The 11 o'clock number is the greatest misnomer in musical theatre. In the old days, when showtime was 8:30 (or 8:45), 11 PM was just when things were about to start wrapping up and the 11 o'clock number could kill a few birds with one stone. First and foremost, the 11 o'clock number was an invigorating highlight to leave the audience delighted at the end of the show, a memorable melody they could leave the theatre humming, and often something of an up tune to brighten their mood. As book musicals became more character-driven, the 11 o'clock number was when the main character might have the realization or change-of-heart to bring the story to a close. In the Lehman Engel/BMI Workshop model for musicals, you could think of the 11 o'clock number as the bookend to the character's Act One "I want" song. Of course, lots of songs have occupied the 11 o'clock space (or 10:15 as it tends to happen nowadays) and they can't be all things to all people.
Click through to read my selections for the top eleven o'clock numbers.
11. "So Long, Dearie" from Hello, Dolly!
It may start out silly, as Dolly's hilarious "goodbyes" seem to be another manipulation — sarcasm? reverse psychology? — to finally win over Horace Vandergelder, but "So Long, Dearie" soon escalates into a jubilantly defiant anthem of independence and personal empowerment. With a title song as insanely popular as "Hello, Dolly!" there's perhaps little room for discussion of an 11 o'clock number, but no one who sees Hello, Dolly overlooks "So Long, Dearie."
10. "The Winner Takes It All" from Mamma Mia!
No, it wasn't written for a musical (as everyone on earth knows, Mamma Mia! is comprised of pre-existing ABBA hits), but "The Winner Takes It All" is so dramatic and theatrical, it inspired producer Judy Craymer to conceive of Mamma Mia! and the entire plot is based around the story inherent in the song. I'm sure I'm not the only belter-loving musical theatre fan who went to see Mamma Mia! with his arms crossed, attempting to resist the onslaught of earworm pop and then finally caved to the emotional and vocal explosion of "The Winner Takes It All."
9. "Memory" from Cats
If the producers of Mamma Mia! thought they had a chance selling pop power ballads on Broadway, they certainly got the idea from the original pop Broadway power ballad mega-hit "Memory," from Cats. It's a dance theatre piece about our feline friends until Grizabella steps out to sing her big song. Andrew Lloyd Webber hit his peak pop relevance just as his pure operatic inclinations were revealing themselves, resulting in his musical apotheosis.
8. "I Know Where I've Been" from Hairspray
"I Know Where I've Been" is an example of an 11 o'clock number sung, not by the main character, but by a secondary character expressing a common theme of the show. Hairspray is, after all, not just the story of Tracy Turnblad's quest to dance on TV and find true love, but the larger movement of racial integration and social change against which she struggles. This movement is given heart and soul by Motormouth Mabel in Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's tearjerking, goosebump-inducing Motown-adjacent R&B gospel power ballad.
7. "Fifty Percent" from Ballroom
Few songs in modern musical theatre pop out and stand alone as strongly as the exciting and passionate "Fifty Percent." As powerful as it is out of context, it must have been beyond the beyond to see Dorothy Loudon, after an evening spent torn between her unsatisfying life and an unavailable man, come out and declare her unabashed love and commitment to him.
6. "If He Walked Into My Life" from Mame
Mame has a lot of great songs, but near the top of everyone's list will be "If He Walked Into My Life." Clearly conceived as an 11 o'clock showstopper, "If He Walked Into My Life" always delivers the emotional and visceral goods, whether on stage, in concert or on disc.
5. "Back To Before" from Ragtime
In the swirling social and civic upheaval depicted in Ragtime, various characters take the stage and the focus of the story for periods of time. It all comes together with Mother as the rock at the heart of the show when she sings the climactic "Back To Before," an anthem for women with resonance across a wider spectrum.
"Cabaret" serves as more than a typical 11 o'clock number in Cabaret; it is also the portal wherein the two axes of the score fuse (the book songs' axis where the characters sing as if they live in a musical world and the diegetic songs' axis where the characters perform songs on stage in the Kit Kat Klub). Sally begins "Cabaret" as a performance at the Kit Kat Klub, but by the end of the song, we forget we are watching a scene at the club, and experience Sally singing from her heart to the audience of Cabaret.
3. "Lot's Wife" from Caroline, or Change
The heart-stopping climax of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's Caroline, or Change is perhaps the ultimate realization of the 11 o'clock number in a book musical; "Lot's Wife" occupies that spot in the show purely on dramatic power, without any reliance on Broadway razzmatazz. It is a rare achievement for a moment in a musical to have the integrity of a great play without sacrificing any of the carnal pleasures of musical theatre. Tonya Pinkins's Broadway performance as Caroline embodied this with singular pathos and glory, and the material will shine for generations.
2. "I'm Going Back" from Bells Are Ringing
High ranking among the classic musicals people complain don't work without the idiosyncratic original star, Bells Are Ringing was certainly a tour de force for the great Judy Holliday, as exhibited by her performances both on the sterling original cast recording and in the enjoyable 1960 film adaptation. Only a pull-out-all-the-stops socko showpiece could top everything Holliday had done in the show by 11 PM, and that is exactly what Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green gave her in "I'm Going Back."
1. "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy
The mother of all 11 o'clock numbers, "Rose's Turn" is the apex of traditional musical comedy as well as the dawn of darker, contemporary musical theatre. The song reprises various melodies and tropes heard in the show, inverting their context and reframing them for Rose's cataclysmic breakdown — the moment the entire evening has built towards.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on a worldwide tour. Read more about the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)