or, as most of us know him, founding father Alexander Hamilton. The musical combs through Hamilton’s entire adult life, starting when immigrates to America and developing as he climbs the country’s political ladder before, during, and after revolution.
Now, I promise this isn’t your parents’ musical about revolutionary America (my apologies to 1776): Hamilton’s infectious soundtrack is chock-full of rap, R&B, and hip-hop showstoppers that cannot fail to inspire your very best research and writing. The refrain of “Not Throwing Away My Shot” (“Hey yo I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy, and hungry / And I am not throwing away my shot!”) will worm its way into your mind and won’t leave until you finish all your applications — it’s scientifically proven.
And the title character isn’t the only relatable one; anyone aiming at top-notch schools can identify with Aaron Burr and his relentless ambition. Whether you dream of walking the hallowed halls of Wellesley, Berkeley, or Brown, you’ll empathize with Burr’s outsider status and his fundamental need to be among the best of the best in the political world. In a number guaranteed to get you up from your desk for a mid-essay dance party, “The Room Where it Happens,” the Hamilton ensemble and Burr sing, “We dream of a brand new start / But we dream in the dark for the most part / Dark as a tomb where it happens / I’ve got to be in the room where it happens!” When you’re researching different ivy-covered bricks of countless colleges up and down the coast, it’s not hard to think, I just want to study in that library/run on that track/walk across that quad, and Burr is right there with you, hoping and praying.
So enjoy your new Broadway-branded college application playlist – may it inspire you to fabulous theatrical heights. As Hamilton’s opening number says, “Get your education / Don’t forget from whence you came / And the world is gonna know your name.”