The previous cast tour of 'The Commitments'Twitter/WhatsOnStage

I first became enamoured with musicals when I was 13 years old. I was in London's Palace Theatre in November 2013. As a birthday present, I’d been given tickets to see The Commitments, an adaptation of the book and film of the same name. I’d begged for tickets as the lead actor in the show, Killian Donnelly, had been in the 2012 film version of Les Misérables, which I’d become mildly obsessed with. Other than this, I knew nothing about the show. Yet, there and then, I fell head over heels in love with it.

Ella meeting Killian Donnelly for the first timeElla Catherall

At its heart, The Commitments is a very light show about a group of Irish people who decide to form a soul band and the various ways in which they clash as discordant personalities. The reason why I became as obsessed as I did with this particular show is beyond me, but the fact remains that I saw it five times in nine months, during which time, the show was my life. I watched every TV performance the cast did, I got Twitter just to follow the cast, I even made my own Commitments-themed T-shirt.  The fan community surrounding the show was not massive (there were maybe about 25 of us, at its peak) so we all knew each other. I’d been into other musicals before this but  here I had reached a whole new level of infatuation.

I was heartbroken when the show cast-changed in September , 10 months after I first saw it. I was desperate to find another show that made me feel as good as Commitments did - my immediate rebound was Jersey Boys, followed by The Book of Mormon and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Nothing quite matched how The Commitments had made me feel but it was close. Getting Spotify in my final year of high school was revolutionary as suddenly the number of musicals I could listen to guilt-free (I had previously been dependent on the ones illegally uploaded to YouTube) increased massively. Spotify introduced me to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the first soundtrack to make me feel the way that The Commitments did.  In conjunction with other soundtracks, it got me through A-level revision.

I’d been into other musicals before this but  here I had reached a whole new level of infatuation

The reason why musicals make me feel so good is that they are an amazing form of escapism. When I’m listening to a musical, it feels like there’s some strange barrier between me and the thing I’m stressing about. It’s like I’m telling someone my problems, and my worries are simultaneously being sequestered away somewhere else. They’re an outlet for me that I can use to deal with how I’m feeling but simultaneously, I can focus on the lyrics and the story, and get lost in it. I feel safe. It is very difficult to describe how I feel when I’m listening to a musical without anthropomorphising the musicals themselves but, to quote Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, ‘it’s like I’ve got a friend in the room’.

Michaelmas and Lent of my first year weren’t as stressful as I was expecting so I stopped needing musicals as much. I still enjoyed listening to them while walking to and from lectures and keeping up to date with what was happening, but I got out of the habit of working while listening to soundtracks. This was probably a factor in why I got as stressed in Easter term as I did. I’d gotten out of practice when it came to working to music with lyrics and so I couldn’t use the ‘Shield of Musicals' that I’d been able to use during A level revision. I think this may have been a contributing factor to the fact that I was getting 3-4 hours of sleep a night and losing a lot of weight.

When I’m listening to a musical, it feels like there’s some strange barrier between me and the thing I’m stressing about

As I probably should have expected, my results were not as great as I had wanted them to be, which caused me to have a complete loss of self-worth and identity.There was a point where I was lying on my bed, crying about how much I just wanted The Commitments back so that I could feel happy again.

A couple of weeks after results day, I was due to be starting a 9 week lab placement, but I was not in a good place mentally. Musicals such as Beetlejuice, Rocketman and Hadestown allowed me to be a functioning human being during that time. I had my first break-up halfway through the lab placement. The evening after the break-up, I watched the Hedwig movie for the first time. Later on, I am slightly ashamed to admit that the musical that got me through the remainder of the lab placement was The Cher Show.


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I’d made it through summer. I still wasn’t feeling amazing by any means but I was just about emotionally ready to start the new term. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as before of letting the shield slip. A couple of weeks before I started back, it got announced that The Commitments was going back out on tour. Whether I’m going to get to see it or not is a bit up in the air right now but at that moment, when I saw it was coming back, I finally felt like everything was maybe going to be okay.

It is because of musicals that I’m able to get through Cambridge. They help me feel less alone and less stressed and are my single coping mechanism. They have also helped me through many, many late night essay writing sessions, although admittedly, a number of these have resulted from me falling down the Commitments YouTube rabbit hole. In short, musicals have shaped me, for the better.

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