Top 10 NMT Songs for Storytellers
Here is a fact about me: back when I was making my first forays into pop music, I would not download a song on iTunes unless I googled its lyrics first. (Yeah, my music library was cast-albums-only for a looooong time.) Although now many aspects of a song contribute to whether or not I want to buy it, the story a song tells clearly has always been important to me.
Fortunately for me, musical theatre has a whole category of songs that specialize in just that! For the purposes of this list, I’m thinking about story songs as songs where the singer is directly telling a story – regardless of their motive, regardless of how involved they are in the story, and regardless of whether that story is true.
Story songs are great to perform in concert settings because they give you a full arc to play, even if that arc is just a fraction of a character’s overall arc in a show. And often, the story a character tells can tell you just as much about her as the way she tells that story.
Here are some of my favorite NMT story songs:
I’LL BE HERE – Adam Gwon
“I’ll Be Here” from Ordinary Days is beautiful and heartbreaking and – in both the show context and in a concert setting – tells us volumes about Claire, the character who sings it. One thing that I especially love about it is how for Claire, the act of telling this story is, in some ways, what makes her ready to tell it. (Also available for guys!) Here’s Audra’s version, because Audra.
ALONG THE WAY – Pasek and Paul
“Along The Way” from Edges is composed of a few different stories that the singer tells about himself, but we don’t know precisely why he’s telling these stories until most of the way through. When we finally do learn why, it gives the seemingly lighthearted self-ridicule of the first few verses a much different meaning, in the best and most interesting way.
MANHATTAN BRIDGE – Salzman & Cunningham
“Manhattan Bridge” is one of my favorite songs from Next Thing You Know; every time I start to feel a little bit down on New York, I remind myself not to stop looking. I love the melody. I love that Lisa’s questions are not resolved by the end of it. And I love that the bridge occurs ON A BRIDGE. That’s the kind of structure/meaning synchronicity that makes this English/theatre major incredibly happy.
DEAR LUCY / DEAR TOM – Drew Gasparini
One thing that’s really cool about these two songs from Circles is that they’re each complete story songs on their own, but as Tom sings, they “have a little bit more together.” I love that! I think it really reflects the characters’ youth that this isn’t a duet (even though I’m counting them as one song for the purposes of this list, shhh), and giving them separate but related songs also allows us to learn so much about Tom and Lucy individually.
NOT HER WAY – Kerrigan-Lowdermilk
“Not Her Way” from Tales From The Bad Years is such an exciting story song because of what Kerrigan-Lowdermilk are doing with the story song form. It starts of with Julie seemingly narrating a story about some other people, but – since story songs are usually (in my unscientific opinion) stories that you tell about yourself – of course she can’t help falling into the song and claiming her own story. For a performer, that’s a fun resistance to play with. (For guys: check out Vegas for another song that twists story song conventions. Actually, everyone check out Vegas.)
MY LIFELONG LOVE – Georgia Stitt
This song is adorable. I LOVE the twist at the end of the song, which I won’t spoil in case you haven’t listened to it yet. I will say that I love that this version actually has a choir! How awesome! (Also available for guys!)
I HAD A DREAM LAST NIGHT – Jonathan Reid Gealt
Because the story the singer is telling is a dream, she has a really clear objective that she wants to accomplish BY telling the story – otherwise, why share what she dreamt about? That’s reflected in the music, too – there’s a real drive to the orchestrations but also something a little otherworldly.
CAMP LITTLE NOTCH – Carmel Dean and Sarah Underwood
What I love most about “Camp Little Notch” as a story song is the way it approaches the different perspectives of the characters in the story from the single perspective of the singer. The music differentiates between the singer’s thoughts about the camp, her imagined combination with Jo, and her attempts to see the camp in a new way. The repetition of “Do you love it?” lyrically and musically conveys so much about both the singer and Jo. Also, how amazing is Kate Wetherhead:
8:01 – Bobby Cronin
This story song occurs fully in the present, which differentiates it from most of the other songs on this list. The minute-by-minute story of getting stood up is not one you might ever tell again, but getting to hear the story as it unfolds makes it dramatic and entertaining.
LEAVE, LUANNE – Ryan Scott Oliver
Unlike most of the other songs here, this song from 35MM has a full-on narrator who isn’t himself (or herself!) part of the story. In life and in story songs, whether or not you’re a character in the story changes the way you tell it. The convergence of so many different musical genres here really supports that third-party narration, creating a fascinating, unique tone for each different part of the song and giving the singer a lot of different ways to express what’s happening. Though “Leave, Luanne” is technically a guy song, I can’t not show you Katie Thompson’s incredible performance from RSOFEST at 54 Below last fall:
This list is by no means comprehensive. What are your favorite story songs to sing or to see performed?