STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Best Show Song of 1998

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Best Show Song of 1998 So what was the Best Show Song of 1998?

So what was the Best Show Song of 1998?

I'll judge most of the songs from Ragtime and The Capeman ineligible, because we knew many from their earlier concept albums. Because I like to limit the selection to songs we heard this year for the very first time, that nixes High Society, An Evening with Jerry Herman, and, of course Swan Lake.

But on Ragtime's Broadway cast album, we did get 16 cuts not on the earlier disc. Some are songs, and the best of them are "America," the klezmer-flavored tune expressing a Jewish immigrant's goal; "Atlantic City," which is one of the best examples of ragtime in the score; and "Sarah Brown-Eyes," in which our doomed couple meet. Solid nominees all, though I must have played the last-named 300 consecutive times on my CD-player, to the consternation of my neighbors.

As for The Capeman songs that reached the stage but weren't on Paul Simon's album, I can't say any matched the fine level of the disc. Maybe I'll change my mind when I hear the original cast album -- if I live long enough to see it released.

That brings us to the new shows. Alas, any new song from Footloose is ineligible, because none was good enough. Ditto the ditty that Dana Reeve sang in the middle of More to Love, and the entire score of Queen of Hearts, the off-off-Broadway musical about Princess Diana. But I was crazy for the melody that Berthold Carriere gave "Sigh No More" for the excellent Much Ado about Nothing that the Stratford Festival brought to City Center. But that, too, must be ineligible, too, for the lyrics have been around for 399 years.

I love a Parade song or two. Or three. "How Can I Call This Home?" (Leo Frank expresses that he doesn't belong where he lives, unaware of how much worse life will soon to become when he's accused of murder), "Big News" (Reporter Britt Craig tells about the case as best he can while thoroughly soused), and "Come up to My Office" (one of Frank's accusers lies that he came onto her, and, in a coup de theatre, Brent Carver comes out, does what never happened, and shows Frank in a light we haven't seen him in before, and won't see again). They're all worthy nominees.

A New Brain should have the Best Show Song of 1998, given that it had the year's strongest score. "I'd Rather Be Sailing" had our hero, stricken with a brain tumor, lust for small pleasures. "And They're Off" is about his father's penchant for betting or horses, win, place, or show, or none of the above; and "Mother's Gonna Make Things Fine" was a parent's ineffective but cheerful cheer-up song. My personal favorite, though, was "Heart and Music," in which our hero realizes the really important aspects of life. This one I must have played 400 consecutive times on my CD player.

I'd like to nominate some other songs, though they were written in the late '40s. Thanks to a new and stunning St. Louis Woman recording, we all discovered seven songs from yesteryear. The best were "I Feel My Luck Comin' Down," in which our hero buys drinks for everyone, which I hope were as tasty as this song; "I Wonder What Became of Me," a quintessential Harold Arlen ballad that gives a few hints of "The Man That Got Away" that was to come; and "Least That's My Opinion," a benign "quarrel song" that swings as well as anything else in the score. Hmmm! Selecting a winner just got harder!

Then the late '50s had something to offer 1998, too. Back then, Noel Coward was creating a musical called Later Than Spring, which he never completed. He recycled most of its songs into Sail Away in 1961, but five weren't known to us until they were released on "Noel Coward Sings "Sail Away" and Other Coward Rarities" on Harbinger Records.

Later Than Spring was to open at the reading of a will, and "Family Dirge" would show that the survivors aren't happy with their bequests. ("I who brought him all that butterscotch / have not been left so much as an Ingersoll watch"). But Polly sings that "Now I'm a Widow," which means she's "firmly determined to start a new life," and, in a nod to Oklahoma! "Dressed in my beautiful mourning, everything's coming my way!"

Polly goes on a cruise, and meets Max, an inveterate traveler, as he proves in "Home": "I'm at home on the pampas ... / I'm home on Mont Blanc or the green Sussex Downs / I'm home on the campus / of some of those strange university towns," he sings, to a most sprightly waltz.

Once the ship reaches France, Max discloses to Polly that "I Wanted to Show You Paris": "Along the boulevards and down the Champs-Elysees ... The lilting melodies of Offenbach and Bizet." Later, Polly reprises it as "How Lovely to Be in Paris": "Although I cannot understand a word they're saying / Until my dying day, I'll call to mind / the kind / of music they are playing." Coward did such a nice job in characterizing her that you'll be very glad that she made it.

I don't want to omit one wonderful song written by mother-and-son team Mary and Regan Ryzuk in their new children's musical version of Rapunzel. "Our Prince Is a Prince of a Guy" sing those who happily serve their country's future monarch. It's one of the most perfect operetta pastiches since the heyday of Little Mary Sunshine. For those cast album collectors who must have everything, here's yet another one.

Frank Wildhorn didn't give us anything new in the revised The Scarlet Pimpernel, but he and lyricist Jack Murphy did deliver The Civil War to the Alley in Houston, as well as a Nashville-flavored album that contains some of the score. Notable nominees are "Virginia," a tender ballad that nevertheless has an anthem sensibility, and "Old Gray Coat," a stirring militant declaration of a Confederate soldier who ain't down yet.

But the best song from the score didn't make the album. Or should we say Best Songs, for they're two intertwined tunes that make for a theatrically stunning piece. First, "By the Sword" in which Yankees declare their cause, then "Sons of Dixie" in which the Confederates state theirs. The note that Wildhorn chose for "Dix" in "Songs of Dixie" is one of those wonderfully wrong ones that must have Richard Rodgers smiling in heaven. You have a treat in store when the two-disc concept album comes out in the next few weeks.

All worthy contenders, no? Still, if I may cast my three electoral votes for the Best Show Song of 1998 -- the song that pleased me the most and made me lust for a recording -- it's one I heard only once, on October 12 at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. The school, to celebrate its 30th anniversary, brought back a number of alumni to perform. Jim (Merrily We Roll Along) Walton sang a song he wrote when he was an undergrad, when he was competing with another music major for the love of a woman. He gave the lass an ultimatum in "Be Mine, or Be His" -- which he sang as "B-minor be his," accompanying the line with the appropriate chord. He did the same on "Gee, don't you C he's a little E ffeminate? I think he's A-C-D-C." What a great idea! What a great song!

Harbinger, you rescued five Coward cuts. Can't you find room for one Walton, given that it was the Show Song of 1998?

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com