100 Favorite Showtunes: Part I
As I approach my 100th blog entry, I thought I would have a celebration of my 100 favorite showtunes and explain why each song sings out to me. Since all 100 in one entry would make for some tedious reading, I will use this as the countdown to my 100th blog. Here are the first 25! Weigh in and share with me some of your favorites.
“How Are Things In Glocca Morra” from Finian’s Rainbow
No other song from the pantheon of musical theatre classics quite gets me like this wistful ditty of nostalgia and reflection. There is something about Burton Lane’s folkish, old-country melody combined with the bucolic imagery of E.Y Harburg’s lyrics that embodies everything perfect about a showtune’s ability to capture a moment and sum up an emotional experience perfectly. What more can we ask for in Finian’s Rainbow than to be whisked lovingly to Ireland, to the mythical land of simple perfection known as “Glocca Morra.” It’s like being transported back to someplace we know from our childhood, a trip back to our own innocence, a world of quiet contemplation and idealism.
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel
Some people like to bash Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics as being hokey and hopeful, on a par with a poem in a Hallmark card. I have never understood this contempt, because I think what Rodgers and Hammerstein did effectively was to get at the heart of what makes us human. Hope is a big part of the human experience and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is the best example of their optimistic approach. This song gets me every time. In a world where we seldom get what we hope for, this is a song about finding the courage and strength to keep pushing forward. In the musical, it comes at a time where summoning strength is the only choice. There is nothing wimpy or overly romantic about the notion of survival. This is Rodgers and Hammerstein and their most brutally honest.
“Where You Are” from Kiss of the Spider Woman
Kander and Ebb were so amazing at conjuring songs that use fantasy as an escape from reality. Bar none, their best song in this vein is “Where You Are” from Kiss of the Spider Woman. A gay man, trapped in a prison cell, surrounded by torture uses his memories of the cinema to help his mind escape the confines of his dreary existence. Suddenly, his cell comes to life with his favorite movie starlet singing a song about escapism. We all know the harshness of reality, and “Where You Are” is a celebration of the denial that helps us see our way through the worst of times.
“Moments in the Woods” from Into the Woods
I know you are all reading this and saying, “Of all Stephen Sondheim songs, why would this be your favorite?” It’s a fair question, but I will tell you why. The Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods has always been a compelling character to me, and I think that Joanna Gleason’s portrayal in the original is a big part of my attraction to the song and character. However, the song is so complex, and every time I listen to it, I hear a lyric in a different way or a new thought arises in my head about how life is about choices. To me, this song reminds me of the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken”, how we always have to choose a path and we can’t take both. There is a bitter pang of regret we carry for each missed opportunity or slighted path. “Moments in the Woods” is the internal monologue we all have about missed opportunity, and that brief imagining of what it would be like to have our cake and eat it, too.
“The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music
Maybe I just enjoy Stephen Sondheim songs that are sung by characters who just got laid? My other big favorite is the antithesis of “Moments in the Woods”, “The Miller’s Son” sung by a ladies maid who values options over choices and who will frolic with and screw anyone who comes along. She proclaims “There’s a lot I’ll have missed but I’ll not have been dead when I die.” I think different people play by different rules, and The Baker’s Wife has a moral compass and the maid Petra does not. “The Miller’s Son” is an earthy, honest monologue about how responsibility has its time and place, but not at the expense of life’s pleasures.
“All that Jazz” from Chicago
Laugh if you want to, but at ten-years-old I found the original cast recording of Chicago on LP at my local library. I checked it out and it took almost two weeks before I got past the first song “All that Jazz.” The song was intoxicating, and even at my tender age, I knew there was something slightly saucy and inappropriate about the smoky number that made me feel like a big deal because I was singing it. I had no ideas what half the references meant, and it didn’t matter. It was my introduction to a grittier type of showtune outside of the world of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe that I had grown to love. The boozy seediness of “All that Jazz”, not to mention Chita Rivera’s electric performance of it, that opened the door for an emotional maturation for me and my musical theatre tastes.
“Morning Glow” from Pippin
Anyone who saw the recent Broadway revival of Pippin or has listened to its haunting recording knows why this song ranks so high on my favorites list. The majesty and harmony that come together in this song are just exquisite. I challenge you to name a number in any musical that has quite the grandeur of “Morning Glow.” Truth be told, though, I directed a production of Pippin about ten-years ago, and I found the number just as breathtaking then. There is something about our connection with the title character and the journey we go on with him that lifts us high into the firmament when we hear this song, and its arresting harmonies fuel the pageantry and glory of the moment. Musical theatre rarely gets better than this.
“Everybody Rejoice” from The Wiz
There are a lot of songs to marvel at in The Wiz, as it is truly both a moving and energized score. In fact, it’s the kind of music that makes you feel like you are riding it, a rollercoaster of sublime sound and heat lightening. It is rather surprising, however, that my favorite song in the Charlie Smalls score, was not written by Charlie Smalls. Luther Vandross composed “Everybody Rejoice” the celebratory chorus number that comes after the Wicked Witch Evillene has been melted. No song in musical theatre history has radiated such unadulterated joy. You actually feel the liberation of the slaves and winged monkeys as this song hits its heights. I must admit that, when George W. Bush finally left office and was replaced by Barack Obama, I played this song on “loop” all day! It’s that kind of joy.
“The Heather on the Hill” from Brigadoon
I’m not an enormous fan of the musical Brigadoon, but I sure do love its score in spite of its ponderous book (you can send contrary opinions to the Brigadoon post office and I will read them in 100 years). The music is sweeping and lovely, and I am particularly fond of “The Heather on the Hill” which is a song I find myself singing all the time, but never quite sure if I am getting the lyrics right (I make up my own). Frederick Loewe could write melodies that climb up into the rafters through various key changes, but this song is one of his more subtle efforts and I love it for that. It’s so intimate, like sharing a walk across a Scottish hillside, hand in hand with a sweetheart. Alan Jay Lerner paints some of his prettiest pictures with his wordsmith brush, but keeps it simple, understated and slightly reticent.
“Chanson” from The Baker’s Wife
Who, besides David Merrick, doesn’t love the score to the The Baker’s Wife? The minute I first listened to the original recording, “Chanson” enchanted me with its pastoral imagery and French sensibility. Life is about finding joy in the simple things. It’s about practical, everyday joy and the little surprises that pop up and make life worth living. Stephen Schwartz is one of my favorite composers because his melodies seem so simple, but they burrow themselves into your soul. I had the pleasure of singing “Chanson” at a dear friend’s wedding and it will always remain special to me for that reason, but the song resides forever, as I said, deep within my soul because of its truth and its simplicity.
“Ribbons Down My Back” from Hello, Dolly!
My first blog entry on “The Music That Makes Me Dance” was about this delicate little ditty that is a gentle antithesis to all the bold and brash numbers that populate most of Hello, Dolly! This quiet number, sung by a widowed hat shop proprietress, is a longing daydream to find love and companionship again. “Ribbons Down My Back” is Jerry Herman at his very best, but also at his most subtle and deeply heartfelt.
“Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from The Rink
There is something about Chita Rivera’s edgy voice that has always intrigued me. In its smoky scratch there is a world-weary knowingness that resonates, never to more perfect effect than in the Kander and Ebb musical The Rink. The throbbing rhythm and palpable sarcasm of “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer”, an “I am” song for a woman who has suffered a lot of nonsense over the years, make the song the perfect vehicle for Rivera. What I admire even more about the song is that establishes the character as not particularly pleasant or even likeable person, yet it manages to elicit sympathy for her nonetheless. The lyrics are also terrific with zippy rhymes and wordplay throughout.
“A Parade in Town” from Anyone Can Whistle
This is another example of an unsympathetic character garnering sympathy, despite the character strutting her ego all over the place. I love most of Anyone Can Whistle, because I think it is a brutally honest musical and, Stephen Sondheim, through “A Parade In Town”, paints the self-serving Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper in a way that lets us see her fragility for just a feeling moment. The song always startles me, especially in how it elegantly takes a character that is so unlikeable, but in just a few moments of music, reveals something that makes her entirely human.
“Look What Happened to Mabel” from Mack & Mabel
I have lots of love for Jerry Herman, and “Look What Happened to Mabel” is one of his songs that I hold in the highest regard. It is the ultimate character “I Am” song, combining humor, fragility, sarcasm, and ecstatic joy all into one perfect introduction. The delicatessen-related humor, with references to pickles, corned beef, salami, and BLTs is the perfect way to introduce us to Mabel (“the girl from the deli”) who sees herself on film for the first time. The infectious, relentless melody also helps to keep the song moving through your head.
“With Every Breath I Take” from City of Angels
I don’t think Cy Coleman ever wrote a bad melody. Even at his worst, his music was joyous and energetic. The success of his songs and musicals, however, always seemed to be in the hands of his collaborator. In David Zippel, Coleman found his wittiest counterpart since Dorothy Fields, the duo creating the film noire-inspired City of Angels. The whole score is terrific, and you will see other songs from it pop up in my Top 100, but “With Every Breath I Take” tops them all, not for its wit, but for how the music and lyrics come together in a bluesy torch song that evokes the film genre it hopes to pastiche. You can almost smell the smoke and stale beer and see the darkened corners of a seedy night club when you hear this haunting song.
“High Flying, Adored” from Evita
You won’t find much Andrew Lloyd Webber on my Top-One-Hundred List, not because he hasn’t contributed a great deal to the musical theatre, but because I have a hard time connecting to the music and characters in his shows. Everyone seems to be at an emotional distance that keeps me from caring too much. He was at his best when he was paired with lyricist Tim Rice, and Evita is easily their most varied and textured score. There is a heightened intellectuality of the character of “Che” that compensates for the emotional barrenness that plagues the character development. “High Flying, Adored” I find insightful, poetic, and with just a touch of humor that elevates above all other ALW songs.
“Lot of Livin’ to Do” from Bye, Bye, Birdie
I have made no bones about my deep affection for Bye, Bye, Birdie and how I think this musical classic is one of the most underappreciated pieces in American Musical Theatre. Every song in the Charles Strouse/Lee Adams score is lively, overflowing with energy and humor, and deliciously satirizes its targets of the generation gap and the rock & roll phenomenon. I have always held a special place in my heart for “Lot of Livin’ to Do” for its youthful exuberance, its pulsing promise of adventure, and its opportunity for a chorus of teenagers to sing one great song. My first professional acting job was at the age of 19 as a member of the teen chorus in a production of Bye, Bye, Birdie and that song just got inside me and never left.
“Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” from Kiss Me, Kate
Cole Porter was a witty lyricist and he provided some of the happiest melodies in Broadway history, but it wasn’t until he wrote the score for Kiss Me, Kate in 1948 that the depths of his artistry were finally probed. Combining classic Shakespeare and contemporary musical theatre, expertly vacillating between the two, Porter created some of his most intellectual lyrics (arguably the finest of his career). “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” sung by the recently and unhappily married Petruchio, is a hilarious character number with some of the best internal rhymes ever written for the stage: “What do you do at a quarter to two with only a shrew to kiss?” is just one example Porter’s comic and poetic gifts.
“To Keep My Love Alive” from A Connecticut Yankee
It wasn’t written for the original 1927 production, but instead for the 1943 Broadway revival of A Connecticut Yankee, but “To Keep My Love Alive” is the crowning achievement of lyricist Lorenz Hart’s career. It also featured the final lyrics of his collaboration with composer Richard Rodgers. This song is just sophisticated fun, a lively romp sung by Morgan Le Fay as she details, with ever-growing sadistic humor, how she murdered each of her husbands. You cannot listen to this venomous ditty without laughing and also marveling at Hart’s brilliance.
“Pity the Child” from Chess
Oh Chess, I have had such a love-hate relationship with you over the years. I even directed a production, thinking I loved the show, and finding out in the end that I admired it but that it was full of problems of plot, character development, and convoluted themes. The experience, however, did not turn me off to the exhilarating experience provided by the powerhouse music of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Every song in the score is great, but the one that has the most emotional impact for me is “Pity the Child”, a ballad of such pain and heartbreak unleashed on the audience by an unsympathetic character who has survived a horribly abusive existence. Suddenly, your feelings change about him and you get why he is who he is.
“Life Upon the Wicked Stage” from Show Boat
I have to admit that, what makes me love this song so much has less to do with how it fits into the musical Show Boat, but because of Virginia O’Brien’s sardonic rendition of it in the film Till the Cloud Roll By, a quasi-biopic loosely based on the life of Show Boat composer Jerome Kern. I’ve heard it sung a million different ways, but it is never better than when O’Brien dryly extols the lack of virtue a life in the theatre can afford. Oscar Hammerstein, II provided the saucy and sassy lyric to Kern’s jaunty melody. Time for all of you altos out there to prepare this one for an audition song. Comedic perfection.
“Holding to the Ground” from Falsettos
If you want your heart to blissfully break, listen to the William Finn one-act musicals March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland that combine to make the musical Falsettos. I guarantee I can pinpoint the exact moment where the floodgate of tears opens. The song “Holding to the Ground”, sung by a woman named Trina who has watched her family fall apart when her husband leaves her for a man. She is now juggling her feelings when that “other man”, who she actually likes despite his role in her marriage’s demise, is dying (presumably from AIDS, though it is never named in the piece). There is such a complexity of emotion in this song. It’s all there: bitterness, humor, fear, love, anger, resignation, hope, denial. By the end of the song, you are left feeling spent, exhausted for the ride, but feeling exactly what Trina does. You are in her shoes, not knowing where to turn. That is powerful musical theatre.
“Our Children” from Ragtime
Ragtime is full of a lot of big anthems, some of which soar, and others of which overstay their welcome through lengthiness or too many reprises. It is no wonder that, in all of this heightened, emotionally disemboweling frenzy, I prefer the more subtle moments of Ragtime. “Our Children”, the show’s gentlest song, features a man and woman, each with their own child, watching their two kids play together on the beach. Contemplative and introspective, composers Ahrens and Flaherty manage, in the simplest of terms, to capture so much about childhood, parenthood, and friendship with the efficiency of a haiku poem.
“Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat
This song always makes me well up with tears. Show Boat is a wonderful musical, especially when one considers the topics it was navigating in 1927. There is not much to the Jerome Kern melody, but it is repetitive, relentless, growing in majesty like the river it personifies. Oscar Hammerstein, II provides lyrics that surreptitiously implicate the nature of man as being synonymous with the unforgiving nature of the river. Through all of this, we suddenly feel the epic struggles of so many men and women who are just doing their best to survive. “Ol’ Man River” may not be the anthem of musical theatre, but it certainly is the anthem of humanity.
“Bye, Bye, Baby” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Jule Styne and Leo Robin crafted a lot of fun and fancy-free songs for the score of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and certainly many of them were more popular than “Bye, Bye, Baby.” There is, however, a catchiness to this song, as well as a sentiment that makes me feel nostalgic for a past that never existed except for in the fictional world of musicals, that make it my favorite from the show. Sometimes a beloved showtune just stirs something inside you that makes you feel good, safe, or transports you to somewhere. I cannot put my finger on why, but that is what “Bye, Bye, Baby” does for me and, even though it is not one of the revered musical theatre “greats”, it will always be beloved to me.
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.