Broadway's Glorious Choral Sequences
Today I find myself in the mood to listen to great choral numbers from Broadway musicals. These are the glorious sequences where evocative orchestrations join hands with a multitude of voices and a synergy is born that shoots a jolt of lightening through the listener. Going through my cast recordings, picking favorites is hard to do, but I have assembled some of mine here. This list is by no means complete, nor is it intentionally exclusive. What it strives to be is a compilation of the choral numbers that make my heart soar. I hope you will weigh in, maybe listen to a few, and share some of your impressions of my choices and weigh-in on your favorites.
"The Old Red Hills of Home" from Parade
Parade is a musical that deserves a second go-around on Broadway, thanks greatly to Jason Robert Brown’s majestic score that has become very popular despite the show’s short life. Among the haunting numbers is “The Old Red Hills of Home”, a patriotic anthem that starts with a single voice and grows into a chorus of the multitudes, an impassioned devotion to the old south and its traditions. In the show’s context, the song is all the more powerful as it underlines the attitudes that support prejudice. “The Old Red Hills of Home” bookends the musical, commencing the show with it’s blind spirit, and concluding the show with a dark irony. It’s an unforgettable number that will play, over and over, in your head.
"Morning Glow" from Pippin
Anyone who attended the recent revival of Pippin, or indeed anyone who simply loves the show, knows that “Morning Glow”, the go to Act One finale of the musical, is an exhilarating moment of musical theatre. Stephen Schwartz’s music and lyrics start out slow and reflective and build into a monumental moment of choral harmonies as the characters celebrate the coronation of their new king. The new cast recording captures the song at its absolute finest and I dare anyone to say they don’t get a chill from those harmonies.
"Put on Your Sunday Clothes" from Hello, Dolly!
A great choral number doesn’t have to revolve a serious moment, as is demonstrated by “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly! In fact, this lively ditty is one of the great musical comedy choral numbers. Starting out small, a batch of characters searching for amour, all decide to take the train into New York City to find love. The number builds with more and more voices joining in as everyone celebrates what it means to put on your best clothes and enjoy some time on the town. The final chorus amps it up a notch as the Jerry Herman music is orchestrated to sound like the train itself. Perfection.
"Who Will Buy?" from Oliver!
Similar to “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” in its incremental builds, but very different in its approach, “Who Will Buy?” from Oliver! has always been a haunting song for me. The girl repeating “Ripe, strawberries, ripe” over the throngs celebrating the possibility of a perfect morning is born of a special kind of theatre magic. The combination of voices, orchestrations and context (not to mention the setting in an atmospheric London) set the stage for a truly memorable choral experience.
"Sunday" from Sunday in the Park with George
The Act One finale of Sunday in the Park with George may just be the greatest first act finale ever devised for the musical theatre. Composer Stephen Sondheim created a rapturous experience, starting with musical cacophony and then bringing a park full of patrons together into an ordered and lovely promenade to music. As they sing and stroll, we suddenly see the painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” assemble before our eyes.
"You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel
At the end of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, the scene is set at a high school graduation in a New England fishing village. The character of Julie Jordan is watching her daughter graduate, both of them outcasts in a judgmental town that refuses to forgive the family’s past. The speaker at the commencement shares his thoughts on perseverance in the face of adversity, a message (a reprise of a song sung earlier in the show) that builds into an inspirational choral number that paints the possibility of hope.
"Ol' Man River" from Show Boat
The emotional reprise of this song in Show Boat (music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein) climaxes the show with an emotional outpouring that is a commentary on the futility of life. The chorus comes together to watch the Cotton Blossom sail off into the sunset, singing of the thematic river that carries it away, a relentless and unforgiving waterway that doesn’t take the time to stop and care about humanity. The vocal harmonies ache with those who have been at the river’s mercy and the orchestrations ebb and thrust with its tenacious current.
"Make Our Garden Grow" from Candide
No list of great choral numbers from Broadway would be complete without the truly splendiferous “Make Our Garden Grow” from the musical Candide. The culmination of the operetta-style adaptation of Voltaire’s classic tale, the lush number is a celebration of using one’s mind and taking the time to rationalize and think. The divine song grows and expands with Leonard Bernstein’s brilliantly resplendent music.
"The Miracle Song" from Anyone Can Whistle
Sometimes you just hear a choral number and say to yourself “Boy, I’d sure like to stage that song!” One of those inspiring numbers for me is “The Miracle Song” from Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle. A vibrant and energetic song led by a town’s shifty and shady mayoress, the number is all about how she convinces the town that water has sprung from a rock and that the water’s healing powers will solve all their problems. Soon, the number builds into a zealotous fanaticism as people arrive to “take the waters.” The number has great harmonies and such a powerful energy.
The First Twenty-Minutes of Titanic
Perhaps unparalleled in its splendor, the first twenty-minutes of Maury Yeston's score for Titanic comes very close to elevating us to heaven. Titanic was made up of an enormous ensemble of rich voices that could achieve a hymn-like ecstasy when they came together in harmony. The Jonathan Tunick orchestrations are dramatic, supple and anthem-like in scale, highlighting the grandeur of the ill-fated luxury liner and honoring the lives that will end on its maiden voyage. Though I found the rest of the show uneven and sometimes overly cerebral, its first twenty-minutes was nothing like that. In fact, it remains one of the most emotionally charged opening sequences ever to grace the Broadway stage.