When I was nine years old, just starting to earn an allowance and developing an interest in popular music, I began to spend some of it on records of hit songs. It turns out the second and third records I bought (We are talking about 78 rpm types that typically featured one song per side.) were Broadway show tunes that had crossed over into the hit parade: “Hey There” and “Hernando’s Hideaway,” both from The Pajama Game. They were excellent songs from an excellent show, but the show had better, more entertaining songs that never made it past the cast album or the stage.
I was thinking about those first records I ever bought with my own money (The very first was “Sh-Boom” by The Crewcuts, and the next, after those three, was “The Happy Wanderer” by Frank Weir. I must have thought myself to be one hip little dude by then.). The two show tunes got me to wondering how it is that the few songs that cross over from the Broadway stage to the popular charts are not always the best in the show, and, in one case I can think of, the “hit” song was, without doubt, the worst number in the show.
A lot of a show tune’s crossover appeal has to do with universality, of course. A number, no matter how smart and melodious it may be, that has only a specific application to the show it was written for is not likely to make the Billboard Charts. In The Pajama Game, those two visitors to the 1954 hit parade did translate into situations the average listener with no interest in musicals could still relate to. “Hey There” is a touching song of unrequited love, and, while “Hernando’s Hideaway,” sings about a specific somewhat sinful nightlife haunt, we can all conjure up our own “Hernando’s Hideaways” under slightly different guises.
Other, I felt, better songs in that show were: “Racing With the Clock,” “A New Town is a Blue Town,” “I’m Not At All in Love,” “Small Talk,” “Once-A-Year Day,” “I Will Never be Jealous Again,” “Think of the Time I Save” and the rousing union rally song, “Seven-and-a-Half Cents.” Except for “Small Talk,” all those songs rely heavily on the show.
The thing is, universality, or the lack of it, is not the only quality that determines why one Broadway show tune will become a hit on the popular charts, while another will not. A song can be specific to a show, even more so than Hernando and his Hideaway, and still be a hit outside, while many show tunes that can live just as well on their own do not cross over, though other artists may cover them, here and there.
And quality does not seem to be all that much of a factor. The whole point of this article is that it is often the middling song, the just-okay song in a score, that will win the laurels, and I do not, for the life of me know why. The Baltimore wit, H.L. Mencken, once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American Public,” but I like to give people credit for a little more perspicacity than that. Even so…
There are some cases where the people got it right when it came to anointing a crossover favorite-not many, but some. I think “Memories” from Cats, “True Love” from High Society and “The Age of Aquarius” from Hair, for example, all earned their keep at the top of the pops. It is the many other instances, where that was not the case, that I want to discuss, because I do not want people thinking that a hit tune on the charts is all there is to the excellent show that it came from. Many of you will know many of these shows, and I certainly do not wish to insult your intelligence, but there may be some readers out there who will find this to be news they can use.
In the following sections, I will list certain Broadway shows in the easy-to-follow order in which they occurred to me; then list the big crossover hit from that show; then list the numbers that I consider better than the popular hit. Please note that I am not going to expose you to any junky shows. This is all top-drawer stuff.
Man of LaMancha, Mitch Leigh, music; Joe Darion, lyrics
Crossover hit: “The Impossible Dream.”
Better songs: “Man of LaMancha” (sometimes thought of as “I, Don Quixote.”), “Dulcinea,” “I’m Only thinking of Him,” “Little Bird, Little Bird” and “Aldonza.”
If I were to pick an exact point at which we stopped calling these shows “musical comedies,” I think it was the moment when Joan Denier, the original female lead, first sang “Aldonza.”
Evita, Andrew Lloyd Webber, music; Tim Rice, lyrics
Crossover hit: “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”
Better songs: “Requiem for Evita/Oh What a Circus,” “Eva, Beware of the City,” “Buenos Aires,” “Goodnight and Thank You,” “Another Suitcase, Another Hall,” “Peron’s Latest Flame,” “A New Argentina,” “Rainbow Tour,” “And the Money Kept Rolling In,” “Waltz for Eva and Che.”
If that seems like a lot of songs, it is, and for a good reason. There is not a false note in this musical (which is actually more of a rock opera). By the way, the reason I linked the first two of these numbers together is that they are sung together in the show. While the ensemble performers (of which I was one a few years back in a community theater production) sing the Latin requiem mass for the deceased Eva Peron, the male lead, “Che,” sings “Oh, What a Circus.” It is a marvelously cynical song and the perfect antidote to “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” When that song of Che’s has been sung outside the show, the singer has, in many cases, inserted the words to the Latin mass into the main song.
South Pacific, Richard Rogers, music; Oscar Hammerstein II, lyrics
Crossover hit: “Some Enchanted Evening”
Better songs: “Dites-Moi,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Bali Ha’i,” “Honey Bun,” “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” “This Nearly Was Mine.”
You may recognize that last one from my essay about the best break-up songs. I think it is the finest number in an excellent show.
Guys and Dolls, Frank Loesser, music and lyrics
Crossover hit: If I Were a Bell
Better songs: “Fugue for Tinhorns,” “The Oldest Established,” “I’ll Know,” “A Bushel and a Peck,” “Adelaide’s Lament,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Luck be a Lady,” “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”
Here’s a trivia question for those of you who have seen the show: there is one song, sung in the stage performance, but not the cast album, that Frank Loesser did not write. What is it?
As I said in my essay about the best duets and trios for the stage, “Fugue for Tinhorns” is at the top of the list…and the top of the show. It is the opening number, and it gets the show off to a flying start. “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” might just be the most enjoyable number I ever did as part of an ensemble. It happened that, in the production I got to perform in, the director staged the number superbly, but you can hardly go wrong with such a rousing song.
Oh, the answer? When the gamblers are trying to put the suspicious Lt. Brannigan off their trail, so that they can stage a long-awaited crap game, one of them explains that they are gathered to celebrate Nathan Detroit’s engagement to Miss Adelaide, whereupon all the mugs pipe up with a chorus of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein, music; Stephen Sondheim, lyrics
Crossover hit: “Tonight”
Better songs: “Jet Song” (also known as “When You’re a Jet”), “Maria,” “America,” “Somewhere,” “Gee, Officer Krupke.”
I do not wish to imply that the hit song, “Tonight” is a dud. Some of these crossover hits, while they ought not to be considered the outstanding songs of the show, are actually okay.
Oklahoma! Richard Rogers, music, Oscar Hammerstein II, lyrics
Crossover hit: “People Will Say We’re in Love”
Better songs: “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” “Kansas City,” “I Cain’t Say No,” “Many a New Day,” “Pore Jud is Daid,” “The Farmer and the Cowman,” “All er Nothin’,” “Oklahoma”
Gosh, that’s practically the whole score, isn’t it? I have always considered “People Will Say We’re in Love” the weakest of the major numbers in the show. Perhaps there is something to the theory that R&H did not really write that song, but, rather, stole it from the composer of the musical, Marat/Sade, or, as some call it for the sake of convenience, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. The composer was said to have written that play in 1942-a full year before Oklahoma-but, due to a major attack of constipation, never got around to staging his play until 1964. In the meantime, Rogers and Hammerstein, under the pretence of offering to help the poor guy polish up his score, borrowed a copy, then never gave it back. From the purloined copy, they pinched one song, suspiciously like the one we’re talking about from Oklahoma, and adapted it to that show.
The song that they took was a tender ballad that one of the female inmates sings with a male inmate, named “Curley,” although, in the original score, he may have been called “Shemp.” Here is the number, supposedly from Marat/Sade, which, having been stolen and placed elsewhere, had to be dropped from the original show. See if you can spot any similarities:
Don’t throw mayonnaise at me
Don’t laugh at my strokes too much
Don’t snore through my jokes too much
People will say we’re insane.
Don’t drool and gaze at me
Your drool is partly mine
Your cheeks mustn’t smart like mine
People will say we’re insane.
Don’t start possessing things
Give back my bag of cocaine
Sweetheart they are guessing things
People will say we’re insane.
Some people claim that you are to blame as much as I
Why did you take the trouble to black my favorite eye?
Grantin’ your wish I carved our initials on my head
Maybe you better listen to what I say instead.
Don’t call my bluff too much
Don’t shed my blood for me
Don’t roll in the mud for me
People will say we’re insane.
Don’t hide my stuff too much
Don’t throw your pants away
Don’t then make me glance away
People will say we’re insane.
Don’t tease all night with me
Til I see stars and feel pain
My jeans get so tight on me
PEOPLE WILL SAY WE’RE INSANE!
There you have it, Hubie the Judge. So what do you think?
Bye Bye Birdie, Charles Strouse, music; Lee Adams, lyrics
Crossover hit: “A Lot of Livin’ to Do”
Better songs: Are you kidding? Anything else in the entire score, even the teenage girls screeching “We Love You Conrad” in as deliberately awful a manner as the director can get them to sing it.
I saved this show for last, because this is the crossover hit I mentioned at the beginning as being the absolute worst song in the show. It may be the worst song in a decade of Broadway shows. It is nauseatingly pretentious, yet it lives on beyond its show. Possibly the song’s popularity might stem from its being a favorite of bad, slick-haired, finger-snapping lounge singers. I’m not talking about good slick-haired, finger-snapping lounge singers, like Bobby Darin. I mean third-raters of the sort that Bill Murray used to lampoon during his time on “Saturday Night Live.”
In spite of this one song that would easily run second to fingernails being raked down a blackboard, Bye Bye Birdie is an excellent show (not so much the movie, by the way), well worth putting up with the one clunker. It features such really fun numbers as “An English Teacher,” “Put on a Happy Face,” “Kids” and “Rosie,” For the sake of practicing neighborliness with your fellow audience members, I would suggest you refrain from clapping your palms forcefully over your ears and singing “LA, LA, LA, LA ,LA” as loud as you can during the one unpleasant number, much as you might want to. Just remember, though, your dentist will probably tell you that grinding your teeth too hard is not good for them.
There you have a thorough and incomplete list of Broadway’s sung yet unsung songs. Now let me get out of here before you start grinding your teeth at me.
Own observation of and performance in the shows