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 40 to 31.
London 1973 (music and lyrics by Richard O’Brien)
Why I love it: The birth of the global cult musical The Rocky Horror Show took place in the tiny 80-seater Royal Court Upstairs, but has since received numerous West End outings and even a Broadway revival. A sci-fi B-movie pastiche, it introduced drag and transvestism to the musical theatre mainstream, leading indirectly to shows such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but it’s mainly just a lot of good fun. Superheroes has a genuinely beautiful, elegiac melody.
Notable performances: Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon and Charles Gray in the 1975 film.
Off-Broadway 1967, then Broadway 1968 (music: Galt MacDermot, lyrics: Gerome Ragni, James Rado)
Why I love it: Few musicals caught their counter-cultural moments as explosively as Hair did when it premiered in 1967; it also brought a pop sound back into the theatre, and ushered in stage nudity in the West End when it premiered there in 1968.
Notable performances: Treat Williams performs the song in the belated 1979 film version.
Broadway 1964 (music: Jerry Bock, lyrics: Sheldon Harnick)
Why I love it: Bock and Harnick’s folk musical Fiddler on the Roof, about the Jewish community being driven out of Russia, is widely considered to be their masterpiece – though I prefer She Loves Me. The keen sense of yearning and loss of a community and way of life under existential threat is heartbreaking. Sunrise, Sunset is a gorgeous hymn-like folk song.
Notable Performances: The 1971 film version was directed by Norman Jewison and starred Chaim Topol and Norma Crane.
Broadway 1963 (music: Jerry Bock, lyrics: Sheldon Harnick)
Why I love it: This may very well be among the most perfectly constructed of any musical. A gem of romantic delight in which two co-workers find their way to each other – despite their initial mutual distaste – by unwittingly conducting a blind romance by letter. In the title track, Georg Nowack at last realises that the attraction is mutual – sheer joy.
Notable performances: Georg was originally played on Broadway by the late British actor Daniel Massey, opposite the radiantly voiced Barbara Cook. Alas, I never saw that production, but I’ve since seen such actors as Boyd Gaines and John Gordon Sinclair play the role in Broadway and West End revivals, as well as Zachary Levi most recently on Broadway in 2016.
West End 1986 (music: Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics Charles Hart)
Why I love it: The swirling operatic melodies of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s single most successful musical – and now the record-holder for Broadway’s longest running show – are understandably popular (even if one or two seem liberally inspired by Puccini). The song I like most is All I Ask of You, a thrilling ballad for the show’s romantic lovers Christine and Raoul.
Notable performances: Sung in the original cast by Sarah Brightman and the late Steve Barton, the song has also been covered by numerous other artists, including Barbra Streisand in her 1988 studio album Till I Loved You.
Claire Moore, Brightman’s alternate in the original London production, performs the song with Michael Ball, a West End take-over, as Raoul on the Royal Variety show:
Broadway 1975 (music: John Kander, lyrics: Fred Ebb)
Why I love it: Kander and Ebb’s dazzling vaudevillian musical about crime, celebrity and showbusiness and the blurring of the boundaries between them in 1920s Chicago is irresistibly cynical, stylish and hilarious. Razzle Dazzle is the perfect embodiment of all of those characteristics in one place.
Notable performances: The original 1975 Broadway production was too much ahead of its time, running for just two years. But its 1996 revival, based on a concert version, is now the second longest running musical in Broadway history, with many notable performances over the years. Richard Gere featured in the 2002 film version, which won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Broadway 1963 (music: Jule Styne, lyrics: Bob Merrill)
Why I love it: Don’t Rain on My Parade is a defiant anthem of individuality.
Notable performances: The show that made a bona fide stage star of Barbra Streisand – and then a movie star when it was filmed in 1966 – her imprint has meant the show was regarded as untouchable for a long time. But when Sheridan Smith starred in a revival at the Menier, she claimed it as her own – and imprinted her own needy yet forceful signature on it.
Broadway 1964 (music and lyrics: Jerry Herman)
Why I love it: Some musicals are simply built for sheer joy, and the gloriously tuneful Hello, Dolly! is one of them. It’s a musical about match-making and romance in 19th-century New York that wraps the audience in a massive hug of shared pleasure. Put on Your Sunday Clothes is one of Jerry Herman’s most irresistible melodies. No wonder Wall-e, Pixar’s animated robot character, re-watches it compulsively in a video he finds of the 1969 film version.
Notable performances: A cast that included a young Michael Crawford as Cornelius Hackl starred with Barbra Streisand in the film version – it was recently also revived on Broadway with Gavin Creel as Barnaby and Bette Midler as Dolly.
The 2017 Broadway cast recording:
Broadway 1973 (music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim)
Why I love it: Arguably Stephen Sondheim’s single best known stand-alone song, Send in the Clowns actually needs the context of the show it is written in to make sense – a woman sings of realising, too late, that the partner she’s been looking for all her life is the man she used to date. A song of tremendous yearning and heartache, it has long been a standard – including a pop hit for Judy Collins – but in performance it emerges in a revelatory light.
Notable performances: Written specifically to accommodate the narrow range of notes available to original star Glynis Johns, it was sung with exquisite sadness and stillness by Judi Dench in the National’s 1995 revival that has never been bettered.
Judi Dench sings it in a BBC Prom in 2010 celebrating Sondheim:
Broadway 1987 (music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim)
Why I love it: Sondheim and James Lapine’s darkly textured fairytale musical is a parable of fractured parental legacies. Nowhere is this more hauntingly caught than in No More, a gorgeous heartbreaker of a song that is rich in thought and emotion.
Notable performances: Into the Woods has had several London productions – first by director Richard Jones in the West End in 1990, then at the Donmar Warehouse in 1998 and at Regent’s Park in 2010 in a production that subsequently transferred to New York’s Central Park.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify: