To celebrate the release of Laurence Maslon's Broadway to Main Street: How Show Tunes Enchanted America, Maslon shares his idiosyncratic list of the ten most essential show tune moments.
The book, featuring interviews with Broadway legends, examines how show tunes became the American songbook, fell out of favor, and are now back on the charts thanks to shows such as Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and Mean Girls.
And you can see Maslon in person November 19, when he hosts a 6:30 PM Skirball Talks at New York’s Skirball Performing Arts Center. The panel will include Ted Chapin (Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization), Thomas Z. Shepard (cast album producer, Company, Sweeney Todd) and Kurt Deutsch (cast album producer, The Last Five Years, The Book of Mormon).
"For over a century, the music of Broadway has made its way onto parlor pianos, gramophone players, radio sets, television consoles, movie screens, hi-fi systems, transistor radios, headphones, ear buds, and streaming devices in every corner of America. Many folks who have enjoyed these show tunes might not have even known they were show tunes, so stealthily and so comprehensively did they enter the national consciousness. Tell the truth: Didn’t your family have a Broadway cast album LP lurking in the record cabinet or at least one cassette tape and/or CD of show tunes stashed in the glove compartment?
Here’s a Top Ten of essential show tune moments, ranked in a highly subjective order:
10. Show Boat 3-CD set, conducted by John McGlinn, May, 1988
Bursting beyond the limitations of the LP, archivist John McGlinn took full advantage of the (comparatively new) technology of the CD to record a studio version (at the EMI’s Abbey Road studios, no less) of every note Jerome Kern composed for this groundbreaking 1927 musical.
9. Glee, “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” December 9, 2009
Lea Michele’s rendition of the Barbara Streisand classic would be one of the most memorable of the 119 songs from Broadway that Glee brought to primetime in its six seasons on the air. Streisand herself, who recorded dozens and dozens of Broadway songs, later commented: “My young niece saw Funny Girl on DVD and said, ‘How come you're singing so many songs from Glee?’”
8. Camelot on The Ed Sullivan Show, March 19, 1961
More than almost any individual in Broadway’s Golden Age, Sullivan was the premier curator of Broadway’s contemporary treasures. During his program’s hour-long primetime tribute to Lerner and Loewe, Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet gave home viewers a glimpse into Camelot’s musical magic and turned it into a box-office smash.
7. “The Half-of-It-Dearie Blues,” Lady Be, Good!, April 20, 1926
At a time when Broadway wasn’t really in the habit of recording original performances, Fred Astaire and George Gershwin went into Columbia’s London studio and recorded a couple of selections from Lady, Be Good! during its subsequent West End engagement, providing a rare glimpse of Broadway authenticity from the 1920s.
6. Frank Sinatra, “Send in the Clowns,” October 12, 1974
Sinatra was devoted to the Broadway songbook ever since he sang “Night and Day” to Cole Porter at a New Jersey roadhouse in 1938. At a Madison Square Garden concert, he praised Sondheim and introduced his ballad to a vast audience, while the show it came from—A Little Night Music—was still playing ten blocks uptown.
5. The Sound of Music, March to November, 1965
The Columbia original cast album from the 1959 Broadway overlapped with the blockbuster Julie Andrews soundtrack (RCA) for eight months on the Billboard Top 50 album charts, making the score one of the ubiquitous sounds of the '60s.
4. Rosemary Clooney “Hey There,” July 19, 1954
Clooney’s Columbia single from the recently opened The Pajama Game hits Number Five on the Billboard charts. It’s the same day that an old blues ballad called “That’s All Right” is released on Sun Records, performed by Elvis Presley in his debut recording; this marks the official moment when the paths of Broadway and pop music begin to diverge. (Within a month, Clooney’s recording would go to Number One for five weeks, while Presley’s single never charted.)
3. Hamilton on the Grammys, February 15, 2016
History had its eyes on Hamilton at the Grammy Awards as, in its relentless march to make Broadway music relevant again, it not only won a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, but was the first live performance by a Broadway cast in the six-decade history of the awards show.
2. Hello, Dolly!, Louis Armstrong, May 9, 1964
The Beatles had completely dominated the pop singles charts in the spring of 1964, but “Satchmo” was back where he—and Broadway music—belonged when he knocked them off the charts for one week with his only No. 1 hit.
1. Oklahoma! cast recording, November 26, 1943
For six months after its opening, the trailblazing Rodgers and Hammerstein score was kept out of the recording studio due to a musicians’ strike. The eventual Decca album set of six 78s was so highly anticipated that when Martin Block played a “sneak preview” of all 36 minutes on his “Make-Believe Ballroom” radio show, he was besieged by phone calls and forced to play the whole thing all over again two days later. Oklahoma!—the first commercially successful Broadway cast album—was theNo. 1 consumer record purchase for the 1943 Christmas season.
And a special mention: My Fair Lady, original Broadway cast, April of 1956 to September of 1965
This is how long Columbia’s gold standard of Broadway recordings stayed on the album charts—which comprised all of pop music: 480 weeks.
This was the era when Broadway extended all the way to the Street Where You Live.
Laurence Maslon is arts professor at New York University and the author of Broadway to Main Street: How Show Tunes Enchanted America (Oxford University Press).