If you loved Little Shop of Horrors, read Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.
Little Shop of Horrors is a favorite among musical theatre fans for its kooky aesthetic, both murderous and romantic, somehow both ridiculous and utterly sincere. Karen Russell’s brilliant first novel is about a family of alligator-wrestlers living in a theme park. The Everglades form the mysterious setting, and the book strikes a poignant familial note while still exploring all the fun of a cheesy tourist attraction.
If you loved How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, read The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe.
The Best of Everything
How to Succeed in Business is a fun, sixties farce about a man who knows nothing ascending to the top of the corporate ladder. While it contains a few jabs at sexism in the workplace, the story still largely follows a man’s success. Rona Jaffe’s novel about five women in a publishing house’s secretarial pool fills in the gaps—it has all of the intriguing workplace drama, with large helping of female agency. This was also one of the very first manuscripts purchased for film adaptation before the book was even published, proving how engrossing Jaffe’s writing is.
If you loved Brigadoon, read Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.
Outlander (Starz Tie-in Edition)
Brigadoon, the love story about a man who discovers a town that only appears out of the fog for one day every two centuries, is inspired by a popular legend in Scotland. A similar legend forms the basis for the wildly popular books and television series Outlander, about a woman who falls two-hundred-years into the past in the Scottish highlands. These foggy moors were responsible for many mysterious sights, forming the basis for legends of disappearance and reappearance. Outlander is romantic, swashbuckling, and bloody, and the perfect beginning to an adventure series for history and romance lovers alike.
If you loved Hair, read Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion.
Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s (LOA #325)
Hair shocked audiences in 1967 when, at the end of Act One, the cast took off all of their clothing. But there’s so much more than nudity to this musical about a group of hippies protesting the Vietnam War. The audience hears from dozens of people as they tell their stories about race, sex, drugs, and the fight for a more peaceful world, all told in a score made up of now-recognizable hits like “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In”. As much a historical artifact as a musical, it goes hand-in-hand with Joan Didion’s 1968 nonfiction work Slouching Towards Bethlehem, about her time in the Haight-Ashbury reporting on the counterculture movements.
If you loved The Last Five Years, read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.
Fates and Furies
A cult-favorite of a musical, it tells the story of Jamie, a writer, and Cathy, an actress, and their ill-fated marriage, one song at a time. Based on Jason Robert Brown’s own first marriage, he uses only two characters to show how the story of a marriage can vary greatly between spouses, especially when one’s career is a success and the other is stagnant. This dynamic is explored expertly in Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. This book also sheds light on the invisible work done by wives of successful men, a piece notably absent in The Last Five Years. I can still remember where I was when I finished this book.
If you loved Les Miserables, read Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
One of the most popular musicals, Les Miz has been translated into more than twenty languages. Fifty-two countries have heard the people sing. This epic tale of redemption and political upheaval in nineteenth-century France is also a beloved classic novel—and my favorite book of all time. Everything beloved in the musical is represented tenfold in the book—jealousy, romance, thorny moral dilemmas, self-sacrifice, unrequited love, and more. Clocking in at over one thousand pages, it’s an undertaking, but Hugo’s writing was popular for a reason. You may actually find this to be a page-turner.
If you loved RENT, try The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai.
The Great Believers
Most musical-theatre lovers can say exactly how many minutes are in a year, without a moment’s thought. RENT has touched millions of theatregoers worldwide, with its depiction of a close-knit group of friends experiencing the AIDS crisis together in the East Village. The Great Believers takes place in Chicago during the same time period, and shows a very different friend group undergoing the same trauma. Makkai’s research is so thorough and seamless that the book no longer seems like historical fiction; I felt the characters so urgently on every page. Both pieces explore chosen families in all of their hurts. hardships, and acts of love.
A Tender Thing
When I first saw The Sound of Music, I fell in love with musicals. I was captured by the dual forces telling the story: the plot itself, and the songs, reinforcing the emotions of the story with musical embodiment. In the twenty-odd years since then, dozens of shows captured me. One of the great things about musical theatre is the diversity of stories and music—within the genre, you have rock, rap, opera-inspired work, jazz, and more.
My debut novel, A Tender Thing, is about a fictional musical written in 1958, a love story crossing racial boundaries. I was inspired by the musicals of the time, as well as the aesthetics of the ‘50s, and the time when America had made it through the Second World War and had yet to experience the social tumult of the 1960s. Those ideas, racial equality and feminism and more, were brewing, and inhabited in the socially-progressive theatrical world.
The costumes, sets, and music lend a richness to the worlds of musical theatre that can be addicting. In a few hours, the aesthetics of the show wrap around the audience and create a world that feels real, a communal experience inhabited by everyone in one room. Theatre fans are facing a bleak future—who knows when Broadway theatres will operate again? Who knows when audiences will feel comfortable returning to these snug, packed houses?
For those missing theatre, I’ve compiled a list of books that might take us back to the world left behind in this time of darkened theatres. Some of these books inspired the musicals themselves, and some are simply in the same spirit.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
Featured image: @alex.shyp via Twenty20