VULTURE LISTS JUNE 8, 2017
The 30 Best Broadway Songs of the Past 40 Years
By Rachel Shukert
What is the modern American musical theater? What are its best songs? When does it even most properly begin? Must we now divide everything into “Before Hamilton” and “After Hamilton,” as with the birth of Jesus Christ himself? Phantom of the Opera is still running — would “Before Phantom” and “After Phantom” be more appropriate? Is there even one genuinely good song in Phantom? How much Sondheim can you cram into a listicle before even your most dedicated base gets restless? And were there more than three good new musicals on Broadway in the whole of the 1990s? These questions, along with many others, were the ones I asked myself as I sat down to write this list.
Why only the past 40 years? Why not the best show tunes of all time? Well, first of all, because Broadway has been around since the late 19th century, and I’m only one small human being (no matter what Eric Trump might say) and human beings tend to function best within fathomable limits. And also, the past 40 years encapsulate the post-Vietnam era, on Broadway no less than in America itself, and have brought us to our present state of societal and emotional collapse: the cynical Weimar-like decadence of the late ’70s (and also, Annie); the greed, bombast, and conservatism of the ’80s (and the quiet intellectual resistance that sprung up in reaction to it); the AIDS crisis, which devastated New York City, and the Broadway community in particular; the wholesome commercialism of the ’90s and the Disneyfication of Times Square (a cultural phenomenon that, while for many regrettable, is nonetheless important enough that I decided to make eligible songs that originated in Disney movies before turning up on the Great White Way); the confusion and vague paranoia of the early aughts, in a city still reeling in the aftermath of 9/11, and the optimistic, tolerant multiculturalism of the Obama years, which now feels as though it was all an impossible dream, the way it must have to listen to the original soundtrack of Camelot during the Nixon administration.
So that seemed like plenty, and what eventually came out is a list that is deeply personal, probably idiosyncratic, and certainly may not please everyone. I don’t apologize for this (although I do apologize for having never seen, or even listened to, The Light in the Piazza. I’m sure I’ll hear about that, and I know exactly from whom). Because that’s what the musical theater is: a deeply personal, deeply ingrained identification that is often formed early in childhood and never lets go. Different songs mean different things to you at different times in your life; other songs drive you crazy but you find yourself powerless to deny their greatness (and still know every single word. And cry at them, sometimes, when it’s late and you’ve had a couple drinks).
So here are the 30 songs from a few more years than I’ve been around that have meant something to me. And because each of our own realities is finite and definitive, I will say: They are unquestioningly the Greatest 30 Show Tunes of the Past 40 Years. Enjoy, and tell me why I’m wrong in the comments!
30. “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (Avenue Q; 2003)
A lot of people are a whole lot racist, is my main takeaway from the past year. But that doesn’t detract from the appeal of this plucky charmer about the ubiquity of microaggressions, in that nostalgic time when America actually had the decency to hide its latent bigotry behind a veneer of shame or at least politesse, and if you wanted to say something really outrageous, it was better to have a big fuzzy orange puppet do it for you. (And it still is, come to think of it, except we were all better off when it was John Tartaglia’s hand up his ass instead of Vladimir Putin’s.)
29. “Defying Gravity” (Wicked, 2003)
The Venn diagram of Idina Menzel fans and aspiring YouTube tween stars is not so much a diagram as a single solid circle, and without Stephen Schwartz’s (literally) uplifting and defiant ballad of female empowerment, what would they do? (Be stuck singing “Omigod, You Guys” from Legally Blonde over and over again, that’s what.) But what makes “Defying Gravity” such a watershed moment onstage and in song isn’t just the sunny, “You Go Girl #WomenWhoWork” message that women, if they put their minds to it, are unstoppable; it’s the not-so-veiled threat that women, when they put their minds to it, are unstoppable. Wizards everywhere should be very afraid.
28. “Take Me or Leave Me” (Rent; 1996)
Female duets are few and far between on the Broadway stage (“Every Day a Little Death?” “Marry the Man Today?” “If Mama Was Married”? “I Will Never Leave You”? “Defying Gravity,” sort of? Am I disproving my own point?) Anyway. Girls still tend to outnumber boys in any given Broadway-themed voice class, so whenever there’s something great they can sing together, it deserves recognition. Particularly when it’s a number as fierce and feisty as Maureen and Joanne’s unapologetic lovers’ quarrel from Rent. Other songs in the show are more ubiquitous, more sentimental, more imbued with their own sense of grandeur and tragedy and importance — but none of them are this much fun. All this, and it passes the Bechdel test! And, speaking of Bechdel …
27. “Ring of Keys” (Fun Home; 2015)
… A friend of mine likes to say that the only thing anyone truly wants out of life — or art — is to be seen and understood for who they are. Of course, in order to be seen for who you are, you have to be first shown who you want to be. The gorgeous “Ring of Keys,” from Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name, manages to capture this precise moment of discovery, when a butch woman walks — no, swaggers — into a luncheonette “with your short hair/And your dungarees/And your ring of keys/Oh oh/Your ring of keys” showing the character based on Bechdel’s yearning younger self a reassuring, exciting — and unapologetically sexy — vision of her future, in what may be one of the most perfect “I Want” songs ever written.
26. “Let Me Be Your Star” (Bombshell; 20–??)
I’m not going to argue about this with you. Bombshell, the show-within-a-show from NBC’s late, lamented Smash is a real Broadway show (although we’re still not sure if Julia Houston a.k.a. my cousin Debra Messing, ever exactly finished the book.) It has been performed, live in concert, with real Broadway actors. If, in our collective alternate dream history, Smash had run for 21 seasons, beating Gunsmoke as the longest-running network television drama in history, it might have actually run on Broadway for real, with Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty battling it out each night for the title role, or at least alternating like Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon in The Little Foxes — and then we’d all have to go twice, and there would be fistfights in the lobby over whether Karen or Ivy was the better Marilyn, and Hillary Clinton would be president but she would still show up on opening night to a glorious standing ovation because this would be a world in which the opening of a new Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman musical on Broadway would be a considered a state occasion. But even in our present bleak reality, “Let Me Be Your Star,” in which Marilyn Monroe pleads with an unseen director/audience/network executive/Satan to grant her fame and fortune in return for her youth, health, and soul is everything you want a big, exciting, aching show biz ballad to be. And for a brief shining moment in the New York City of 2013, it would even occasionally play upon my own late-entrances into a certain kind of dingy late-night piano bar, allowing me to swan across the filthy carpet like Angela Lansbury taking the stage at a long-ago Tony Awards ceremony to the strains of “If He Walked Into My Life.” Nothing has ever made me happier. Nothing.
25. “Back to Before” (Ragtime; 1998)
Around the time Ragtime opened on Broadway, I started as a freshman at NYU. All incoming freshmen that year were required to read the novel the musical was based on, as a way of acquainting us with the history of our adopted city, and the work of its author E.L. Doctorow, who had been named the Official Writer of NYU that year, or something. To make a long and uninteresting story short, the end result was that I wound up seeing the original Broadway production of Ragtime four times. While I certainly worship Audra McDonald as much as any other sentient theatergoing human being (not to mention some who are well beyond sentience) I can’t say the show itself left much of an impression on me, beyond some white dresses and thinking that if it had debuted 15 years earlier, Tateh would definitely have been played by Mandy Patinkin (not that Peter Friedman wasn’t perfectly great). But now that we find ourselves in this reactionary moment, when large swaths of the country seem desperate to return to a time of “women in white, and sturdy young men at the oar,” I find myself listening to this song at least once a week and marveling at how it manages to wistfully empathize with the pull of nostalgia while defiantly — and gorgeously, in Marin Mazzie’s original interpretation — proclaiming how impossible and indeed undesirable it would be to return to a time where “there were no Negroes and there were no immigrants.” We can never go back to before.
24. “Unworthy of Your Love” (Assassins; 1990 Off Broadway; 2004 Broadway)
This melody has the purity of a campfire sing-along, and the obsessiveness of someone who has sublimated their soul so completely to another being that they are literally willing to commit murder on his or her behalf. Which is why it makes perfect sense that this song is the reason I named my dog Charlie, for the sole purpose of singing to him on our long walks around the neighborhood: “I am … nothing/You are/Wind and devil and God, Charlie/Take my blood and my body for your love.” So far, he hasn’t ordered me to kill. Yet.
23. “As If We Never Said Goodbye” (Sunset Boulevard; 1993)
What, you thought we were going to get through 40 years of musical theater and somehow not talk about Andrew Lloyd Webber? Well, you were wrong, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t give mention to the most — and arguably only — emotionally satisfying song in Sunset Boulevard. Sung by the delusional silent-film legend Norma Desmond as she sets foot on the studio lot for the first time in years, it has many of the issues endemic to the best of Sir ALW’s work — a repetitive, if instantly hummable, melody; lyrics that are, shall we say, not quite elevated — and yet, it manages to so effectively capture the “… early morning magic/And the magic in the making” that characterizes a hushed film set that I’ve never been able to drive through the gates of a Hollywood studio lot without it instantly implanting itself in my head.
22. “Memory” (Cats; 1981)
Fuck it. Let’s just rip the Andrew Lloyd Webber Band-Aid all off at once. (Lloyd Webber fans, please accept my apologies if my flip tone about his contribution to the theater is hurting your feelings. I know these preferences are created in childhood and often deeply felt. But as our once-great nation is wracked with seemingly irreconcilable divisions that brought us closer to the brink of civil war than any time in over a century, I feel confident that we can put our differences aside for the greater good of the international community, and move forward together with mutual love and respect. Als
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