In Turbulent Times, Musicals Are Having (Another) Moment

"Musicals are idealistic, inspiring, and, like getting lost in an old diary, offer an escape from a reality that, tragically, rarely pauses to give you time to sing."

I was six-years-old the first time I saw Cats. It was both mesmerizing and traumatizing: as Grizabella sang “Memory,” I sobbed so powerfully, I’m sure the cats could hear me from my seat in the mezzanine. When my mother asked what was wrong, I had a hard time explaining my tears. I wasn’t hurt, I wasn’t sad — I was just overwhelmed with emotion. Over the next seventeen years, waterworks like that have continued to hit me when I least expect them: watching the fireworks at Magic Kingdom, looking through elementary school yearbooks, or, most confusingly considering I wasn’t born until 1995, listening to Bryan Adams’s boomer hit “Summer of ’69.”

I’ve found only one way to describe this gut-wrenching, chest-cramping, tear-jerking feeling: nostalgia. Grizabella’s “Memory” is an ode to her former self, someone who was young, glamorous, beautiful and gone. As a child, I understood this raw bittersweetness.

Musicals are almost inherently nostalgic. No matter how hip some of them become, or how thoroughly they penetrate pop culture, it’s still an old school medium. After all, they are all outsized emotions, enhanced by song. It’s no wonder, really, that when musicals hit hard (think Rent, Hamilton, and Dear Evan Hansen) they hit hardest among teenagers. And that same stomach churn you get from romanticizing your past, you get from watching someone belt a perfect E-flat major with tears rolling down their face. Musicals are idealistic, inspiring, and, like getting lost in an old diary, offer an escape from a reality that, tragically, rarely pauses to give you time to sing.

And musicals lean into this nostalgia. It’s why so few are set in contemporary times. Grease (1978) capitalized on America’s nostalgia for the ’50s, Hairspray (1982) capitalized on America’s nostalgia for the ’60s, and Rock of Ages (2005) capitalized on America’s nostalgia for the ’80s.

But nostalgia isn’t so much a time period as it is a feeling. La La Land, perhaps the most acclaimed movie musical of the past decade, is grounded in this feeling of nostalgia. Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning film is set in current day Los Angeles, but its sweeping waltzes and wistful duets worship Old Hollywood. Its charm — and the core criticism against it— is that it is a guileless escape from America’s unsettling political present. In the age of the resistance, #MeToo and #OscarSoWhite, some felt it was irresponsible to ignore the now. But, I disagree. I’ll always welcome a feel good, song and dance distraction to pull me back to another time. To help me feel emotions other than frustration and angst, if only for an hour or two.

Keep an eye out for…


It was recently announced that Cher Horowitz, your favourite Beverly Hills bad driver, is coming to Broadway! (Well, off-Broadway…but close enough.) The iconic 1995 film has been adapted to the stage by its writer and director Amy Heckerling, who promises “a score that reimagines ’90s hits into ingenious parodies and yearning monologues for her lovesick characters.”

Come From Away

This Canada-made musical is a portrait of heroic East Coast hospitality in the days after 9/11. The heart-warming—and Tony-winning show—was one of the the most buzzed about musicals of 2017. It’s back in Toronto by popular demand until October 21 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. 

Mean Girls

Maybe it should be worrisome that millennials are already as nostalgic as Boomers, just shy of 15 years after its release, but whatever, Mean Girls may be the most quotable movie of all time. It embodies our longing for mini skirts, cardigans and catty high school cliques. The Broadway adaption of Tina Fey’s comedy will finally let us see The Plastics sing something other than “Jingle Bell Rock.”

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

All sequels are essentially a nostalgic ploy: we want to relive the joyous feeling of the first film, without re-watching it. The follow up Mamma Mia! movie promises all the Meryl Streep magic, complete with throwback sing-alongs from your favourite 1970’s Swedish pop group, only with less Meryl. Luckily Cher is up to the challenge.