5 Musicals That Helped Me Through College

I’m a proud musical theater nerd. I grew up loving the songs, the dances, and the life lessons musicals have to offer. Revolutionary musicals like Hair, Rent, and Hamilton not only have important messages, they’ve also helped define their respective generations.

When I left for college, I was happy, but also scared. I didn’t know what to expect. I was nervous about making new friends, getting as good of grades as I did in high school, and being away from my family for so long. That’s when I would turn to musicals. They’ve always been there for me. Whenever I was happy or sad or angry, I would listen to musical soundtracks and feel better.

These are the musicals that helped me through the exciting, stressful, and enjoyable time known as college.

In the Heights

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I listened to this musical soundtrack on a loop my entire sophomore year of high school. It’s also when my love for Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (yes this is my second time referencing Hamilton, no shame) began. The subplot of In the Heights involves Nina, the first person from her family and neighborhood to go to college, coming back home. She dropped out of college because she couldn’t take the pressure and the stress. I remember being afraid that I wouldn’t do well in college because, like Nina, I was used to being a big fish in a small pond. Her song “Breathe” is what calmed my nerves the summer before my freshman year of college. I still listen to it whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed and it helps me just as much as it did three years ago.

Spring Awakening

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This musical helped me get through my freshman year of college. Spring Awakening tackles a multitude of issues, but the one that really hit home was the pressure to succeed academically. One of the characters, Moritz, has parents who are super strict about grades. Throughout the musical, we see how terribly this affects him. I completely related to how stressed he always was. The only difference was that I put that pressure on myself. That’s just as harmful. Spring Awakening has helped me realize that grades aren’t everything. Yes, it’s important to study and do your homework, but it’s much more important to take care of yourself.

Avenue Q

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This musical is basically like Sesame Street for adults. Not only are the characters puppets, with a few real people mixed in, but it also satirically teaches important life lessons. The lesson that stuck out to me is in the musical’s final number, “For Now.” The song is about how everything in life is temporary. The good and the bad are only for now so we shouldn’t get so focused on the future that we can’t live in the present. I love this song because I always worry about doing well in school (and life). Even when I do well, I’m so busy thinking about the next test or project that I don’t take the time to enjoy my accomplishment. Avenue Q has helped me put things like college, politics, and relationships into perspective.

Cabaret

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I learned about Cabaret in my musical theater history class sophomore year of college. Holy cow! I had no clue how intense this musical was. I always just imagined Liza Minnelli singing about how “life is a cabaret.” The main character, Sally Bowles, lives her life by the old adage, “ignorance is bliss.” The musical takes place during the rise of Hitler in Germany and when Sally has the chance to leave, she doesn’t. This musical has helped me realize we MUST pay attention to what’s happening in the world. The 2016 Presidential Election is a perfect example. It’s vitally important to stay well informed and vote. We can’t afford to live like Sally. Ignorance is not bliss.

Next to Normal

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I didn’t know about Next to Normal until earlier this year and I didn’t really get into it until a few months ago. I wish I’d known about this musical sooner. The songs are incredible and the plot is both thoughtful and thought provoking. It tells the story of a woman, Diana, suffering from bipolar disorder and the affects it has on her and her family. I relate to Diana’s daughter, Natalie. Although, I don’t have a loved one suffering from bipolar disorder, I do have a loved one suffering from alcoholism. Both diseases have tremendous effects on the people who have them, as well as the people around them and both diseases have a stigma surrounding them, making them difficult to talk about with others. Like Natalie, I was ashamed to let anyone else know about my loved one’s disease because I didn’t want people to judge. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that there’s no shame in talking about it. The stigma that people who suffer from mental diseases or substance addictions are crazy or bad people needs to end. You wouldn’t judge someone who has cancer. Mental diseases and addictions are no different. Next to Normal has helped me realize that along with helping me cope with my feelings towards my loved one’s disease.

Lea Ciastko

Editorial Contributor, Columbia College Chicago Major: Musical Theatre Her heart belongs to: Disney and Disney/Pixar, Gene Kelly, and making people laugh You can find her: talking to her parents, re-watching her favorite movies and TV shows, and working out to Broadway cast albums

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