Best Showtunes Evah

Some years ago Adam Feldman at Time Out New York asked me to contribute some entries for a grand list of "Best Broadway Songs of All Time." I had nothing to do with the voting or the ranking (the Top 3, if you want to cut to the chase, were "Rose's Turn," "O'l Man River," and "Finishing the Hat"), but I was offered a choice from among the chosen 50 songs of which I wanted to write about, and was happy to land some of my favorites (lots of Rodgers, and both Tesoris!). The whole thing is worth a read, featuring pieces by Feldman, David Cote, Raven Snook, and James Gavin. Here are my contributions, with the number in the list they held.

5. “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific (1949)
Good music is onomatopoeia in reverse--sound formed from, and hence transmitting, meaning. That’s certainly the case with this swooning mini-aria, which wraps a pro-forma romantic message in a creamy musical envelope; even without Hammerstein’s lyrics, typically warbled by an operatic baritone with a heavy European accent, Rodgers’s tune by itself conjures ephemeral intoxication. And lest this song’s stand-alone hit status and oddly speculative second-person voice (“You may see a stranger”) make us forget: This love bomb drops in South Pacific’s first scene, where it functions as a marriage proposal. Who says no to that?

14. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel (1945)
The best of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s secular hymns had a dual purpose in its original setting: as a bit of grief counseling for newly widowed Julie Jordan after her husband’s suicide, and as a climactic high school graduation anthem for their daughter. To meet both demands, Hammerstein contributed almost entirely monosyllabic lyrics and Rodgers banked his fire, keeping things folk-simple till the arrival of the title phrase, for which he unleashed a cloud-bursting chord per syllable. The song’s repurposing has continued: It’s the official club anthem of Liverpool’s soccer team.

18. “Aquarius” from Hair (1968)
For a musical purportedly running on hippie flower power and gloopy starshine, it’s striking that Hair's bookends are a pair of bad-ass minor-key blues chorales: this funky, driving opener and the rafter-shaking closer “Let the Sun Shine In.” Wafting in like stage fog over a brooding organ and a siren-like wail of guitar feedback, “Aquarius” may proffer dubious astrology and peacenik platitudes, courtesy lyricists James Rado and Gerome Ragni, but composer Galt MacDermot’s churning, darkly tuneful music both grounds and elevates it.

12. “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof (1964)
Some theatre songs are whole plays in miniature; that this is one of them maybe shouldn’t be surprising, as it’s based on one of the Sholem Aleichem folk tales not used for the show’s main plot. As such it’s less an “I want” song than an “I am” song--a wistful introduction not to the things that drive the poor milkman Tevye but to how he sees himself. Amid the affectionate domestic humor of Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics is an insight the original Tevye, Zero Mostel, insisted the writers keep: This is a man whose ultimate idea of luxury is more time to pray and read the Torah.

23. “Lot’s Wife” from Caroline, or Change (2004)
This stunning 11 o’clock number would be overwhelming if it all weren’t so clearly and forcefully laid out by playwright/lyricist Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori. As Caroline, an embittered black maid who has squabbled over pocket change with the young son of the Jewish family she serves, wrenchingly weighs her complicity in her own misery, she tears through shifting meters and styles, presses words through multiple meanings (“Pocket change change me,” a climactic cry of “Flat!” that piles spiritual and musical connotations onto her hot iron), and reaches a kind of truce with her own rage.

29. “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home (2015)
A great theatre song goes places, but few travel as unexpectedly far and deep as this ebullient epiphany from the musical of Alison Bechdel’s memoir. The first trip is back in time, as 43-year-old Alison recalls her 10-year-old self admiring a butch lesbian she glimpsed at a diner; but the song’s real journey is the steep inward dive inspired by that shock of recognition. Lisa Kron’s lyric judiciously balances childlike precocity with stereotype-free hindsight, as Jeanine Tesori’s music spins subtly swelling cartwheels underneath, but the genius move is to leave blank space for young Alison to literally think out loud: “I feel…” and “I want...to....” and “I...um…” Into these spaces a whole heart, and a lifetime, can rush.

39. “Something Wonderful” from The King and I (1951)
Open-hearted, ploddingly earnest Oscar Hammerstein II could be underrated in the indirection department. After all, he gave this strange, and strangely moving, pep-talk anthem to a supporting character, Lady Thiang, at a pivotal point in the impasse between the show’s quasi-romantic leads. As the King’s elder wife lauds, with a mix of damning faint praise and sincere special pleading, her monarch’s fickle, flickering greatness, she somehow makes Anna--and us--feel it. It doesn’t hurt that Richard Rodgers rose majestically to the occasion, crafting a monumental, angular musical portrait of the song’s offstage subject.

44. “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma! (1943)
The musical’s version of the screwball comedy trope of the Lovers Who Can’t See They’re in Love, the “Of course I’m not in love with you (yet)” song has many fine exemplars (Carousel’s “If I Loved You,” Brigadoon’s “Almost Like Being in Love,” Guys and Dolls’s “I’ll Know”) but few as witty, playfully reciprocal, and, yes, sexy, as this bit of romantic gamesmanship, which features one of Richard Rodgers’s most felicitously constructed and artfully ornamented tunes (listen for the sly inversion of notes on “Don’t throw” and “Don’t start”).

46. “Anything Goes” from Anything Goes (1934)
Cole Porter wrote more than his share of durable melodies, but arguably his true metier was this kind of brittle, urbane word jazz, a kind of proto-hip-hop in which rhythmic flow and rhyming invention were everything. Though his original lyrics, full of wicked references to scandals and contretemps of his day, have often been censored or substituted with less topical variants, a listen to his original demo reveals that it isn’t arrangers or interpreters who’ve made Porter’s standards rock: The high-wire syncopations, feints, and sheer brass are all built into the original model.

49. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from My Fair Lady (1956)
The first act of Shaw’s Pygmalion ends with Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle indulging in the luxury of a cab ride home to her Drury Lane digs. My Fair Lady’s first scene ends similarly, but not before she imagines--in this jaunty, syncopated minuet, one of many seemingly effortless, ageless gems in Lerner and Loewe’s score--earthly comforts so modest (heat, chocolate, a chair) that the song would be heartbreaking if it weren’t for its warm grin. It’s the “I want” song of someone with little reason to believe she’ll attain it, and it’s all the sweeter for it.

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