“Sherry,” Jersey Boys
The turning point of Jersey Boys’ first act, “Sherry,” is broken up into tantalizing fragments to show how Four Seasons tunesmith Bob Gaudio got the idea for the band’s breakthrough hit, then played it for the guys, how they recorded it in the studio and made pop-music history singing it on national TV. Director Des McAnuff expertly ratchets up our excitement to hear the 1962 earworm, then gives it to us with a re-created TV broadcast, complete with onstage cameras and live b&w video projections. By the end, they’ve got us rooting for these Jersey boys.
“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, ” Beautiful—The Carole King Musical
Somewhat like “Ring of Keys” in Fun Home, this number hits big because the emotional release is so satisfying. Songwriter Carole King is only 29 years old when she records this indelible track for her 1973 landmark album, Tapestry. As a musician, wife and mother, she’s already gone through lots of joy and pain, and this summing-up anthem to love and accepting yourself just lifts you out of your seat.
“An American in Paris,” An American in Paris
Although this 14-minute dance suite is immediately preceded by a shamelessly extravagant, boffo number with feathered showgirls and a cane-waving Max von Essen crooning “I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” we have to give top spot to the title number. In some ways, it’s an anti-showstopper: artful, sensitively composed, and restrained, despite its sonic lushness and exuberant modern-ballet steps. And yet the overall effect makes you swoon over Christopher Wheeldon’s sublime choreography and George Gershwin’s marvelous music.
“Ring of Keys,” Fun Home
Most showstoppers rely on big effects and salesmanship, but sometimes the smallest number can be equally effective at bringing down the house. So it is in Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home. “Ring of Keys” is a quiet, searching song performed by a prepubescent girl who has encountered a butch woman for the first time and is trying to make sense of the experience. The audience hangs on her every tentative word.
“Turn It Off,” The Book of Mormon
This is a classic chorus-boy number—a plucky, cheerful tune that starts small and builds to a crazy climax with a dozen grinning Mormons tapping their little repressed hearts out. Elders Price and Cunningham, newly arrived in Uganda, feel stymied in their attempt to convert the locals to Mormonism. Their new friend Nabulungi introduces them to all the other missionaries who also failed to convert the villagers. These chipper doorbell ringers advise their downcast peers to not feel pain (or gay urges): Just repress!
“Hot Honey Rag,” Chicago
One of the things that has made Chicago the longest-running American musical in history is that nearly every number in the score is a wow: Coauthor and original director Bob Fosse used every trick in the vaudeville book to make John Kander and Fred Ebb’s songs pop out. But even among such killer bits as “All That Jazz” and “Cell Block Tango,” the highlight of the Broadway revival is Roxie and Velma's brief synchronized-dancing duet “Hot Honey Rag,” which retains Fosse’s unimprovable 1975 choreography.
“A Musical,” Something Rotten!
You won’t find a more calculated showstopper on this list than the shamelessly pandering, wildly self-referential “A Musical,” from the first act of Something Rotten. Frustrated Elizabethan playwright Nick Bottom wants to find out what the popular theatrical art form of the future will be. He consults a soothsayer who discerns, through the mists of time, something called “A Musical.” What ensues is an eight-minute comical deconstruction of showbiz tropes: chorus kick lines, sung-through scores, dance breaks and musical quotations from a dozen hit shows.
“Friend Like Me,” Aladdin
Aladdin had a huge built-in challenge: How could they translate Robin Williams’s ultra-animated performance as the Genie in Disney’s film to live action onstage? Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw rose to the occasion with a boffo production number that expands Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s big-band roof raiser to eight jazz-jam–packed minutes, replete with pop-culture references, quick costume changes and shameless showbiz showboating.
“Circle of Life,” The Lion King
Technically, “Circle of Life” is a show starter, not a showstopper: It’s the opening number in director and codesigner Julie Taymor’s gorgeous reimagining of The Lion King. Masked actors bedecked in African splendor—their costumes extended with puppetry to suggest elephants, giraffes, herds of antelopes—parade down the aisles of the theater, transporting the crowd and leaving it agape with wonder.
“Defying Gravity,” Wicked
The Act I final number stops any show, signaling intermission and a chance for audiences to catch their collective breath. Still, it’s hard to find a finale as thrilling as that of Wicked, in which the misunderstood green-skinned Elphaba, fleeing the Wizard of Oz and having a colossal argument with girl-pal Galinda, discovers magical powers as never before. Through the magic of theater, a broom-clutching Elphaba levitates high above the stage, vowing that nobody will ever bring her down. Stephen Schwartz’s empowerment anthem drives us crazy.