Theatre isn’t supposed to be comfortable. This is something you have probably seen people say at least a few times. It’s something that has been somewhat commonplace in theatre for a little while now. Many musicals- even those that aren’t really dark have challenging themes. Even Wicked which is for the most part a relatively light-hearted magical family friendly telling of the story before Wizard of Oz. However, even something like Wicked has a bit more happening beneath the surface and some darker moments. While these days more musicals are challenging and have some heavier moments, some musicals go well beyond this and are almost 2.5 hours of straight darkness without a break.
Next to Normal
I have talked about this musical at length on the blog before so I’m not going to go terribly in depth and I don’t want to spoil anything if someone is unfamiliar with it. However, this musical takes the pain of living with mental illness and its challenges and shows them in a raw completely non-sugar-coated way. It’s beautiful.
Some of you may know this musical and some may not. To those familiar with it, it may not be something that immediately comes to mind when you think of dark musicals. However, when you give the plot and presentation some thought it really is. From the beginning of the show you know the characters are doomed from the start. The narrator makes sure you 100% know this. However, what puts it over the top is that the narrator is constantly on stage. Even during the character’s happy moments, he never leaves the stage. He is always lingering as a constant reminder that these people are doomed. To me that is really chilling. The doomed characters and the narrator are what put this over the top. It makes seeing the misfortune that the narrator is constantly prophesying play out that much more chilling.
Woof this show. This is another one I won’t go into super detail as it’s fairly well known (winning 5 Tony Awards) and like Next to Normal, I don’t want to spoil it. However, this is a heartbreaking story about a woman, her sexuality, and a heartbreaking tragedy with her father.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
This isn’t the Disney movie brought to stage. The stage musical sticks much closer to the Victor Hugo novel. A corrupt, abusive priest and a doomed love. While it’s certainly far from the darkest musical I’m going to mention in this article as it certainly has its lighter moments, the tragic story of all the characters certainly make it worth mentioning.
Does it get much darker than child abduction and abuse? That’s what Kid Victory is about. It’s about a boy who was lured away online and is the stuff of every parent’s worst nightmare. The score alone is haunting, however in my opinion is certainly worth a listen.
The Boy Who Danced on Air
If it’s possible to get any darker than Kid Victory, The Boy Who Danced on Air managed to do it. This musical covers the issue in Afghanistan of Bacha Bazi which is a form of pedophilia where an older man gets to “own” a boy. They are often dressed in girls’ clothing and made to dance and perform for the older man. This is another musical where just the cast album can give you chills. It’s a heartbreaking show that takes on an obviously heavy subject.
Jekyll and Hyde
Some love it, some hate it; however the gothic and horror undertones of this show cannot be overlooked. I think the darkest part of this musical that often gets overlooked is initially Henry was setting out to do something good. He was trying to make a positive change as insane as it may have seen. And he turns into a literal madman. It’s heartbreaking to see the change take him over and watching his friends and loved ones start to wonder what happens to him and the hopelessness they obviously feel.
The dark sexual themes are heavy throughout this show and the things the characters go through are incredibly heavy. Just the subject of teens and sexuality is a touchy one and the presentation of this musical brings it to an incredibly dark place.
Even the “lighter” moments in this musical are dark. I mean, it’s a musical about the assassination attempts on various presidents. That alone gives it a much darker context. However, when you dive deeper into the show we see that we don’t even know what is real and what isn’t real to the shooters. Literally every shooter is having their sanity questioned by the audience. That adds another thick layer to an already heavy subject.