THE 100 GREATEST BROADWAY SONGS
"It Ain't Necessarily So"
from Porgy and Bess
Music by George Gershwin
Lyrics by DuBose Heyward & Ira Gershwin
sung by Sportin' Life & Company
George Gershwin's American masterpiece Porgy and Bess is a powerful mix of Musical Theatre, Opera, Gospel and Jazz. And this song is one of the prime examples of that mixture (particularly the latter two!). While the song is a beautiful Gospel wail with a Jazzy twist, it plays with several biblical stories and (in a sense) "debunks" their validity. The show-stopping character of Sportin' Life, a charming-yet-sleazy drug dealer, is captivating the folks at a Sunday picnic and telling them that the Bible "ain't necessarily so." The melody is somewhat based on the Jewish aliyah that is sung before reading from the Torah (The Hebrew phrase "Bar'chu et adonai ham'vorach" can be loosely translated into "It Ain't Necessarily So."). The song became a favorite of Jazz legend Cab Calloway (who, after popularizing the song, appeared in the 1953 revival of Porgy and Bess as Sportin' Life) and has been recorded and/or performed by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, The Moody Blues, Cher, Hugh Laurie, David Allan Grier (in the 2011 Broadway revival) and Sammy Davis Jr. (in the 1959 film version, shown above).
"I'm Still Here"
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
sung by Carlotta Campion
This is another song that has been covered over and over again. But there is a reason for it. It is a song that showcases a Diva's survival. Written by Stephen Sondheim for his legendary 1971 Musical Follies, it is sung by a character who was once a Broadway chorine but has since gone on to live a life full of ups and downs (originally played on Broadway by Munsters star Yvonne de Carlo, seen above). Sondheim himself has stated that the song was loosely based on the life of Joan Crawford and he even patterned the lyrics after the vernacular style that Dorothy Fields often showcased in the songs she wrote. The song has since been covered by Dolores Gray, Eartha Kitt, Polly Bergen, Carol Burnett, Ann Miller, Elaine Paige, Christine Baranski (all of whom have played the role in some kind of revival!) and Elaine Stritch (who sang the song in her critically lauded one woman show At Liberty). He even re-wrote the song for Shirley MacLaine (when she played a Debbie Reynolds-like mother in Postcards From the Edge) and Barbra Streisand (for her early 1990s Concert tour).
"New York, New York (It's a Helluva Town!)"
from On the Town
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
sung by Gabey, Ozzie & Chip
When choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein had worked on their 1942 ballet Fancy Free about 3 sailors on shore leave in New York, they both felt that if lyrics and a stronger story were added it would make a fantastic smash Musical. Enter Bernstein's friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who were up-and-coming performers/writers that knew New York City and everything it had to offer. At the time, all four future Broadway legends were unknowns in the world of Theatre and so they brought their material to the master showman director George Abbott. With this powerhouse combo, On the Town became one of the biggest Broadway hits of the late WWII-era and made names of Robbins, Bernstein, Comden and Green (the latter two also co-starred in the original production). And this opening number, where the three main characters (the iconic sailors) are excited to be on shore leave in NYC, has since become one of the quintessential songs for arriving in the Big Apple.
"Shall We Dance?"
from The King and I
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
sung by Anna Leonowens & The King of Siam
There is an old Broadway adage that goes: "When two characters are singing a song, they are falling in love; When those two characters are dancing, they are making love." Oscar Hammerstein II, quite possibly the greatest lyricist/librettist in Musical Theatre history, definitely knew this. And it is never more apparent than in this song which comes late in Act II of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic show The King and I. Though the real life Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut of Siam never so much as held hands, for dramatic effect Hammerstein charged the central relationship with a sexual tension that is quite obvious and palapable throughout this song. And it is a simple polka-like tune where Anna is teaching the King how to dance. Maybe they both need a cigarette afterwards!
Music by Galt McDermott
Lyrics by James Rado & Gerome Ragni
sung by Claude, Berger & Company
Up until the late 1960s, Musicals were quite standard and traditional. The music, though influenced over the years by Jazz and Opera, pretty much stayed the same and even popular with audiences. But then two young writers/actors named James Rado and Gerome Ragni conceived of a show that would showcase the counterculture "hippie" movement occurring at the time and they needed to use a funky rock-influenced score (something completely alien to Broadway at the time!). So with rock composer Galt McDermott, they tested the material at a disco club and then caught the attention of New York Shakespeare Festival producer Joseph Papp. Even the rehearsals for the show (run by the late groundbreaking director Tom O'Horgan) were so different from any other show. The characters jumped off the stage and into the audience during the songs. And this title number was no exception. The song was trying to explain to the audience why "hippies" chose to look the way that they did. Even after being covered by the pop-rock group The Cowsills, the song (along with some other songs that will appear later in this list!) helped make the show a huge landmark in the Broadway canon.
In the next post, more Great Broadway Songs will be revealed including three songs that have now been popularized by being covered on FOX's musical hit show Glee.