Notes from the Soundboard is a new column appearing weekly on
Crossfade, focused on pop music's history and ongoing evolution. Lee
Zimmerman shares insights and observations on how music continues to
connect with the weirdness of the world. Click here to read past installments.
Okay, let me start by stating that I'm not an expert on Broadway musicals. Never have been. I like what I like, but my criteria falls under some narrow parameters, generally being governed by the fact that I'm all about songs and not as much about the stage. So when I tell people that I believe there hasn't been a Broadway show that's harbored hits since, say, 1963, I'm not commenting on the caliber of Broadway musicals in general. Far be it for me to disparage the likes of Andrew Lloyd Weber and all those other authors and composers whose names I don't even know.
Not surprisingly then, my pronouncement always gets astonished reactions from everyone I share it with, kind of akin to the reaction accorded AIG's insistence that those big fat bonuses were actually earned. Even those who know less about Broadway than I do -- and there aren't many that fit that category -- tend to dispute my claim. So in my defense, here's how I've come to that conclusion.
Back in the late '50s and early '60s, your basic Broadway musical was packed with songs that became part of the popular musical vocabulary. West Side Story boasted such songs as "Tonight," "Maria," "America," "Somewhere." South Pacific offered "Some Enchanted Evening," "Younger Than Springtime," "A Wonderful Guy." There was My Fair Lady with "On the Street Where You Live," Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "I Could Have Danced All Night." Carousel, Camelot, Oklahoma -- all these shows had songs that made their way up the charts, reborn as pop hits by others. Hell, even the Beatles covered '"Til There Was You," culling it from The Music Man. And let's not forget Yes' prog rock take on "Something's Coming" a track from the aforementioned West Side Story.
The point is that you didn't have to know Broadway to know these songs. They had a life outside their musicals. And nowadays, how many shows can you say that about? Annie has "Tomorrow," but name one other tune from it that's lingered in the popular conscious. Phantom of the Opera gave us "Music of the Night," but unless you've seen the show, it's likely there's not a single other song that comes to mind. Cats? Forget it. One hit... "Memory." Do you think anyone's going around humming "Growltiger's Last Stand?" Doubtful.
Likewise, I don't buy into Rent. And you can't count Mamma Mia or Jersey Boys because they were inspired by hits and not vice versa. Hair? Maybe, but unless you're still wearing paisley and bellbottoms, you'd have to agree it hasn't aged all that well.
I will mention my individual exception to my otherwise absolute claim, that being Les Mis. Its packed with striking, soaring, and, yes, immortal melodies, and hey, Susan Boyle staked her claim to fame appropriating one of them. On the whole however, I see no shades of gray when it comes to the Great White Way.