(Rachel Shukert’s article appeared on Vulture.com, 6/8; via Pam Green.)
What is the modern American musical theater? What are its best songs? When does it even most properly begin? Must we now divide everything into “Before Hamilton” and “After Hamilton,” as with the birth of Jesus Christ himself? Phantom of the Opera is still running — would “Before Phantom” and “After Phantom” be more appropriate? Is there even one genuinely good song in Phantom? How much Sondheim can you cram into a listicle before even your most dedicated base gets restless? And were there more than three good new musicals on Broadway in the whole of the 1990s? These questions, along with many others, were the ones I asked myself as I sat down to write this list.
Why only the past 40 years? Why not the best show tunes of all time? Well, first of all, because Broadway has been around since the late 19th century, and I’m only one small human being (no matter what Eric Trump might say) and human beings tend to function best within fathomable limits. And also, the past 40 years encapsulate the post-Vietnam era, on Broadway no less than in America itself, and have brought us to our present state of societal and emotional collapse: the cynical Weimar-like decadence of the late ’70s (and also, Annie); the greed, bombast, and conservatism of the ’80s (and the quiet intellectual resistance that sprung up in reaction to it); the AIDS crisis, which devastated New York City, and the Broadway community in particular; the wholesome commercialism of the ’90s and the Disneyfication of Times Square (a cultural phenomenon that, while for many regrettable, is nonetheless important enough that I decided to make eligible songs that originated in Disney movies before turning up on the Great White Way); the confusion and vague paranoia of the early aughts, in a city still reeling in the aftermath of 9/11, and the optimistic, tolerant multiculturalism of the Obama years, which now feels as though it was all an impossible dream, the way it must have to listen to the original soundtrack of Camelot during the Nixon administration.
So that seemed like plenty, and what eventually came out is a list that is deeply personal, probably idiosyncratic, and certainly may not please everyone. I don’t apologize for this (although I do apologize for having never seen, or even listened to, The Light in the Piazza. I’m sure I’ll hear about that, and I know exactly from whom). Because that’s what the musical theater is: a deeply personal, deeply ingrained identification that is often formed early in childhood and never lets go. Different songs mean different things to you at different times in your life; other songs drive you crazy but you find yourself powerless to deny their greatness (and still know every single word. And cry at them, sometimes, when it’s late and you’ve had a couple drinks).
So here are the 30 songs from a few more years than I’ve been around that have meant something to me. And because each of our own realities is finite and definitive, I will say: They are unquestioningly the Greatest 30 Show Tunes of the Past 40 Years. Enjoy, and tell me why I’m wrong in the comments!
- “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”(Avenue Q; 2003)
A lot of people are a whole lot racist, is my main takeaway from the past year. But that doesn’t detract from the appeal of this plucky charmer about the ubiquity of microaggressions, in that nostalgic time when America actually had the decency to hide its latent bigotry behind a veneer of shame or at least politesse, and if you wanted to say something really outrageous, it was better to have a big fuzzy orange puppet do it for you. (And it still is, come to think of it, except we were all better off when it was John Tartaglia’s hand up his ass instead of Vladimir Putin’s.)
- “Defying Gravity” (Wicked, 2003)
The Venn diagram of Idina Menzel fans and aspiring YouTube tween stars is not so much a diagram as a single solid circle, and without Stephen Schwartz’s (literally) uplifting and defiant ballad of female empowerment, what would they do? (Be stuck singing “Omigod, You Guys” from Legally Blonde over and over again, that’s what.) But what makes “Defying Gravity” such a watershed moment onstage and in song isn’t just the sunny, “You Go Girl #WomenWhoWork” message that women, if they put their minds to it, are unstoppable; it’s the not-so-veiled threat that women, when they put their minds to it, are unstoppable. Wizards everywhere should be very afraid.
- “Take Me or Leave Me” (Rent; 1996)
Female duets are few and far between on the Broadway stage (“Every Day a Little Death?” “Marry the Man Today?” “If Mama Was Married”? “I Will Never Leave You”? “Defying Gravity,” sort of? Am I disproving my own point?) Anyway. Girls still tend to outnumber boys in any given Broadway-themed voice class, so whenever there’s something great they can sing together, it deserves recognition. Particularly when it’s a number as fierce and feisty as Maureen and Joanne’s unapologetic lovers’ quarrel from Rent. Other songs in the show are more ubiquitous, more sentimental, more imbued with their own sense of grandeur and tragedy and importance — but none of them are this much fun. All this, and it passes the Bechdel test! And, speaking of Bechdel …