5 Of The Darkest Songs Written (Are From Musicals)
Turning a successful musical into a movie is always a roll of the dice. It seems like it should be a no-brainer: A show that's kept audiences clapping for years has already passed the biggest test of whether it'll be a good movie. But people will accept some shenanigans on a stage that they won't in a movie, which is how we got the literal "How do you do, fellow kids?" move of casting a grown-ass man in the title role of Dear Evan Hansen. That's only the tip of the iceberg, so descend into the depths of some classic musicals and see the disturbing stuff to be found there …
Dear Evan Hansen, You Can Use My Death To Score
In case you haven't gotten the memo, the geriatric high-schooler starring in Dear Evan Hansen is only the tip of the cringe-inducing iceberg. The non-theater-nerd segment of the population was collectively shocked to discover what the latest hit musical-turned-movie is actually about: suicide, elaborate fraud, stalking, and more.
Evan Hansen is a regular high school kid with regular high school problems—anxiety and loneliness and definitely not chronic back pain or two mortgages. He writes letters to himself as a therapy exercise, but through a series of improbable coincidences, a classmate winds up committing suicide with one of those letters in his pocket instead of a suicide note.
Evan jumps on the opportunity to invent a fake friendship he had with the dead kid, leading him to make inspirational speeches that go viral, start a charity, and more, all in the name of preserving the lie that he has any friends.
Actually, that's not the only reason, because there's a puzzle piece that brings the whole picture together: The only reason Evan had any contact with the dead kid at all is that Evan had a crush on his sister, and he takes the opportunity of her grief to be a shoulder to cry on, not to mention other body parts.
"If I Could Tell Her" is the song where this all comes together: Evan talks to the sister and tries to find a way to thread the needle of getting in good with the girl he likes while still pretending to be a grieving friend of her brother's, who he barely knew. He pulls it off pretty neatly by talking about all the things you notice with a crush, under the guise of stuff her brother noticed.
We could put a lot of songs from the musical on the list—especially since they're all weirdly cheery and poppy, in a way that makes it seem like no one realized how deranged the actual subject matter is. But this is a 20-car pileup of icky subject matter—suicide, teen angst, lying to a crush so they like you, putting words in a dead person's mouth, and even some undertones of incest—that just gets more repulsive the more you listen.
Oklahoma, Where The Embalming Fluid Comes Dripping Down
A lot of the stuff we think of as standard for musicals was thought up by two guys: Rodgers and Hammerstein. Writer Oscar Hammerstein and composer Richard Rodgers made too many smash-hit musicals to list here when they were working separately. Working together, they were pretty much unstoppable, a team-up on the level of Batman and Superman but with curtains instead of capes.
They made musicals that still get performed hundreds of times a year today, like The Sound of Music and The King and I, but their first collaboration was Oklahoma!. That show was big enough to earn that exclamation point and then some, which is why so many of the tricks it pulled turned into the standard operating procedure for Broadway.
At the time, it was all for this one show: The songs in Oklahoma! told the story of the life of settlers in the old West. Of course, anyone who's played Oregon Trail could tell you that a big part of life in the Old West is death, and that means that one of the many musical traditions Oklahoma! started was having songs that could be really disturbing.
"Pore Jud Is Daid" is meant to be a sweet moment, with one guy trying to talk the other out of committing suicide, but it's still a song all about the backup singer's rotting body. Not just a corpse song, but a corpse song that tips into going full C.S.I. with all the details about how that corpse would look if he actually went through with it. We get lyrics about fingernail residue, mortuary techniques to slow down decomposition, eulogies … like we say, this is meant to be a sweet moment, but it's also an old show, and anything sweet will eventually go bad.
Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Any Way They Can Get Them
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is kind of like Oklahoma, but even more chill: There's no corpse songs, just a family of ranchers in the old West. They spend most of the musical having big show-stopping numbers about nice old-fashioned manual labor, like the "working on a farm" song or the "raising a barn" dance or the "kidnapping women and raping them until they fall in love with you" number.
Yes, that's right. See, most musicals are based on older material, but this one was based on material that was about 3,000 years older—the ancient Roman story of the Rape of the Sabine Women. The (probably bogus) story goes that Rome was just a random Italian city with more wolf milk than normal until they thought they'd make a name for themselves at a festival they threw with the neighboring Sabine tribe.
They kidnapped the women at the festival and took them back home, and the only force stopping a full-scale war between Romans and Sabines was the women themselves, who called on both sets of men to stop fighting for their sake and led to a truce being negotiated. Like you might expect from a 3,000-year-old story, there are a lot of different versions of that story that change a lot of the details. Some focus way more on the politics, some on the war, some on how it would be kind of kinky to get kidnapped as a piece of imperial conquest.
This version of the story has the titular seven brothers learning about the Roman version through song, and their main takeaway is "Women won't respect you unless you kidnap them," which ends up more or less working. The show is way more about farm life and way less about creeping than you might expect from this one part of the story, but you're still watching the Beauty and the Beast routine done seven times over.
Women Already Know How To Succeed In Business
To get away from the open range and cowboy hats for a while, let's take a look at How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a classic rags-to-riches story except the rags are gray suits, and the riches are more expensive, custom-tailored gray suits. The musical follows a new employee at a huge company in the 1960s, who learns the ins and outs of corporate culture, which includes the in-out-in-out.
And so, we get a whole song about how much of office life for women consists of being treated like an object by everyone around them. Since this is a musical, their main reaction to that is to dance about it, which isn't something an object could do, so they might be on to something there. The song is peppered with as many boner jokes as you were allowed to get away with back then, which was a pretty high number so long as you kept it metaphorical.
Like a lot of songs on this list, there's some satire and irony happening here, but it feels close to the kind of satire and irony that random internet people claim when they use racial slurs and get banned for it. You can call the song feminist if you like, but the musical definitely doesn't stop treating that one secretary character as "mid-2000s Flash animation of George W. Bush"-level stupid the whole way through, or give any of the female characters happy endings besides getting married to rich guys.
The song is so silly that it can be straight-up uncomfortable to watch for anyone who's actually had to deal with abuse at their job, whether or not they were a secretary at a big company from the '60s when it happened.
Grease Isn’t The Only Word
Grease premiered on Broadway in 1971, and it was set in 1959. To save you the agony of having to do math, we'll convert for you: Imagine a musical coming out today all about nostalgia for the world of 2009, where the teenage main characters sing innuendo-packed songs about using Blackberries, making video responses on YouTube, and—let's be honest with ourselves here—reading Cracked every single day.
The fantasy of the '50s has gotten more normal over time as the actual decade has gotten further away. So, in general, Grease has aged really well—unlike actual grease, which congeals and starts to smell if you don't do the dishes.
Unfortunately, Grease wasn't far enough away to avoid the same problem as How To Succeed, where the warm and comforting memories of sock hops and leather jackets also included memories of how normal creepy behavior seemed back then.
Like we mentioned, most of the songs in Grease are about how it's nearly impossible for teenagers to think about anything besides how horny they are. Even "Greased Lightning," the song about how the only thing boys can focus on other than girls is cars, has refrains about "you are supreme, the chicks'll cream" and "With new boosters, plates and shocks so I can get off my rocks."
This isn't quite as bad as some other examples here—we here at Cracked fully support bonin' someone if their car is sexy enough. But that's not quite the point here: Since it's about high school, Grease gets performed by hundreds of kids all across America, every single year that isn't 2020. Of course, they almost always get a neutered version that tones down the sex, changing the lines from "the chicks'll cream" to "the chicks'll scream" and so on.
The toned-down version is even worse than the original version because it repackages the creepy stuff to make it less obvious. Everyone has to make their own decisions about how much outdated, offensive, or just plain gross material they can take, but if you pretend it's easier to take, you're doing the same thing as Evan Hansen.
Top image: Universal Pictures