Great minds think alike. It sounds like a wonderful platitude, but when applied to musical theatre, it becomes complicated. If you love a song from a popular Broadway score, chances are a lot of other people love it, too. You might hear it at a piano bar, in somebody's cabaret act or floating out of your next-door-neighbor's shower. In many cases, you can have too much of a good thing. And that's not to mention the damage an off-key or mangled-lyric rendition can do to your beloved ballad. Perhaps this is part of the reason so many die-hard Broadway fans favor famous flops over smash hit shows: less tune pollution! Still, though, some songs just rub you so right all the last-call karaoke club caterwauling in the cosmos can't change it.
Click through to read my selections for the Top Ten Overdone Showtunes You Never Tire of Hearing.
10. "There's A Fine, Fine Line" from Avenue Q
Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx gave us one of the best musical theatre ballads of the modern era in their still-running 2003 hit Avenue Q. How odd that one of recent Broadway's most touchingly human moments in song is delivered by a puppet, Q leading lady, Kate Monster! In a show full of pop culture references and below-the-belt comedy, we are treated to this straightforward lyric about relationships (and very relatable) set to a simple and lovely tune. Of course, everybody sings it. Nonetheless, as soon as I hear that unmistakable piano introduction, I get excited to hear the rest.
9. "Someone Else's Story" from Chess
While you might be safer obsessing over a song from a short-lived musical, you're still in danger of having to share your favorite with the world, particularly when the show in question is an international cult hit sensation with music by members of one of the most popular pop groups of all time, i.e. Chess. People can't seem to resist the switcheroo of the words ("The story is the girl is me"), the soaring melody or the perfect 80s pop vamp. I say, "have at it." I'm never not happy to hear this contemporary classic.
8. "Fifty Percent" from Ballroom
Another popular song from a less successful show, "Fifty Percent" from Ballroom seemed assured a future on people's playlists when original star Dorothy Loudon delivered her untouchable rendition on the 1979 Tony Awards. Fans flocked to buy the cast album and sheet music, and now you can't spend a night on certain blocks in the West Village without hearing the number at least once. Alan and Marilyn Bergman's storytelling lyrics (with music by Billy Goldenberg) is absolutely ideal for performers to personalize with their own experience, and audiences follow suit. I'm happy to hear it several times in the same night!
7. "Frank Mills" from Hair
Amateur singers everywhere are attracted to the songs from Hair, "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical." Unfortunately for everyone around them, most of the songs from Hair are extremely rangy and difficult to sing, requiring legitimate vocal chops beyond the realm of the average Sunday crooner. An exception is the sweet "Frank Mills," a love letter to a wayward boyfriend with enchantingly quirky words and music I enjoy coming out of pretty much anyone's mouth.
6. "Home" from The Wiz
At the opposite end of the spectrum from "Frank Mills," "Home" is extremely difficult to sing, written to showcase a pop gospel R&B diva with a virtuoso voice, and Stephanie Mills' original recording has never been bettered. That said, bring on all the sorry substitutes. I can't help myself. Even if you miss the money notes and crack on the intervals, give me a little heart where you can, shout out "Lord" somewhere in between the lines and I'll love you for trying. Maybe I'm just a textbook friend of Dorothy and a hopeless child of the 70s, but "Home" hits me where I live every single time.
5. "Some People" from Gypsy
I give full credit to Liza Minnelli. This was not the take-home tune from Gypsy. People sang "Everything's Coming Up Roses," they sang "Together Wherever We Go," "Let Me Entertain You," "All I Need Is The Girl." Hell, they sang, "Have An Egg Roll, Mr. Goldstone" before they sang "Some People." But Emmy, Grammy and Oscar and Tony-winning living legend Liza May Minnelli started singing "Some People" in her concerts in the 70s and made it one of her standards, speeding it up and giving it that Liza flair that made everybody else take note. It's crazy to listen to the original Merman recording now; it sounds like a ballad compared to what Liza does, and what each and every one of us does thanks to her. Tell me you don't do the little flourishes on "Some. Hum. Drum. People." As long as you do, I'll give you a standing ovation.
4. "Broadway Baby" from Follies
In a score full of pastiche, musical homage to old song styles, "Broadway Baby" is the ultimate throwback. Here, the layer of Sondheim commentary and context is so subtle, what you get is indistinguishable from an old school barn burner. When people say they don't like Sondheim (silly people!), I immediately play them "Broadway Baby," because nobody doesn't like this toe-tapper. This could be the ultimate showtune of all time. Fittingly, it gets sung a lot. And I always like it.
3. "Cabaret" from Cabaret
The title song from Cabaret was a hit for Marilyn Maye before the show even opened on Broadway. Countless recordings followed, not to mention Liza Minnelli's success with the song on film and hundreds of concerts and concert recordings. The net result is that the song has firmly has established itself as a standard of the Great American Songbook. It may not be by Gershwin or Berlin, but Kander and Ebb squeak though under the wire with this one for its ubiquity. Sometimes, it's the one showtune at a karaoke place—not a karaoke place I would choose to frequent, mind you, but any port in a storm... You know what, it's always good, the ultimate meta anthem for the original concept musical, and equally self-referential for pretty much anyone singing it anywhere. Sally Bowles doesn't need a good voice. Neither do you!
2. "Don't Rain On My Parade" from Funny Girl
Is there any Broadway musical tirade more forcefully aspirational than "Don't Rain On My Parade"? This ballbuster is the epitome of musical theatre oomph. Of course, no one can top Barbra Streisand's landmark original version. They can't top it, but some people come might close to equaling it. Lillias White brought all her own style and substance to "Don't Rain On My Parade" in the Actors Fund benefit concert of Funny Girl. Patti LuPone sings it in her Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda… act with her inimitable spunk and a final money note that stays with you long after the song has ended. Bobby Darin recorded his own swinging version, to which Annette Bening memorably sang along in "American Beauty." And let's face it; if there's any showtune, you've sung in the shower, it's probably this. When you do, know I'm clapping for you.
1. "Send In The Clowns" from A Little Night Music
This might be Stephen Sondheim's most beautiful song. He has explained that it was inspired by a single gesture Glynis Johns made in a scene in the show, and perhaps for this reason, it so movingly captures an authentic emotional moment. I feel that tug of my heart the second the familiar introduction starts, "Duhdum duh dum," whether it's Glynis, Barbra, Glenn Close, Catherine Zeta-Jones or Krusty the Clown. My favorite version: Elaine Stritch's from her penultimate Café Carlyle show, "Singin' Sondheim... One Song At A Time." But it's all good.
(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 Feb. 27 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)