Another National Anthem - Patriotic Showtunes for the Fourth of July
The Fourth of July is almost upon us and this weekend most of us will be celebrating with hot dogs, fireworks, and showtunes. Yes…you heard me, showtunes. Exploring musical theatre scores from over the last century, there are a handful of jubilant, patriotic tunes celebrating America, as well as a few unlikely songs that touch on the topic of what it means to be an American. Today’s blog is a celebration of those songs.
“The Yankee Doodle Boy” from Little Johnny Jones (1904)
By George M. Cohan
A musical you don’t hear about being produced much these days, Little Johnny Jones (1904) was quite successful in its 1905 revival inception that included many rewrites. The story of the musical followed an American jockey who races his horse named “Yankee Doodle” in the English Derby, but who is accused of taking a bribe to throw the race. A corny plot, but the show features many witty one-liners aimed at spoofing Europeans and bolstering the American ego. All of this aside, two song standards of the American songbook came from Little Johnny Jones: That first tribute to the Great White Way “Give My Regards to Broadway” and the jaunty, overflowing with patriotism “The Yankee Doodle Boy” which we know better as “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The song became even more famous through the James Cagney film Yankee Doodle Dandy that celebrated the life of the song’s composer, George M. Cohan.
“You’re a Grand Old Flag” from George Washington, Jr. (1906)
By George M. Cohan
Not many musical theatre enthusiasts (let alone Americans) know that this patriotic standard originated in a Broadway musical. Composer, producer, director, performer-extraordinaire George M. Cohan was highly patriotic, and in the early part of the Twentieth Century, patriotic is what sold. Most of his shows included a song that held deep affection for the USA. “You’re a Grand Old Flag” originated in the all but forgotten musical comedy George Washington, Jr. (1906). Lambasted by the critics and one of Cohan’s less-successful ventures, the show told the story of the son of an American senator who refused to tie the knot with the European aristocrat his father arranged for him to marry. No matter how throw away the premise and forgettable the plot, “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, a sprightly tribute to that Star-Spangled Banner, emerged as one of America’s favorite patriotic songs.
“Love is Sweeping the Country” from Of Thee I Sing (1931)
By George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
What better than a musical that satirizes our government to celebrate The Fourth of July? George and Ira Gershwin, in 1931, wrote a lively and biting score for the musical Of Thee I Sing which spoofed a presidential election (is the need to satirize such things timeless, or what?). John P. Wintergreen is running for president on a platform of “love” and the result is the breezy campaign song “Love is Sweeping the Country”. A platform of love, huh? Isn’t Rick Santorum running on this same, frothy ideal? Maybe it’s time for a contemporary version of Of Thee I Sing wherein a character can sing “Love Is Sweeping the Country”. The opening lyrics are, in fact, “Why are people gay all the night and day?”
“The Eagle and Me” from Bloomer Girl (1944)
Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg
My good pal E.Y. Harburg (we never met) could always be counted upon to speak out against the things he deplored and racism was one thing he could not abide. What is so wonderful about Harburg is that he disguises his contempt within joyously satirical lyrics embedded in vibrant musical numbers. Bloomer Girl is set during the Civil War and “The Eagle and Me” is sung by a slave who simply wants to be free, making an argument that the animals of nature run free, so why shouldn’t he. Harold Arlen’s melody is upbeat and optimistic, and Harburg’s imagery contrasting the confining life of a slave with the soaring freedom of an eagle implies a pointed jab at the hypocrisy in a racist America. The song is so earnest and melodic, it is easy to forget just how much it implies.
“Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” from Miss Liberty (1949)
By Irving Berlin
Adapted from the poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus
Most people know the poem by Emma Lazarus that appears at the base of the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants to the United States and to their stab at the American Dream. Irving Berlin took this poem and put the words to music for the 1949 musical Miss Liberty about the creation and gifting of Lady Liberty to America. What I like about this song is its words, how it reminds us of what America was supposed to be about. It offered an opportunity for a new and better life. This Fourth of July let us remember that our Lady of the New York Harbor stands for “Statue of Liberty” and not “Statute of Limitations.”
“America” from West Side Story (1957)
By Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim
Another song that reminds us that the United States is composed mostly of immigrants is “America” from West Side Story. What I love about this song is how committed the character singing it is to wanting to be an American. Having moved to NYC from Puerto Rico, Anita argues with a friend, insisting that the USA is an improvement over their homeland. When you hear the Stephen Sondheim lyrics, you are suddenly struck with how we take the simplest things for granted. “Automobile in America. Wire-spoked wheel in America.” Clean clothes, doorknobs, wall-to-wall floors are all celebrated as luxurious wonders and maybe we should keep that in mind when people will do whatever they can and anything they can to get across our border and stay.
“The Egg” from 1776 (1969)
By Sherman Edwards
Perhaps no song on this list is more deserving of being here than “The Egg” from 1776. The musical is about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which happened to occur on July 4th, a day we reserve for barbecues and pool parties. Within the musical, three American patriots: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin sit in the hallway awaiting to see how Congress will respond to the reading of the first draft. They ponder what kind of bird will hatch from the egg that this new nation, the United States of America, will be. If only they could see where we are 239 years later.
“All the Livelong Day” from Working (1976)
By Stephen Schwartz
This song is not exactly patriotic per se, but I wanted a song that celebrated the everyday men and women that keep the country going, demonstrating their belief in the American Dream. “All the Live Long Day” by Stephen Schwartz is the opening number from the musical collage Working, based on the book by Studs Terkel. This is the true story of America, people who work day-in and day-out just to make a living. This impassioned song is the perfect anthem for the hardworking American on the treadmill of life.
“Brand New World” from Rags (1986)
By Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz
Rags has such a lovely score that it deserves some reworking and a Broadway revival. The story follows a woman and her son who are newly arrived immigrants to America. The song “Brand New World” serves as their exploration of all of the fascinating things America had to offer at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Charles Strouse created atmospheric music that incorporated a diverse and nuanced sounds from a variety of cultures and Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics show an earnest understanding of what a newcomer to America would find fascinating.
“Another National Anthem” from Assassins (1990)
By Stephen Sondheim
So, America doesn’t always live up to its promise to be a utopia with streets that are “paved with gold.” In fact, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman explored the darker side of the American Dream and how it can be disappointing (and a catalyst for treachery) in the musical Assassins. A motley band of men and women, who tried (some succeeding) to assassinate various presidents of the United States, bemoan the national anthem and how its promises mean nothing to them. They create their own signature song that sums up American patriotism. “Another National Anthem” may not be the song most of us sing at the ballpark, but it does capture an oft-overlooked contingent of citizens who aim for the American Dream, but are deprived of its rewards.
“Ragtime” from Ragtime (1998)
By Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
To me, Ragtime is the musical that explains exactly what America is about. The musical’s complex opening number by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens deftly captures the idea of the Great American Melting Pot. Three groups: an African-American couple from Harlem, a WASP family from New Rochelle, and a band of Eastern European immigrants start out in isolated pillars, not interacting. Throughout the song, they are inched toward each other, forced to intermingle, and move out of their comfort zones. Each time this happens, the music becomes uncomfortably enharmonic in its arrangements, illustrating how much of an adjustment it is when different ethnic groups try to share the same space. This is what America is: an ever changing stew of various cultures and skin colors who must learn to not only cohabitate, but to appreciate each other’s differences and what they each bring to the table. This July 4th, this is the song that rings out most to me as I celebrate what our forefathers accomplished when hatching that egg in 1776.
The Land of the Free…The Home of the Brave!