By Peter Filichia
Musical theater writers have many goals, but there’s one for which they always aim.
Write a song that will advance the action.
There are plenty of wonderful songs that do just that, but these are the songs the general public is least likely to hear. Even in the Golden Age, when show songs were recorded by pop artists, often played on the radio and routinely bought as singles, these forward-action songs never stepped out of their cast albums and soundtracks, because they didn’t mean much out-of-context.
Nevertheless, such songs offer many pleasures, with melodies that range from pleasant to memorable and lyrics that go from incisive to hilarious. To paraphrase a song from Follies that does not advance the action (but one we adore, anyway), they “run the gamut, A to Z.”
And speaking of A-to-Z, let’s see if we can find one memorable advance-the-action song for each letter of the alphabet.
“Ambition” (Do Re Mi) – Folksinger Tilda Mullen is quite happy with the following she has in a tiny Village nightclub. Now promoter Hubie Cram tells her she could be rich and famous, which doesn’t much impress her. See what changes her mind in a mere three minutes.
“But, Mr. Adams” (1776) – John Adams needs a writer for a declaration that would promote American independence. He’s turned down by a writer of light extemporanea, a new father and a non-writing talent. We’re all lucky that his fourth choice, a young husband from Virginia, finally agreed to write it for him.
“The Contract” (Gigi) – Gigi is becoming engaged to Gaston, but her saying “Yes” doesn’t settle matters; it only opens negotiations. You may recognize the Fritz Loewe melody as one that served as background music in the 1958 Oscar-winning film, but that didn’t help Alan Jay Lerner, who took on the tough job of writing nine minutes worth of lyrics. He made it look easy.
“Driving at Night” (State Fair) – According to Google Maps, Brunswick, Iowa, where the Frake family lives, is three-and-a-half-hours from the State Fair in Des Moines. And yet, in musical comedy, the drive takes a mere forty-six seconds.
“Easy Street” (Annie) – Miss Hannigan (the heavenly Dorothy Loudon), Rooster and Lily bemoan their poverty-stricken fate. Not too many minutes pass before they formulate a get-rich-quick scheme. Whether they stroll on Easy Street or do a perp walk is yet to be seen.
“Funny Honey” (Chicago) – Roxie starts out waxing rhapsodic about her husband Amos’ fidelity and how he’s willing to take the rap for her murdering Fred Casely – until, of course, he finds out they were lovers. Sweet then turns to sour awfully quickly.
“Goodbye, Old Girl” (Damn Yankees) – Many action-advancing songs have their characters age; here’s one in which a character youthens. Fiftyish Joe Boyd, now married and fat, becomes young and strong future baseball superstar Joe Hardy — with a little help from his non-friend Mr. Applegate.
“How the Other Half Lives” (Thoroughly Modern Millie) – Dorothy Brown – oh, excuse me, Miss Dorothy Brown to the likes of us — comes to the Hotel Priscilla for Single Women. Millie Dillmount discourages her from registering, and yet, by the end of the number, they’re roommates.
“I Understand” (On the Town) – Claire has been using her boyfriend Pitkin to pick up checks for meals for which he hasn’t even been present. The poor soul is indulgent for the longest time, but even the nicest of guys (and stupidest of patsies) eventually wises up.
“Judgment of Paris” (The Golden Apple) – A handsome young stranger arrives in Angel’s Roost, Washington – by balloon, no less – and is immediately drafted by townswomen to judge a baking contest. And the winner is …
“Kids” (Bye Bye Birdie) – Actually, on the original cast album, this mere rant against the then-current youth of America does not move the action forward. But on the soundtrack album, hear how Lee Adams rewrote his lyric so that Albert breaks the engagement he’d just made to Rosie. It’s a rare example of a song in a film musical being stronger than the one in the stage show.
“The Letter” (Mame) – Now that his Auntie Mame is off and married, Patrick communicates to her by snail mail. He goes from a little boy who brags about “the whisker on my chin” to a grown adult who’s “shaving every day.” Patrick must also grow up in a hurry when Mame experiences a big tragedy.
“Mix Tape” (Avenue Q) – Princeton brings Kate Monster a cassette of songs he’s made for her. She wonders if this present means that he’s interested in her. When she reads the list of songs, she becomes more hopeful, for the titles are romantic – at least for a while. Suddenly they get very generic, and when Princeton says that he plans to make a similar tape for each of his new neighbors, she’s utterly discouraged. Hear how Princeton saves the day and the date.
“November 22, 1963” (Assassins) – Just as there are plays with music that aren’t quite musicals, this is a scene with music rather than a musical scene. On this date at the Texas School Book Depository, a $1.25 an hour temp walked in and — some say — became an assassin who ran out. Make certain you hear this entire brilliant scene on the original cast album; the revival cast album’s abridged version only offers a fraction of its power.
“Opening Doors” (Merrily We Roll Along) – Although this musical famously moves backwards in time, none of its songs does. Here Franklin and Charley are struggling collaborators who get little encouragement from Broadway’s biggest producer (played with swagger and confidence by Jason Alexander, who’d become famous for creating a character without any. Franklin and Charley find if you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourselves.
“Perfectly Marvelous” (Cabaret) – Sally Bowles barges into Clifford Bradshaw’s room, and in fewer than three minutes, his monthly rent goes from fifty marks to twenty-five.
“Quartet” (Sweeney Todd) – True, some cast albums label this sequence as two separate songs: “Kiss Me” (as Anthony and Joanna bicker but decide on their plans) and “Ladies in Their Sensitivities” (in which the Judge and Beadle start making their way to Sweeney’s barber shop). But both Playbill and www.ibdb.com say it’s “Quartet,” and that’s good enough for me.
“Rainbow Tour” (Evita) – Yes, let’s hear it for the Rainbow Tour; it really was an incredible success for Evita Duarte Peron — well, at least for a while. It all went wrong, but where? The song eventually tells.
“Sons” (The Rothschilds) – This one covers more than a dozen years, as newlywed Meyer Rothschild tells his wife that he wants a bevy of boys to help him not only to run a business but also to change the world. “I could use at least five,” he says, and that’s precisely what he gets in this marvelous musical scene.
“A Terrific Band and a Real Nice Crowd” (Ballroom) – Poor widowed Bea Asher (the magnificent Dorothy Loudon), who’s been wasting away since her husband’s death, has finally been convinced by her best friend Angie to visit The Stardust Ballroom. She’s arrived, but does she dare go in? Finally she decides, “That’s not the Matterhorn — it’s just a flight of stairs” in one of Marilyn or Alan Bergman’s best lyrics.
“Up on Santa’s Lap” (A Christmas Story) – Little Ralphie, who wants a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun for Christmas, must wait his turn to see Kris Kringle. After “two eons and fifty-nine minutes,” find out how he makes out.
“Voices and Visions” (Goodtime Charley) – If Joan of Arc can pick out the true heir to the French throne from a gaggle of men, the archbishop will at least entertain the thought that she is, as she claims, “divinely guided.” Through the process of intelligent elimination, Joan does select the right man: Charles – and that’s when her real problems begin.
“A Weekend in the Country” (A Little Night Music) – “Look, ma’am! An invitation!” says Petra to her mistress Anne Egerman, and a mere six-and-a-half minutes later, every important character is ensconced at the Armfeldt family manse. Best lyric: “She’ll be hopelessly shattered by Saturd-ay night.” (Sondheim, of course.)
“Express Yourself” (Flora, the Red Menace) – Okay, that’s cheating for the “X,” but this is such a nifty song of seduction – starting from Charlotte’s first pass to her getting Harry to cheat on Flora – that I say we allow it. Lyricist Fred Ebb was just starting his Broadway career, but he was already capable of a good joke: note how Charlotte castigates Harry for being slow to take the bait: “Get off of that local train,” she encourages, “and express yourself to me.”
“You Did It” (My Fair Lady) – Here’s a curious case in which the action has already moved forward, but the audience didn’t see it happen. Theatergoers were instead at intermission when Eliza Doolittle had her chance to put one over the bigwigs at the Embassy Ball. As Henry Higgins tells us in the post-game wrap-up, Eliza passed the dreaded Karpathy trial with flying royal Hungarian colors.
And Z? Well, I’ll admit that from “Zip!” (Pal Joey) to “Zulu Love Song” (The Zulu and the Zayda), I can’t find any song starting with “Z” that advances the action. So you’ll excuse me while I go to sleep zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz …
Listen to all of the songs on the Masterworks Broadway Spotify playlist here.