A Musical Theater Nerd’s Guide to Beloved

*This post includes a spoiler for the musical Next to Normal. And also for Beloved, but my guess is that part won’t be a problem for the majority of this blog’s readers.*

I love musicals. So when Mr. Heidkamp suggested that we blog about an addition to the Beloved soundtrack, a couple of show tunes immediately popped into my head, even though the musicals they are from have pretty different stories from Beloved. I wanted to share them in hopes they make the soundtrack, so here goes:

  1. I’m Alive” from Next to Normal

While, in my personal opinion, the lyrics of this song fall somewhat short of Toni’s Morrison’s signature originality, I feel like it has to be part of the Beloved soundtrack because it is just so on the nose. It is sung by the son of the main character, who died as a baby and now returns to “haunt” the main character in the form of her hallucinating that she sees his teenage self. (I told you it was on the nose!) Like Beloved, Next to Normal explores a mother’s grief at losing a child and how it contributes to mental illness in her life. Gabe, the main character’s son and the character who sings this song, wants to pull his mother back into the past and prevent her from moving on and confronting the reality of her present, much like Beloved does with Sethe. 

To me, some really key lyrics of the song are when Gabe sings, “I’m your wish, your dream come true/And I am your darkest nightmare too.” He also asserts that he is both, “what you want me to be” and “your worst fear” and that he will both “hurt” and “heal” his mother. Like Beloved, he represents the past as both a place of comfort that people can be nostalgic for (because it was a time when a lost loved one was alive) and a place of horrors and trauma (in Next to Normal, because of Gabe’s tragic, premature death; in Beloved, not only because of Beloved’s tragic, premature death but also the many other horrors Sethe faced). And although this strange dichotomy exists, it is also true that part of what makes the past so dangerous to dwell on is how good parts of it were– that is the seductive part that keeps people from moving on, recovering, and getting to a better present. 

  1. Mama Who Bore Me” from Spring Awakening

This song deals with a young woman’s resentment toward her mother because her mother shelters her and wants to keep her a “baby” forever rather than allow her to learn about the harsh reality of the world. While I have never actually seen Spring Awakening, and so don’t entirely know the young woman’s mother’s motivation for sheltering her daughter, this song reminds me of how Sethe wants to protect her children from everything. Not only does Sethe attempt to kill all of her children to prevent them from being enslaved, but before the reader even finds out about that, she is shown keeping Denver inside 124 and treating her like she is much younger than she actually is, much to Paul D’s frustration. As Sethe says on page 54, “‘I don’t care what she is. Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What’s that supposed to mean? In my heart it don’t mean a thing.’” (54) I find “Mama Who Bore Me” a really beautiful song, and think its general theme, as well as its use of motifs that also show up in Beloved (such as sleep, religion, and fire), would fit the Beloved soundtrack very well. 

One other thing that is interesting about this song that also reminds me of Beloved is that the character who sings it at first sings that her mother made her “sad” and then later sings that her mother made her “bad.” I feel like this relates to how the pain and suffering that Beloved experienced (for example, on pages 248-252, when she recounts being on what seems to be a slave ship and being abandoned by the one person she loves and feels like is “herself”) is what causes her to become a toxic person who drags other people down. Beloved is not just a “devil-child” who derives pleasure from doing evil, but rather a character who is so deeply sad and broken that she cannot help but poison everyone around her with the sadness and brokenness that seeps out of her through her behaviors (such as clinging to Sethe and not permitting her to take care of herself in any way). She is “bad” because she is “sad.” I think this holds true whether she is merely a ghost of Sethe’s daughter or a personification of past sadness.

2 thoughts on “A Musical Theater Nerd’s Guide to Beloved

  1. Connor D

    I have limited experience with Spring Awakening (aka I sang Mama Who Bore Me at a School of Rock show and read the Wikipedia page a couple years ago). I find the comparison fascinating as much of Spring Awakening is about one’s sexual awakening. This then could be compared to Beloved, lamenting her for keeping the world from her through killing her. Beloved does sexually assault Paul D, Paul D having recently upgraded from a calf to an actual human person.
    Also would highly recommend the song The Bitch of Living from Spring Awakening. While Mama Who Bore Me is about the girls in the show, The Bitch of Living is about the boys. It’s also a bop.

    Like

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