From Barbra to Bernadette: Top Ten Signature Songs from Broadway

By Ben Rimalower
May 17, 2014

Playbill.com correspondent Ben Rimalower offers a collection of the top ten signature musical theatre songs.



*

Since the days of the Ziegfeld Follies, when audiences clamored for star performers to reprise familiar favorites from their repertoires, a signature song has been a hot commodity for any singer on Broadway. Of course, Broadway musicals today are structured with more integrity than yesteryear's revues, and not even a jukebox musical would be produced to include the talent's work from unrelated sources. Still, in a Broadway performer's career away from the Great White Way, in cabarets, concerts and especially Broadway tribute events, a signature song closely associated with its Broadway debut is of great value to whoever can claim it as their own.

Oftentimes, there may even be more than one performer with their flag planted atop a particular number. Right now, I only want to explore the originals. Who put their indelible stamp on a song the first time it was heard on Broadway and why? And have they held on to the song? It's one thing to triumph, but a signature song is to be celebrated, not ignored and left for other singers to to seize upon. I've limited the search to performances of the last 50 years, reasoning that I should have had the opportunity to see the song recreated out of context by its originator.

Click through to read my selections for the Top Ten Signatures Songs from Broadway musicals.

Sutton Foster

10. "Gimme Gimme" (Sutton Foster)

Who can forget Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie? It wasn't just a fairy tale coming true in Sutton's stepping up to the role (as understudy) in the out-of-town tryout, but in her very performance, which seemed to ooze stardust, as if all the years and starring roles since then were being conjured by furious tapping and belting. This was most intense in the go-for-the-jugular "I want" song, "Gimme Gimme." Many other people have sung it since, but it will always feel distinctly Sutton's.

Idina Menzel
Photo by Joan Marcus

9. "Defying Gravity" (Idina Menzel)

Wicked, like its pop-opera predecessors, is clearly intended to be star-proof and thrive on Broadway on the draw of its intrinsic merits. Certainly, that has worked out nicely for the producers, but Idina Menzel was the first Elphaba, the Tony Award-winning Elphaba and of course, the Elphaba on the cast album. Fans will debate minor ways in which replacements have bested her on this note or that phrase, but at the end of the day, don't they all sound a little like they're doing an impression of Idina Menzel?

Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters

8. "Time Heals Everything" (Bernadette Peters)

What could be more gorgeous and moving than Bernadette Peters singing "Time Heals Everything" from Mack & Mabel? She's penalized a bit and relegated down the list because she waited decades to include it in her concert repertoire and in the meantime, everybody else sang it. It sort of diminishes the Bernadette-ness of it all. Still, this is the only song from a flop to make this list.

Christine Ebersole
Photo by Joan Marcus

7. "The Revolutionary Costume For Today" (Christine Ebersole)

Christine Ebersole was amply heralded for genius double role in Grey Gardens as old school Big Edie in Act One and then 1970s Little Edie in Act Two. Bringing both documentary realism and theatrical delight, she sang a several moving and memorable songs by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. Hands down, though, the character number that made Broaday history and which Christine will be asked to reprise for the rest of her life is the Act Two opener, "The Revolutionary Costume For Today."

Betty Buckley

6. "Memory" (Betty Buckley)

If Betty Buckley didn't get "Memory" all to herself, having to follow West End Grizabella Elaine Paige and superstar recording artist Barbra Streisand into the tune, she's managed to make impressive headway putting her own stamp on it. More thrilling and storytelling than her predecessors, Betty's version is both otherwordly and visceral and continues to thrill audiences more than three decades later.

Patti LuPone
Photo by Martha Swope

5. "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" (Patti LuPone)

"Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" is an odd song. The title lyrics were a last minute switch in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's drive to have a pop hit off the original concept album of Evita. Still, the song often makes no sense, especially out of context. The major exception to this rule is Patti LuPone's performance. Patti has sung the song countless times in the 35 years since she was first cast as Eva, and it always plays like a piece of theatre, a one-act play, a slice of Broadway history. Each time, she seems to take the journey fresh, exploring moment after moment spontaneously with the audience she is addressing, and each time, the vocals are thrilling in a unique way. However, while no two of her performances are alike, they are all unmistakably Patti.

Carol Channing

4. "Hello, Dolly!" (Carol Channing)

While I've tried to limit this list to solos performed by leading ladies, not group numbers led by them, Carol Channing and "Hello, Dolly!" are impossible to resist. Hearing her make her way through this song just once is enough to etch it in your memory for a lifetime. It says something that, despite mammoth pop success with the song by Louis Armstrong, Carol can still assert such strong ownership. It doesn't hurt that she spent the better part of the last 50 years touring in the show.

Andrea McArdle

3. "Tomorrow" (Andrea McArdle)

Annie's anthem, "Tomorrow" is another example of a signature song that has been sung to death by millions of people. It doesn't matter. Andrea McArdle's preternaturally youthful voice (which is, ironically, the sound of a wise-beyond-her-years ten-year-old) cannot be beat. If you try to sing it as powerfully as Andrea, you'll never sound as pretty. And vice-versa. And forget about matching her for heart.

Jennifer Holliday

2. "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" (Jennifer Holliday)

Jennifer Holliday's claim on "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" has been tested and has endured. Her volcanic tidal wave performance, with operatic Motown Broadway gospel exploding dramatically out of the text with complete conviction is the one for the ages. Jennifer Hudson did an excellent job in the movie adaptation of Dreamgirls, but like all other renditions, it can only tread on Holliday's hallowed ground.

Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl
Photo by Henry Grossman

1. "People" (Barbra Streisand)

Precious few people have dared to try to sing "People" since Barbra so exhilaratingly knocked it out of the stratosphere. Sure, it doesn't hurt that she scored a pop hit with the song even before Funny Girl opened on Broadway, or that she went on to win an Oscar starring in the hit film version. She subsequently built a once-in-a-generation career and legend on the foundation, in part, of her iconic performance of "People." There remains the simple fact that no one can sing "People" like Barbra. And if even if they could, they would just be copying her.

(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on tour to Miami Beach, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)