A succinct, sassy title for this playlist could be, “The Partial Credit Round” or “The Best of the Worst,” but I’m not in the business of adding more to my Broadway enemies list than Alan Cumming (sorry, Alan).
No matter how many nerd friends rave over them, there are so many musicals I won’t listen through (again) if you paid me. With that said, it seems time and again these same shows have about a song and a half or so of pure gold tucked away, which I’d low-key lose it over were they listed in a musical revue. So today let’s pay tribute to those shows that really don’t do it for me, but they still get their five minutes of fame and/or playing time on my Shower Jams playlist.
1. “Prologue” Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
Backstory: A front-runner for the 2017 Tony Awards which ended up disappointing, THE [MEDIOCRE AT BEST] COMET of 1812 made its first appearance Off-Broadway, starring HAMILTON’s Phillipa Soo as Natasha just four years ago.
Why it’s a nugget of gold: You can’t go wrong with accordions any day of the week. Let’s just start there. The Russian melody backing the prologue sets the “complicated Russian novel”‘s scene flawlessly- rounded out with shockingly straightforward lyrics which encourage the audience to read their programs for full character names and then introduce the characters a la The Twelve Days of Christmas. Who does that?! It’s like a 21st-century take on “Tradition” from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and it’s delightful.
2. “The Proposal/The Night was Alive” from Titanic
Backstory: Not a musical version of the Leo DiCaprio movie, this adaptation sailed (#sorrynotsorry) to Broadway eight months before the release of James Cameron’s film. TITANIC the musical took home Best Musical and four other Tony Awards (its Best Musical competitors are also obscure), losing in multiple categories to the stellar CHICAGO revival.
Why it’s a nugget of gold: Three words: Brian d’Arcy James. BDJ’s Fred puts his heart on the line as he dictates a telegram to his lady in New York, imploring her to marry him on his return. Lyrically, the earnest ballad is a triumph. “Marry me! May the Lord who watches o’er watch over thee!” The third-wheeling telegrapher jumps on board as he tells the audience how greatly the telegraph job has improved his social life. Out of context, his verses hang awkwardly, but all is forgiven as he beautifully descants over BDJ’s final refrain.
3. “What do I Need With Love?” from Thoroughly Modern Millie
Backstory: The star-making performance for Sutton Foster in the title role, originated by Julie Andrews in the 1967 film, also marked the first of Foster’s collaborations with composer Jeanine Tesori.
Why it’s a nugget of gold: Jimmy, oh Jimmy. It’s the classic anti-love song so characteristic of the American musical theatre since the beginning of time. The first song of (spoiler) Millie’s love interest, the proudly unattached Jimmy claims immunity to the trap of love while showing the desire for just that. Gavin Creel oozes charm as he sings the playful tune’s endearingly contradictory lyrics.
4. “What a Waste” from Wonderful Town
Backstory: The second Bernstein/Comden/Green musical of the early Broadway canon centers around sisters who- wait for it- move to New York in search of fame on The Great White Way. Ever heard of a Broadway show like that? Yeah, me neither. Classic light-hearted ’50s shenanigans ensue.
Why it’s a nugget of gold: “What a Waste” is the antithesis of the love letters to New York usually found on the Broadway stage. Sung by a naysayer calling malarkey on the notion that NYC is the end of everyone’s rainbow, this Bernstein tune features story after story of prodigies whose careers tanked upon moving to the Big Apple. Between the playful tune and unexpected twist on the New York musical, this song truly represents what made Golden Age Broadway absolutely delightful. [Not to be confused with MISS SAIGON’s song of the same title, which is less about New York and more about brothels in Bangkok.]
5. “Take a Chance on Me” from Little Women
Background: Based on the Louisa May Alcott classic about the adventures of four sisters at the time of the Civil War, it bears the official subtitle “that Sutton Foster skit where hers was the only Tony nomination.”
Why it’s a nugget of gold: “Sometimes late at night, I watch you in that attic pacing back and forth like a maniac…” With some downright creepy lyrics to kick it off (but it’s a musical, so how creepy can it be?), Laurie (Danny Gurwin) spends an entire song trying to impress Jo (Foster) by recounting his fictitious achievements which she couldn’t care less about. But bless his heart, he keeps trying. And then he loses to her in a boxing match.
6. “Muddy Water” from Big River
Backstory: What better style to accompany a musical HUCKLEBERRY FINN than the classic country sound of Roger Miller? Let me set the scene: Huck and Jim are in pursuit of adventure and freedom down the Mississippi river- Huck from his smothering guardians and Jim from slavery. Spoiler alert: Mark Twain awards a happy ending for all.
Why it’s a nugget of gold: Oh y’all, if ever there were a song that makes you want to run out and conquer the world, it’s “Muddy Water.” Without a specific destination in mind, Huck and Jim fearlessly hit the big river (again, #sorrynotsorry), crooning all the way down. Then just when you think the exciting harmonies can’t get any better, they up and modulate. You’re not ready.
7. “Revolting Children” from Matilda
Backstory: A year after BILLY ELLIOT and SPRING AWAKENING dimmed their Broadway lights, and it looked like the days of angsty European youths on the Great White Way were over, in came Roald Dahl’s Matilda and co. But unlike the trio of Billys- three actors who alternated performances as the title character, because child labor laws are a thing- MATILDA’s leading ladies were found ineligible for a Best Actress Tony nom. Not to worry, as they received a special Tony honor instead.
Why it’s a nugget of gold: Speaking of conquering the world, there’s nothing like a chorus of pint-sized revolutionaries to inspire you to rebel against, well, anything. When it opens with a kid riffing a capella, you know it’s going to be off-the-chain. Not to be confused with “Stick it to the Man” from SCHOOL OF ROCK, this giant “I’m here!” number features the kids revolting in the best way they know how- misspelling words, misusing hockey sticks, drawing on the chalk-board, and other such indecorous behaviors. Using an unstoppable rock beat, it’s as cute as it is exciting.
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