I meet a group of musical enthusiasts most every Thursday night at J.R.'s on West 46th Street, where we discuss what we've seen, read, listened to, etc., in the realm of musical theater. But occasionally I'll throw the guys a question that leads to some pretty good dialogue--such as last week, when I said, "I'd like to do a column on the 50 Most Beautiful Songs to Ever Grace a Broadway Stage...."
"'Something Wonderful,'" said Ron Spivak, and I didn't bother to ask if he meant the idea for the column was something wonderful, for I just assumed he meant the song from The King and I. Bob Sixsmith knew what Ron meant, too: "Obviously, there's going to be a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein on this list," Bob said. "Like 'Some Enchanted Evening' and 'If I Loved You.'" Ken Bloom remarked, "Let's not forget Jerome Kern and 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' and 'All the Things You Are.'"
That reminded me that, in early 1964, Saturday Review polled all the illustrious Broadway songsmiths who were still alive and asked them what they thought was the best show song ever. "All the Things You Are" won hands down. Of course, this was before David Shire and Richard Maltby wrote "I Hear Bells" for Love Match, a musical about Queen Victoria that starred Patricia Routledge, now famous as Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. Had the show not folded during its tryout in Los Angeles, I would have voted "I Hear Bells" as the most beautiful song to grace a Broadway stage. (By the way, both my former wife and my current girlfriend agree with me. When I once told that to Maltby, he semi-quoted himself when he said, "You chose right.")
Thanks to Starting Here, Starting Now, I can at least say that "I Hear Bells" is the most beautiful song to ever grace an Off-Broadway show. But that wasn't the question I asked. Ken Bloom, author of American Song (which has just been expanded by two new volumes that deal with Tin Pan Alley), said: "If you include 'I Hear Bells,' you have to include another song that never made it to Broadway--'Thousands of Flowers' from I Do! I Do!" Ken also demanded, "Define 'beautiful'"--to which I could only say, "Beauty is in the ear of the beholder. I mean, when I saw the tryout of Funny Girl in Boston and heard Streisand sing just the word 'People,' I knew I was about to hear a beautiful song. And it didn't let me down."
"Stay," said Ezio Peterson, and I wasn't sure if he meant that I should stay and continue my discourse or if he was referring to "Stay," the song that Sondheim and Rodgers wrote for Do I Hear a Waltz? In fact, it turned out to be the latter, which surprised me quite a bit; I would have never guessed that anyone would mention that as his first choice. But again, beauty is in the ear of the beholder. "'Finishing the Hat,'" said Ron--which got a scowl from Ken, who said that, just because of that suggestion, he wouldn't be coming to Ron's party on Saturday night. Before Ron could respond, though, Bob was chiming in with "Ribbons down My Back," saying that it's actually a song that makes him cry. Wish I could say the same, but I cannot. When Ken added "They Were You" from The Fantasticks, that prompted Ron to say "Till There Was You." Ken immediately pointed out that Meredith Willson didn't originally write that song for The Music Man--which reminded me that another beautiful song, Strouse and Adams' "Once Upon a Time," wasn't originally written for All American but for a summer revue that played Long Island some years earlier.
"Like it or not," said Ken, "we're just going to have to include some Andrew Lloyd Webber in this. 'As If We Never Said Goodbye.' 'The Music of the Night.' And what's the one from Aspects of Love?" To which we all chimed in, "Love Changes Everything." Actually, if I had to choose the most beautiful ALW song, it'd be one from Cats--no, not "Memory" (though I do like that one, too), but "Old Deuteronomy."
Now we were on a roll. Bob suggested "I'll Never Go There Anymore" from Kelly, while Ken opted for the title song to Dance a Little Closer before remembering "Something You Never Had Before" from The Gay Life. When Ron exclaimed "Meadowlark!" I was reminded of my personal favorite from The Baker's Wife: "Gifts of Love." And then Ron looked a little nervous when he mentioned "Dulcinea," for my lack of enthusiasm for Man of La Mancha is well-known at the table. But, in fact, when I heard the show's cast album in January of 1966, I did think that "Dulcinea" was a most beautiful and remarkable melody. (I hadn't yet seen La Mancha and wouldn't until a touring company reached Boston the following November. That's when I realized the show wasn't for me. But "Dulcinea" always will be.)
After I submitted "Anyone Can Whistle," Bob offered "It Never Was You" and Ron contributed "Speak Low." We might have gone on a Kurt Weill jag had I not mentioned "I'll Buy You a Star." But Ezio said, "Everybody always forgets Noël Coward. What about 'If Love Were All' or 'Zigeuner'?" Ken was offended that we had omitted "all the great Romberg, Friml, and Herbert songs"--though, truth to tell, whatever this says about me, I wouldn't think to put a single song from an old-world operetta on the list. Maybe that got through to Ken, who soon started endorsing Dietz and Schwartz songs: "You and the Night and the Music," "Dancing in the Dark," "If There Is Someone Lovelier Than You." Alas, those don't do that much for me, either, so I mentioned another ineligible song: "It's Always Darkest Just before the Dawn" from The Good Companions, which at least New York heard this fall at Musicals in Mufti.
" 'Pretty Lady,'" said Ezio. Everyone agreed on this Sondheim song, though there was far less agreement on "Pretty Women." Though Ken's next selections didn't officially belong to operetta--"And This Is My Beloved" from Kismet, "You Are Love" from Show Boat, and "Strange Music" from Song of Norway--they all sure had an operetta feel. But "Strange Music" reminded me of "New Music" from Ragtime, which also reminded me of other Ahrens-Flaherty worthies: "My Favorite Year," "The Human Heart," "Ti Moune," and "Some Girls."
Two other songs were mentioned as beautiful--"though not as done on the cast album," insisted Ron in reference to "I Belong Here" from The Grand Tour and Ken in regard to "Goose Never Be a Peacock" from Saratoga. There was also some argument on whether the most beautiful song from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever was "She Wasn't You" (Ken), "Melinda" (Ezio), or the title song (Bob). When Ken then suggested two from The Most Happy Fella--"Somebody, Somewhere" and "My Heart Is So Full of You"--I rebutted with the song that begins "I don't know nothin' about you." Then Ron stopped the table cold with "Dare I suggest something from Les Miz?" for this is a group that doesn't much take to that show...except me. I agreed with Ron and said that I would certainly put "Come to Me" and "I Dreamed a Dream" right near the top.
Dear readers, what would you have nominated as The Most Beautiful Song to Ever Grace a Broadway Stage had you been sitting at that table? Click below to let me know.
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