If you think you've been hearing more show tunes in the past couple years, well, you're not imagining things.
Recall the summer 2008 animated smash "WALL•E," which introduced a new generation to the Jerry Herman classics "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes a Moment" via a Hello, Dolly!-obsessed trash-compacting robot. Or take last year's screen adaptation of Nine, and its Tony-winning Maury Yeston music.
At the 2010 Olympics, The Phantom of the Opera was the hottest thing on the ice; medleys from the longest-running Broadway show accompanied not one but two free-skate programs. Phantom propelled Canadian Patrick Chan only to fifth place; but American ice-dancing duo Meryl Davis and Charlie White glided their way to a silver medal to the strains of Andrew Lloyd Webber's overture, "Music of the Night" and "Point of No Return."
How do you know when show tunes have moved out of the periphery and into the mainstream? When they get their own episode of "American Idol." In April 2008, after six seasons of using the phrase "Too Broadway!" derisively, cranky-pants judge Simon Cowell kept his lips zipped as the surprisingly telegenic Andrew Lloyd Webber mentored six kids singing his biggest hits. By that point, more than one former "Idol" contestant had found their way to the Great White Way: Clay Aiken (Spamalot); Diana DeGarmo (Hairspray); Fantasia Barrino (The Color Purple); future Tony nominee/Rock of Ages star Constantine Maroulis (The Wedding Singer); Frenchie Davis (Rent); and Tamyra Gray (Rent, Bombay Dreams). Taylor Hicks and Ace Young would soon enroll in Rydell High (a.k.a. Grease).
And when Syesha Mercado landed the 2009 Dreamgirls tour, you know it had something to do with the sassy Starlight Express ditty "One Rock 'n' Roll Too Many" that she rolled out for Lord Lloyd Webber on "Idol." Fast-forward to April 11, 2009: A 47-year-old frumpy Scot named Susan Boyle performed "I Dreamed a Dream" (from the musical Les Misérables) on "Britain's Got Talent" and within days became a worldwide sensation (thank you, YouTube). Les Miz producer Cameron Mackintosh called her performance "touching, thrilling and uplifting"; original "I Dreamed a Dream" diva Patti LuPone surprised her with a call during a live TV interview ("Susan, you've got pluck, girl!"). And, oh yes, Boyle got an album deal. Her producer? Broadway-slamming, crow-eating Simon Cowell.
Then there's "Dancing with the Stars." Like "Idol," the ballroom-dance competition is becoming more and more Broadway. Recently, results shows have showcased performances by A Chorus Line, West Side Story, and The Lion King. And in Season 9 alone, each of the finalists found a way to tap into a show tune: Kelly Osbourne and Louis Van Amstel (in creepy Joel Grey/MC makeup) kicked up their heels Charleston-style to "Cabaret"; Mýa and Dmitry Chaplin chose Hairspray's "You Can't Stop the Beat" for their final freestyle. Donny Osmond and Kym Johnson — recalling Tommy Tune and a sexed-up Twiggy in My One and Only-esque tuxedos and tails — danced their mirror-ball-winning routine to Stephen Sondheim's "Back in Business."
Of course, Broadway has been a two-way street when it comes to musical influences. Shows like this season's American Idiot and Million Dollar Quartet have made show tunes out of pop hits, as have long-running hits like Mamma Mia! But artists from all over the pop-culture spectrum have always drawn inspiration from Broadway and put their own spin on show tunes. When Marc Cherry created Desperate Housewives in 2004, he began titling episodes with Sondheim lyrics - a trend he continues to this day. (Bonus points for using "Chromolume No. 7.") In 2005, Gwen Stefani, partnering with Eve, did a take-off of Fiddler on the Roof's "If I Were a Rich Man" in the pop-reggae-fusion number "Rich Girl." A year later, she turned to The Sound of Music's "The Lonely Goatherd" for inspiration for her foot-stomping single "Wind It Up" — yodeling and all; the video even includes a very von Trapp-like troupe of dancers flouncing about in matching jumpers. (No word whether she sewed the outfits herself.) And we must give a shout-out to rapper — and Fela! producer — Jay-Z, who in 1998 worked a chorus from an Annie staple into one of his biggest hits, "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)."
But there's no denying a recent spike in show tune popularity, which you can credit to the sudden success of Fox's song-and-dance-studded comedy series "Glee." Never mind that of Season 1's 75 or so songs only about ten came from musicals. That "Defying Gravity" sing-off ratcheted up the Broadway factor about ten notches.
(Melissa Rose Bernardo covers theatre for Entertainment Weekly. This piece appears in the Playbill for the 2010 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall.)