Top Twelve

June 7, 2007

I guess I’m a purist.

Donald Feltham at Broadway Radio has asked me to think of my twelve favorite showtunes of all time, and we’re doing an interview in the next few weeks where we talk about them and play them on his hour-long show. It’s more of a challenge than I expected. At first I only had four or five songs on the list. Then, in a surge, I had twenty-six. I think I’ve narrowed the list back down to twelve, but I told Donald we had to do this interview quickly before I changed my mind.

There are a number of tunes that made it to my list because of the actual writing of the songs, but I didn’t have a favorite performance of them. So I’ve been listening on iTunes and trying to determine which recording to play. A few of the songs got knocked off the list because I just couldn’t find a recording that wasn’t all about the arrangement. I don’t need to hear what cool string line some arranger came up with, nor is this the forum for a two and a half minute trumpet solo, and why does everything have to be a bossa nova? I’m also surprised at how many songs I wanted to include on the list and then realized they weren’t actually from shows. They were just standards or they were written by theater composers for their (ahem) solo albums.

Then tonight, with all this on my mind, I watched the movie “De-Lovely.” (Yes, I know it came out in 2004, but sometimes it takes me a while to get around to those things I’m supposed to have done already.) And in this biopic about Cole Porter they’ve got some of the most contemporary singers performing songs in the most contemporary styles, but their costumes and the nature of the story imply that they’re supposed to be chronologically accurate. Alanis Morissette? Really? I’m a fan, but come on. Get a coach on the set who knows something about the period. Interestingly, as the credits were rolling I didn’t mind the arrangements of the songs at all, but in the context of the show, I found those contemporary chords and phrasings to be totally distracting.

It was one of the complaints I had about the GREASE show. If I had been in charge, which I so wasn’t, those kids would have sung theater songs every week, all the judges would have been from the musical theater community and the network would have filmed more rehearsal and less performing. Great singers in one style of music are not necessarily great singers in ALL styles of music. But I suppose that’s why I’m in the theater business and not the TV business.

While I’m complaining — let me throw in this completely random non-sequitur of a complaint. Today at the supermarket I bought a week’s worth of groceries and I paid with a credit card. As the checkout gal was handing me my receipt, she said, “Thank you very much, Miss Stitt.” I was so annoyed. Why does she get to know my last name and I don’t get to know hers? Why does she get to announce it to everyone else in line without my permission? And why did everyone in that store feel the need to ask me if I was finding everything okay? How hard can it be to find groceries in a grocery store?

Ah. Okay. Back to the topic at hand.

In looking at my list of twelve showtunes, I’m learning some things about myself. Apparently I’m an optimist, as I’ve chosen a lot of tunes about happiness and only three heartbreakers. You might be surprised to read that given the tone of the rest of this blog, but perhaps today I was having an off day. Apparently I also like very long songs. And try as I might, I couldn’t get fewer than three Sondheim songs on the list. Even at that, I’ve left out some of my major favorites, but there were only twelve spots. I figure Sondheim deserves 25% of my list at a bare minimum.

Watch here and I’ll let you know when the interview airs. Meanwhile, what are your top twelve favorite showtunes? It’s harder than you think.


9 thoughts on “Top Twelve”

  1. Real History Lisa on said:

    It’s so funny you mention this, because just last night I was wondering what you and Jason (separately) would pick as your top ten songs (and whether there’d be any overlap!) Twelve is better – a little more lenient, although still painfully hard, because there are so many songs to love! And preferences change over time. I LOVE a song literally to death, and play it a 1000 times or more, and ultimately move on. (Ack – that’s not exactly unlike – well, too much personal information there!)

    I’m dying to know your list! I haven’t really given this much thought since that moment last night, but I’ll take a stab, since I’ve got a spare minute, which is rare and wonderful. I’m numbering them, but they are not in any order other than the one I thought of them. Ranking them would be even harder than winnowing down to just 12.

    1. Defying Gravity from Wicked because it’s the story of my life, and so aptly tells of that moment of life-changing awareness, after which you can never be the same again, and the burden of responsibility that comes with such knowledge. It’s a scary and exhilarating moment in life I wouldn’t force on anyone and yet wish everyone could experience:

    Something has changed within me
    Something is not the same
    I’m through with playing by
    The rules of someone else’s game
    Too late for second guessing
    Too late to go back to sleep
    It’s time to trust my instincts
    Close my eyes, and leap

    It’s time to try
    Defying gravity
    I think I’ll try
    Defying gravity
    And you can’t bring me down …

    I’m through accepting limits
    ‘Cuz someone says they’re so
    Some things I cannot change
    But ’till I try, I’ll never know

    As I said, the story of my life, right there. Color me Quixote.

    Gosh, this is hard! Hundreds of songs are suddenly tumbling through my brain. Sifting… sifting….

    2. Johanna from Sweeney Todd. There’s just something haunting and gorgeous about the music, and although the lyric is amazingly sparse, it is like a poem, full of multifaceted truths:

    I feel you, Johanna…
    I’ll steal you…
    Do they think that walls can hide you?

    Has anyone ever been in love who hasn’t had that amazing sensation of feeling the other the other even when they’re nowhere near? And who hasn’t wanted to be rescued from behind whatever walls imprison us? Add to that Victor Garber’s impassioned delivery, captured forever on the original Broadway cast album, and that song just lives forever in my heart.

    For the funniest song I ever heard, and surely one of the top 12 would have to be — can I mention a show that’s en route to Broadway but not there yet? The funniest song I ever heard, that LITERALLY had me falling out of my seat (I had a blank row in front of me, so believe me when I say I was truly falling) was the song “Lady in the Long Black Dress” from the new musical “Sister Act” (yes, based on the Whoopie Goldberg movie). I saw the Pasadena Playhouse production, and oh my gosh, I was just HOWLING, as was the rest of the audience. Three thugs sing about how they’d seduce a mother superior at a convent. Perhaps growing up Catholic gave that added humor, and since I only heard it once, it’s hard to say if it was the lyric or the performances that won me over, but that one soared right to the top of my personal chart.

    The runner-up would be, hands down, “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd, with “Marian” from “The Music Man” close behind. The latter, however, is funnier in context and doesn’t stand alone. You have to see it staged to get the humor. But there are so many wonderful, funny songs it’s an injustice to pick just one. Or five. Or ten, for that matter.

    Still sifting… sifting… uh oh. This could take a lot longer than I had planned…

    3. Okay. This wasn’t on Broadway, but it should have been. A song that never fails to make me smile: I Could be in Love With Someone Like You (replaced by “Shiksa Goddess” in The Last Five Years), by Jason Robert Brown. And no, I’m not just saying that because he’s your husband. But I am probably saying that because I’m half Irish. ;D But come on. Can anyone listen to “If you’ll be Mrs. O’Leary, Baby I will be your cow” and NOT start smiling? (If so – check your DNA. You can’t possibly be human.) Whenever I need a pick me up, that’s the number one song I turn to these days. I’m going to hear this one live from the Maestro himself in a few hours. Can’t wait!

    4. No One is Alone from Into the Woods. How can you top this? Even typing this brings a tear to my eye. True art is deep truth, and this song demonstrates that in spades.

    People make mistakes…
    Holding to their own
    Thinking their alone

    Honor their mistakes
    Everybody makes
    One another’s terrible mistakes

    Witches can be right
    Giants can be good
    You decide what’s right
    You decide what’s good

    Just remember
    Someone is on your side
    Someone else is not
    While we’re seeing our side
    Maybe we forget
    They are not alone …

    Someone is on your side
    No one is alone.

    5. Most fun group number: Oklahoma! from Oklahoma! To me, this is the perfect group number. It starts simple and carefree, and builds to a full-on block party. It’s just one of the best group numbers ever written for the stage, and I dare anyone to hear it and not want to sing and clap along!

    6. Best opening number: Belle, from Beauty and the Beast. The first time I heard this in the movie, I knew it would end up on Broadway. It was just a perfect opening number. We see Belle, the one who actually reads books (she won my heart right there) and longs for something beyond her “poor provincial town;” the amusing if obnoxious Gaston, and the shallow girls who fall all over him solely for his looks; the townsfolk, who don’t quite know what to make of this girl who aspires to me more than some guy’s plaything; the good, the bad, and the ugly re small town communities – people all knowing each other’s name, not having any privacy, and having people gossip about you behind your back! You meet several main characters, the scene is set, the central conflict revealed — it’s just a wonderful opening number.

    7. Most beautiful love song ever: Some Girls, from Once on this Island. I just love the melding of the gorgeous melody with the romantic, if tragic, lyric. Every time I hear this, I immediately find myself right at the center of this story. It’s so beautiful, and haunting.

    Some girls take hours to paint
    Every perfect nail
    Fragrant as flowers, all powdered
    And prim and pale.
    But you are as wild as
    That wind-blown tree,
    As dark and as deep as
    The midnight sea.
    While they’re busy dressing,
    You lie here, warm and bold.
    Some girls you picture,
    Some you hold.

    Some girls take courses at
    All the best schools in France
    Riding their horses and
    Learning their modern dance.
    They’re clever and cultured
    And worldly wise.
    But you see the world through
    A child’s wide eyes.
    While their dreams are grand ones,
    You want what’s just in reach.
    Some girls you learn from,
    Some you teach.

    You are not small talk or shiny cars
    Or mirrors or French cologne.
    You are the river, the moon, the stars.
    You’re no one else I’ve known.

    Some girls take pleasure in
    Buying a fine trousseau,
    Counting each treasure and
    Tying each tiny bow.
    They fold up their futures
    With perfumed hands
    While you face the future
    With no demands.
    Some girls expect things
    Others think nothing of.
    Some girls you marry,
    Some you love.

    8. I’m Going Back. The most fun song I ever got to sing, from Bells are Ringing. Yes, long ago, I used to sing and dance and act, and had the most fun ever on stage starring in this show. My leading man was a riot, and the entire experience was just magical. I loved this because the character gets to sing in various styles and character voices, all in a single number. The piano player was a flirt and half, and my favorite part of the song was going down to the pit (which was at the same level as the audience) and fooling around with him during the song. What a blast. And then I ripped the ligaments in my ankle (at a Chorus Line audition – could that have been more apt? I asked, “can I audition for Paul now?” but no one laughed) and the dancing ended. And then I started learning about the Kennedy assassination and the singing ended for many years.

    9. Meadowlark, from The Baker’s Wife. I had heard of this song, but had never heard the song until someone gave me a copy of the sheet music (not then published). I started learning it and fell in love with it right away. At the time, I had a voice teacher who used this fantastic accompanist who could play anything. I showed it to the accompanist and he fell in love with it too. In fact, he said I was his favorite student because I always brought him the most interesting songs. Again, this is a story of universal longing, with a wonderful melody, and my heart always soars and breaks when I listen to it.

    10. West End Avenue, from The Magic Show. I fell in love with this song before I ever heard it played. I’m a very good sight reader and used to hang out at Hollywood Sheet Music (love that place) and just browse through librettos and selections and look for interesting lyrics and melodies. If I liked something, I’d buy it and bring it home and THEN I would finally plunk it out. I don’t really play piano, but I can pick out notes. (For years, however, I was a very good harpist, so I often learned songs on the harp and then transferred my learning to the piano.) I loved how it switched from 7/4 to 9/4 and back, how it was so evocative of life on the upper West Side in New York, a place I would have loved living had I ever been able to afford it…

    11. For Good, from Wicked. Okay. Here’s a song I can’t get through without crying, because again, isn’t this what life’s all about? We all want to know we’ve had this effect, that we’ve changed others, and been changed by others, especially if the change was “for good,” in both senses of the word. This song is just lovely, and the pros who have delivered it have brought tears to my eyes each time. (I’ve heard four performances of this now, two with Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenowith, and two with Eden Espinosa and Megan Hilty. That will be three come July! My “Christmas” gift to my parents.)

    Oh no!!! Only one song left, out of the entire universe of amazing songs????? But there are so many in Godspell, Sunday in the Park with George, Pacific Overtures, Assassins, (fill in all the other Sondheim and Schwartz and Jason Robert Brown shows here). What about Gershwin? Kern? Styne? What about West Side Story, and Little Me, and The Sound of Music, and Avenue Q? It’s impossible. I feel like I’m going to explode if I try to narrow it down!! And that would look so horrible on your blog page! What to pick???? Okay. The one that always calms me down when I’m stressed. The song that, if I could only take one with me to a desert island, I would take. Since I included JRB’s song that wasn’t on Broadway, I feel compelled to include this one too, one of my all-time favorite songs in the world:

    12. I Hear Bells, by Richard Maltby and David Shire, from their review Starting Here, Starting Now. The song just reaches in past all the pain and fear and whatever else we carry with us on a daily basis and reminds me of the simple beauty of life. I love this song. I will always love this song.

    I hear bells
    In the summer night
    Distant bells that
    No one hears

    I hear moonlight
    Softly chiming
    And the clang of
    Ivy climbing …

    Are you sad?
    Come along with me
    Hear the world with
    My own ears
    Hear the starlight
    Faintly tinkling
    And the ping of
    Candles twinkling …

    I hear the Bells that I love so much
    Bells I can smell, I can taste and touch
    If you’re in need of a world that can
    Come and hear mine.

    Gosh, Georgia. I had no idea that would be so hard. But thanks. It was great spending the day with some marvelous memories. Every song attaches itself to whatever is happening in life at the time we hear it, so it’s been quite a journey, reliving some of that!

    See you tonight? If not, take care! And now it’s up to you, “now it’s up to you…!”

  2. -William on said:

    1) Sunday – “SITPWG”
    2) For Now – “Avenue Q”
    3) Say it Somehow -“The Light in the Piazza”
    4) I Could Do Better -some guy’s show that no one knows…;-)
    5) Finsh the Hat -“SITPWG”
    6) Johanna Trio -“Sweeney Todd”
    7) Corner of the Sky -“Pippin”
    8) Touch Me -“Spring Awakening”
    9) People Like Us -“The Wild Party”
    10) Move On -“SITPWG”
    11) Old Red Hills of Home -again, some dude’s show
    12) Sunday in the Park With George -obvi

    Yeah, this WAS tough.

  3. Real History Lisa on said:

    Good list, William. It’s funny how personal the choices are. Gawd how I loved SITPWG. But after a while, it became too much the story of my life (as in, “We do not belong together”) and I had to shelve it, fearing my repeated listening was causing those situations to manifest themselves in my life. I need a hopeful romance to listen to!!

  4. Georgia Stitt on said:

    You guys — these are great songs. It’s amazing to me how personal the choice is. Some of mine are connected to productions I’ve worked on, shows I discovered when I was a kid, or melodies I wish I’d written. I’m doing the interview in a week. Can’t wait to show off my list!

  5. Anonymous on said:

    That WAS hard…I had a playlist of about 30 “Top 12 Favorite Showtunes” but I narrowed it down to these…
    1. “The I Love You Song” from 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (I just love William Finn)
    2. “The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music (I’m not even sure why–I just can never get tired of this song)
    3. “And They’re Off” from A New Brain (more William Finn…I just love how when you listen to the lyrics, it’s really sad, but the music is so energetic and peppy)
    4. The Ballad of Booth from Assassins
    5. Being Alive from Company (A few days ago I would’ve said I liked Dean Jones’ version best, but after watching the Tony’s, I have to say that Raul Esparza was brilliant with this song)
    6. On the Steps of the Palace from Into the Woods (I love its wordiness)
    7. If I Didn’t Believe in You from Last Five Years (I just love this song :))
    8. One Day More from Les Miz (one of my favorite Act One Enders)
    9. The Beauty Is from Light in the Piazza (my current obsession)
    10. Curiosity/Prayer from See What I Wanna See (an overlooked musical that I think is really great…I haven’t seen it, but the original cast recording makes me wish I had)
    11. Too Much For One Heart from Miss Saigon (not sure if this counts since it was cut from the show, but I love it)
    12. God, That’s Good from Sweeney Todd (this song always makes me feel good, which I guess is a little strange, but I just love it!)

  6. Real History Lisa on said:

    I almost named “On the Steps of the Palace” too – what a great story, with all those great rhymes at the end:

    Now it’s he and not you
    Who is stuck with a shoe,
    In a stew, in the goo,
    And you’ve learned something, too,
    Something you never knew,
    On the steps of the palace.

    I almost named the Ballad of Booth too. Love the score, even if Sondheim should be arrested for so bastardizing history! (This is a topic I know much about – check my blog!)

    I passed on the chance to see the OBC of Spelling Bee here in Los Angeles – did I make a horrible mistake? Ah well.

    Georgia, the suspense is killing me! But yes, our favorites are necessarily intensely personal. As is all art, I guess! 😀 Can’t wait to hear yours.

  7. missy on said:

    Ok, so I became obsessed with finding my favorite 12 broadway tunes. I can’t wait to see your list, it is really interesting how each person has the favorites they do. I am going to say that your age will affect your choices and your gender as well. But when it comes down to it, a great song is a great song.
    Like so many others it was difficult to get started and then I suddenly had a list of 25. From that I cut it down to these 12, but there are many that should be on this list. These are all songs that I have loved for what they say and how the music moves me, especially when I am performing them.
    These are not in any special order. By the way, Happy Birthday to you and Jason.

    1. Everyday a Little Death A Little Night Music
    Wow, so true to the period and for some today

    2. I’m Not That Girl Wicked
    Great writing, great song.

    3. Every Breath You Take City of Angels
    What an awesome love song.

    4. Climb Every Mountain Sound of Music
    Loved this as a young girl. Just had so much
    hope in it.

    5. If I Sing Closer than Ever Maltby/Shire
    This song made me cry the first time I heard it
    A beautiful love song from a son to his dad.

    6. Never Go Back to Before Ragtime
    Just one of the best songs ever written for a
    woman to sing. There is such a feeling of
    independence and acceptance from this song.

    7. Patterns Cut from Baby
    Another one of those great woman emoting

    8. Somewhere West Side Story
    Bernstein was a genius, even in death there is
    everlasting love.

    9. How Glory Goes Floyd Collins

    10. This is Love Light in the Piazza
    The music is full of love. You don’t even have
    to listen to the words to know this is a love

    11. Life Story Closer than Ever
    A great story of a woman finding herself and
    realizing that her life is nothing to complain

    12. What it Means to Be a Friend ’13’ JRB
    When I hear my daughter who is 13 do this
    number it is so right on as to what she goes
    through everyday in Junior High. I love the
    whole of it.

    I am sure you can see that I love songs that tell a story and are usually about women. Georgia, I wish ‘Life is Not a Camera’ was from a show, because it would surely make my top twelve.
    Thanks for getting my brain thinking about those songs. It was really fun to relive them again

  8. Peter on said:

    Well, I’m arriving, as usual, late to the party, but since I read this post I’ve been thinking of an answer. To be honest, I could list 12 songs that perhaps I don’t love as much as others but which would have a greater ‘cachet’ to them, sort of looking at this question through a prism of pretension. I know there are songs which have one or two great lines in them but which, on the whole, are not great songs. So I figured, my favorite 12 songs? Well, iTunes has this handy ‘Most Played’ feature, so I’ll list those. This means: 1) albums I’ve owned for years and have already ‘gotten over’ the phase in every new album’s life where it never leaves the CD player (Rent/Parade/etc for example) don’t get played as often on the iPod and 2) songs which I would list on a Top 12 BEST songs are not necessarily on this list since I’m listing my favorites.

    I have a Playlist on my iPod with about 1500 songs on it, I call it ‘Driving Music’ because it’s those songs which are my absolute favorite to listen to repeatedly, to sing along to, loudly, when no one is around to tell me I can’t sing, and, well, I like ’em.

    Since this is only ‘Broadway’ two songs which are in my top 12 have been stricken from this list (Ascension Day and Fantastic Dream by Alphaville…if you don’t know the songs, I can’t recommend them highly enough. My wife and I danced to Fantastic Dream as our ‘first dance’ at our wedding) and one song was removed because it’s not from a show despite it’s pedigree (Someone To Fall Back On by the illustrious Mr. Brown, which had the 4th most ‘plays’)

    So, without further ado:

    In order of Most Played:

    She Cries (Songs For A New World)
    I Would Give My Life (Journey To The West)
    Come Save Me (The Boy From Oz)
    Even Though (I Love You Because)
    Goodbye (I Love You Because)
    Where I Need To Go (Debbie Does Dallas)
    Talk Amongst Yourselves (Taboo)
    The Dark I Know Well (Spring Awakening)
    All Grown Up (Bare) tied with Lily’s Eyes(The Secret Garden)
    13 Medley (13)
    You Should Be Loved (Side Show)
    There’s A Fine, Fine Line (Avenue Q)

  9. Real History Lisa on said:

    Oh my gosh – I love “Every Day a Little Death” as well. I was also thinking of adding “Now/Soon/Later” from the same show as my favorite fugue because that’s such a brilliant song on so many levels (musically, lyrically, and in how it sets up where each character is at the start of the show).

    And while I loved “Baby” I would have picked “I Want it All” over Patterns. I love that number!
    I want a quiet simple life and some glory. And Steven Spielberg filming my first story!

    And I too loved (and can often be heard singing, for good reason) “Come Save Me” from The Boy from Oz. Someday I’ll have to share my dancing with Hugh Jackman story. ;D

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