Monday, March 31, 2014

Six Songs

Last week, my friend Gordy asked for six of my favorite musical theater songs.
I mean, just six? I can bring down most shows to just six tracks I really love, but the entire musical theatre canon to just six of my top songs? That's a little more daunting. I decided to handle it in a somewhat reasonable fashion. I took one song from a set of relevant or influential composers or composer teams.

I tried to find a song pretty characteristic of the best of their work, while also being something I enjoy listening to over and over again. I also enjoy if they can operate somewhat outside of their context too (adding to their replayability).
I also tried not to think about it too much.

So, here are Six of My Favorite Songs Throughout Musical Theatre.


They Can't Take That Away From Me
- George & Ira Gerswhin, originally for Fred Astaire in the movie Shall We Dance.
It has been sung by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Rod Stewart...And might be most recognizable to musical theatre fans as the parting number of Bobby Child in Crazy for You.
It's a sweet, simple tune: an opening verse (that's omitted from the musical), two A's, a bridge, and one final A. Straightforward, bittersweet, and incredibly catchy.
It's hard to top the Gershwins at their best. I don't have much else to say about it, except it's really lovely.
"Still, I'll always, always keep the memory of..."


Heaven on Their Minds
- Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice, for Jesus Christ Superstar.
If you can find Tony Vincent singing it, that's awesome too. But the Carl Anderson version is the definitive one of course. There's a Ben Vereen one floating around too, but he doesn't quite have the same edge as Anderson, so I prefer Carl's.
I know Lloyd Webber's musicals are a bit of a joke but there is something incredibly entertaining about most of his shows.
Superstar is of particularly interest. I find it to be one of his more ambitious compositions (I'm also a huge fan of Evita, overall) and it is one of those stories I find endlessly captivating. This is the opening number, and Judas is voicing a lot of the frustrations he has with Jesus, but it's almost a reflection of those frustrations shared by people who are slowly turned off by religion, who question their faith.
Plus, Anderson's vocal is just ridiculous.
"We are occupied! Have you forgotten how put down we are!"


King of the World
- Jason Robert Brown, for Songs for a New World.
The difficult part about the song is that it's from a song cycle, with no discernible plot or any real plot overarching the songs together.
But JRB's piano accompaniment and (on the album) Ty Taylor's vocal is absolutely relentless and mind-blowing.
The song itself is beautifully visual. The rough idea is some sort of person wrongfully imprisoned. But one of the fun things about Songs is that we aren't always sure if the narrator is totally reliable or not. If this singer is on the up and up, then the song conjures up these images of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, even Jesus Christ, particularly on the line: "Father said to me: "You are everything, that you see in your dreams.""
But like I said, it is pretty open to interpretations. I've seen versions of the song where by the end the singer ends with getting executed or even committing suicide. Often, there's not a whole lot of room for interpretation, so I appreciate Songs for allowing its performers to create something truly unique with each version.
"Once upon a time, I had tides to control...I had moons to spin, and stars to ignite..."


All That Jazz
- John Kander & Fred Ebb, for Chicago.
I mean, Gordy put it best: This number's just about sex. The musical is musical theatre's glamorization of sex, booze, and violence. It glorifies all of it in its gritty goodness. This opening number says it all. There's a lot of familiar opening notes to songs out there. Jazz is arguably one of them.
"Find a flask, we're playing fast and loose."
  

I Was Here
- Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, for The Glorious Ones.
I know there are quite a few songs I could choose from in terms of Flaherty and Ahrens: Ragtime, Once on This Island, Seussical... (Okay, not the last one...)
But this song just beautifully sums up the struggle and passion of a life lived in the entertainment of others. There's so much richness in the lyric, and the accompaniment is beautifully sweeping.
"I've begged and I've bullied for any small chance to perform."


Someone in a Tree
- Stephen Sondheim, for Pacific Overtures.
From the granddaddy of them all. Now, I could've picked so many of his songs.
I almost went with Finishing the Hat, or even Move On, because Sunday in the Park with George surpasses music, ascends beyond art and beauty.
But there is just something about this song, this underrated, possibly little known song (Pacific isn't performed that much. ...I mean, Sunday in the Park isn't that much either, to be fair) is so pleasing, so engrossing.
A song all about a person's place in the universe, how every little piece is part of the bigger picture. It's sentimental, emotional, and something about how Sondheim strings together harmonies and melodies is just so moving and compelling.
I cannot say enough about this song, because it's always been one of my absolute favorites, one of the first songs that really made me tear up when I first listened to it. And knowing it's Sondheim's favorite composition of everything he's done in his immortal body of work makes it even more special.

"It's the fragment, not the day.
It's the pebble, not the stream.
It's the ripple, not the sea
That is happening.
Not the building but the beam,
Not the garden but the stone,
Only cups of tea
And history
And someone in a tree."