By Decade: Broadway Scores I Love the Best
With Thanksgiving almost upon us, I cannot help but reflect upon the things that make my life worth living. At the top of that list will almost always be my Broadway music. There is nothing like the escapism and emotional catharsis brought about by listening to a tuneful, poignant Broadway musical score. They keep me energized, smiling and moving forward.
Several years back, I had lunch with a prominent theatre critic and one of the questions he asked me was “For each decade, which Broadway musical score do you find to be the most listenable?”. The assignment was not to explore the score I thought was the best, but to discuss the one that brought me the most personal joy. It was a wonderful exercise in exploring what appeals to me and it forced me to take a closer look at the music and what clicks for me.
1920s: No, No, Nanette (1925)
It would be easy to pick Show Boat for this decade, as I am particularly fond of a handful of songs from that epic masterpiece, but it is No, No, Nanette that is indicative of my tastes: the bold and breezy musical comedy. From the deliciously wry “Too Many Rings Around Rosie” to the delightfully simple and infectious “Tea for Two”, this musical epitomizes the 1920s cornball comedy. The Vincent Youmans (music), Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach (lyrics) score doesn’t have a dud in it. It keeps my feet a tapping and my heart as light as a feather.
1930s: Anything Goes (1934)
Cole Porter is probably the composer/lyricists who never fails to please. Even second-rate Porter is full of wit and melody. With this in mind, it is a no-brainer that I choose the score of Anything Goes as my most-listenable of the 1930s. The title number alone is a vibrant list song chocked full of sarcasm, sharp wit, and double entendre. But really, the whole score, including “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “You’re the Top”, “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and “Be Like the Bluebird” are all earworms. Revivals of the musical have interpolated even more Porter standards into the score, so depending on the cast recording you pick up, you may be in for an even bigger treat.
1940s: Finian's Rainbow (1947)
I vacillate on this decade, because I am also an enormously devoted fan to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. In the end, however, Finian’s Rainbow wins out for me because I just cannot get the atmospheric, pastoral Burton Lane melodies and the sly, jubilant E.Y. Harburg lyrics out of my mind. This is a musical that has something to say, but chooses to be poignant with humor and satire. Every song delights, but “Look to the Rainbow”, “Old Devil Moon”, “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” are standouts, and “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?” is my favorite showtune of all time. I think no other score transports me to another world quite like Finian’s Rainbow.
1950s: Guys & Dolls (1950)
Another difficult decade for me to settle on, as My Fair Lady and The Music Man will always be in the running as well (and no, I am not the fan of West Side Story that most people are), but Guys & Dolls takes the top spot because it never fails to make me smile. I turn on the original cast recording and I cannot find one song that isn’t perfection. It’s the perfect musical (a topic I will explore in a future blog) with a Frank Loesser score that boasts such hits as “Bushel and a Peck”, “Luck Be a Lady”, “Adelaide’s Lament”, the title song, “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat”, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and the sublimely understated “My Time of Day”.
1960s: Hello, Dolly! (1964)
From Dolls to Dolly, it is hard not fall in love with a musical that is a celebration of human beings finding connection in a lonely world. Jerry Herman’s score for Hello, Dolly! throbs with joy, hope and an optimism that is especially appealing to this author in recent weeks. The title song sets up shop in your brain and stays indefinitely, but “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, “Ribbons Down My Back”, “Before the Parade Passes By”, “It Only Takes a Moment” and “So Long, Dearie!” are all fantastic. How I cannot wait to see this show reclaim Broadway this spring.
1970s: Pippin (1972)
I know, I know, this decade features all those great Stephen Sondheim scores. They all deserve a tip of the hat, but Stephen Schwartz’s score for Pippin will always hold the special place in my heart for the 1970s because it sounds the most like the 1970s I grew up in. There is a folky warmth and a faux pop in the score that takes me back to my early childhood. “Corner of the Sky” is an inspiration, “Morning Glow” a building, radiant song of majesty, and the “Finale” a rabidly fanatic dive into zealotry. A special nod to “No Time At All” which is the most life-affirming, life-embracing showtune of all time.
1980s: City of Angels (1989)
For all my adoration of optimistic musicals, I have an equally dark side that enjoys sarcasm, caustic wit, and a touch of darkness. City of Angels, my favorite score of the 1980s, captures all of those ingredients perfectly. Cy Coleman’s music is blues, jazz and swing, making it quite unlike most other traditional musical theatre scores. David Zippel’s lyrics pack such a bloody punch of cynicism and edgy humor, while also being quite emotionally charged. Songs such as “What You Don’t Know About Women”, “You’re Nothing Without Me”, “You Can Always Count on Me”, “It Needs Work” and “With Every Breath I Take” each are intricate and melodic explorations of character and how music can establish mood and tone.
1990s: Ragtime (1998)
The Secret Garden could also take this category, but Ahrens and Flaherty’s score for Ragtime is more epic in scope, and there is certainly more variety therein. In the end, I find myself singing both shows frequently, but Ragtime wins out because of the way it interpolates a variety of musical cultures and often spins them together with glorious effect (i.e. the title song and “Journey On”). Each song is carefully crafted to keep the story and its themes moving. “Back to Before” may be the single most powerfully charged eleven o’clock number ever written for the musical theatre.
2000s: Hairspray (2002)
For sheer happiness, Hairspray holds a special place in my heart. It can be so earnest one minute and wildly audacious the next, and the score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman overflows, like a relentless Niagara, with optimism and humor. For me, the final number “You Can’t Stop the Beat” makes me want to dance around my apartment (if you knew me, you’d know that this is magic unto itself) with abandon. However, “Good Morning, Baltimore”, “I Can Hear the Bells”, and “Without Love” are just as infectious. Having seen the show on Broadway five times, it is probably no secret that I am eagerly anticipating Hairspray Live! on television in the coming weeks.
There are still a few years left to this decade. I cannot name a musical in recent years that has caught my fancy like those of the previous decades. In the running, I am currently finding Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Bright Star and The Bridges of Madison County in the running for that special slot in my heart. Only time will tell.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of my devoted readers! I hope it is filled with family, friends and great showtunes.