Top Ten Most Heartbreaking Moments From Musicals
he two most glorious words in the English language: musical comedy”
- 42nd Street (1980)
Anyone who’s ever received a significant (read: “I love you”, or, “it’s over”) mix-tape or CD from me will know that you can usually guarantee at least one number from the pantheon of musical theatre and musical comedy will find its way into the track-listing. Partly, I’ll admit, this is due to my having grown up listening to little else than show tunes and Original Cast Recordings; if your childhood is packed with The Beatles and/or James Taylor, you’d probably use those artists’ songs to explain your feelings—you go for the songs that sound tracked your formative moments. But the main reason, beyond my fondness for the musical theatre (and its accompanying film adaptations), is because there are few moments in music that—for me, at least—can so aptly describe emotions and experiences. It’s not, like popular music, just packed full of feeling and energy that can accompany, say, falling out of love, it actually describes it. So, when I’m listening to Mandy Patinkin obsess over his work/art rather than his crumbling relationship in “Finishing The Hat” in Sunday In The Park With George, I’m not thinking, “mmm, this feels a bit sad”, I’m thinking, “OMFG is Stephen Sondheim reading my mind or what?” As Sondheim biographer Martin Gottfried puts it, “one of the most wonderful things about musical theatre is its use of songs for things that are hard to talk about. Deep feelings that cannot be articulated are especially affecting when expressed in song.” When you consider that the mix-tape/CD is almost the modern equivalent of this (arranging songs in order to express feelings), you can see how a few well chosen musical theatre moments could be the piece de resistance on such a compilation.
Flinders University professor of drama Michael Morley recently staged Sing Your Own Musicals, an all-in, boozed-up ‘karaoke’ session with a live pianist and lyric books, at the Melbourne International Festival. Talking to Melbourne’s Age newspaper at the time, he explained the enduring appeal of the musical thus: “They have a great sense of theatre to them, these songs. It's considered trashy subculture but that is actually wrong. The musical, at its best, is the closest thing we have today to Shakespeare. It has all the elements: song, dance, strong characters, poetry and a great story." The musical has been trashed by the midday movie, the amateur production and by Broadway/The West End’s commercialist, syrupy mock-opera scourge, Andrew Lloyd Webber, to the point that any casual listener probably finds themselves reacting like Homer Simpson when faced with Lee Marvin’s singing in Paint Your Wagon—with a disbelieving sneer and a grunt. The problem has a lot to do with the fact that most people think musicals = toe-tapping show tunes. But look—or, listen—beyond the obvious silliness of people singing-talking and dancing up a storm and you’ll find songs of rare truth and beauty—and maybe a track or two for your next mix CD. Of course it’s all subjective and there are literally hundreds of musicals in which you’ll find countless sad songs and overtures, but these are my bittersweet favourites—my Top Ten Most Heartbreaking Moments From Musicals (and just in case you get too carried away with your melancholia, there’ll be a remedy next month).
“My Funny Valentine” - Babes In Arms (1937)
Richard “I Can Pee A Melody” Rogers and Lorenz Hart’s musical spawned numerous hits and classics that would go on to transcend their musical theatre upbringing (“The Lady Is A Tramp” was particularly indestructible for some time), but it’s “My Funny Valentine” that is the show’s enduring legacy—remarkable when you consider that the song, along with all but two from the original score, was dropped from the production upon the “sprucing up” in 1959 that ensured Babes In Arms’ popularity. And in a feel-good musical described as “simple and cheerful” by one historian, “My Funny Valentine” stands out for its low-key reflection. There are so many versions of the song by now, both from musical productions and popular song, but there’s one constant between all of them: the aching few seconds where the singer pleads, “Stay, little valentine, stay!” It’s a moment of unguarded, desperate emotion amongst a song that is, until then, coolly romantic.
“The Road You Didn’t Take” - Follies (1971)
Stephen Sondheim’s musical about ex-“Weissman” (see: Ziegfield) chorines reuniting years after their salad days, only to be faced with the possibility that they’ve made the wrong life choices, is almost unbearably bittersweet. There are ‘bigger’, more dramatic songs in the score, such as the by-now well known “Losing My Mind”, but there’s something in the jaunty existentialist patter of “The Road You Didn’t Take” that captures Follies’ late-life-crisis mood achingly, perfectly. Discussing his life’s choices and their consequences (i.e., there’s no point worrying about chances you didn’t take), Ben (John McMartin in the 1971 Broadway cast and accompanying soundtrack) keeps his nagging doubts at bay with a light, spare discourse—beeping brass and plucked strings mirror his flippancy—but when he reaches the end, the music swells, and he admits longingly, “The Ben I’ll never be / Who remembers him?” It’s hard not to feel a pang of heartache, not just for your own life’s regrets, but in recognising those moments where your façade crumbles around you, despite your best intentions—just like Ben.
“People” - Funny Girl (1964)
Sometimes a song is overshadowed by its legacy, and not always in a positive way: Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s beautiful song from their 1964 musical has been trashed somewhat by Barbra Streisand detractors, not to mention endless classic hits/easy listening radio stations play lists, bad covers, South Park, and countless others. BUT! Just listen, once more, to those opening strains: that mournful flute, the delicate harp, the way Fanny (Streisand) skips so effortlessly from sing/speak (“People. People who need people”) to soaring melody, that piano that appears out of nowhere... Is that a tear I see in your eye, you big tough guy? Okay, let’s move on.
“How To Handle A Woman” - Camelot (1960)
Lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe created some of the musical theatre’s greatest triumphs (My Fair Lady, Camelot, Gigi, Paint Your Wagon) and, within them, some of the medium’s most beautiful moments. Lerner & Loewe seemed to bridge the gap between ‘traditionalists’ like Rogers and Hart (Hammerstein was more adventurous) and the new guard, namely Stephen Sondheim; their scores are sophisticated and insightful, moving beyond pure entertainment into something more enlightening. Camelot was possibly the finest example of this—its theme song transcended its station to become closely associated with President Kennedy’s thousand days in office following his assassination—and one that contained many moving moments, such was the majesty of its themes and story (in case you hadn’t guessed, the legend of King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot). “How To Handle A Woman” is a thoughtful, sorrowful song, but it’s just one tiny phrase that really pains the heart: when, midway through the song, King Arthur (Richard Harris in both the film and the ’89 London revival) suddenly becomes a man riddled with human frailty (as opposed to an infallible legend) when he asks of his wife Guinevere, “What’s wrong, Jenny?” That’s when the Kleenex come out, not—as you might expect—when the strings swirl away.
“The Party’s Over” - Bells Are Ringing (1956)
Inimitable writing duo Betty Comden and Adolph Green, along with composer Jule Styne, created Bells Are Ringing as a vehicle for the delightful Judy Holliday, and her version of this song (another musical number that went on to become a standard) is sublimely sad, despite the song’s light, supper-club jazz feel. It’s almost a grown-up “I Could Have Danced All Night”, except instead of focusing on wanting the party to last forever like that song’s enthusiasm, “The Party’s Over” takes a realist’s view: “Now you must wake up / All dreams must end / Take off your make-up / The party's over / It's all over, my friend”. Simple sentiment, maybe, but anyone who’s experienced the depths of post-party/special occasion anticlimax know only too well the song’s exquisite pain.
“Finishing The Hat” - Sunday In The Park With George (1984)
Here’s one that resonates with anyone who’s spent their life grappling with a creative endeavour, not a song that is recommended listening when it’s 1am and you’ve just rewritten a sentence for the twenty-fifth time to get it just so—and leave it to Sondheim to hit the nail on the head. Considering the personal costs of an artistic life, George (the pointillist painter Georges Seurat, to be exact; Mandy Patinkin’s alternately distracted/impassioned performance in the role is awfully moving) muses upon keeping distance from emotion and experience in order to offer your own artistic vision of it. In other words, even the most understanding lover will eventually realise that they’ll always come second to your art: “But the woman who won’t wait for you knows / That, however you live / There’s a part of you always standing by / Mapping out the sky / Finishing a hat…” That he finally drifts away from this soliloquy back to assessing the work in his sketchbook (“Look, I made a hat/Where there never was a hat”), in the company of a dog rather than the woman who loves him, is particularly shattering. Oh, and then there’s the exquisite orchestral score underlying all this—it’s almost too much.
“Something Wonderful” - The King & I (1951)
There are two versions of this song in the score of Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rogers’ retelling of Anna And The King Of Siam, both incredibly moving though for different reasons. The first is sung by Lady Thiang, explaining her relationship with her husband to a confused Anna, grappling with her feelings for the stubborn King. Lady Thiang notes, “He will not always say what you would have him say / But now and then, he’ll say something wonderful”, effortlessly explaining a complicated love and tapping into the irrationality of any love. The second is a largely instrumental (save for an extraordinary disembodied, heavenly choral vocal) version that accompanies the King’s death, as his son and heir describes how he will bring change and enlightenment to Siam according to the teachings of Anna, who sits at his bedside, having learnt to see things from Lady Thiang’s perspective. Suddenly the line “He has a thousand dreams / That won’t come true” is no longer a comment on an overly enthusiastic dreamer but a cold truth: he’s going to be dead by the end of the song. Hammerstein’s lyrics are simple but genuine, while Rogers’ score is stunningly beautiful. To say it’s a tear-jerker of monumental proportions would be an understatement of, well, monumental proportions.
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” - Meet Me In St Louis (1944)
Oh god, I don’t think I can even discuss this one without blubbering—I have been found, while shopping for Christmas decorations in the city, cowering behind swathes of tinsel while I sob because this song has come on the store PA. Of course a lot of its power has to do with Judy Garland’s performance of the song (Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin’s song would go on to become a seasonal standard), but even an instrumental version can get the waterworks happening. Apart from the score, echoing Tootie’s musical box’s tinkle, I think it’s the line “Some day soon we all will be together” that gets to me, as I’m forced to imagine Christmas apart from those I love… Excuse me for a few moments!
“Johanna” - Sweeney Todd (1979)
Sondheim’s horror/opera-musical about “the demon barber of Fleet Street” contains some of the musical theatre’s most confronting moments and some of its most stunningly beautiful passages, namely “Johanna”. Sung in a definitive fashion in the original cast recording by a young Victor Garber (yes, the same one from Alias) as the sailor Anthony serenading Todd’s imprisoned granddaughter Johanna, the song crosses over from heartbreak into extreme catharsis, such is its explosion of emotion, expressed through both words and music. The lyrics have been criticised for their daftness (“I feel you, Johanna / And one day, I’ll steal you”—steal, not rescue?)—despite the fact that Sondheim is illustrating Anthony’s irrational, intense romantic love through daffy incoherencies—but the music is so heart-bustingly beautiful he could be reading the phone book and it wouldn’t matter. The song is heartbreaking because of the “doomed” nature of the lovers’ relationship, but mainly in the ‘heartbreaking work of staggering genius’ manner. You can’t listen to its orchestral explosion without feeling goose-bumps spreading over your body like wildfire—who wouldn’t want to be showered with such intense love? Perhaps the pain is found no in the lyrics or music but within the knowledge that many of us will never be afforded such romantic excess.
“I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” - My Fair Lady (1956)
I’m sure you’re surprised that, as a card-carrying Sondheim freak, I’ve given the gold medal to Lerner and Loewe, but in my mind there’s really no contest—when it comes to musical theatre/comedy heartbreak, this song is the shiznit. The way Professor Higgins (Rex Harrison, as if there were any question as to which actor I am referring to) swings between indignant, confused anger (“I shall never take her back!”) and bruised recognition of his true feelings (he utters the line “I’ve grown accustomed to her face” as though it were a question, like, ‘I did what now?’) is terribly, recognisably painful. But really, though the song is an astute observation of human anger at rejection, the clanger comes when Higgins admits, chokingly, “Her highs, her lows, are second nature to me now/Like breathing out and breathing in”—and we, along with him, realise that love is not “a habit one can always break”, as he later attempts to rationalise it, but rather, something that controls you. And then, a lone violin revives the motif from “I Could Have Danced All Night” and… to tell you the truth, I don’t actually know what happens after that, because by this point I’m so consumed with tears and tissues that I can’t see what’s happening anyway. I kinda like it that way, too.
By: Clem Bastow
Published on: 2004-12-03