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The 10 great Broadway songs that made me love musicals

Written by
David Cote

Growing up a straight white boy in small-town New Hampshire, I wasn’t exactly destined to care about Broadway musicals, much less love them and write essays about how we may be living in a new Golden Age. My parents didn’t collect cast albums and we lived 300 miles from New York in a village that didn’t even have a bar. We never watched the Tony Awards. We didn’t dance. We were Catholic. Sure, now and then I’d see a musical movie on TV, but song-and-dance stuff was strictly for The Muppets, Loony Toons and the occasional Mel Brooks sketch. However, I was devouring Shakespeare. I caught the acting bug in school. It was only a matter of time before I saw the light—a spotlight, to be exact, and stepped into it, jazz hands waggling, as the orchestra burst to life. What follows are ten high points on my sentimental journey from innocence to ecstasy.  

1978: “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” from Man of La Mancha
I’m nine years old and discover the 1972 film soundtrack in the family music cabinet (it’s like an iPhone but six feet long and a couple hundred pounds). Decades would pass before I saw the show itself on Broadway in 2002 starring Brian Stokes Mitchell. I become obsessed with Peter O’Toole channeling Rex Harrison and speak-singing the show’s hit anthem, about the nobility of heroism and sacrifice. I play the song over and over, thrilling to O’Toole’s plummy diction and the high-flown sentiments in Joe Darion’s crisp, pulsing lyrics…. Also, I probably stare too long at Sophia Loren on the lavishly illustrated LP jacket. Something stirs in the pre-pubescent mind, an unconscious association between richly orchestrated music, well-turned lyrics and Sophia Loren’s breasts. LISTEN

1986: “Dance at the Gym” from West Side Story
I’m a stage-struck yet shy sophomore: can’t dance, can’t sing, and terrified that someone will ask me. So I’m cast as Glad Hand in our drama club production of the classic. It’s a small role, the unctuous peacemaker at the “Dance at the Gym” played by John Astin in the 1961 movie adaptation. That means I’m onstage, in the background, watching and hoping the Jets and the Sharks get along. I have the chance to admire how Leonard Bernstein dramatizes the clash of cultures using brilliantly alternating musical idioms: pure storytelling through music and movement. Yes, West Side Story was Stephen Sondheim’s first professional gig as a lyricist; it would be a few more years before I became a Sondheim junkie. His contribution to the number is limited (“Mambo!”). It’s the music that gets me. Every time the riotous rhythms melt into the spare, delicate notes from “Maria,” as Tony and Maria gravitate toward each other and sway to the melody, my heart is in my throat. LISTEN

1988: “Sweet Transvestite” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Senior year, high school. The college-age sister of a friend decides that we all must have the Rocky Horror live experience. So she drives us to Boston, to the Harvard Square AMC where midnight screenings of the cult movie welcome “virgins” and “sluts.” The latter group performs in front of the movie screen, singing along, as the audience hurls rude rejoinders and epithets. (Sadly, the tradition ended in 2012.) When Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter arrives and throws off his cape to reveal bustier and fishnets, my mental and emotional hymen is ruptured completely. Doing his Joan Crawford-meets-Noël Coward-and-gets-funky-with-David Bowie act, Curry is sexy, outrageous and terrifying. I don’t know if I should bolt from the theater or jump onstage and join the gyrating mob of glam deviants. I shrink into my seat, gulp and gape. (We’ll see how many more young minds get corrupted when The Rocky Horror Picture Show airs on Fox this fall, starring trans superstar Laverne Cox.) LISTEN

1991: “Another National Anthem” from Assassins
The college years. I’ve become a horrible snob, the sort of bearded, pretentious twerp who thinks true theater is restricted to the Greeks, Shakespeare, Beckett and maybe—just maybe—Sam Shepard. Broadway? Tourist dystopia. Musicals? Bastardized, pop-culture ephemera. Only plays are capable of achieving darkness and complexity. A fellow theater student, let’s call him Nate, has heard enough of my crap. Nate yearns to do musical theater; he’s not sure how he ended up in a backwoods liberal-arts college that stages Otto von Horvath and Timberlake Wertenbaker. So before he transfers the hell out, Nate decides to convert me. He cues up the Off Broadway recording of Stephen Sondheim’s latest show (released that August), and it blows my tiny mind. The passion, the wit, the concatenating rhymes: I cannot believe my ears. “Another National Anthem” shows me what a great show tune is capable of: lyrical dissonance, when the music inspires hope but the words promise doom; alternating sung and spoken sections to dramatic effect; weaving multiple character arcs into a fearsome whole and, generally, using the tropes of a feel-good art form to evoke ecstatic terror. Fuck Horvath. LISTEN

1992: “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd
and “Any Moment / Moments in the Woods” from Into the Woods
Nate’s tutelage continues: We screen the video recordings of Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods and my awe of Sondheim’s musical and lyrical genius grows apace. (I suppose this is a good time to note that picking one song from most great musicals—especially those by Saint Stephen—is a bit random. I understand that.) The frisky inventiveness of “A Little Priest” and its satanic mingling of mirth and sadism leave me breathless. It’s a master class in the list song, and sends you spinning into Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart and Yip Harburg. And “Any Moment/Moments in the Woods” is a perfect example of Sondheim’s famed penchant for evoking ambiguity and heartache. In his songs, people think as they sing, rhyming inseparable from ratiocination. Nate gives me a mixed tape with selections from Merrily We Roll Along and I cold-plunge that shit into the main vein. LISTEN and LISTEN

1992: “The Baseball Game” from Falsettos
My first honest-to-God live Broadway experience is the William Finn–James Lapine musical dramedy about being married with kids, then coming out in NYC in the shadow of AIDS. Attending the show with fellow theater geeks, I feel unbelievably sophisticated and urbane, laughing at jokes I probably don’t fully get. Still, after four years of college, this New England bumpkin can chuckle at camp one-liners and patter-song lyrics about “watching Jewish boys, / Who cannot play baseball, play baseball!” I’m dazzled by Lapine’s smart, complex book and his light-footed staging. I was already a fan of his work on Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George. For me, Finn is the real discovery: a composer-lyricist whose frisky melodies and witty lyrics bear a distinct Sondheim influence, but warmer and more vulnerable. I can’t wait to revisit the show when it returns to Broadway this October starring Christian Borle as ex-married dad Marvin, Andrew Rannells as his lover Whizzer and Stephanie J. Block as ex-wife Trina. LISTEN

2000: “Man” from The Full Monty
Three months at Time Out New York, I review a new musical based on the British indie flick, about a group of unemployed and desperate men who decide to raise money by stripping. Book writer Terrence McNally moved the action to working-class Buffalo, NY and composer-lyricist David Yazbek (then a Broadway newbie) filled the score with funny, funky tunes that had terrific emotional and lyrical range. I get flush with dopamine over Yazbek’s hooks and sneaky, anything-for-a-laugh rhymes (in interviews he names Frank Loesser as a big influence). This is the start of a new millennium on Broadway; six months later, The Producers will blow everyone away—while crushing The Full Monty’s chance at a Tony (10 nominations, no wins). Why do I focus on “Man”? It’s a character song, a classic first-act “I Want” song, full of goofy-inspired rhymes (“You're a man and that's a bonus / 'Cause when you're swinging your cojones / You'll show 'em what testosterone is”) and simply a perfect example of pop-fueled comic tunesmithing that makes you happy. LISTEN

2003: “Defying Gravity” from Wicked
It would be lying to say I knew Wicked was going to be a hit. But as I stumble out of the Gershwin Theatre during intermission, reeling from Idina Menzel’s roof-shattering note at the end of “Defying Gravity,” I feel that “something has changed within me… something is not the same.” Now, if you’ve been reading carefully, you know that I grew up a shy, sheltered kid who took a while to find himself. Whether you’re straight, cis, or identify somewhere on the LGBTQ rainbow, songs in musicals stir really deep emotions. Those feelings might be about sexuality, or self-expression, or loneliness. They might simply be about accepting yourself. Stephen Schwartz hit those buttons with this passionate, galvanizing anthem about daring to fly free. And Menzel’s indelible performance exploded her fan base and set the musical on its path of mega-success. The track still has the power to set pulses—ages 8 to 80, as the marketing lingo goes—racing. Manipulative? Hell, yes! Welcome to Oz, or Broadway, as some of us call it. LISTEN

2004: “Lot’s Wife” from Caroline, or Change
I’ve enjoyed and admired plenty of light, commercial fare (The Book of Mormon, The Drowsy Chaperone, Avenue Q) but Caroline, or Change is art: weighty, intellectually complex and morally serious. I guess that’s what happens when Angels in America author Tony Kushner writes book and lyrics, set to dazzling, span-the-dial music by sublime composer Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home). The sung-through, impressionistic tale of privilege and bitterness in 1960s Louisiana follows maid Caroline (Tonya Pinkins), who cleans for an East Coast Jewish family that has moved down South. The assassination of JFK and the hope and fears of the Civil Rights movement refract the intense personal frustration felt by middle-aged single mother Caroline. After she lashes out at the white boy who thought she was his friend, Caroline twists in shame, self-pity and spiritual confusion in her 11th-hour solo, “Lot’s Wife.” The number’s ferocity, structural complexity and emotional nakedness put it in the company of Gypsy’s “Rose’s Turn” Carousel’s “Soliloquy” and Sweeney Todd’s “Epiphany.” Pinkins’s vocal control and attack are simply astonishing. Listen, and try not to be reduced to salty tears. LISTEN

2015: “My Shot” from Hamilton
After so many seasons, you’d assume my devotion would be a given. But like all relationships, the spark must be reignited, the vows must be spoken again. You have to keep falling hard. And Hamilton is one hell of a heart racer. As I wrote in my review of the Broadway transfer: “I love Hamilton. I love it like I love New York, or Broadway when it gets it right. And this is so right.” Picking one track from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius score is impossible, so I’ll go with this early one, a wonder of many moving parts and fluid storytelling. Hamilton’s defiant line, “I am not throwing away my shot” has it all: the swagger, the syncopation, the gallows-witty use of a ballistic metaphor. I earlier noted the “I Want” number; Hamilton’s first act is one big “I Want” number. Like Sunday in the Park with George, the first half is all about doing and getting; the second, about dealing with the consequences. Lin-Manuel wrote with one eye on the awesome history of Broadway, and the other on our cultural present. I can’t think of a better work to keep me swooning over the form for years to come. LISTEN

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