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Swan Song: I’m Singin, But I’m Dyin

In real life, death probs doesn’t involve much dramatic vocalizing, but in musicals—which, let’s be honest, have almost nothing to do with real life—people die mid-song all the time.  Or like, right after singing the single most meaningful words of their life at full belt.  Below, for your review, a brief compendium of singing deaths in musicals.

Also.  In case you couldn’t tell from the subject matter, there are SPOILERS ahead.  Proceed with caution, obvs.

The People in the Picture
Things are grim from the start in this epic snooze of a musical—Bubbie (Donna Murphy) is seeing dead people and there’s a really precocious child running around—but it actually got kind of laugh-out-loud funny at the end when Bubbie is, well, singing and dying at the same time.  As she slowly expires, Bubbie is choking out some kind of song about something symbolic like remembering who you are.  Unfortunately, by that point, you really just want her to shut up and die so you can go home.

Les Miserables
Can you even think of a musical where more people die while (or possibly from) belting?  Because we cannot.  Fantine kicks things off in the first act, but then we get Eponine and Gavroche and even Jean Valjean himself in the second. If you look at it in a certain light, Les Miz is basically just a parade of really tuneful deaths.  We’re not complaining, but if we had to pick a favorite, it’s Eponine dying in the arms of the man she foolishly loved while he continues to be an idiot. (“If I could close your wounds with words of love…” Really, Marius? Really?!)

When Angel loses his battle with AIDS, he does so in a suitably fabulous way, belting to the heavens and possibly having an orgasm at the same time.  Or maybe his death is an orgasmic experience?  Either way, after he belts his lungs out, Angel departs the world by walking dramatically into a very bright white light.  You know.  As you do.

Miss Saigon
No one dies in a musical quite like Kim. Heartbroken and determined to give her son a better life, she expires in her former lover’s arms, spluttering references to the first night they spent together. She barely gets the last word out before the strings swell, she slumps, and suddenly Will Chase starts screaming his face off. Only in musicals, my friends. Only in musicals.

Sure, Stephen Sondheim plays it for the comedy and he fully gets the joke, but there are several disturbing musical deaths in Assassins. Our favorite involves… um… an electric chair? There’s also a hanging and a suicide, but the guy singing in the electric chair – FDR would-be assassin Giuseppe Zangara – gets us every time for its shear bizarre-ness.

Sample lyric, direct from Jesus: “Oh God, I’m dead.” NO, YOU’RE NOT. YOU’RE STILL SINGING.

Jesus Christ Superstar
Jesus has had several rockin’ Broadway deaths. In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, he’s not actually singing when he dies – he’s more just like, groaning in tune – but Judas is. He’s literally mid-lyric when he hangs himself. No, not by the fringe on his vest, but that would have been a very Broadway touch and we’re sad no one thought of it.

All these years later, I still don’t entirely get this show – or why the whole thing looked sort of like the 1989 American Music Awards – and I still don’t get why its tragic ending is somehow supposed to be relatively happy, or at least consoling. The show is like, “Oh yeah. Let’s shut these two up in a box. They die together. Isn’t that sweet?” Well… no. Then everyone’s dead except Amneris, and who liked her anyway? Although she does get that one great song, but whatever. Anyway. At the end of this show, Will Chase and Heather Headley die in a box together singing about how much they love each other. Who thought that was a good idea? Besides Elton John, I mean.

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Amanda May 24, 2011, 1:57 pm

    I love that AIDA joke, but I don’t think you should blame the musical for that ending; it’s actually how they die in the opera. Of course, in the opera, Amneris (whom I actually find quite likable and entertaining in the show) has no say in Radames’ court case and he is sentenced to death without Aida, but she sneaks into the vault to be with him. But still: they die together in a sealed vault of suffocation. It’s opera. Don’t question the melodrama.

    I also like that you choose to ignore that Adam Pascal was the original Radames.

  • Kevin May 27, 2011, 7:02 pm

    I also saw Will Chase (clutching Deedee Lynn Magno) – what amazed me was how abrupt that ending was. Bang – arm clutch – scream – curtain and a whole “nothing to see here folks” pause before the bows.

    One of the favorite stories of all time – during the DC tryout of the epic bomb musical “Mata Hari,” Marisa Mell (playing the title character) had just been executed by firing squad. In the few seconds left in the show after the character’s death, she reached up and scratched her nose. It brought down the house. The show closed out of town.

  • Sam July 8, 2011, 1:02 am

    I saw Northwestern University’s production of Godspell tonight. It was really good – updated to be contemporary and all that jazz (there are hilarious nods to Two and a Half Men and Mean Girls). This was my first time seeing the show. When we got to the finale and Jesus sang, “Oh god, I’m dying,” all I could think was: “The next line is gonna be, ‘Oh god, I’m dead.’ NO YOU’RE NOT YOU’RE STILL SINGING.” I was biting my cheek so hard to keep my inappropriate laughter from being heard.

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