With all the excitement surrounding Josh Groban's new album of musical theatre songs, "Stages," many past pop covers of showtunes come to mind. His duets with Kelly Clarkson ("All I Ask of You" from Phantom) and Audra McDonald ("If I Loved You" from Carousel) had theatre fans in a frenzy. Listen to them here.
Back in the day, almost every song on the radio came from a Broadway show, but that's not really what I'm talking about. Despite popular music and theatre music veering in different directions over the last 50 years or so, there have been some instances where a singer or band covered a song from a musical, put their own stamp on it and helped the theatre artists' work reach a wider audience.
Nowadays, the music industry is so diverse, it's hard to say what exactly constitutes pop. Does it include rock, rap, punk, country, hip-hop, electronica, house, adult contemporary, alternative? Does it include Sarah Brightman? Andre Bocelli? World music? And musical theatre today is even more eclectic, with essentially every kind of music viable as a showtune if utilized in a dramatic context. So it's slippery to say what' really is a pop cover of Broadway. If a pop artist takes on a theatre song that already sounds like something of their own, like Dionne Warwick's "I'll Never Fall In Love Again," I don't know that it really counts for this list. Then, some of my favorites are one-off novelties like Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider's crossover album, "Dee Does Broadway," which climaxes in a thrilling final track of Snider and Patti LuPone soaring in a medley of West Side Story's "Tonight" and "Somewhere." Equally spine-tingling (and also by Leonard Bernstein, for what it's worth) is Laurie Beechman and Sam Harris' double duet of "One Hand, One Heart" and "Make Our Garden Grow" on Beechman's "No One Is Alone." Still, no matter how much they rock, if it's Broadway singers doing the covering, that doesn't quite count either.
Click through to read my selections for the Top Ten Pop Covers of Broadway Songs.
First honorable mention has to go out to the highest-charting Broadway cover of all time, Louis Armstrong's "Hello, Dolly!" It's not really appropriate for this list as it's basically a jazz rendition, and certainly not of a piece with the rest of these examples which represent a post-rock artist recording a non-rock song from a musical. Another favorite of mine is any one of Madonna's "club" remixes of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina." Her rendition of the song in the movie is pretty much in keeping with any other version, but the dance tracks that it inspired are a lot of fun. Then there are the covers of great songs from rock musicals. They're not really crossovers, but they're great music, especially The Fifth Dimension's Platinum hit medley of "Aquarius" and "Let The Sun Shine In" from Hair and kitsch punk band Me First And The Gimme Gimmes' infectious "Science Fiction Double Feature" from The Rocky Horror Show.
10. The Mamas And The Papas, "My Heart Stood Still"
The Mamas And The Papas are known for some period pop remakes such as "Dedicated To The One I Love" and "Dream A Little Dream Of Me," but a less popular discovery in their discography is their 1966 recording of the Rodgers and Hart standard, "My Heart Stood Still" from A Connecticut Yankee. If nothing else, it's incredible how much it sounds like any other song by The Mamas And The Papas, though not as appealing as their finest work.
9. The Jackson 5, "Corner of The Sky" from Pippin
Motown Records invested in the original Broadway production of Pippin and produced the cast album, so it was no surprise when Motown artists released their own recordings of songs from the score. These weren't enormous stylistic departures as Stephen Schwartz's music was of the same era as most of what these singers were doing anyway, but Michael Jackson's solo recording of "Morning Glow" did not sell a lot of discs and The Supremes' "I Guess I'll Miss The Man" was only a minor pop. The Jackson 5's "Morning Glow," however, was in the Top 20 the week Pippin opened. And all three recordings are delightful.
8. Gloria Gaynor, "I Am What I Am" from La Cage Aux Folles
Much like the original theatrical version of this Jerry Herman Act One closer, Gloria Gaynor's 1983 disco cover opens at a moderately slow tempo, with little accompaniment, but in the second verse, where the music kicks in, Gaynor's version really takes off into a full dance beat. Perhaps only Herman could have provided Gaynor with an anthem to rival her own "I Will Survive."
Internationally adored James Bond theme diva Shirley Bassey had a hit with Sweet Charity's "Big Spender," adding to her extensive repertoire of signature songs. The darkly seductive vamp of the song was perfect for Bassey, a darkly seductive vamp herself. The full-throttle vocals she brought to the helped make the recording such a success and proved crucial when the track later found popularity as a techno remix.
Cabaret legend Bobby Short was the first to record "Send In The Clowns" after Glynis Johns' still definitive recording on the 1973 original cast album, and it quickly became a club staple. Frank Sinatra included it on his "Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back," but it was Judy Collins's 1975 recording that made the song the worldwide standard it has been ever since. In comparison to Johns, Collins offers a rich, full vocal, but it is far from flashy in Collins' earnest rendition.
Perhaps the most popular recording of "I Know Him So Well" remains the very first one, Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson on the 1984 concept album, but everyone has their favorites, mine being Whitney Houston's duet with her mother on her 1987 album, "Whitney" — or even better, the pair's live rendition for the 1997 "Classic Whitney" concert broadcast on HBO. There's a lot of riffing, which may not be to everyone's taste, but I can't imagine many people being able to resist the added high note Whitney belts on, "Why am I falling aPAAAART?"
A joyous discovery for many theatre fans today is 1968's "Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform Funny Girl." It's the kind of thing that pretty much never happens anymore and didn't happen all that much even back then. While the whole album is enjoyable, the mark of Barbra Streisand on all the songs sung in the show by Fanny Brice is hard to escape for anyone, even these iconic singers. That said, some of the songs originated by other characters take on a whole new life in this context. "If A Girl Isn't Pretty" makes for a first-rate character number in the show, but given the girl group treatment by Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, it's a delicious dollop of swinging 60s pop.
3. The Beatles, "Till There Was You" from The Music Man
While The Beatles ushered in the rock and roll revolution that usurped showtunes' place at the top of the charts, their success began in the early 1960s and as artist of that era, they recorded some covers, including Meredith Wilson's "Till There Was You" from The Music Man, their only theatre song, albeit one they didn't realize was from a musical when they first performed it. That they could have missed this fact is a testament to the depth and sensitivity of Wilson's simple song. The transition to pop quartet is made perfectly and without sacrifice (although no song can be said to benefit from the loss of Barbara Cook's voice!).
2. Janis Joplin, "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess
Rock goddess Janis Joplin, at the peak of her watershed powers, recorded a towering version of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward's classic "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess. Joplin was hard to classify in that her talent transcended differences between musical styles. Joplin's "Summertime" is jazz just as much as it's rock and, her dramatic conviction could easily have held any Broadway stage.
1. The Doors, "Alabama Song" from "Songspiel" Mahagonny (used again in Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny)
If, unlike The Beatles with "Till There Was You," The Doors did know "Alabama Song" was from a musical, they certainly fooled me. Even as a teenage theatre nerd, I simply enjoyed The Doors' recording of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht song as perfect pop. It's funny because Weill is sometimes thought of as lofty or inaccessible and yet, The Doors' rocking rendition could easily be one of their own creations.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and star of the critically acclaimed solo plays Patti Issues and Bad with Money, running in repertory through June 21 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)