Mark Shenton’s top 50 musical theatre songs: 30 to 21
Our associate editor, Broadway critic and resident musical theatre expert Mark Shenton is counting down his favourite 50 songs in the history of musical theatre. We are revealing them 10 at a time, with the final top 10 published on October 26. Shenton has only considered songs specifically written for musical theatre productions and only listed one song per musical. This is an inevitably subjective selection, but please list your own favourites in the comments below. We continue with numbers 30 to 21.
30. Seasons of Love from Rent
Broadway 1996 (music and lyrics: Jonathan Larson)
Why I love it: A musical that returned rock to Broadway and established the pre-eminence of the US musical after a decade dominated by London-originated shows, Rent was a phenomenon – not least as an elegy to a lost generation of creative people who had been hit by HIV/AIDS. Seasons of Love is a gorgeous anthem that is their memorial.
Notable performances: The original Broadway production ran for more than 12 years. Its transfer to the West End in 1998 only mustered a year and a half. But it has returned to London since in three subsequent productions, including most recently at the St James in 2016 that subsequently toured.
Original Broadway cast:
29. Buenos Aires from Evita
West End 1978 (music: Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics: Tim Rice)
Why I love it: Evita, the 1978 musical that marked Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s third and most successful collaboration, was also their last and remains a crowning artistic achievement for both. Don’t Cry For Me Argentina may be its most famous song, but the one I love most is Buenos Aires, with its pulsating Latin beat and perfect distillation of Eva’s grasping, take-no-prisoners ambition – enabling the woman playing her to take none either.
Notable performances: Eva Peron was first sung on the 1976 concept album by Julie Covington. It was then originated on the London stage by Elaine Paige, making a star of her. But the Broadway transfer in 1979 took it into another league with the bracing Patti LuPone.
Patti LuPone sings the song at the 1981 Tony Awards:
28. Tell Me It’s Not True from Blood Brothers
West End 1983 (music and lyrics: Willy Russell)
Why I love it: Willy Russell’s folk musical about a single mother who surrenders one of her twins to another woman to raise has become one of the most popular British musicals of the last half century. Though its original West End production in 1983 ran for less than six months, its 1989 revival ran for more than 24 years – and a parallel national tour is still on the road today. Tell Me It’s Not True is the song’s achingly beautiful and utterly heartbreaking 11 o’clock number: truly spellbinding.
Notable performances: Many people have played Mrs Johnson, but few have sung it with such wrenching power as original star Barbara Dickson.
Barbara Dickson on a UK TV show:
27. When I Grow Up from Matilda
Stratford-upon-Avon 2010, then West End in 2011 (music and lyrics: Tim Minchin)
Why I love it: Tim Minchin’s first hit West End musical, developed under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has become a long-running hit at the Cambridge. When I Grow Up perfectly captures the show’s absolutely brilliant demonstration of childhood optimism over adversity that provides a life lesson to us all.
Notable performances: The show premiered at Stratford-upon-Avon’s temporary Courtyard Theatre in 2010 before transferring to the West End in 2011, where it has played ever since. It is also now on a UK tour, and has been a hit on Broadway and in Australia.
Performed at the 2012 Royal Variety performance at the Royal Albert Hall:
26. Seeing You from Groundhog Day
West End 2016 (music and lyrics: Tim Minchin)
Why I love it: The other thrilling musical of this century (so far) is also a profound musical about dealing with depression – and surviving it. Tim Minchin’s astonishingly mature score is a modern classic – and Seeing You is a haunting account of a man confronting his real self for the first time. Also unmissable is a song about reliving the past: If I Had My Time Again.
Notable performances: Original London and Broadway star Andy Karl was phenomenal in the role of TV newscaster Phil Connors, but in the following video composer Tim Minchin sings it himself live at London’s South Bank Show Awards in 2016.
South Bank Show:
25. You Don’t Know/ I Am the One from Next to Normal
Broadway 2009 (music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey)
Why I love it: A musical that chronicles with astonishing boldness and bravery the minute-to-minute experiences of a woman suffering from extreme depression and her family’s attempts to support her, this show became an improbable Broadway hit – winning the Tony for best score – but is yet to make it across the Atlantic. This pair of songs explain her predicament, from her point of view, her husband’s, and the late son whose loss still has a profound grip on her. No musical this century so far has made a bigger impact on me.
Notable performances: The original cast featured a Tony award-winning Alice Ripley as the mother, with J. Robert Spencer as her husband Dan and Aaron Tveit as her son Gabe, all of whom can be seen in the extract from the 2009 Tony Awards.
The 2009 Tony Awards:
24. The Road You Didn’t Take from Follies
Broadway 1971 (music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim)
Why I love it: Sondheim’s profound musical meditation about life’s regrets and missed opportunities is thrillingly encapsulated in Benjamin Stone’s fierce, bitter song of personal recrimination, The Road You Didn’t Take. It is an utterly extraordinary song about searching for peace – and finding it, but at a considerable cost. “The Ben I’ll never be – who remembers him?”
Notable performances: Superbly revived at the National last year with Philip Quast playing Benjamin Stone, it will return there in February 2019 with Alexander Hanson replacing him.
1985 Carnegie Hall concert, performed by George Hearn:
23. A Lot of Livin’ to Do from Bye Bye Birdie
Broadway, 1960 (music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams)
Why I love it: The arrival of the late 1950s and early 1960s saw Broadway usurped from the airwaves by pop music from The Beatles and Elvis Presley – and Broadway’s prominence in generating popular music would wane. Bye Bye Birdie, premiered in 1960, marked the first part of this fissure, with Broadway seeking to play catch-up with a musical inspired by Elvis Presley’s draft into the army. A Lot of Livin’ to Do is a catchy and generous-hearted pop song that also serves a distinct narrative purpose.
Notable performances: Premiered on Broadway in 1960, it was filmed in 1963.
Audio of original Broadway cast recording:
22. Something’s Coming from West Side Story
Broadway, 1957 (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
Why I love it: Many people regard West Side Story as their favourite musical – and Bernstein’s thrilling score, to masterful lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is indeed an absolute classic, with such all-time standards as Tonight, Maria, Somewhere and One Hand, One Heart. But Something’s Coming is the song that sets the heart racing with its open-hearted optimism and ravishing melody.
Notable performances: One of the challenges of casting West Side Story is that its actors have to be able to dance as well as sing, to be able execute Jerome Robbins’s original dazzling choreography as confidently as sing Bernstein’s intricate melodies. The original Broadway Tony Larry Kert could do both. In the 1961 film, Richard Beymer had to have his vocals dubbed by Jimmy Bryant (and Natalie Wood, playing Maria, was dubbed by Marni Nixon).
2009 Broadway revival:
21. Some Other Time from On the Town
Broadway 1944 (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)
Why I love it: This miraculous urban fairytale of New York – in which three horny sailors try to cram as much as possible into a 24-hour shore visit to Manhattan – catches the pulsing, sexy beat of the city, from its vivacious opening number New York, New York to its hauntingly elegiac penultimate number Some Other Time, in which they realise that some of its pleasures may have to be postponed. This is one of the most tender and beautiful songs Bernstein ever wrote.
Notable performances: This show was thrillingly revived in London at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park in 2017.
Audio of the 2014 Broadway revival:
Listen to the playlist on Spotify: