Top Ten Most Uplifting Moments From Musicals
he two most glorious words in the English language: musical comedy”
- 42nd Street (1980)
If you spent too much time sobbing into your hankies following my last Top Ten (the Most Heartbreaking Moments From Musicals), never fear: here’s the remedy! As discussed in that previous Top Ten, the magic of musicals (both onstage and on the silver screen) is that they can distil and describe emotions and experiences so accurately. This is especially moving when it comes to what Martin Gottfried describes as, “things that are hard to talk about… expressed in song”, but by the same token is extraordinarily exciting in the case of ‘up’ emotions, given that the nature of the musical (a big orchestra, plenty of sequins, everything turned up to 11, big-personalities and rousing choreography) takes everyday feelings to a very heightened level. So, we’re not just happy, now we’re HAPPYx1000 4 EVA!!!1!!1 Ahem.
For those who might find the inclusion in this Top Ten of a few of what musical theatre experts term a ‘musical nervous breakdown’ surprising, perhaps some further explanation of my selection process is required: I’ve named these moments “uplifting” because, whether the emotion you feel upon hearing these songs is joy, horror, tension or romance, there’s no doubt that they spin such heightened moods that you can’t help but feel lifted up by them. It’s cathartic! So, strap yourself in and prepare to be taken on a wild ride by… The Top Ten Most Uplifting Moments From Musicals!
“I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It” – Doctor Dolittle (1967)
One of the most underrated musical composers, Lesley Bricuse whipped up some giddy thrills for the score of this Rex Harrison vehicle based upon the stories of Hugh Lofting and was duly rewarded with an Oscar for Best Song for “Talk To The Animals”. That’s a charming song, but Doctor Dolittle’s humdinger is “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It”, thanks mostly to Richard Attenborough’s inspired performance as the wheeling, dealing circus proprietor Albert Blossom. Dancing around like a lunatic at the prospect of drawing in the crowds with the aid of Dolittle’s recently-acquired push-me-pull-you. Add to that the sublimely ridiculous score (arranged by Alexander Courage and conducted by Lionel Newman) and you’ve got one of the cinematic musical’s most joyous moments.
“The Trolley Song” – Meet Me In St Louis (1944)
On paper, “The Trolley Song” is exactly the kind of daft musical comedy nonsense that fuels the up-turned-nosed detractors of the genre: all “bop, bop, bop” and “zing, zing, zing”, what a load of tosh—but come on. You can’t tell me that when everyone else on the trolley starts singing in unison and takes over from the orchestra—turning a Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio chorus into a trolley-car soundscape performed entirely by human voices (whirring winds, clanging bells, turning wheels), not to mention Judy Garland’s genuinely giddy performance—you don’t feel like your heart’s going to explode out of your chest cavity.
“Franklin Shepherd, Inc.” – Merrily We Roll Along (1981)
A ‘musical nervous breakdown’ is a tricky thing—clearly, it’s a moment within a musical that is fraught with emotion, pain, confusion and God knows what else, but at the same time they are nearly always some of the most thrilling (in a cathartic, car-crash manner, at least) moments within musicals. As such, you’re torn between wanting to leap to your feet and punch the air (see: “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy, perhaps the most famous example) and cower in your seat, terrified (see: just about all of Assassins, which we’ll discuss later). “Franklin Shepherd, Inc.”, from Steve Sondheim’s unsuccessful (only in a commercial sense) musical about fleeting youth and friendships, Merrily We Roll Along is a particularly good example of this duality. Buoyed by synthesisers and rock arrangements (live drumming, bass guitar), Lonny Price’s lively performance as famed composer Frank Shepherd’s long-suffering lyricist Charlie Kringas, as he discusses the pair’s working relationship on live television, is captivating. But as the song continues, Charlie goes from being frank with the presenter to fairly spewing out his love/hate feelings for Shepherd, finally exploding in a cacophonous burst of yelled incoherencies. At the end of the song, their partnership is over—and we, the audience, are spent.
“Pure Imagination” – Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
Apart from Gene Wilder’s charming performance as Willy Wonka, it’s another fine Leslie Bricusse (and Anthony Newley, perhaps better known for his appalling ‘Oirish’ accent in Doctor Dolittle) score that steals the scene here; all creepy dinking bells, Christmas-decoration-store harps and whistling strings, creating a mood that is at once fun and freaky. I don’t know many people who aren’t convinced by the swirling arrangements at the end of this song that the Chocolate Room isn’t just about the best thing they’ve ever seen—despite the fact that everything is clearly made of plastic, coloured water and cellophane. Talk about musically-induced suspension of disbelief—the power of musicals in action!
“Bali Ha’i” – South Pacific (1958)
One of the most thrilling pieces of musical theatre in the history of the art form (there’s a reason why, upon opening in 1949, South Pacific had the biggest advance ticket sales in history, roughly $500,000 worth), “Bali Ha’i” is almost unbearably exciting. Seen live (particularly in the extraordinary mid-‘90s revival version starring Beauty & The Beast’s Paige O’Hara), it is especially magical, but the definitive take on the song comes from the 20th Century Fox adaptation of 1958; working with most of their original Broadway creative team, as well as the studio’s accomplished musical department, composers Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein refined what was already a near-perfect musical. In the case of “Bali Ha’i”—in which Islander ‘big mama’ Bloody Mary sings ‘as’ the magical island, luring the all-American Lt Cable away towards interracial love with the Tonkinese girl Liat—musical director and composer Alfred Newman and vocal director Kenneth Darby magicked up a vocal accompaniment that swirled around the already mesmerising song like some disembodied, heavenly chorus. Coupled with the syrupy strings and the hypnotic lyrics (“Someday, you’ll see me / Floatin’ in the sunshine”), the build at the end of the song (“Come to me… Here am I… Come to me!”) and subsequent explosion of music, voices and emotion is musical theatre in excelsis.
“Another Hundred People” – Company (1970)
One of Sondheim’s most ‘adult’ musicals (biographer Martin Gottfried describes it as exploring “whether a sophisticated person in the anxious atmosphere of a big city could function happily… or even feel romantic love and sustain an enduring emotional connection”), Company boasts quite a few moments of excitement, but there are none more thrilling than “Another Hundred People”. In this song, the character Marta describes dating and singledom in New York City, with a wordy, speedy lyric set to a surging melody, the level of excited, romantic stress (the song perfectly captures the beautiful horror of the early, dating stage of a relationship: “Will you pick me up or do I meet you there or shall we let it go?”) such that it is almost Sex And The City: The Musical Number. Little more than two sets of one verse and one chorus, by the end of the song the whole arrangement is close to boiling point—when she sings her final “another hundred people just got off of the train” after five repetitions, holding the note (and the word “train”) as the orchestra spirals out of control before falling down in an exhausted heap, it’s exhilarating.
“Sister Suffragette” / “A Spoonful Of Sugar” – Mary Poppins (1961)
These two charming songs from the acclaimed movie musical (it’s hard to believe it’s never made the transition to the theatre) are particularly dear to my heart. Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman’s score is still fresh today, thanks largely to these songs. “Sister Suffragette”, buoyed by Glynis Johns’ brilliantly scatty performance as the proto-feminist Mrs. Banks, was surely a formative song when it came to a young Clem Bastow’s latent feminist tendencies—and probably instrumental in ensuring I never became humourlessly bra-burning, too. As for “Spoonful”, it’s simply the best house-cleaning song EVER. Add to that Julie Andrews’ deceptively eccentric performance, plus that mechanical whistling bird (that, up until about three years ago, I thought was just really well trained), and you’ve got one of the silliest and, yes, most uplifting musical moments ever.
“The Ballad Of Guiteau” – Assassins (1991)
Possibly my favourite musical of all time, Sondheim’s much maligned exploration of the people who assassinated (or attempted to assassinate) various US Presidents is constantly thrilling, from the first drumline beat to the final gun shots, and as such, it’s difficult to pick just one stirring highlight. There are obvious (but no less worthy) songs, like the anthemic “Everybody’s Got The Right” (both the ominous opening version and the explosive finale), or the anarchic “Another National Anthem”—but the song I return to again and again is “The Ballad Of Guiteau”, in which the everyman Balladeer (Patrick Cassidy) tells the tale of President Charles Garfield’s 1881 assassin. The jack of all trades (evangelist, novelist, poet, speech-“writer”). Presented as a stirring, Copland-ish march (towards the gallows), at various intervals the Balladeer’s measured narration is burst open by Guiteau (a brilliantly unhinged Jonathon Hadary), shoving in with demented bluegrass/Dixieland-accompanied exclamations, always punctuated by the yearningly sung “I am going to the Lordy” (the title of the poem he composed and performed on the morning of his execution). Eventually, Guiteau ends up cakewalking up and down the gallows as he shares a scintillating back and forth with the Balladeer, who assuages the doomed man’s feelings of worthlessness by reminding him of his ‘achievements’: “You’ve been a preacher– “ “Yes, I have” “You’ve been an author– “ “Yes, I have!” You’ve been a killer– “ “Yes, I have!” “You could be an angel!” “Yes I could!” The giddy sense of joy and achievement is, of course, cut very short indeed when, as both finally sing “Trust in tomorrow—and the Lord!” in unison, the hangman pulls the trapdoor lever and Guiteau hangs. If there’s ever an amateur or professional production of Assassins put on near you, do yourself a favour and go see it—it’s awesome on record but nothing matches the visceral, gripping power of experiencing it in a small theatre.
“Overture” – Oklahoma! (1943)
Ooh, an overture at #1—how controversial! Well, not really: after all, it is the purpose of the overture to neatly summarise, if you like, the entire point, theme, mood and story of a musical in one fell swoop, not to mention whipping the audience into a state of excitement that will suspend their disbelief for the two or so hours they will forget they’re sitting in a theatre. Besides that point, Oklahoma! is arguably the greatest musical ever written and produced. Described by fellow composer Alan Jay Lerner as “the most totally realised amalgamation of all the theatrical arts”, the show was so extraordinary that the Pulitzer Prize committee threw their rules out the window and gave Oklahoma! a special award—the only such occurrence before or after. The production's theatrical (that is, on Broadway, not at the cinema—that’s another story altogether!) takings totalled over $30 million. But while I could spend all day discussing how Rogers and Hammerstein more or less invented the modern musical or detailing the show’s numerous achievements, I’m here to talk about the show’s “Overture”. Along with Holst’s “Jupiter” and Wagner’s “Ride Of The Valkyries”, the passage is one of the most exciting pieces of instrumental/orchestral music ever written. Beginning with those speeding strings (sounding like the “wind… right behind the rain”, as described in the finale), “Overture” sets a mood of expectation, exhilaration and emotion that is very hard to shake, even if you don’t then go on and experience the rest of the hit-factory that is Oklahoma!’s score. Put simply, “Overture” is bottled excitement.
By: Clem Bastow
Published on: 2004-12-17