For someone who spent their entire high school career in marching band and choir, I have little to no understanding of musical theater. I'll drunkenly sing along to Rent or Chicagowith the best of them, but my idea of a good time on Broadway is Disney adaptations (because I already know all the words) or shows that are spectator sports, like Spider-man: Turn Off The Dark. (Yes, the music was terrible and yes, it looked a little bit like a neon warehouse sale, but it was the Nascar of musical theater: an extreme sport, in which half the thrill was making it to the end safely.)
I get why people love the medium -- the drama! the spectacle! -- but six times out of 10, after I've paid too much money for mediocre seats, I'll zone out during the musical numbers. I'm basically a toddler whose incredibly short attention span keeps me from enjoying songs that don't push the story forward and too many of the numbers in any given musical feel adjacent to the narrative.
So after years of cringing along to the Les Mis soundtrack at parties (Death! Poverty! One god damn loaf of bread! Let's mix alcohol into this mess.) imagine my surprise when I binged Crazy Ex-Girlfriendand finally got it.
When the show -- about a woman who in the middle of a crisis uproots her entire life to move to West Covina, California for a childhood crush -- premiered, I watched the first three episodes out of professional curiosity before I called it quits. That it had musical numbers only baffled me even more. But a year later when I gave it another shot, I realized if I had watched just one more episode, the show would have totally hooked me.
In episode four, Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) goes on a date with Greg (Santino Fontana) to get her mind off of Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), the man she sought after when moving to West Covina. While there's a real spark between Greg and Rebecca, Greg knows she carries a torch for his best friend. In true Crazy Ex-Girlfriend style, my beloved, bitter, sad-sack sings about it.
"Settle For Me" is one of the best songs in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's four magnificent seasons. An old Hollywood number that evokes Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Greg drags the romantic showstopper into the gutters of real life. With lyrics like "But I'm right here, in flesh and blood and self-hate," "In a sad way, darling, it's fate," and, "So lower those expectations and settle for me", the song gave us a look at what was only hinted at previously. Despite thinking of himself as too good for this town and everyone in it, Greg still felt like he could never be enough for someone to love. What on the surface seemed like petty jealousy of a good friend was actually something much more harmful.
Because Crazy Ex-Girlfriend used the spectacle of musical theater against its intended effect, I stopped zoning out and started paying attention to the songs. Each one popped open a window into the minds of the characters, except instead of a simple peek, it was a lurid peepshow. The uglier each character got in their minds, the more I liked watching them learn from their mistakes. Every time a song gave them a chance to express something they were too afraid to say out loud -- mostly because that would make it real --the musical format not only pushed the story forward but also helped me relate to characters who are purposefully hard to understand (because they don't understand themselves). And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did all of this in a way that was not only fun, it never let anyone off the hook. I started to realize why people love this genre.
I've been told by at least dozens of musical theater stans that all good musical theater is supposed to be that revealing every time, but my Spider-man loving ass didn't really comprehend until Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. As the show unfolded over four seasons, the big hits -- songs like "Gettin' Bi", "Period Sex", and "We Tapped That Ass" -- were an explosive expression of thoughts most people have deep anxiety or shame over. Getting to watch repressed emotions be unleashed wasn't just cathartic; sometimes we got to see the positive outcomes of feeling too much when a character channeled that energy properly. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was a proper spectacle, and I finally understood how grand it was because in this case, the spectacle was personal growth.
With a few exceptions (obligatory Hamilton reference here), before Crazy Ex-Girlfriend I only enjoyed parts of musicals: good wall of sound here, great choreography there, etc. But after, I had learned just enough of the language to begin to appreciate the whole. It was like cracking a secret code or understanding a subtweet without having to text your entire group chat about it. And while I love the show for a million different reasons -- the frank discussion of mental health treatment for example -- for me, the biggest one is that it opened up an entire medium.
There will still be shows I'll always hate, shows I'll never get -- seriously, can someone explain to me how Cats became a thing? -- and I definitely can't keep up with stan Twitter. But thanks to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I'm also not the person hiding in the back of Marie's Crisis during a birthday party anymore. That might seem like a small thing next everything else the show has done, but for me, it was truly a gift.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is now streaming on Netflix and The CW app.