100 FAVORITE SHOWTUNES: PART IV - THE 100th BLOG!!!!
Dear Patient and Faithful Readers:
This entry marks my 100th blog and the conclusion of my four-part series “100 Favorite Showtunes”. It was an interesting and daunting exercise to write down my 100 favorite songs from musical theatre and to hold myself to the challenge of explaining why I loved them so much. I revealed a lot to myself as to what I am attracted to in musicals. It was eye-opening to realize that there are whole scores of musicals that I would rank in my Top Ten that didn’t have a song show up in my Top 100.
I appreciate all the feedback I received from my readers, the debates we had over inclusions and exclusions, and also hearing what your favorite showtunes are. This is what I love about musical theatre: the individual experience it provides each audience member, and the way each moment of a musical can affect each of us differently. This completely proves my theory that we, each audience member, bring something to the table in the creation of a musical. How we ingest a song, interpret it, and the part of our psyche it touches, are all a part of HOW the musical works (or doesn’t).
Well – without further ado, here are my final 25 Favorite Showtunes for your inspection and your…approval?
76 - “Now You Know” from Merrily We Roll Along
Have you ever found yourself down in the dumps, standing at a crossroads, not knowing which way to turn? Have you ever had that friend who picked you up, dusted you off, and slapped your fool face into reality? “Now You Know” from Merrily We Roll Along is the song version of that slap! When Frank’s wife divorces him, he is caught in frozen mode. His dear friend Mary reminds him that disappointment is what life is all about. She also points out that “the killer is, now you grow”. I find myself singing this song every time I’m wallowing in self-pity or life hasn’t gone the way I planned. There is some sage advice mixed into its blunt sarcasm.
77 - “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd
I think what I appreciate most about this Stephen Sondheim song is its irony. Lyrically, it sounds almost comforting, but its placement in the show is far from it. Its music is ominously spooky. A boy is pouring his heart out to a woman he looks to as a mother, vowing to protect her from a murderous barber, even as she is plotting the boy’s death in an effort to keep him from learning too much about her own complicity in murder and cannibalism. It’s such a tense moment, but also sweeping and beautiful. I have to admire its complexity and how it just frightens me a little.
78 - “Good Morning, Good Day” from She Loves Me
A good opening number sucks you into a show. A great opening numbers immediately connects you to the characters. One of my favorite openers is “Good Morning, Good Day” from She Loves Me. Bock and Harnick are particularly capable of introducing characters quickly and establishing their personalities. Hell, they introduce an entire town in Fiddler on the Roof. For me, though, it’s the charming way they introduce the employees of a Hungarian parfumerie, which wins me every time. She Loves Me is an intimate musical and the song remains true to that form, but it is sprightly, melodic and feels like a big number when it is all done.
79 - “The Good Old Days” from Damn Yankees
Loving a song can come from selfish places, and “The Good Old Days” from Damn Yankees is my selfish song. I played the sinister Mr. Applegate in a production of Damn Yankees back in 1996, and no character actor (including myself) can resist the joy of the groan-inducing puns and macabre humor that make up what is essentially a vaudeville routine for Satan. Richard Adler and Jerry Ross devised some great melodies for Damn Yankees, and they certainly showed their capability for wit in songs like this one. It is too bad that Ross died six months after Damn Yankees opened at the tender age of 29. Imagine, with The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees in their pocket, what this duo could have gone on to create.
80 - “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story
Okay…okay…I’m that guy…the one who hates West Side Story. I cannot put my finger on why, but I have a hard time relating to it all. The music leaves me cold, save one number that I feel is an electric thrill every time I hear it performed. “Something’s Coming”, for me, promises such exciting things and it really is the perfect song to set the stage for the awful things to come. Leonard Bernstein’s music soars in ways that none of his other songs do (in any musical), and Sondheim’s lyrics are full of youthful anticipation. I may not love West Side Story…but I can admit that this one song makes me want to.
81 - “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from Guys and Dolls
It’s hard not to have affection for this show-stopping, eleven o’clock number from Guys and Dolls. It is, by example, the definition of both a “showstopper” and an “eleven-o’clock number”, the finest example in all of musical theatre. I love when a supporting character who has been on the periphery of the story gets to step into the spotlight and steal the show for a few minutes. Frank Loesser was particularly adept at writing these types of songs. My first role stepping out of the chorus into a supporting part was as Nicely-Nicely Johnson in 10th Grade. Imagine how I felt when I got my first standing ovation singing this song? Of course it holds a special place in my ego…I mean, heart.
82 - “How Can Love Survive?” from The Sound of Music
I admire the audacity of this Rodgers and Hammerstein song from The Sound of Music. I think I like its presence because it keeps the musical from getting too sticky-sweet, providing a much-needed cynicism to balance out the cuteness and relentless optimism. Elsa Schrader, a wealthy aristocrat engaged to Captain Von Trapp, reasons that their romance is doomed because they are both too rich to suffer like lovers in love stories. There is a coldness and practicality in her way of thinking, married to her apathy about Austria’s invasion by the Third Reich, which gives the stage production of The Sound of Music an edge that is sorely missing in the film adaptation.
83 - “Listen to the Beat” from Memphis
Not many of the songs from the David Bryan/Joe DiPietro score for Memphis actually stick with me. I find most of the score to be middle of the line, serviceable, but never inspiring or uniquely character driven. The musical limps along until it eventually explodes with one infectious, truly inspiring song “Listen to the Beat” at the show’s climax. Like another song on this list “You Can't Stop the Beat” from Hairspray, the song is about taking stand, embracing individuality, and moving to the beat of your own distinct drummer. Even if the lyrics are somewhat trite and repetitive, this is a song I cannot get out of my head and that I listen to frequently. I like its spunk; I live its message.
84 - “A Busy Night at Lorraine’s” from Nick & Nora
Nick & Nora was a flop, no two ways about it. It’s a shame, though, because I feel like there is a lot of great material in the Charles Strouse/Richard Maltby Jr. score. My favorite song is a second-act set piece where the two titular detectives run through possible scenarios to figure out the murderer of Hollywood climber Lorraine Bixby. As they run investigate each possibility, the poor corpse must keep rising up and, through pratfall after pratfall, die again. “A Busy Night at Lorraine’s” is full of humor, intrigue, and some terrifically melodic motifs, especially a section surrounding a suspect wearing “an overcoat with a velvet collar and a Homburg hat.” Check this out and see if you don’t find yourself singing snatches of it as you go about your daily business. It's a killer!
85 - “The Party’s Over” from Bells Are Ringing
Bells Are Ringing has such a lovely score. It’s a shame that it is tethered to a musical that most people look at as dated and which has a plot that is only marginally interesting. Within the confines of this musical comedy is an elegant, heartfelt score courtesy of Jule Styne (music) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics). Styne can be brazen (Funny Girl), bold (Gypsy) and even whimsical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), but in Bells Are Ringing, his music is full of downright honest human emotion, especially in the heart-wrenching “The Party’s Over” which aches and throbs with each note. We have all come to that moment in our life when we realize that it’s time to go home (literally and metaphorically). This song captures that feeling of regret, and Comden and Green’s lyrics are a perfect blend of humor and melancholy.
86 - “No More” from Into the Woods
If you really want to get me started about the film version of Into the Woods and the egregious mistakes that were made, the excising of “No More” from the score will top my list of rantings and ravings. This song, sung by the Baker with the ghost of his absentee father, sums up everything about parental responsibility: the legacies we pass along, the need to forgive and let go, the opportunities we have with our own children to put a stop to the toxicity we’ve been bequeathed. I first encountered Into the Woods when I was 15 and my parents were going through a hateful, but much-needed, divorce. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics in both this song and “No One Is Alone” stick with me for their sage wisdom and for opening my eyes to forgiveness. There is a growing up that happens when we see our parents as human beings and that is what “No More” did for me. It took away some of the pain and replaced it with empathy.
87 - “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead” from The Mystery of Edwin Drood
I love anything that is overtly British in tone and flavor, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood drips with Dickensian charm. The mystery therein is fun and the music, divinely composed by Rupert Holmes and laced with music hall wit, confidently establishes the mood, time and place. The big, second-act opener (and also showstopper) “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead” is pure fun, a little sassy, and overflowing with melody. All of the clues in the peculiar disappearance of the title character have been laid out, the audience has voted to decide who they believe the culprit is, and in this song, the audience is welcomed back from intermission where they are taught to make the most out of life’s opportunities. It is silly nonsense, but you cannot help but kick your heels up and want to dance this ditty with the chorus line of suspects.
88 -“Four Jews in a Room Bitching” from Falsettos
No, it’s not the naughty word in the title that makes me love this William Finn song, but the fact that this opening number perfectly sets the stage for the neurosis and angst to follow. Frantically paced, overloaded with kvetching and whining, the song establishes Marvin, a gay man who leaves his wife and kid for another man. Set in a psychiatrist’s office (the doctor who will eventually marry Marvin’s Wife, mind you), this quartet (Marvin, lover, son, and psychiatrist) drags the audience into the complicated psyche of Marvin and the people who influence his often selfish decisions. It’s one of those openings that grabs you, shakes you, and reminds you that musical theatre can be edgy, funny, abstract, and brutally honest. And…I do like the naughty word…
89 - “Journey On” from Ragtime
I love layered storytelling, especially within the confines of a song. Ahrens and Flaherty achieve it perfectly in many of their musicals, but “Journey On” from Ragtime is their most arresting effort. Three people, each about to embark on a life-changing journey, sing separately and then come together in harmony. Each has questions, concerns, and unfulfilled dreams that underscore their reticence, and their hopes. Little do they know how their journeys will change them, but they all sing into the darkness of the dawn with verve. It is a majestic moment, and one I will always distinctly remember from the original Broadway production.
90 - “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George
Another song from Stephen Sondheim brimming with wisdom is “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George. Anyone who has pursued an artistic dream (or for that matter, an impossible dream) will be deeply affected by the words of the spectral model Dot as she gives advice to her great grandson who is feeling emotionally and artistically stalled. “Stop worrying if your vision is new. Let others make that decision, they usually do.” Don’t be held back by others and their opinions. Every artist must overcome this challenge of the public opinion. She also reminds him “I chose and my world was shaken. So what? The choice may have been mistaken, but the choosing was not. You have to move on.” It’s never wrong to move forward. A bad choice leads us to new and life-changing lessons just as much as a good one can. It’s staying static where we don’t grow. Keep pushing forward.
91 - “Big-Ass Rock” from The Full Monty
Nothing says friendship like a group of buddies who are prepared to murder you so you can avoid committing suicide. It’s slightly macabre, but David Yazbek finds a tenderness intertwined with machismo in “Big Ass Rock”. Maybe it’s a bit off-color or in bad taste, but I still connect to its sentiment. I like how is captures the straight, male approach to life.
92 - “This Is the Moment” from Jekyll and Hyde
I bet that many of my friends will be surprised to find this title on my list, mostly because of how vehemently I dislike the musical Jekyll and Hyde (or is it Frank Wildhorn musicals in general?). That being said, I really do enjoy “This Is the Moment.” There is such a build and intensity in the number as it changes keys and climbs into the stratosphere. It is perfectly placed within the musical and it is just fun to sing. It’s also one of those songs that is generic enough that it can be used at sporting events, as figure skating music, or as an anthem for anyone trying something new. Everyone is entitled to love one or two songs like this. This one is mine.
93 - “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods
Another song from Into the Woods. I cannot even begin to tell you how much this musical resonates with me, and as I grow older, I continue to find pearls of wisdom tucked away in both Stephen Sondheim’s score and James Lapine’s clever book. As a teacher (something else I do besides writing), I have always found “Children Will Listen” to have a powerful message. “Careful the things you say, children will listen” is a very real concept for those who impart knowledge and pass it along to new generations. You never want to be the person who is irresponsible in that duty. You never want to cast a spell that carries beyond what you can see, or worse, and have it turn against you (to paraphrase Sondheim). Our duty as parents, teachers, mentors and friends must be sacred. The student AND the teacher in me responds to this song, having learned from great mentors and having wanted to be an effective one myself.
94 - “The Cell-Block Tango” from Chicago
It’s wicked. It’s Kander and Ebb. What more can you want? Despite being very witty on an adult level, my true love for this song was born when I was about ten-years-old. I checked the record album of Chicago out of the library and went home, played it, and immediately wanted to be Velma Kelly “#17 – the Spread Eagle!” I like to think back at my ten-year-old self and laugh at how I must have looked, dancing around the house, pretending to be Chita Rivera, trying to imitate her smoky voice saying “Cicero.” What my parents must have thought. As I grew older, the more I appreciated the song as I began to grasp the innuendo and salacious fun that was intended.
95 - “Some People” from Gypsy
I had to put something from Gypsy on this list, though I tend to like Gypsy as an overall score more than I like the individual songs. If I had to pick one, though, “Some People”, Mama Rose’s big “I am” number is probably my favorite. Never before the musical Gypsy has a character so boldly declared her intentions and did it as such an indelible force. Her pushiness almost makes our catalyst unlikeable, which is why the song works. We get caught up in the whirlwind that is Rose, and by hook or by crook, she is taking us on this amazing ride with or without our consent. Jule Styne’s music is unyielding and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are a diatribe against the ho-hum human race. How can you not feel the power of this song?
96 - “Evelina” from Bloomer Girl
Someone please revive Bloomer Girl! The Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg score is enchanting, even as it is navigating and embracing controversial topics such as women’s rights and racism. Amid all of its politically charged songs, there is one gentle little love song called “Evelina” which has always held a special place in my heart, especially the version recorded by Bing Crosby. What is also distinctly wonderful about this romantic ditty is the humor in Harburg’s lyric such as “Evelina, won’t ya pay a little mind to me soon? Wake up! Wake up! The earth is fair, the fruit is fine. But what’s the use of smellin’ winter watermelon, clingin’ to another fella’s vine?” Witty, that Harburg.
97 - “Another Hundred People” from Company
My love affair with New York City comes to life every time I hear this Stephen Sondheim song from Company. Even though it paints the city as an overwhelming place of crime, pollution and overcrowding, I cannot help but feel that “Another Hundred People” is also celebrating it. Even more thrilling for me are the orchestrations that go along with this song, the sounds of the city coming to life through the musical instruments and relentless tempos. You can almost hear the cars beeping, the trains zooming, and the people pushing each other. No other song has ever captured NYC (my favorite place in the world) for me the way this song does.
98 - “Moonshine Lullaby” from Annie Get Your Gun
I realized, as I was making my list, that there weren’t very many Irving Berlin songs in my Top 100, which is quite ludicrous because I LOVE Irving Berlin music. Then I started realizing that most of his songs that I loved came from movie musicals or old Broadway revues, so I hadn’t really attached them in my mind to Broadway. I don’t think there is a song I hate in Annie Get Your Gun, and I could have easily listed the entire score here. For matters of economy, I decided to go with my personal favorite which is “Moonshine Lullaby”, especially when it is sung by Bernadette Peters. The country flavor, as well as the folksy lyrics, set the ambience as Annie Oakley sings her siblings to sleep as they roll down the railroad track in a sleeping car. It’s a perfect little moment in a show that is mostly big and raucous.
99 - “Here’s to Your Illusions” from Flahooley
I had to get one more E.Y. Harburg special in before I finished my list. Harburg loved to write love song lyrics that were about artifice. Love was never just love, it required some outside force like magic or illusion to happen. He also never simply declared love. Think about his songs “Old Devil Moon”, “it’s Only a Paper Moon” or “If This isn’t Love” and you will realize what I mean. The best of all of these is “Here’s to Your Illusions” from Flahooley. Let Barbara Cook lull you in with this enchanting ditty.
100 - “Sing Happy” from Flora, the Red Menace
When I constructed this Top 100 list, I put it in no particular order (not really a countdown). “How Are Things In Glocca Morra” is my favorite showtune of all time, so it did, indeed, start my list. Everything else just kind of spilled out randomly. I am, however, rather glad that I saved “Sing Happy” as the final song to write about, because this Kander and Ebb gem is exactly where a list of favorite showtunes should end: with a high-spirited, celebration of why we sing and how the happy songs bring us to life. This song never fails to perk me up when I’m feeling down, because what Liza Minnelli is insisting herein is a recipe for not only my good mood, but the world’s. This is why I love a show tune.