100 Favorite Showtunes: Part II
For my last entry I featured the first twenty-five of my favorite showtunes celebrating my 100th blog entry which is just around the corner. Here is the continuation of that piece, featuring my NEXT 25 entries.
26. “A Hymn to Him” from My Fair Lady
The song is misogynistic, arrogant, full of bravado, and it is totally offensive. That alone peaks my interest, because in the case of Professor Henry Higgins, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner gets it exactly right. The character is misogynistic, arrogant, full of bravado, and totally offensive. It’s a wickedly insightful patter song and the wordplay is some of Lerner’s sharpest. It’s the frantic tempo of Frederick Loewe’s music in contrast with Lerner’s confident lyrics that keeps this song from making Higgins sound like he fully embraces his own priggish ideas about women. That rapid-fire melody makes Higgins look like a stammering fool, highlighting the fact that he is totally lost without the women he bemoans. The song is a study in how melody, orchestrations, and lyrics can each have their own agenda, but come together in counterpoint to an entirely different effect.
27. “Old Friend” from I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road
The very next thing I want you to do in life is to get yourself a copy of the album Sibling Revelry and listen to Ann Hampton Callaway’s rendition of this Gretchen Cryer – Nancy Ford song mashed up with the seminal classic “My Buddy.” Tell me if you don’t become completely lost in thought, imagining the times you have spent with your very best friend, missing them with an aching void in your heart. The lyrics “We tell each other what we’ve been through. How love is rare and life is strange, nothing lasts and people change…” is such a breathtaking moment of sheer musical theatre perfection. So heartfelt. So sincere.
28. “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company
The late, great Elaine Stritch put it best when she referred to this song as a “three-act play.” Stephen Sondheim builds his own little self-contained musical in in the riveting and explosive “The Ladies Who Lunch.” The first act of the song is a caustic dismissal of women who waste their lives on trivial pursuits in an effort to have purpose. The second act is a judgmental finger pointed at these women as they turn toward alcohol and fall-victim to depression for their vapid existences. The final act is accompanied by the primal scream of recognition as the singer confesses that she is one of these “fools” and “dinosaurs” that she mocks. Only Sondheim could wend his way through these stages, turning the judge into the defendant who now must ask for clemency for herself.
29. “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures
This song intrigues me because I feel it is such a deft commentary on perspective, history, and how history is a matter of perspective. One event is seen from the angles of past and present, old and young, naïve and wise, but also from the point of view of sight without sound and vice-versa. History, as it is recorded, is a conglomeration of many different stories and perspectives, synthesized by time to be efficient, cleaned-up storytelling. The song also conveys the idea that the simplest action has an effect that can carry far and wide “It’s the ripple, not the sea, not the building but the beam”. The smallest impetus may have far reaching consequences, but it’s only one sliver of the overall story. Who knew so much could be said about one little moment in Japanese history? Even by Sondheim standards, this song is complex.
30. “Walk Him Up the Stairs” from Purlie
Not enough people know Purlie and that is a shame. The music is arresting, powerful, vibrant and also unique. Composer Gary Geld and lyricist Peter Udell found a sound for Purlie that was equal parts folk, Broadway, gospel, pop, and bluegrass. Even though it so eclectic in style, it really all sounds cut from the same cloth. The opening number “Walk Him Up the Stairs”, sung at a funeral, starts out like a southern Baptist-style hymn and then morphs into this explosion of melody, faith, kinetic energy, and divine intervention that, for me, makes it the most electric opening number to ever launch an evening of musical theatre. Who knew a funeral could be so much fun.
31. “Simon and the Zealots” from Jesus Christ Superstar
Once again, I am not the biggest fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, but this one song from Jesus Christ Superstar becomes an earworm for me every time that I hear it performed. Musically, I think it captures the enthusiasm, energy, and fanaticism of the Zealots as they celebrate Christ in a hypnotic ecstasy. What Webber has always done well is to create catchy musical phrases that he repeats, over and over, sometimes to great effect and sometimes to the point of monotony. In “Simon and the Zealots” the musical phrase that accompanies the lyric “You’ll have the power and the glory, forever and ever and ever”, serves to heighten the situation. These are people who are so caught up in Christ that they will sing his praises, again and again. When it work, it works.
32. “Little Girls” from Annie
You may adore Annie, or you may find it to be a chirpy little enema of sunshine and unicorns like I do. Pro or con on the musical, I don’t think anyone can resist Miss Hannigan’s diatribe against her wards, the scathing indictment of sugar and spice and everything nice that is called “Little Girls.” Composer Charles Strouse chooses a bluesy style for this darkly comic number sung by the orphanage matron who celebrates the annihilation of the bratty little kids who torture and torment her all day. Okay…okay…she is kind of the villain, but lyricist Martin Charnin makes being mean such delicious fun. “Someday I’ll step on their freckles. Some night I’ll straighten their curls.” Oh, how I admire that kind of dedication.
33. “They Call the Wind Maria” from Paint Your Wagon
Nobody is exactly sitting on the edge of their chair waiting for a Broadway revival of the Lerner and Loewe musical Paint Your Wagon. The story of miners during the California Gold Rush hasn’t aged well, and, truthfully, was never all that exciting to begin with. The score, on the other hand, is really quite beautiful, with the standout being the oft-recorded “They Call the Wind Maria.” Loewe finds a wondrous, spooky melody that takes on the unpredictable personality of its titular element in question, and Lerner uses personification effectively to give “Maria” a personality and to create a love story between the singer and her powerful gusts.
34. “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from Pal Joey
“I’m vexed again, perplexed again. Thank God I can be oversexed again.” There is something to be said for the character development and refreshing honesty that comes from a post-coital monologue, but “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” manages it with a rare pointed sophistication and an unapologetic candor. Pal Joey features composing team Rodgers and Hart at their very best, and also at their most mature. Rodgers conjures lush, edgy (and sometimes sexy) melodies while Hart, true to the John O’Hara short stories that Pal Joey is based upon, manages to maintain his trademark wit and polish while also applying a gritty, tough veneer to his character development through lyrics.
35. “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight” from Camelot
I think I love this Lerner and Loewe song because of how it surprised me. When I first sat down to listen to Camelot (circa 1988), I expected it to be about a regal king, knightly legends and quite serious in tone. My resulting affection for the song stemmed from the old adage “Don’t judge a cast album by its cover.” Despite its austere design, I was quite delighted to find the Camelot therein full of humor and whimsy (at least in the first half, anyway). “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight” revealed a King Arthur who was flawed, nervous, twitchy and funny. He was instantly human and my preconceived notions about the character and the show were instantly remedied. The musical itself may be a hot mess: overly long, convoluted of tone, and depressing as all hell, but the music is so exquisite, it makes you wish it were married to a better overall product.
36. “Stars” from Les Miserables
Les Miserables has become such a cultural phenomenon that I think it sometimes is taken for granted. You have to consider the impact it has had on so many, as well as recognize the many people who were indoctrinated into the wonderful world of Broadway by this epic, heart wrenching piece. With all of the emotional outpourings of Fantine, Eponine, Cosette, and Valjean, it is the controlled, darkly passionate song sung by the musical’s misunderstood villain Javert that speaks to me. “Stars” reflects and relates his moral compass, his Old Testament code of ethics by which he executes his job, both fanatically and with zealous conviction. He’s not just an all-purpose meanie in constant pursuit, but rather, he is motivated by something akin to medieval Christian values. We may not like him, but “Stars” helps us understand him, and this comprehension makes his imminent suicide a devastating one rather than a sigh of relief.
37. “The Color Purple” from The Color Purple
I couldn’t wait for the musical The Color Purple to open on Broadway, even before anyone was even thinking about writing one. There is something inherently musical about this story of a battered woman named Celie and her struggle to find her voice and claim her dignity that a musical was an inevitability. The title comes from a line in the book where it is suggested that it “pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and you don’t notice it.” The song is an anthem that celebrates all of the little things in life that we might take for granted, but that are perhaps the most important things when you estimate their value in making us happy. As a person who feels like he has, more often than not, had to overcome compromised self-esteem, find my voice and claim my dignity, this song holds deep personal meaning for me as a reminder that we are all beautiful.
38. “At the Grand Hotel/Table with a View” from Grand Hotel
Never…and I mean NEVER have I witnessed a more artful and thoroughly exquisite musical than Grand Hotel (I keep hoping for a Susan Stroman directed and choreographed revival). It was a seamless evening of dance, music, intrigue and unforgettable performances. The greatest of these was Michael Jeter playing the dying bookkeeper “Otto Kringelien” who has checked into the Grand Hotel: Berlin for a chance to experience the high life before he dies. “At the Grand Hotel/Table with a View” splices together a new song by Maury Yeston with an old song by George Forrest and Robert Wright from an earlier inception of the musical called At the Grand. The number has a visceral and emotional effect on me as this poor, dying man enters the doors of this ornate palace and is so overcome with awe that you cannot help but think that he has already died and gone to heaven. Jeter’s performance of the song, especially, radiates so much joy that you find yourself checking in with him.
39. “Lily’s Eyes” from The Secret Garden
I will never forgive how coldly and arbitrarily critics treated the musical The Secret Garden when it first opened on Broadway in 1991 (it was considered a dark horse at the Tony Awards). I found the musical to be one of the most emotionally complex and sweepingly beautiful to grace Broadway in the 1990s and it remains one of my favorite scores (Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman) of all time. Within this lush and atmospheric music, one song stood out above all others. The haunting “Lily’s Eyes” sung by two brothers who are in constant mourning for the loss of the beautiful, young Lily, for whom they both shared a deep affection. The song seethes with palpable ache and excruciating loss. When the two brothers come together on the extended final note of the song, there is an electricity generated that burrows into the listener. It helped that it was Mandy Patinkin and Robert Westenberg singing, the perfect combination of music, plot and performer.
40. “This Time of the Year” from Finian’s Rainbow
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Finian’s Rainbow is my favorite musical of all time. There isn’t a clunker in the entire score, and the plot is so adventurous, whimsical and brazen for its time. Lyricist E.Y. Harburg was attracted to themes of equality that some considered verging on communism. Good for him. He stirred the pot long before anyone else even thought about lifting the spoon. The opening song of Finian’s Rainbow “This Time of the Year” is equal parts a thumbing of the nose at racism, hypocrisy, and corrupt politics, serving as a protest by a cooperative of black and white tobacco croppers who are fighting to keep their land. It’s such a zestful number, a great opening for any musical, but especially wonderful in how it uses humorous satire and allusions to nature to great effect.
41. “Grant Avenue” from Flower Drum Song
Who doesn’t at least love the score of Flower Drum Song? Some might say the musical is dated (I prefer think it is of another time), but the music is catchy and fun, an excellent example of how Rodgers and Hammerstein could subscribe to the pure musical comedy style. My favorite has always been “Grant Avenue” sung by the nightclub singer Linda Low as part of her act. It does nothing to further the plot, but it is bold and brassy, full of verve, and is perhaps most effective at exhibiting a character who is the farthest away from the traditional Chinese values that the musical explores.
42. “The Babylove Miracle Show” from The Grass Harp
Ever since critic-historian-enthusiast Peter Filichia introduced me to the musical The Grass Harp, I have been grateful to have this bucolic, intimate score as a part of my life. Maybe it is a bit sentimental, and maybe the plot doesn’t really go anywhere, but the music is just so special. With music by Claibe Richardson and book and lyrics by Kenward Elmslie, The Grass Harp is based on a novella by Truman Capote, set in a small southern town, and features a band of misfits who decide to leave conventional life behind and start life anew in a treehouse in the forest. Among these misfits is Babylove, a tent revivalist preacher with a penchant for getting knocked-up. “The Babylove Miracle Show” is an extensive musical set-piece, a lively, gospel infused concoction where she performs her traveling, evangelical sermon while explaining how she ended up with “a harvest of blue-eyed children.” The musical sequence is twelve-minutes long, but it is exciting musical theatre and every second will make you rapturous (pun intended) with joy.
43. “The Bus from Amarillo” from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Why we haven’t had a Broadway revival of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas since the original surprises me. Carol Hall wrote a saucy score, but also a score of tenderness, fragility, and introspection. Whorehouse proprietress Miss Mona recalls how she ended up in the prostitution business in the country-flavored character song “The Bus from Amarillo.” I love how this number captures both her spirit of adventure and recalls an urgency to her escape, but it also has an undertone of reticence, that pit in your stomach that comes when you are starting over. It’s a feeling we can all connect with. I love when a song can convey a universal experience, but do so with such individual detail.
44. “Springtime Cometh” from Flahooley
This song features my pal E.Y. Harburg at work in the world of fantasy again. Flahooley finds him at his most outrageous, and perhaps shows him trying to overstuff a musical with too many controversial themes. This doesn’t, however, change the fact that Harburg created some wonderful lyrics to go with Sammy Fain’s magical score. Harburg loved to play with arch rhymes as can be witnessed in the song “Something Sort of Grandish” from Finian’s Rainbow. His play with words and imposing rhyme where it doesn’t belong is all a part of his embrace of the unconventional. “Springtime Cometh” sung by a genie recently sprung from his bottle, is a jaunty little ditty about the libidinous tendencies exacerbated in young lovers by the approach of spring. “Gaily skippeth…nylon rippeth…zipper zippeth” is an example Harburg at his cheekiest. I’m a sucker for an irreverent communist with an attraction to rainbows. Who isn’t?
45. “Bosom Buddies” from Mame
Jerry Herman is capable of exuberant joy and boundless optimism, there is no doubt about that. I find him more compelling, however, when he shows us his more cynical, biting side. As a musician, he conjures the lively and the memorable. He is, however, somewhat underestimated as a lyricist. He is quite capable of sarcastic, witty wordplay, never more acidic than in “Bosom Buddies” from Mame. Anyone who has an HONEST best friend, who knows all of your secrets and who knows where all of the bodies are buried, can relate to this song about devotion and rivalry. Two best friends lovingly insult each other while bitchily devouring the other, each trying to come across as the better person. Robbie Rozelle, I dedicate this one to you.
46. “Gooch’s Song” from Mame
Speaking of Mame, Jerry Herman works wonders in this hysterical character ballad sung by the dowdy nanny Agnes Gooch after she has been sent off by the title character to go into the world and embrace life. She returns months later, quite pregnant, looking for further instruction. “Gooch’s Song” is, in my estimation, the single greatest, Act II, showstopper for a character actress to break out and steal the show. It’s a mini-play unto itself, brimming with hilarity, dire circumstances, and it sets the musical up for a delightful plot twist to come later. The efficiency with which it accomplishes so much is really quite impressive.
47. “The Old Red Hills of Home” from Parade
Jason Robert Brown is a wizard when it comes to writing music of great majesty. The one that tops them all is “The Old Red Hills of Home” from the tragic musical Parade, based on the true story about a Jewish man named Leo Frank who is unjustly accused and convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl in Marietta, Georgia in the early part of the 20th Century. The song has such power, linking the views of tradition (and prejudice) at end of the Civil War with the then contemporary (1913) ideas (which hadn’t changed much). Still, the song helps us to feel that deep connection southerners had with their land and their traditions, the song is a recurring theme that reaffirms time and place. A very effective piece that just happens to be gloriously resolute.
48. “When You’re Racing with the Clock” from The Pajama Game
That Jerry Ross died so young is such a shame. The team of Adler and Ross would probably have gone on to create a string of musical comedy hits in the vein of their two big successes: The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. Since that was not meant to be, all we have are these two monster hits that are, by today’s standards, a bit dated but still crowd pleasers. I am especially taken with “When You’re Racing with the Clock” from The Pajama Game. It’s a wonderful way to quickly introduce the workers of the Sleep-Tight Pajama Factory and show the time-constraints they are under to meet their quotas. The song is relentless, repetitive, energetic, captures perfectly the life of a factory worker. I admire it so much for what it gives the person who stages it. It is jaunty, rhythmic, and punctuated, perfect to create movement throughout a factory. It always impresses me when a composing team can use music to capture time and place. “When You’re Racing with the Clock” is the one of finest examples of this.
49. “Welcome to the Theatre” from Applause
If ever there was an anthem for the theatre that truly captured how performers feel about it, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ “Welcome to the Theatre” from Applause sums it up best. The song is essentially a list of all of the horrible, trying and frustrating things about theatre, “you’ll work and slave and scratch and bite. You’ll learn to kill with sheer delight. You’ll only come alive at night.” The singer, the aging actress Margo Channing, resolves that, in spite of all of these negatives, “you’ll love it so.” Anyone who is in theatre and has made it their life will tell you that these words are absolutely true. There is a sacrifice for glory, a tradeoff for that ego-driving drug known as “Applause.”
50. “Is Anybody There?” from 1776
John Adams in 1776 is referred to as “obnoxious and disliked” and yet, I find him to be the easiest character in all of musical theatre to relate to. Perhaps I adore him so much because he is all black and white? There is no middle ground with him and he admires people with deep convictions, even if they are at odds with his. He sees the middle ground as a place where nothing happens and purpose gets watered down. In his quest for American Independence, Adams finds himself alone in the congressional chamber, fearing all is lost when the entire south walks out in protest of an anti-slavery clause in the document. He begs for someone, anyone, to understand the future for America that he sees. It is a moment where you hold your breath and hope, for everyone’s sake, that someone will emerge from the shadows and answer “yes.” It really is astounding how 1776, and the song “Is Anybody There?” keeps you guessing up until the final moments, making you believe an outcome we already know happens, might just not.
Keep following over the next week as the rest of my Top 100 unfolds on “The Music That Makes Me Dance.” Be sure to weigh in and tell me how I’m wrong, right, or simply for debate.