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Five Best Tragic Romances in Musical Theater

Updated on August 21, 2013

Most Memorable Doomed Romances in Musicals

Oftentimes, the musical as a form of entertainment is synonymous with feel-good fun--a frothy, light distraction that doesn't leave much of an impact upon you after you've watched it. Many musicals, though, veer into darker, grittier territory that doesn't include a happily ever after.

Musicals can be every bit as poignant and full of tragedy as the most serious stage play, even if the characters are singing their feelings.

Read on for the five best tragic romances in musical theater.

A Scene from West Side Story

Tony and Maria (West Side Story)

West Side Story is one of the world's best-loved musicals, and any list of doomed lovers would be remiss if it did not include them. Based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story sets the romance of its two lovers, Tony and Maria, against racial conflict in New York City.

Though Maria is Puerto Rican and promised to Chino, a member of the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks, and Tony is white and a member of the Jets, their eyes meet at a neighborhood dance. In the timespan of one dance, they've fallen deeply in love. Though the stars are aligned against them, they grasp one precious moment of happiness and sing songs that would go on to be some of the most popular in musical theater.

What makes them one of the best doomed couples in musical history? In addition to being based on two of arguably the most romantic characters of all time, the young couple in the musical bubbles with life and promise--their love is genuine and touching, making it all the more tragic when it's cut short.

A Scene from The Phantom of the Opera

Erik and Christine (The Phantom of the Opera)

Another megabit on the Broadway stage, The Phantom of the Opera took a classic romance and gave it new life. Christine Daae is a talented young soprano relegated to the chorus of the Paris Opera House--until the dangerous, seductive Phantom of the Opera (real name Erik) takes her as his protégé and trains her in the winding passageways and rooms beneath the building.

Erik's twisted and deformed face is covered by a white half-mask, but when Christine sees what lies beneath she is repulsed and turns to the handsome and rich Vicomte Raoul. The Phantom is enraged and broken-hearted but ultimately lets her go with the man she loves, at great personal price to himself.

What makes the romance of Christine and Erik so great? While Christine is (let's face it) kind of whiny and weak, Erik is a compelling romantic hero--dark, with deep emotional scars--who rises above his own needs and wants to let Christine live his own life. He sacrifices his happiness to a life of loneliness so Christine can have a normal existence--even if she will never quite rise to the same glorious heights of talent without Erik by her side.

A Scene from Sunday in the Park with George

Dot and George (Sunday in the Park with George)

Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim's Pulitzer Prize-winning exploration of artistic genius and its effect on relationships and family, gives us the story of Dot and George, who love each other but do not belong with each other despite all that.

George is absorbed in his painting, trying to create masterpieces, and has trouble coming out of his inner world to show Dot the love and attention she craves--though he puts her into his art, he doesn't put her first in his heart, and ultimately she leaves him for a more prosaic lover--though not without breaking her own heart as well as George's.

What makes George and Dot a great romantic pair? It's how right they are for each other, and also how wrong. Both are passionate and good for each other in some ways--Dot to pull George away from his work, George to temper Dot's more flighty nature--but neither of them can ultimately understand the other. Love without understanding can't last, and it tears the two apart in a wrenching goodbye song ("We Don't Belong Together").

A Scene from Ragtime

Coalhouse and Sarah (Ragtime)

Ragtime is an sweeping epic on stage, capturing a moment in history when things were in flux and where different societal groups (whites, African Americans, immigrants) feared and were pitted against one another in a struggle to make sense of the world.

Though there are several relationships threaded through the narrative, the love of Coalhouse Walker and Sarah takes center stage. Sarah gives birth to Coalhouse's baby and buries the child in Mother's garden, fleeing--when she is found and brought back, Mother takes responsibility for the young woman, giving both Sarah and her baby a room in the house. Coalhouse, when he finds where Sarah has gone, sets out to win back both her forgiveness and trust. When they finally come together, their love is one of great devotion and strength--and that love is tragically stopped short by a mistake at a presidential rally.

What makes the love story of Sarah and Coalhouse so memorable? Their songs have great emotional complexity and depth, making the characters truly come alive; furthermore, the fact that their love faces such great obstacles makes it all the more tragic when ultimately they cannot win out over those obstacles.

A Scene from Cabaret

Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider (Cabaret)

Kander and Ebb's Cabaret is a dark and disturbing musical set in a club in wartime Germany; while the main story focuses on the singer Sally Bowles and the struggling American writer Cliff, the subplot involving Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider is the most poignant and heartbreaking relationship in the story.

Herr Schultz is the unassuming owner of a fruit shop, wooing the jaded Fraulein Schneider, who runs a boarding house, with a pineapple. When Herr Schultz becomes the victim of anti-Semitism, Fraulein Schneider calls off their engagement, choosing survival over love.

What makes Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider one of the most memorable tragic couples in musical theater? Their love seems genuine and true, made more poignant by the fact that they find each other later in life and take great joy in that second chance. That makes it all the more jarring when Fraulein Schneider goes against our conceptions of sacrificing all for love and chooses the solution that keeps herself safe in a world that's gone mad.

More Tragic Love Stories in Musicals

Of course, this list only scratches the surface of tragic romance in musical theater--who is your favorite star-crossed couple?


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