10 Totally Under – appreciated Musical Theatre Songs
Musical theatre is still a relatively new art form, but one that is growing at a rapid pace. If we take Oklahoma as the marker to when the ‘modern’ musical was born (some would argue the genesis would be Show Boat, but that’s for another blog), we have just over a century’s worth of songs and shows to discover; the canon is always much bigger than you think! So I’ve handpicked ten of my favourite b-sides to shine the limelight on here. I only gave myself a few restrictions: it has to be a song generally not in the public consciousness, I can’t pick more than one song from the same show and I should ‘try’ to keep to one song per writer/s (mainly to avoid this becoming a list of Sondheim songs from the 1980s, although I could have totally done that). Spoilers ahead.
1 – What Would You Do? from Cabaret, by John Kander & Fred Ebb
I always have to remind myself that Cabaret was written in the 1960s. It manages to maintain its theatrical facade whilst holding up a mirror in the most shatteringly honest way, making it unbelievably ahead of it’s time as far as musicals are concerned (I understand I’ve overlooked The Threepenny Opera in that statement, but is it a musical?). The music seems to be filled with darkness and tritones (I imagine Kander listened to West Side Story before writing this song), but what is more interesting is the hope which lines through the whole song. Each tritone phrase always stretches itself to the major resolution, with the general direction of the song doing every it harmonically can to get back to the major key. Frau. Schneider feels she cannot marry her fiancé as he is a Jew and has been strongly advised against such marriage by her long time friend (who happens to be a Nazi). This song is her response.
2 – Beautiful from Sunday In The Park With George, by Stephen Sondheim
Beautiful is never really a song people mention when talking about this show, so I want to give it some attention. It takes place near the end of the first act and is a duet between George and his mother. It’s a very delicate moment in the show, where it seems for the first time, George is genuinely trying to connect with someone, albeit still talking about his art. They sit and look at the view from the park and comment on how it is changing. His mother wants it to stay the same and never change (there’s plans for a new Exposition) and implores him to draw it all before it fades away. George tries to explain that the fact the world is changing is what makes it beautiful (Pretty isn’t beautiful, mother / Pretty is what changes / What the eye arranges / Is what is beautiful). His mother keeps her ground, yet concludes it is not the view, but George himself that makes it beautiful. It’s simple, yet heart-wrenchingly ‘beautiful’.
3 – Raining from Rocky, by Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty
Rocky was an overlooked show, in an overcrowded Broadway season of musicals, in which many shows were left out any significant Tony Award spotlight (such as If/Then, Bullets Over Broadway, The Bridges Of Madison County). However, two years prior to its Broadway flop, Rocky was a huge success in Germany and contains some really beautiful songs by Ahrens and Flaherty. The atmospheric Raining is sung near the beginning of the show by Adrian, and its purpose is two-part; it gives us an insight into her backstory (something the movie lacks), as well as showing her inability to escape her drowning mind and forge her own destiny, with her concluding she’d rather let destiny itself guide her to Rocky. The music perfectly captures the pitter-patter of the rain, before flooding out in the chorus. It’s so emotive, you really feel like she’s underwater. If you need a pop-MT song that isn’t a total belt-fest, this is the song for you.
4 – April Fooled Me, by Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields
The tune of what would become the song April Fooled Me was originally just an instrumental, written by Kern, discarded and left unpublished. It was only until after his death, that his widow, Eva, sent the melody to his longstanding collaborator, Dorothy Fields. Upon receipt, she said that she ‘simply had to write a lyric to it’. The lyric is terribly melancholic with echoes of her grief for Kern’s passing, despite being written nearly a decade after his death. They were both very close collaborators. It was first recorded (with great secrecy, a new Kern song was like a new iPhone coming out), along with two other ‘new’ Kern songs that Dorothy penned after his death, as part of a compilation of neglected Kern songs entitled ‘Premiere Performance!’. But my favourite recording of this song is in Dorothy’s own ‘An Evening With’ cabaret (the name of the singer escapes me).
5 – I’m A Stranger Here Myself from A Touch of Venus, by Kurt Weill & Ogden Nash
Behind the scenes, A Touch of Venus has a great backstage 42nd Street-esque story; if it wasn’t for Marlene Dietrich pulling out of the show (apparently the role of Venus was too sexy and full of profanity), a little-known star called Mary Martin wouldn’t have had her big break. Mary would go on to have a huge career, known for creating the titular role in Peter Pan, as well as originating Maria in The Sound of Music. The show is a farce and a brilliant one at that. A very expensive and long-lost statue of Venus, the goddess of love, is awakened by Rodney, our leading man, by him placing the engagement ring he plans to give to his fiancé onto the statue’s finger. Upon awakening (bearing in mind how long she’s been imprisoned in marble), she instantly falls in love with Rodney, and sings this jazzy torch song as she tries to get up to speed with the present day’s idea of love.
6 – The Wanting Of You from Alphabet City Cycle, by Georgia Stitt & Marcy Heisler
Alphabet City Cycle is a curious little work. It’s a song cycle, but not quite a show, with certainly no over-arching plot. It’s only five songs, sung by five different citizens of the titular City (though intended as a one-woman performance). In this opening song, we find the Student on Avenue B, lamenting a lover. The song has distinctively dark, angular, with all the mysterious jazzy feels you could ask for, matching the equally misty imagery of the lyric. Have you ever tried to consciously forget about something, but all you can think about is the thing you’re trying to forget? In a nutshell, that’s this song. I love the opening lyric of the 2nd chorus: ‘The wanting of you / It wakes me up at half past two / With long gone shadows I converse / I think it can’t get any worse / but how I know that isn’t true’.
7 – Go With The Flow from Finding Nemo – The Musical, by Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez
Finding Nemo – The Musical is currently playing at the Theater In The Wild at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom and opened back in 2006. It’s only about 40 mins long, but has big Broadway production values, fish puppets galore and a score written by the geniuses behind the songs of Frozen. Despite its short length, it really is of Broadway standard. It’s a staple of the structures of Disney musicals, in which 2/3rds into the 1st act comes a big uplifting ensemble number, often with a dance break and glittering set pieces – for example, Be Our Guest (Beauty and the Beast), Friend Like Me (Aladdin), Under The Sea (The Little Mermaid). In Nemo, this number is the upbeat Beach Boys pastiche, Go With The Flow. It takes place in the East Australian Current, where Marlin and Dory meet the sea turtle, Crush, and his son, Squirt, as well as other friends turtles riding the current. It’s a really important number in the show and it’s very classily done. Marlin finally meets a reflection of himself – Crush is a single dad with young a son, Squirt – and also witnesses the moment Crush allows his son to swim out of the current, mirroring the moment when Nemo swims away from the drop-off, planting the seed in his mind that makes him question his unwillingness to let go of Nemo. With a little help from Crush, he realises that parents may never truly know when their child is ready to leave the nest. As Crush sings, “Well you never really know/ But if you’re ever gonna know/ then you’ve got to let them go”. A great high tenor song, especially for showing off a pop’y falsetto.
8 – Something Good from The Sound Of Music, by Richard Rodgers
Eagle-eyed readers will notice the omission of Oscar Hammerstein II above. This is correct; Hammerstein had died five years prior to the film version of The Sound of Music. This is one of the few times that Rodgers wrote his own lyrics after Hammerstein’s death. You could say he had the best training for the job, having collaborated for the best part of two and a half decades with the godfather of musical theatre, culminating in this being his best lyrical effort. As is customary in movie musical adaptions, the running order of songs is changed (My Favorite Things being the obvious example here), songs a removed entirely (the trio, No Way To Stop It) and new songs are written to supplement or replace existing material. Two songs were written especially for this film; I Have Confidence and the superior Something Good. It’s a tender and sweet moment, where Maria and the Captain finally confess their love for each other. I personally love the fact that this scene takes place in the same gazebo as the song Sixteen Going On Seventeen, gently hammering in the idea that love transcends age. The music, as you’d expect from Rodgers, is drop-dead gorgeous, with each chord stretching every heartstring that he can.
9 – Lot’s Wife from Caroline, Or Change, by Jeanine Tesori & Tony Kushner
The popular opera (or the folk opera, as it was called in the days of Porgy & Bess) is a peculiar form. It has to achieve familiarity with its audience, but currently more than ever, needs to switch between styles effortlessly. Another example of this form is Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Caroline, Or Change is a marvel of the form. Although it is billed as a musical, it really runs more like a pop-opera. When you watch the show, it feels like the characters are just talking to each other, even though it is sung-through. There’s a real synergy between the music and the lyric here. This emphasises the fact you are not watching a show with big sweeping moments and massive plot points, but rather the writers have chosen a few days in the life of these characters to simply show the way they interact and behave. The show does have those big sweeping passes every audience yearns for, but the key here is that it all stems from the characters, rather than any massive changes of circumstances. Noah, the little boy of the household that Caroline is a maid for, keeps leaving his change in his pockets when it goes in the laundry. His mum, Rose, insists Caroline keep the change, in turn giving Noah a lesson in being careless with his pennies and quarters. Upon learning this, Noah then starts leaving his change in his pockets on purpose for Caroline. This tiny change of circumstance grows and grows to the point where Noah leaves a $20 note, by accident. A big argument between Noah and Caroline takes place, where both exchanges strong racial and antisemitic curses. Caroline instantly regrets her choice words and hands the $20 note back to Noah. Upon contemplation, she sings Lot’s Wife, in which she prays to God for forgiveness for her hate. I know for some, the show is marmite, you either love it or hate it. But I would suggest the response is to the form, rather than the show itself.
Unfortunately the cast album is not available in the UK, but here’s a YouTube link to Tonya Pinkins’s Tony Awards performance: https://youtu.be/UjlYfdKuoTM –
10 – Cheering For Me Now (A Hamildrop) by Lin Manuel Miranda and John Kander
Perhaps this song isn’t particularly under-appreciated and I know it’s not technically from a musical, but it’s far too interesting to not talk about. Who knew that a little show about a widow who establishes an orphanage would become a worldwide phenomenon? As part of expanding their marketing tactics, new arrangements of songs already in the Hamilton (I believe the young people call these ‘remixes’) or cut songs from the show were released on a monthly basis, to maintain interest in the show (though I’m sure that’s not too hard to accomplish). However, this is by far the most interesting ‘drop’. Rather than releasing a cut song from the show, a cut moment was chosen, in which Alexander Hamilton (did you just sing it in your head? Did you?) was to be an onlooker of a parade in New York, celebrating the state’s adoption of the constitution. According to Miranda, the moment chronologically would take place during, what is now, Non-stop (the big Act One finale sequence), hence why the moment couldn’t have been exploited in the show. Brilliantly though, Miranda decides to revisit this abandoned moment, but with the expert assistance of John Kander. Apart from Ethel Merman’s disco album (and this is at a stretch), I have never truly experienced listening to an alternative version of a pre-existing show, to the point where you think you are in an alternate universe. Once you’ve listened to it, you can’t help but think what the rest of the show might have sounded like with Kander’s music. What I also love is Miranda’s clear demonstration of lyrical skill here. His lyrics for Hamilton are fast and furious like the card-shooting machine you get with the UNO card game. Not all of the rhymes are true rhymes (for instance in the opening number, Miranda rhymes father/harder/ smarter) and this is a big issue for some. But I would argue that this choice is not by lack of skill but completely deliberate as it is correct of the hip-hop musical style. Here, Miranda finally proves this point, by writing a Kander showstopper in a familiar structure, very neatly packed lyrics and, yes, all perfect and true rhymes. Every single one.