Friday, May 10, 2013

The 100 Greatest Broadway Songs - Part VII


SONG #79
"The Surrey With a Fringe On Top"
from Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
sung by Curly, Laurey & Aunt Eller
When Richard Rodgers was writing with lyricist Lorenz Hart in the 1920s and 1930s, the shows they came up with were primarily repositories for the songs.  Meaning the characters were tailored to the songs written (much like most of the shows by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or even The Gershwins!).  But when Rodgers paired up with the writer of the landmark Show Boat, Oscar Hammerstein II, Rodgers was venturing into new territory by working with a lyricist who tailored songs to characters.  And this song was Rodgers' foray into what is known as a "book song" (a song that is driven more by plot or character rather than just to have a Musical number!).  Hammerstein was very much the dominant force throughout their partnership and because of that, story and character came first leaving Rodgers to focus on more ambitious scores.  The mixture of Hammerstein's knack for quaint lyrics and Rodgers' orchestral ambitions (The music sounds like a trotting horse! Genius!) made for quite the pairing.  No wonder they were the most influential partnership in Broadway history!

SONG #78
"Someone To Watch Over Me"
from Oh, Kay!
Music by George Gershwin
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
sung by Kay
A lot can be said for the Musical genius that was George Gershwin (I mean, just listen to Rhapsody In Blue!).  And he certainly had a lot of influences from the world of Jazz ("Fascinating Rhythm!").  But, like any genius, Gershwin also knew how to write simple and even sweet tunes...and compose them well.  Add in his brother Ira's sweet lyrics and you have one of their most popular songs.  This song first appeared in a not-so-famous Musical that was a vehicle for the British stage star Gertrude Lawrence (played above in the 1969 biopic Star! by Julie Andrews).  It has since been recorded by everyone from Leontyne Price to Frank Sinatra to Aretha Franklin to Michael Bublé to many more.  It also gets appropriated into every Musical that utilizes the vast Gershwin canon (for example, 1992's Crazy For You and 2012's Nice Work If You Can Get It).

SONG #77
"Putting It Together"
from Sunday In the Park With George
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
sung by George & Company
In every Musical Stephen Sondheim has written, he always has (at least) one song that blatantly confronts the primary themes of that show.  This is one of them (you will see some others of his later in this list!).  In this song, Sondheim addresses the quintessential Artist's Dilemma.  Every artist has always struggled with the definition of success, mainly because there are two: Artistic success and Commercial success.  And it is hard for artists to make those two kinds of successes meet.  I remember when I was in college, my Literary Theory course spent a whole week discussing the Oprah's Book Club sticker and whether it is an example of "High Art" (meaning of great artistic quality) or "Low Art" (meaning it is popular or commercial, therefore it is of low quality).  The ultimate question being: Do Art and Commerce ever merge (and merge happily!)?  In Sunday In the Park With George, Sondheim's lead character George espouses the many problems and difficulties in trying to make a work of Art (i.e. funding, criticism, input, ego, etc.).  To some critics, it was Sondheim's own way of venting his frustrations with the Theatre world's own "commercialism."

SONG #76
"Anything Goes"
from Anything Goes
Music & Lyrics by Cole Porter
sung by Reno Sweeney & Company
Cole Porter was very adept at dangling his toe on that line between quaintly clever lyrics and slightly risqué lyrics.  For the Ethel Merman vehicle Anything Goes, he turned the tables on those who criticized his "bluer" lyrics by writing a title number that glorifies the things that are shocking and surprising.  Merman's character, Reno Sweeney, was an Evangelical performer who knew the seedy sides of life (or at least pretended she did!) and stated that nothing in this world shocked her because (as the title says) Anything Goes!

SONG #75
"Seasons of Love"
from Rent
Music & Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
sung by The Company
It is a story that if you told anyone, they wouldn't believe you.  How many shows have their composer/lyricist/librettist be the creative driving force of the Musical all while it is readying Off-Broadway only to die (of an un-diagnosed aneurysm) on the night of the final dress rehearsal?  As unbelievable as that story is, it is all completely true.  Jonathan Larson, who spent most of his post-college youth as a struggling songwriter while waiting tables at a greasy spoon, composed his modern-day adaptation of Puccini's La Boheme and was able to get it developed at the (then-unknown) New York Theatre Workshop.  After his untimely death, the show opened Off-Broadway then quickly transferred to Broadway's Nederlander Theatre (behind Times Square on 41st Street!) winning every single award of the season (Tony, Obie and even the Pulitzer Prize!).  This song, which opens the show's second act, soon became a haunting anthem for life and how we "measure" ourselves.

SONG #74
"As Long As He Needs Me"
from Oliver!
Music & Lyrics by Lionel Bart
sung by Nancy
In Charles Dickens' classic Oliver Twist, Nancy is your basic "hooker with a heart of gold."  She also is the ultimate doomed abused "wife."  She is in love with the menacing and cruel Bill Sykes and she cannot stay away from him, no matter how badly he treats her (sounds like a Tammy Wynnette song, doesn't it?).  When Lionel Bart wrote his Musical version Dickens' novel, he composed a song that stated Nancy's struggle.  It is a beautiful torch song-like ballad (probably because the original Nancy, Georgia Brown, was a phenomenal torch singer and actress).  After being recorded by Eydie Gorme (for which she won a Grammy), Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey, the song became a very popular audition song for young actresses. It even became the centerpiece of the reality series I'd Do Anything where actresses competed to be cast as Nancy in a London revival of Oliver!.

SONG #73
"Bosom Buddies"
from Mame
Music & Lyrics by Jerry Herman
sung by Mame Dennis & Vera Charles
It is very rare that a Broadway show features a duet between women, let alone a friendly duet.  So when Jerry Herman was writing the Musical version of the hit play Auntie Mame, he felt there needed to be a duet between Mame and her close hard-drinking friend Vera Charles.  And being the strong personalities the two characters are, the song (while about their friendship) is as much about the horrible "truths" they tell each other (only a true friend will "tell you the whole stinkin' truth!").  The bitchiness these women show each other is all in fun as displayed above by the ladies who originated the roles of Mame and Vera on stage: Angela Lansbury and the late Bea Arthur.

Tomorrow, some more fantastic Broadway songs from shows "across the pond," "down in the village" and direct from the Great White Way!

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