Four songs


I’ve been trying to organise my thoughts on a topic close to my heart – the defence of musical theatre, a medium which comes in for more than its fair share of (snooty) criticism. Yes, the musical can be blooming silly and rather pointless, but it can also achieve an astonishing level of power and artistry.  CabaretWest Side StorySweeney Todd.  Incredible works of art by any standard, surely.  However, try as I might, I cannot write something without ranting or babbling incoherently.  Perhaps one day I’ll manage it, but for now, I’ll simply mention just four songs written for musicals which never cease to amaze me.

  • ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ from Seven Lively Arts, by Cole Porter.  I’ve never been in love, but this song speaks so eloquently of loss and longing, of the highs and lows of parting and reuniting.  It is one of a very small number of songs that can make me cry.
  • ‘Night and Day’ from The Gay Divorcee, also by Cole Porter.  This is a searing song of yearning and desire with powerful lyrics.  But pay attention to the music as well, and the song reveals just how good Cole Porter was.  The staccato opening verse contrasts brilliantly with the soaring, swooping liquid melody it leads to.  It’s simply gorgeous.
  • ‘(I Wonder Why) You’re Just in Love’ from Call Me Madam by Irving Berlin.  This one just makes me smile – it’s a duet between a young man experiencing love for the first time, and an older woman who is touched by this.  His verse is very sweet and simple, while hers is more bouncy and belty (it was written for the very scary Ethel Merman, so it’s hardly a surprise).  And then they sing them together!  I have never understood counterpoint, but I love it.  It makes me very excited, whether it’s in a mass or a love song.  I really do wonder how they write them like that.
  • The ‘Quintet’ from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.  This is surely the pinnacle of theatre music, with counterpoint taken to extremes.  Only ‘One Day More’ from Les Mis comes close for this sort of thing – disparate groups of people anticipating a specific time, and putting their hopes and fears into words and music.  The rival street gangs anticipate their rumble, the two lovers look forward to meeting, and Anita adds a sexual frisson.  And they all come together into something that is greater than the sum of its already-incredible parts. 

I could go on, and make the longest blog post ever, but I won’t.  I don’t wake up and launch into ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’.  I don’t automatically sing ‘My Time of Day’ if I wander the city streets at night.  I don’t (thank goodness) drag out ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’ every time the clouds part.  But I’m glad to have a body of songs from a supposedly inferior source to draw on, to sing and to listen to.  As Abba said in ‘Thank You For the Music’ from the mini-musical The Girl With the Golden Hair, ‘without a song or a dance, what are we?’  I don’t know, and I hope I never have to find out.

  1. Oh oh oh I ADORE ‘Ev’ry time we say goodbye’! It’s one of the few songs I can sing end to end. fantabulous.

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