Considering I’ve been dealing with a lot in terms of stresses with work and finances, it has been rather joyous to be in the mindset of thinking about theatre again. Focusing on these particular songs from musicals has been a great way for me to pass the time while I have down time at work, so…I can’t complain about that aspect!
So now, I give you another set of 25 of my favorite showtunesto be followed by another set of 25 soon to make a full 100.
Here we go!
Days & Days from FUN HOME (Tesori/Kron)
-When I first moved to NYC, the musical FUN HOME was just starting previews at The Public Theatre; tickets were hard to come by and expensive and…considering I JUST moved here and I was on a limited budget, I ended up missing the show. I had a feeling I would get the chance as it seemed more and more likely that it would be getting a Broadway transfer…and that it did. I’ve already discussed FUN HOME a little, but I do have to add that seeing that original Broadway production was one of my favorite theatrical experiences EVER…bar none. One of the many highlights in that show was the beautifully restrained performance by Judy Kuhn, who is known to most as being the OBC Cosette in LES MISERABLES…which, frankly, was a thankless role for her in my opinion. She showed more range playing such roles as Florence in CHESS and also her very heartwarming take on Amalia in the 1993 revival of SHE LOVES ME…but in this role as Helen Bechdel, the suffering wife of the volatile Bruce, she sort of coasted through the show as this fragile figure. Towards the end, she gets to sing DAYS & DAYS to her daughter Allison, who just came home from college with her newly minted girlfriend Joan. We learn firsthand, even though it was very obvious, that their marriage is basically one of convenience and appearance and that she isn’t happy in the slightest…however, at the end of the song, she gives Allison some very straightforward advice that shows she will in no way hold her daughter back. I managed to see the show doing Standing Room as it was frequently selling out at the time; I was standing next to a gay couple and whenever this subtle song ended, the theatre erupted and you would’ve thought myself and the couple were at a slightly subdued rock concert. It was such a nice moment for Ms. Kuhn and a lovely song at that.
Everybody Says Don’t from ANYONE CAN WHISTLE (Stephen Sondheim)
-We just can’t escape him…but this particular song comes from a flop that was even more disastrous than that of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. In the case of ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, it closed after 9 performances and was considered another failed attempt by Sondheim to try to get himself known as a composer…which is what he always identified as and not a lyricist. Sondheim has said many times that he never truly wanted to be a lyricist; he only really wanted to compose, but taking the lyricist gigs for WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY slightly pigeonholed him. The premise of the show is intriguing: a bankrupt town being run by a corrupt mayor has several other idealistic residents fighting to take over and save it. It is told in three acts with the end of the second act being this particular number led by Hapgood in which he begins leading the same type of crusade that riles up those around him by having the simple of philosophies of “try” and “do” and “don’t be afraid”. A lot of the cynicism and dark quirks that would become synonymous with Sondehim due pop up in this particular musical and it is interesting to listen to this musical as something of a bridge between his work on FORUM and his eventual work on COMPANY and FOLLIES a few years later (his work on EVENING PRIMROSE could fit into that mode to a lesser extent).
Getting Married Today from COMPANY (Stephen Sondheim)
-Speaking of COMPANY, it took a couple of decades for it to truly find great success and admiration in some ways. It was definitely polarizing to so many when it opened and basically won the Tony because there wasn’t much else option. Of course, it DESERVED its wins but I am sure if something that was both more traditional and well-received came out, it would’ve won out. Considered the first “Concept Musical”, COMPANY was told in a non-linear fashion in which a 35 year old bachelor named Bobby is being pressured by his friends to settle down and get married…but he seems unsure of what he wants…and I would argue even these same friends seem to be unsure what they want from him. One friend in particular is the neurotic Amy, who is about to marry Paul, and she is having wedding day jitters…and not just any jitters, she is full-on freaking out saying she may commit suicide and be found floating in the Hudson River. The song is quite humorous in its darkly comedic approach and is quite possibly one of the hardest patter songs ever written. A few women have greatly sold this song, such as the original Amy, Beth Howland along with Vivenne Cox, Heather Laws, and more recently, the male version sung by Jonathan Bailey.
I Can Cook Too from ON THE TOWN (Leonard Bernstein)
–Three soldiers are on 24-Hour shore leave and they manage to have their own whirlwind romances as they zig-zag around the isle of Manhattan “right from Yonkers on down to the bay…in just one day”. The quirky, wholesome Chip who is a homespun boy from the Midwest ends up getting into the cab of Hildy, a brash Bronx gal who instantly takes to him and wants Chip to come up to her place…which is its own humorous song. However, once she gets him to her apartment, he has food on his mind…but she is determined to sell the “specialty of the house” as herself. Thus begins a great song filled with double entendre after double entendre that eventually leads Hildy and Chip to the bedroom. The recent revival in which Alyssa Umphress played Hildy and Jay Armstrong Johnson played Chip was a true definitive smash performance of this number…the sex appeal and brassiness by both her and the orchestra were a perfect match. I have always questioned those who instantly took to that of the Lea Delaria/Jesse Tyler Ferguson version because while both are good, you listen to the upbeat scat version of the song and you’re like “Wait…these two are going to have sex????”
I Know Him So Well from CHESS (Andersson/Ulvaeus/Rice)
-The 80s boom of British musicals is certainly a boom I was not fond of. I definitely like EVITA and, to a lesser extent, LES MISERABLES and MISS SAIGON, but I will gladly pounce on basically any of the other Andrew Lloyd Webber shows. When it comes to a score though, my favorite of these is actually CHESS. While the history with how the show has been presented is incredibly problematic, the score is what saves the day…and this duet, giving 80s pop flair in all its glory, has always been a song that I am surprised I like as much as I do. However, if there was ever a song that would royally fail on the Bechdel Test, it would easily be this one.
Is Someone Out There? from IN THE BEGINNING (Maury Yeston)
-After Maury Yeston drafted his own adaptation of Fellini’s 8 ½ that ended up winning him and the show itself Tony Awards, he came up with the idea of a Bible show but with this little clever twist: What if we learned about the supporting players who were neighbors of those in the Bible but never actually made it in? This kind of theme was similar to that of Monty Python’s LIFE OF BRIAN, but it made for a very quirky little musical in the Yeston canon, which was originally titled “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” as if to represent the first five books of the Bible. This musical has never appeared on Broadway and is rarely ever produced, but certain key songs have made it out into the musical world thanks to various artists tackling them on their solo albums. I first heard this song on the Maury YestonSongbook album way back in 2004 sung by my favorite Elphaba, Eden Espinosa…which that automatically makes any song better. In some ways, the idea of a show like IN THE BEGINNING and this exact song gives everything a feeling of melancholy, even if most of the show is presented as a comedy. Adam and Eve screwed up in The Garden of Eden and now our main characters are suffering because of it. I wish more girls would discover this song because it would perfect for those belters looking for a great ballad for auditions.
I’ve Decided to Marry You from A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER (Lutvak/Freedman)
-The little show that could if there ever was one, GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE opened in the fall of 2013 and managed to limp along for a few months and then, just before its cushion was set to fall out, it swept the awards season and won Best Musical…and a lot of that was due to weakened competition and the fact that the show with the best chance of unseating it was a jukebox musical: BEAUTIFUL. While some looked down on GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE as being too slight or twee and somewhat dull, I personally welcomed the show with open arms and thought it was all around delightful. I’ve Decided to Marry You has become the show’s signature tune primarily due to its use as being the go-to performance at events like the Tony Awards or the Macy’s Parade. The Edwardian era Music Hall-style trio is set around socialite Phoebe proclaiming, without prompting, to our leading man Monty, that she will marry him amongst her recent grief…all while Monty’s married lover Sibella sings from the other room.
The Lady Must Be Mad from ILLYRIA (Peter Mills)
–A small off-Broadway musical based off of Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT, ILLYRIA was part of the whole “classical work done with a modernized score” brigade but a lot of the inspiration of the style of the score was actually that of the off-Broadway scene of the 60s that included such successes as LITTLE MARY SUNSHINE, THE FANTASTICKS, and JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE & WELL & LIVING IN PARIS. The song is sung by Sebastian near the end of the show right before he and Viola are reunited amongst all of the chaos that preceded this…and I would say that it is one of the most delightfully written songs to come from a musical post-2000. Melodically, its rapturous and charming; it has a whimsical, romantic feel lyrically, and it is great passionate song for a baritenor/tenor to belt out. While no video exists of him doing it, there was a reading of the musical done at the Lucille LortelTheatre years ago in which the sexy Gavin Creel played Sebastian and his performance of this song is pure decadence.
Lonely Town from ON THE TOWN (Bernstein/Comden & Green)
-When I saw the 2014 ON THE TOWN revival, the curtain rose on the scene that was to include the song Lonely Town, and it was set in Battery Park with the Staten Island Ferry and Statue of Liberty in the background with dusk approaching…the entire audience let out a delightful gasp at this absolutely glorious image…and considering Battery Park is my favorite place in Manhattan, I was in love…and it didn’t hurt that this song was also being sung by the delicious Tony Yazbeck. Lonely Town represents the more somber reality of how a bustling city like New York can be; it may be a city of 8 million people but much like a lyric from COMPANY, it is also a “city of strangers”. For Gabey, he is longing for love and for conversation but he can’t seem to find much luck…it’s a beautiful song drenched in melancholy and quite possibly my favorite song from that show and among the best in the canon of lyrical work from Comden & Green.
The Man I Used to Be from PIPE DREAM/STATE FAIR (Rodgers & Hammerstein)
-I am actually a little surprised by how many R&H songs I have been putting on this list, but I think the truth of the matter is thatthey did write some great songs…I guess my only problem is that I can’t often take a full evening’s worth of their material. This song is one of their lesser known efforts because it came from a show that never lived up to their biggest successes but it did find new life in both the revue A GRAND NIGHT FOR SINGING and the revamped STATE FAIR production from 1996. I feel like the song had a bounce and swing that felt more comparable to Rodgers’ work with Lorenz Hart, which, admittedly, I do have more fondness for in some ways.
Model Behavior for WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (David Yazbek)
-If I were to choose a composer/lyricist to be the tentative choice of the “best” working today in terms of consistently produced work, I would probably give the title to David Yazbek. While you could make a case for Jason Robert Brown and especially Jeanine Tesori in terms of her music compositions, Yazbek has been quite eclectic bouncing from the rougher edges of THE FULL MONTY to the quirky cosmopolitan nature of DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS to the Latin-infused WOMEN ON THE VERGE to the wholly original BAND’S VISIT (although his latest work on TOOTSIE was mostly bland in my opinion). Despite only working on movie-to-musical adaptations, he has given us great scores to accompany them…and while he has written many wildly different songs that deserve praise, I singled out this particular song from his biggest flop: WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN. The musical had its problems, but its score was certainly not one of them…and this song should definitely go own in the book of Greatest Patter Songs of Musical Theatre. Laura Benanti’s performance as Candela was a masterclass in comedy…which is no surprise considering she is incredibly versatile. I highly recommend listening to this song to witness the great comedic timing.
An Old-Fashioned Wedding from ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (Irving Berlin)
-While not written for the original production and only added for the infamous 1966 revival in which a way too-old Ethel Merman reprised her role of Annie Oakley, this Berlin duet is easily one of the greatest in the history of musical theatre. Why? I wish I could tell you. I feel like the lively counterpart duet was something that Berlin did very well, even if the personal sentiments of the character of Annie in the moment don’t necessarily match up with how she is often perceived throughout the evening. It’s a just a charming little duet with a nice addictive melody…and a good follow-up to another duet by Berlin which will be making an appearance on my final batch of 25 songs.
Only in New York from THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (Tesori/Scanlan)
–MILLIE is problematic now due to the whole Mrs. Meerssubplot, but the stage adaptation did include some wonderful songs, which is no surprise when you have Tesori writing the music. As someone who grew up obsessed with and loving everything about the glamour and gritty vibe of NYC, I instantly took to this jazzy number sung by Sheryl Lee Ralph as Muzzy that is part of the “Love Letter to NYC” song genre. Considering the song starts with the lyric: “The wonders of the world are said to stop at 7, but truth be told, my figures don’t agree…”… I have to say that it had my heart almost instantly. Tesori’s composition captures that jazzy vibe that I’ve always just instantly related to the feel of NYC.
Pour Me a Man from MISS GULCH RETURNS (Fred Barton)
-Not as well-known nowadays, but MISS GULCH RETURNS was quite the popular cabaret act by Fred Barton who bounced around from such venues as Don’t Tell Mama’s, Birdland, and The Duplex performing as Miss Gulch, the character from THE WIZARD OF OZ who would serve as the real-life counterpart to whom would become The Wicked Witch of the West. Barton gives Almira Gulch the kind of life you’d expect her to have, complete with a mother who obviously loved a drink or seven…and it also must be said that Gulch is man-hungry…and she wishes that the bartender could pour her someone who could give her pleasure rather than the alcohol. Sort of in the same vain as I Can Cook Too, this song takes on the double entendre theme by comparing men to alcoholic beverages…and actually, Pour Me a Man contains one of the most brilliant rhymes I’ve ever heard in show tune, involving vodka and a man’s body…I would write it down but I would rather you listen to it and listen to how seamlessly brilliant it is.
Roses at the Station from GRAND HOTEL (Maury Yeston)
YESTON: But…but…HE’S DEAD!!!!
TOMMY TUNE: Yes, I know…but he’s gotta have a song.
Maury Yeston was brought in to help save the lagging musical adaptation of the famed novel/film GRAND HOTEL, which included rewriting songs originally written by the famed team of Wright & Forrest of KISMET and SONG OF NORWAY fame while also writing new songs of his own. One of his assignments was to give the Baron, originally played by the heavenly David Carroll, a big song after he gets shot…and after freaking out about it, he had the perfect brilliant solution. “When you die”, he thought, “shouldn’t your life flash before your eyes?” With that, he went back to the original novel and found various tidbits of info about the Baron’s life to give the song more emotional weight combined with the fact that he had planned to meet Elizaveta at the train station as they planned to live Berlin and begin a new stage of life together. As Carroll would sing, a blood-pack would leak out blood and as the song ended, he would flail back to the floor. Yeston once said (among other composers) that the proper answer to the question: “Which comes first: the words or the music?” is actually “The premise”. The jumbled harried feel of the song along with said premise is genius, and I think that Yeston found gold in that moment and he helped make that musical better than was originally hoped.
Satisfied from HAMILTON (Lin Manuel-Miranda)
-In terms of style and storytelling structure and just all-around awesomeness, the best song in HAMILTON has got to be Satisfied, the song sung by Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica as we discover she has her own designs on her brother-in-law but represses them due to her sister Eliza. The idea of not being satisfied has multiple different connotations but it is certainly not surprising that the song has a certain sexual charge along with the obvious vibrant and intellectual personality that Angelica has. It may not be the show’s catchiest song, but is the most impressive with how Miranda structured it.
Someone Else’s Story from CHESS (Andersson/Ulvaeus/Rice)
-The 1988 Broadway production of CHESS bombed royally thanks to the fact that they tried adding a book to the show, which only stretched it out to the point of feeling bloated and lumbering. One amazing addition, however, was this solo ballad sung by Florence, who was played by Judy Kuhn fresh off of her one-two punch in LES MISERABLES and the underrated Strouse/Schwartz musical RAGS. Considering the hot-mess of four-hour long preview performances and debate over the book additions and Trevor Nunn completely scrapping material originally devised by the show’s recently deceased director, Michael Bennett, I think I can say that the effort of this song could be worth all of that trouble…or rather, they should try rewriting it again but make sure to never omit this song.
Something Wonderful from THE KING AND I (Rodgers & Hammerstein)
–I thought I was alone in praise of this song, but I have come across many that have singled it as one of the best songs in THE KING AND I and the R&H canon…and the crazy thing is that it is another example of a song that doesn’t really have much of a melodic range and has a very simple, straightforward feel (which does make sense due to the environment and the character singing it), but something about the song has this dreamlike trance quality…and from a storytelling standpoint, it helps to humanize the King…as much as such a character COULD be humanized. The recent rendition by Ruthie Ann Miles was lovely.
Somewhere That’s Green from LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (Menken/Ashman)
-I’ve considered this to be the precursor to Menken & Ashman’s Part of Your World from THE LITTLE MERMAID, but this song is incredibly sweet while being also quite cheesy and humorous…and another layer is added when later in the show when (SPOILER ALERT!) Audrey dies, she does find her “Green” via death by Audrey II: The Plant. You care greatly about Audrey and Seymour and you love knowing that his love of her is shared…and you root for them…but we know it’ll never end up truly happening for them when his quest to keep becoming successful to keep her around is what ends up leading to her death.
So in Love from KISS ME, KATE (Cole Porter)
-Cole Porter’s magnum opus gave us one of the most rapturous soprano ballads to ever grace the Broadway stage. Considering that Fred and Lili are of the love/hate relationship variety, this song taps into that feeling of feeling something for someone and not really wanting to admit it to them. While I preferred Marin Mazzie’s performance in the whole musical as a whole in terms of recent productions, I really loved Kelli O’Hara’s stunning take on this number.
Summertime from PORGY & BESS (George & Ira Gershwin/DuBose Heyward)
–For a song to have such long lasting appeal that we even still hear it pop up on such talent competition/reality shows such as AMERICAN IDOL and AMERICA’S GOT TALENT is quite the impressive feat. While a lot of the versions opted for a sultrier jazz/mezzo take on the song as opposed to the soprano of the original, no matter the version, this song is truly a gem and one of the best songs ever written for the stage. It truly catapults us into the world of Catfish Row in a way that very few songs could ever emerge us into the world it wants us to go into.
Unlikely Lovers from FALSETTOLAND/FALSETTOS (William Finn)
-Not discussed as much as other songs from this musical, I’ve always loved this duet that becomes a quartet in which we get to see a gay couple and a lesbian couple sing about their love for each other. The setting itself is saddened by the fact that Whizzer is dying of AIDS, but the passion we see these four people share for their lover and their friends, bound by sharing this lifestyle that was (and in many ways, still IS) being treated with disgust by a good portion of the world, is beautiful. Once we reach the ending crescendos, Finn puts his gift of tremendous harmony writing to good use as the quartet dips along complimenting each other perfectly.
A Way Back to Then from [title of show] (Bowen/Bell)
-Very few musicals, if any, tapped into the geekdom of musical theatre like that of [title of show] which, quite frankly, didn’t last long when it transferred to Broadway because…let’s face it…your average tourist from Des Moines is not going to get a kick or even be able to GET the humor of discussing musicals like KWAMINA or TENDERLOIN or the horror at the thought of Paris Hilton starring in a production of THE APPLE TREE (which they changed to MAME for the Broadway production). The show was described as being about “two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical” with so many meta-references to the work of actors and writers and composers that it was like a theatre lover’s wet dream. Despite being so hilarious, the song that struck the deepest chord was the sentimental A Way Back to Then in which Heidi Blickenstaffsings about comparing the joy of being “in the craziest of company” with your fellow actors from college and beyond to the same imagination of being a child singing along with Andrea McArdle’s voice blaring from your record speaker. For someone who is currently slaving away at a day job and often envies though who steadily get to perform, I do long for a way to be back in this world again because, let’s face, it is best to be in the company of crazy actors who just want to do nothing more than sing a tune and play with a sword.
When the Earth Stopped Turning from ELEGIES: A SONG CYCLE (William Finn)
-William Finn’s sadly more forgotten song cycle that came out a few years after A NEW BRAIN was his response to the tragedies following the 9/11 Attacks while some of the songs also spoke to many of Finn’s friends who had died of AIDS and also, an another personal level, the passing of his mother Barbara. The amazing thing about ELEGIES was that it never felt morbid or mawkish, but it was mostly incredibly touching, sentimental in the best ways, and even charming and humorous. This particular song was one of the more heartfelt of the evening of as it deals with the feeling of dealing with someone you love that is dying and them trying to encourage you to move on with your own life even if you may feel your own world is ending.
And that’s that! One more batch of 25 will be coming up soon! I will probably save that additional post for tomorrow.