Top Ten Theater Songs That Make You Cry

Some songs get you every time

Judy Kuhn and Emily Skeggs in Fun Home.

Musical theater provides a wide range of emotive experiences, but there's one particular emotional reaction that musical fans hold dear. We love to cry. It sounds strange, but we really do love to cry. There's nothing quite as satisfying as a musical that brings us to tears. Big, wet, sloppy tears. The sloppier the better. 

When I think of all my favorite musicals, and my most cherished nights in the theater, it usually comes down to which show left me a heaving, sobbing mess at the end. Oh, sure, I love to laugh. Many of my personal favorites are shows with a smart and snarky sense of fun. But nothing matches a good old ugly cry -- snorting and all -- at the end of the show. 

In particular, there are certain songs that never fail to bring me to tears. The combined power of the words, the music, and the performance have me welling up from the very first bars. I even paradoxically avoid listening to these songs, just to preserve the effect, lest frequent listening rob the song of its power.

Of course, the power of a particular theater song often lies in its context, the dramatic function that it serves within the show. And, perhaps not surprisingly, many of these correspond to a character's death, to lost love, or to both. But even if you don't know the show these songs are from, there's an inherent richness to the emotional experience, regardless of storyline. 

Here's my personal list of songs that, almost without fail, bring me to tears: (Click through on the show titles for sound samples. Oh, and get some tissues first.) 

  1. "How Could I Ever Know?," The Secret Garden
  2. "What Would I Do?," Falsettos
  3. "How Could I Ever Forget?," Next to Normal 
  4. "Another Winter in a Summer Town," Grey Gardens 
  5. "Days and Days," Fun Home 
  6. "Dear Friend," She Loves Me 
  7. "I'll Cover You" (Reprise), Rent 
  8. "Say It to Me Now," Once 
  9. "The I Love You Song," The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
  10. "New Words," In the Beginning 

I also asked my friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter to weigh in on the topic, and they were none too shy about responding, a clear indication of the aforementioned fascination musical-theater geeks have with loving a good cry. Here's what they came up with: 

  • "Is It Really Me?," 110 in the Shade 
  • "Once Upon a Time," All American 
  • "Anyone Can Whistle," Anyone Can Whistle
  • "There's a Fine, Fine Line," Avenue Q
  • "Fifty Percent," Ballroom 
  • "Stop, Time," Big
  • "How It Ends," Big Fish 
  • "The Letter," Billy Elliot 
  • "Once We Were Kings," Billy Elliot 
  • "One Second and a Million Miles," The Bridges of Madison County 
  • "Falling Into You," The Bridges of Madison County 
  • "I Am What I Am," La Cage aux Folles
  • "Look Over There," La Cage aux Folles
  • "If Ever I Would Leave You," Camelot 
  • "Make Our Garden Grow," Candide 
  • "One More Walk Around the Garden," Carmelina 
  • "If I Loved You," Carousel
  • "You'll Never Walk Alone," Carousel 
  • "Coney Island," A Catered Affair 
  • "Anthem," Chess 
  • "You and I," Chess 
  • "At the Ballet," A Chorus Line 
  • "Sarah," The Civil War
  • "Self Portrait," A Class Act 
  • "I'm Here," The Color Purple 
  • "Being Alive," Company 
  • "You Have Made Me Love," Cyrano 
  • "I Say Hello," Destry Rides Again 
  • "Pretty Funny," Dogfight
  • "Only One," Elegies 
  • "Monica and Mark," Elegies 
  • "14 Dwight Ave, Natick, Massachusetts," Elegies
  • "My Brother Lived in San Francisco," Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens 
  • "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," Evita 
  • "I Never Wanted to Love You," Falsettos 
  • "Holding to the Ground," Falsettos 
  • "Unlikely Lovers," Falsettos 
  • "What More Can I Say?," Falsettos 
  • "Sunrise, Sunset," Fiddler on the Roof 
  • "Sabbath Prayer," Fiddler on the Roof 
  • "Far From the Home I Love," Fiddler on the Roof 
  • "How Glory Goes," Floyd Collins 
  • "Losing My Mind," Follies 
  • "The Road You Didn't Take," Follies 
  • "You Walk With Me," The Full Monty 
  • "They Were You," The Fantasticks 
  • "Love, Look Away," Flower Drum Song 
  • "Telephone Wire," Fun Home 
  • "Edges of the World," Fun Home 
  • "He Wanted a Girl," Giant 
  • "I Was Here," The Glorious Ones 
  • "Beautiful City," Godspell 
  • "Around the World," Grey Gardens 
  • "Will You," Grey Gardens 
  • "I Know Where I've Been," Hairspray
  • "Midnight Radio," Hedwig and the Angry Inch 
  • "Isn't That Enough?," Honeymoon in Vegas 
  • "No More," Into the Woods 
  • "No One Is Alone," Into the Woods 
  • "Alabanza," In The Heights
  • "Paciencia y Fe," In the Heights 
  • "Something Wonderful," The King and I 
  • "I Have Dreamed," The King and I 
  • "Not My Father's Son," Kinky Boots 
  • "It Never Was You," Knickerbocker Holiday 
  • "Still Hurting," The Last Five Years 
  • "The Light in the Piazza," The Light in the Piazza
  • "The Beauty Is (Reprise)," The Light in the Piazza 
  • "Fable," The Light in the Piazza 
  • "Endless Night," The Lion King 
  • "Days of Plenty," Little Women 
  • "Some Things Are Meant to Be," Little Women 
  • "Time Heals Everything," Mack and Mabel 
  • "I Promise You a Happy Ending," Mack and Mabel
  • "De Profundis Clamor a Te," Man of La Mancha
  • "The Impossible Dream," Man of La Mancha
  • "When I Grow Up," Matilda 
  • "Dulcinea," Man of La Mancha 
  • "Not a Day Goes By," Merrily We Roll Along 
  • "Good Thing Going," Merrily We Roll Along
  • "Our Time," Merrily We Roll Along
  • "Mama, a Rainbow," Minnie's Boys 
  • "Bring Him Home," Les Miserables 
  • "Stars," Les Miserables 
  • "A Little Fall of Rain," Les Miserables 
  • "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," Les Miserables 
  • "Who Am I?," Les Miserables 
  • "I'd Give My Life For You," Miss Saigon
  • "Hero and Leander," Myths and Hymns 
  • "I Dreamed a Dance," Next to Normal 
  • "I Am the One" (reprise), Next to Normal 
  • "Anytime (I Am There)," (cut from) A New Brain
  • "When the Earth Stopped Turning," A New Brain 
  • "Getting Tall," Nine 
  • "Be on Your Own," Nine 
  • "An Unusual Way," Nine 
  • "As Long As He Needs Me," Oliver 
  • "Some Other Time," On the Town
  • "I'll Be Here," Ordinary Days 
  • "I Won't Mind," The Other Franklin 
  • "It's Hard to Speak My Heart," Parade 
  • "How Can I Call This Home?," Parade 
  • "Sh'ma" Parade
  • "It Don't Make Sense," Parade 
  • "I Wish I Could Forget You," Passion 
  • "I Read," Passion 
  • "Children of the Wind," Rags 
  • "New Music," Ragtime 
  • "Your Daddy's Son," Ragtime 
  • "Wheels of a Dream," Ragtime
  • "Seasons of Love," Rent 
  • "Without You," Rent
  • "All the Children in a Row," The Rink 
  • "Lily's Eyes," The Secret Garden 
  • "Hold On," The Secret Garden 
  • "Momma, Look Sharp," 1776 
  • "When Hope Goes," The Spitfire Grill 
  • "Left Behind," Spring Awakening
  • "Finishing the Hat," Sunday in the Park With George 
  • "We Do Not Belong Together," Sunday in the Park With George 
  • "Move On," Sunday in the Park With George
  • "Sunday," Sunday in the Park With George 
  • "Lesson #8," Sunday in the Park With George 
  • "We Do Not Belong Together," Sunday in the Park With George 
  • "Not While I'm Around," Sweeney Todd 
  • "Godspeed, Titanic," Titanic 
  • "Lady's Maid," Titanic 
  • "Still," Titanic 
  • "She Used to Be Mine," Waitress 
  • "One Hand, One Heart," West Side Story 
  • "For Good," Wicked 
  • "How Did We Come to This?," The Wild Party (Lippa) 
  • "People Like Us," The Wild Party {LaChiusa) 
  • "Mill Worker," Working 
  • "Fathers and Sons," Working 
  • "Happiness," You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown