Show Tunes Are Getting Some Respect Again
After years of being on the outs, songs written for Broadway are back in vogue — for better or verse
John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle. Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.
Who didn’t own the soundtrack to West Side Story? Released in 1961, when I was in junior high, it was the No. 1 album on the Billboard charts for 54 consecutive weeks. That’s still the longest No. 1 one run for any album, including Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
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On side two of the Meet the Beatles album Paul McCartney crooned "Till There Was You" from The Music Man. Nobody thought it odd in 1964. It was just a beautiful ballad.
I don’t know why, but for a long time now show tunes have been considered the uncoolest of musical genres. Maybe it's because they're too romantic or overly rousing. Want to get sent home on American Idol? Sing a show tune. The judges hate them. “Too cabaret,” they’ll whine. Want to dis a guy? Just say, "I hear he likes show tunes." There’s even a Facebook site called “I Hate Show Tunes.”
Why Show Tunes Are Still Cool
People who say they hate show tunes don’t realize they are trashing most of the standards in the Great American Songbook, from “Old Man River” to “Summertime” to “The Lady Is a Tramp.” Our most admired tunesmiths, like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, wrote most of their songs for the Broadway stage.
You don’t hear jazz musicians bad-mouthing show tunes. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Zoot Sims and Chet Baker were always riffing on them. It seems every jazz instrumentalist has recorded "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. It transcends the Von Trapps.
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All the legendary jazz singers covered songs rooted in the theater: Anita O’Day, June Christy, Billy Eckstein, Billie Holiday. Sublime is the only word to describe Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, a double album. In his book, Jazz Singing, music critic Will Friedwald calls the 1962 album Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley a masterpiece. I have the CD. I play it constantly. I recently lent it to friends who said they didn’t like show tunes. They do now.
Show tunes tell stories. Lyricists are poets: Johnny Mercer, Oscar Hammerstein Jr., Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Dorothy Fields. Stephen Sondheim has written two books about his lyrics, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat.
Something's Coming, Something Good
But take heart, show-tune aficionados. They may not be as dead as Poor Jud after all. There are definite signs of life!
The music industry was shocked last January when the soundtrack to Les Miserables hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and stayed there for a few weeks. It beat out Mumford & Sons' Babel and Linkin Park’s Living Things. The TV show Glee, which wallows in show tunes and production numbers, is getting some of its highest ratings this season.
Anyone who assumes show tunes are just for the Michael Feinstein* set should talk to Jack Black. The actor and lead singer of the satirical hard rock band Tenacious D, recently told NPR’s Terry Gross that he loves the genre and was in his high school production of The Music Man.
Trey Anastasio, the front man for the indie jam band Phish, was on Morning Joe last week to talk about Hands on a Hardbody, a musical that just opened on Broadway. He wrote the music. “I’ve been a big musical theater fan all of my life,” he told Joe Scarborough. “Since my boyhood it’s been my dream to work on a musical. I love shows like Gypsy."
Anastasio should meet Cyndi Lauper for drinks at Sardi's one night. They have a lot in common. The "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" pop icon wrote the music and lyrics for Kinky Boots, a Broadway musical now in previews. She too loved show tunes as a kid. In an interview with the Associated Press, she said she grew up compulsively singing along to her mother's cast albums. "I was alone a lot, but I didn't feel alone. When I sang with those records, I'd be Julie Andrews and there was Rex Harrison sitting on my mother's bed. I was Mitzi Gaynor. I was Ezio Pinza ... Mary Martin, too — I was all of them."
Could 'Jaws the Musical' Be Next?
One of the biggest advocates of the “I heart show tunes” movement is Steven Spielberg, who directed such testosterone-infused fare as Jaws, Saving Private Ryan and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He so admires Broadway musicals that he thought up the concept for the TV series Smash and is the show's executive producer.
In its second season on NBC (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. Eastern time), Smash is about the creative and financial struggles of mounting a Broadway show — in this case, a fictional one called Bombshell, which tells Marilyn Monroe’s rise and fall in song and dance. Columbia Records just released a Bombshell cast album. It features 22 original songs by composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman of Hairspray fame.
OK, now that show tunes are getting some respect again, I feel I can also 'fess up: I have four cast albums on my iPod: West Side Story, South Pacific, Spring Awakening and The Book of Mormon. I listen to them at the health club. The songs rev me up, slow me down and make the time joyously fly by.
As the Gershwins said in "I Got Rhythm," "Who could ask for anything more?”
*To hear all about the history of show tunes, and see interviews with legendary Broadway performers, watch this season's premiere episode of Michael Feinstein's American Songbook on PBS, Friday night, April 5.