Mark Shenton: What do my top 50 musical songs tell us about the art form (and me)?
In Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, Ko-Ko sings: “I’ve got a little list/Of society offenders/Who might well be underground/And never would be missed.” He proceeds to itemise some of those who he would happily dispatch in his official role as Grand High Executioner.
But, as a musical theatre aficionado and critic, I’ve got my own little list of songs from the vast catalogue of those written specifically for musicals that I would miss a lot were they to be dispatched.
Settling on just 50 was the first and biggest task: I could have easily filled it several times over. In fact, I could have filled it with just a handful of composers, led by Stephen Sondheim, who has more or less singlehandedly redefined the popular musical and its possibilities in the past 60 or so years, from West Side Story (with which he made his Broadway debut as a lyricist in 1957) onwards. Jeremy Sams, the director, adaptor and musical director, once told me: “Sondheim is as big to musicals as Wagner is to opera, and the history of the musical will never be the same again until he is written out of it, and that will take a century.”
Musical theatre’s emergence as a distinct form in its own right – as opposed to the European operetta tradition that the G&S I quoted comes from – is barely a century old itself. But it has already had an incredibly rich cultural history, and for a time during its golden age, in the 1920s to the early 1960s, helped provide the soundtrack of the nation, along with songs drawn from Hollywood films. Later, it was overtaken by pop and rock on the airwaves and in the charts.
But musical theatre did not stop, and still hasn’t: with shows such as Hamilton, it has again become a central part of the cultural conversation. And the ongoing vitality of the form is proved by the fact that, of the 50 songs in my list, fewer than half (23) are pre-1970s.
At the same time, there are certain tentpoles: Sondheim has the highest number of songs by a single composer (nine), followed by Richard Rodgers (four songs), Leonard Bernstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber (three each), Cole Porter, Cy Coleman, Jerry Bock, John Kander and Stephen Schwartz (two each). The list also features giants such as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Frank Loesser, Frederick Loewe and Jerry Herman.
Each of these, frankly, could have had at least 20 songs on a list (the entire score of Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, easily my favourite musical of all time, might qualify). But I set myself certain limitations, confining myself to one song from each show.
Inevitably, this is a subjective list, not least my number one choice – a song from a 1972 Broadway musical Pippin that speaks very personally to me, being a song about trying to find one’s own sense of peace and destiny in a show about confronting depression. From this century, I’ve chosen two further numbers that address me personally: from Groundhog Day and the Broadway show Next to Normal. Likewise, they provide moving lessons in tackling depression, so I’ve also included them.
Tim Minchin’s Groundhog Day originated in the West End, as did his Matilda, from which I’ve chosen another song. But other than three songs from Lloyd Webber, the West End is far more frugally represented than Broadway: there’s a song from Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show and one from Boublil and Schonberg’s Paris-originated Les Miserables.
This suggests that, for all that the British musical came to dominate Broadway in the 1980s, the epicentre of musical theatre has remained New York. This is borne out by a flood of imports taking over West End stages in the coming months, with Come from Away, Waitress, On Your Feet, 9 to 5 and Dear Evan Hansen among those joining juggernauts Hamilton and The Book of Mormon.
There are inevitably plenty of omissions. It pains me, in particular, that I was unable to include anything by Howard Goodall, my top British composer: though none of his great repertoire has yet scored a long-lasting commercial success, The Hired Man is my favourite British musical of all. I’m also sorry that there’s nothing by Maury Yeston, Andrew Lippa, Pasek and Paul, Michael John LaChiusa or Jeanine Tesori from currently active Broadway writers, all of whose work I greatly admire and respect.
It’s a particularly striking fact that there’s not a single song written for Broadway by a female composer (though female lyricists do appear on the list), which partly reflects the paucity of their appearances there. Besides Tesori, I would also have liked to have included Lucy Simon‘s The Secret Garden. But the pool of writers I had to draw on remains severely limited.
And it’s equally striking that, with the single exception of Lin-Manuel Miranda, there are no other writers of colour on the list, either. I hope that in the coming years and decades we will see the emergence of a more diverse range of composers. There is a lot of catching up to do.
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