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What Makes Us Want to Hear a Show Tune Again?

By: Linda Buchwald
Date: Jun 27, 2016


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What makes certain theatre songs endlessly listenable?


I'm on the subway listening to the recently released cast album of Roundabout's She Loves Me revival on my iPod. The title song, sung with endless charm by Zachary Levi, comes on. Two minutes and 50 seconds later, it ends. I press back and listen to it a second time. It ends…and I restart it again. I repeat this cycle until I reach my destination. I'm stuck in a loop of audio ecstasy.

Since a cast recording typically follows a show's structure, I tend to listen to the tracks in order. I feel guilty when I skip around or play just one song over and over, as if I'm ruining the story. But sometimes I can't help myself. A particular number so enthralls me, I can't get enough of it, like "Satisfied" from Hamilton. The other day, my sister was looking at my iTunes account and she started laughing when she noticed that song had twice as many listens as every other Hamilton number (and I listen to the whole album a lot). What is it about these tunes that compels me to press repeat? Why am I never, ahem, satisfied?

In the case of "She Loves Me," Zachary Levi's excitement, expressed in exuberant details like the way he shrieks, "Aah!" is infectious. Who wouldn't want to keep listening to such joy? And since the song is short, it seems to end much too quickly. I immediately need another fix. A few other numbers have inspired me to hit repeat, namely "Try Me" (Nicholas Barasch is a star, and he's only 18!), "Ilona" (Gavin Creel is so seductive), "I Resolve" (Jane Krakowski is at the top of her game and her lovesick plight is totally relatable), and, of course, "Vanilla Ice Cream" (Laura Benanti sounds beautiful and it's a fabulous example of Sheldon Harnick's lyrical genius). And yet, much as I love all of those numbers, "She Loves Me" is the only one that gives me an insatiable high.

While "She Loves Me" and "Satisfied" both stood out to me when I watched them performed live onstage, sometimes listening to an original cast recording sparks an obsession with a song I hadn't previously paid much attention to. When I saw the original Broadway production of Spring Awakening, my favorite numbers were the ensemble ones, like "The Bitch of Living," "My Junk," and "Totally Fucked." But once I had the album, I went through a "The Mirror-Blue Night" phase. I realized that it was noticeably different from the rest of the score, and that intrigued me. I was particularly taken by the way Jonathan Groff sings, "There's no one to see who can see to my soul."

Often there's a certain musical moment that hooks me. On The Fortress of Solitude cast album (if you've never heard Michael Friedman's score, stop reading this and download it now), I'm addicted to the transition between "Little World (Reprise)" and "The Ballad of Mingus Rude." Adam Chanler-Berat croons, "This is the story of me and Mingus. Me and Mingus. Me and…" which goes right into Kyle Beltran singing, "This is the story of Mingus Rude." When I saw the show, Beltran's vocals on that line gave me chills. I've never done drugs, but in health class I learned that junkies are always trying to recreate their first fix. That's a big part of it for me: I play these songs on repeat hoping to capture the thrill of the first time I fell for them.

But sometimes I become infatuated with a number because it addresses something I'm going through in my own life. Right now, it's "When He Sees Me" from Waitress, sung adorably by Kimiko Glenn. I've never heard my fears about dating expressed so beautifully in a song before; the fact that Sara Bareilles could articulate them so well is comforting. In fact, writing about it makes me want to listen to it right now…and then a zillion more times after that.

What songs can't you stop listening to and why? Let us know in the comments!


Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Photo: Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi in She Loves Me by Joan Marcus

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tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.