"Showstopper" has become one of those words like genius that has lost some of its meaning due to overuse. You might hear a Broadway song referred to as a showstopper merely because it elicits an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience. Sometimes, though, you're sitting in your seat watching a show and a number reaches such heights — musically, dramatically, emotionally, comedically, choreographically, energetically or some combination thereof —where you and the rest of the lucky theatregoers enter into an almost dissociative mental state, a theatrical nirvana where your cares and thoughts for the outside world are essentially suspended as your complete attention is commanded by the performance on stage.
This zenith of euphoria, this peak of pleasure, may only last a moment, but when it eventually ends (as all good things must!), there is a collective realization in the room that everyone has experienced something phenomenal together, including both the performers and the people watching from their seats — what has happened required both groups! Call it spiritual or religious or just entertainment or fun, but it is a communal ritual whose roots go back to a time before language and the deep feelings it evokes go down to the core of our being. Sometimes in these moments, there is even a pause before the audience response begins, as if everyone just wants to linger in the moment a bit longer. Soon enough, the rest of the show will happen and then the evening will continue post-show and everyone will get on with their lives, but the longing to linger in this post-coital-like bliss is strong. Then the clapping must begin.
This ovation, though, is special. We clap harder and louder and longer. Waves of playgoers may even fall into a clapping rhythm — perhaps reenacting some ancient tradition not consciously remembered or perhaps to maintain a level of clapping energy not physically sustainable without consolidation of hand exertion. Some people begin to drop out of the clapping, less moved than other people or maybe just tired, but then the others will clap even more forcefully to say, "Oh, no. This is far from over." There is a desperate urge to show the performers how they've touched us, to acknowledge this to each other and ourselves. We can't just act like nothing happened. Eventually, the people on stage must respond to this. They can only stand half-frozen, "in character" for so long. Perhaps they will smile or nod, or even mouth the words "thank you." Some grand stars of the stage may bow, or if appropriate gesture gratefully to the conductor or supporting cast. We are outside the world of the text of the play now. Some people will cheer, hooting and hollering, "Bravo!" Flowers may be thrown. Everyone wants to revel in this glory. In some old-school musicals, a chorus of a song or, in certain cases, an entire number might even be reprised.
But, of course, it cannot go on forever. There is the text of a play and somehow if this is all timed just right, we will re-enter it even more deeply and with greater attention because of this moment of connection between all of us gathered. It is now upon the performers to know the exact second to resume, when we both have not been cut off and prevented from expressing our reverie and are still left wanting more. Yes, the show must go on, but make no mistake, the show has been stopped. Click through to read my selections of the Top Ten Broadway Showstoppers.
10. "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady
My Fair Lady is chock-full of fantastic songs. Few musicals can compare with this embarrassment of riches from "Wouldn't It Be Lover'ly?" to "The Rain In Spain," "I'm Getting Married In The Morning" and "On The Street Where You Live," to name just a few. But the story is about a girl's transformation, and in any decent production of My Fair Lady, by the time said girl, resplendent in her ball gown, sings "I Could Have Danced All Night," we are in love with her. To hear her rejoice via the luscious Lerner and Lowe classic, culminating in the high soprano notes of the final chorus, is a true theatrical pleasure and one for which the audience will rarely sit quietly and allow the proceedings to carry on.
9. "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" from Kiss Me, Kate
Cole Porter could be accused to overly clever lyrics that flaunt his wit, but who can complain while being delighted by one of his many, many great songs. This way with words is put to great use in the hysterical second act showstopper in Kiss Me, Kate, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," where the two gangster characters turn out to be first-rate vaudevillians and tickle the audience with a seemingly limitless list of Shakespearian allusions that provoke the joyful laughter that comes with repetition of a theme, Each time they start another verse, you think, "Oh brother, what will they think of next?"
8. "Epiphany" from Sweeney Todd
Sweeney in Sweeney Todd spends much of the first act plotting his revenge against the Judge. When he finally has him in his grasp, there is a snafu and in the final moments of his attempt, the Judge gets away. Sweeney's rage is then expressed in Sondheim's megawatt "Epiphany," a mini three-act play in its dramatization of Sweeney's internal conflict. I have yet to see a rendering of this that doesn't halt the show with a grateful ovation from the stunned audience. This is even written into the script, where Mrs. Lovett is given a laugh line to acknowledge what's happened and move the show along by saying, "Well, that's all very well…"
7. "If Ever I Would Leave You" from Camelot
There's a lot of drama in Camelot between King Arthur and Guenevere. Like Guenevere, the audience may love King Arthur, but has a hard time not swooning over the handsome Lancelot. When his rich baritone fills the theatre with the strains of "If Ever I Would Leave You," resistance is futile.
6. "Where You Are" from Kiss Of The Spider Woman
Kiss Of The Spider Woman is a dark musical set in a prison. Just as Molina escapes his harsh reality via fantasies of his favorite screen goddess, we in the audience have an escape watching his dreams come to life in song. In the thrilling dance number, "Where You Are," we not only get to escape, but to hear such escape described in the lyrics and music and choreography, which literally and figuratively take us there. (Of course, if it is performed by original cast member Chita Rivera, then that ovation lasts even longer.)
5. "Sit Down, You're Rocking The Boat" from Guys and Dolls
Perhaps, it's the genius of the lyrics — so conversational and poetic at the same time — or perhaps it's toe-tapping melody — but Frank Loesser really outdid even his own brilliant work with the showstopper, "Sit Down, You're Rocking The Boat." The audience always relishes this performance and wishes it wouldn't end.
4. "If I Were A Rich Man" from Fiddler On The Roof
Make no mistake, "If I Were A Rich Man" is Tevye's story from the beginning. His life is simple, rich in love and feeling, but materially poor. His bemoaning of this is entertaining, but hearing him describe what it would be like if he "had been born with a small fortune" is a particular joy. "If I Were A Rich Man" then comes to surprisingly powerful conclusion in which Tevye sings passionately to the rafters. The audience is left agape.
3. "Cabaret" from Cabaret
As the action comes to a climax in Cabaret, the stakes are high with Nazis at the door, Cliff leaving Berlin and Sally pregnant. We may be rooting for Sally and Cliff to stay together or we may not, but we are certainly hoping Sally will stay in show business, at least long enough to favor us with another song performance like "Don't Tell Mama." Kander and Ebb, though, do us one better by giving her a title song we won't stop humming for the rest of our lives. It's more like an anthem.
2. "Hello, Dolly!" from Hello, Dolly!
Jerry Herman's hit title song from Hello, Dolly! was so influential and made such lasting mark on the theatre and culture in general that it became essentially what people think of when they think of a Broadway showstopper. Dolly Levi is beloved by everyone she meets (even begrudgingly Horace Vandergelder!) and certainly by the audience. When she slips into the big number welcoming her back to the Harmonia Gardens, the love fest lingers on long after the song has ended.
1. "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy
"Rose's Turn" in Gypsy is not only a showstopper for the actual audience watching Gypsy, but for Rose herself, who continues to bow after the applause has stopped — no matter how long that applause lasts, at least in productions directed by librettist Arthur Laurents. This is the ultimate. There's only a bit of show left, but even that short scene is a recovery in the wake of "Rose's Turn."
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on a worldwide tour. His new solo play, Bad with Money, performs through Nov. 6 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)