Don't Rain on Our Parade! We Explore What Makes a Showtune Timeless

News   Don't Rain on Our Parade! We Explore What Makes a Showtune Timeless correspondent Mark Robinson examines the question of what renders a showtune as timeless.


What makes a show tune effective? It should help character and plot development, the melody should set an appropriate tone, and it should find a way to emotionally connect the audience with the musical it is from. What makes a song iconic? The best definition would be any song that transcends the boundaries of its genre and enters into the public conscience as instantly recognizable, emotionally accessible, or is charged with both a timely and timeless message.

There was a time when many Broadway songs would have fit the description of "iconic" because many were recorded by major artists and played on the radio. Cast albums and movie soundtracks worked their way to the top of the charts, alongside the made-for-radio hits of the day. Certain ditties found acclaim when they were introduced to the masses via television. This is not to say that a Broadway show tune cannot be iconic within its genre. There are, however, many that have made this greater leap, moving beyond the parameters of cast album collectors and theatre cognoscenti and entering into the collective psyche of our society as a whole.

A song's iconic status can perhaps be measured by the number of artists who are attracted to it and subsequently record it. Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine" from the 1937 musical Babes in Arms has appeared on over 1,300 albums worldwide. It has been recorded by the likes of Chet Baker, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald. The bluesy torch song has become a standard among romantic songs about unrequited love, and instrumentals of the song are used as background music in many films and television programs. Similarly, Al Jolson introduced the optimistic "April Showers" in the all-but-forgotten 1921 musical Bombo. Bing Crosby, Cab Calloway, Judy Garland, Eddie Fisher, Eydie Gorme and Mel Torme, along with countless others, have recorded the song with great success. Bugs Bunny even sang it in the animated short "Wet Hare." Both songs are easily recognizable and each conveys an emotion that is universal: love and hope.

The association with a major event or politician has elevated two Broadway songs to iconic status. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the title song from the musical Camelot became synonymous with his legacy and the idealism that many associated with his message. It also became a heartbreaking tribute to the late president, summing up the pain the country felt in losing such an inspiring leader. President Lyndon B. Johnson was treated to a special chorus of "Hello, Dolly!" with the lyrics "Hello, Lyndon" interpolated for his 1964 campaign. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, Carol Channing was brought in to sing the song, and soon Johnson was insistent that it be played regularly and everywhere. A demo had been recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1963 as a means to promote Hello, Dolly,! which opened to unqualified raves. With the show's sparkling reviews, a popular cast recording and the President of the United States promoting it, an official single version was released on the radio, performed by Louis Armstrong and the All Stars. It shot to the top of the Billboard charts, knocking the Beatles out of their 14-week streak in that position. That recording was awarded a Grammy and has since been inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Everyone was singing "Hello, Dolly!"

Another way a musical theatre song is almost assured iconic status is if it is so well-known that it could be used as a commercial jingle. Most commercials of yesteryear required a catchy melody that people could easily associate with the product. Where better to find such a tune than in a canon of Broadway musical songs which feature a wide variety of quickly hummable melodies? A long line of Broadway songs have been used in this way. Clairol's Loving Care hair dye turned South Pacific's "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" into "I'm Gonna Wash That Gray Right Out of My Hair." Windex gave us "Gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a Windex shine," slightly altering a lyric from Bye Bye Birdie. Even "Mack the Knife" from The Threepenny Opera was jazzed up with some lyrical twists as a commercial for McDonalds. For many people, this would be the only time they would hear these songs, never knowing that they had been borrowed from Broadway musicals. This doesn't happen as frequently as it used to, but "Whatever Lola Wants" from Damn Yankees was used just a few years ago to promote Pepsi products.

Recording stars, already well-established in the popular music vein, have elevated certain Broadway songs to iconic status through their hit recordings. "Send in the Clowns" from Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music was always a perfect song of character development within the confines of the show, but when Judy Collins made a Grammy-winning recording of it, it soon became accessible to everyone. The 5th Dimension took the very timely songs "Aquarius" and "Let the Sunshine In" from Hair and parlayed that into a chart-topping hit that held strong for six weeks. The two songs from the same musical, knit together, assessed the juxtaposition of peace against the ravages of war. These songs, now timeless, were especially relevant as the Vietnam War was still dividing our country. "A Hard-Knock Life" was reworked as a chart-climbing hit for rapper Jay-Z, introducing the beloved Annie number to a whole new generation of listeners. Many liberties were taken with the song, but one can envision a person seeing a production of Annie for the first time and wondering if the composers stole parts of it from Jay-Z. The song has, however, entered the public schema and reached a mass audience far from the lights of Broadway.

Not every Broadway song has to move into the realm of pop music to become iconic. Some Broadway shows have been so powerful, important or popular in their own right that our population as a whole instantly identifies certain songs with them. "If I Were a Rich Man," about to be revisited in a Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof this winter, is what instantly comes to mind for most people when this musical is mentioned. Listeners connect because they have all had that dream of limitless funds and how they would spend them. "The Impossible Dream" conjures images of windmills and chivalrous knights, instantly manifesting Man of La Mancha before our eyes. Optimism and idealism are among the best gifts our world has to offer, so audiences embrace this song that paints the possibilities. Rent's "Seasons of Love" is perhaps the most recent example of this, using the 525,600 minutes in a year as the basis to musically frame the show. People often spend time reflecting on time and its eventual end for them, and they are somewhat relieved to have to it broken down into bite-size moments of clarity. In all of these instances, the songs inspire such an emotional connection with the musical that, when the song is heard, an automatic association is made between the two.

Certain show tunes have become iconic through their movie versions and in how they were captured artfully on film. The title song from Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music will prompt many to spin around atop a mountain and sing, envisioning Julie Andrews doing so in the classic film version. Funny Girl's "Don't Rain on My Parade" will have just about anyone pretending to be Barbra Streisand perched atop a tugboat sailing across New York Harbor. A terrific number, performed by a great singer and married to great cinematography, have, in both of these cases, created iconic imagery around these songs. Almost anyone in America is going to know both of these cinematic sequences; the experience is not limited to the Broadway and movie musical fans and aficionados.

The advent of Rock 'n' Roll and the arrival of The Beatles in America in 1964 changed things for the traditional Broadway show tune. Cast albums climbing the pop charts dwindled to few as this new style of music edged out Broadway, almost eradicating its mass popularity by 1970. Add to this the evolution of the Stephen Sondheim-Harold Prince musicals of the 1970s demonstrating an evolving Broadway that sought new concepts and musical styles. The Broadway show tune and who was listening to them were both changing. In the 40s, 50s and 60s, the traditional Broadway musical song was played to the masses on radio and television in a way that we seldom see today. Many of the songs that have become iconic are from this pre Rock 'n' Roll period, so we are much less likely to see a Broadway show tune rise to iconic status in this day and age. But that doesn't mean that there aren't great Broadway songs being written today.

Mark Robinson is a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at Mark is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."

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