In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, we asked: “What’s your favorite song sung by an actor?”
Even at the height of my high-school theater days (why yes, I did play one of the non-essential Jets in the Brighton Center For The Performing Arts’ presentation of West Side Story…), I was never one for listening to show tunes outside the context of a show. No offense to the Stephen Sondheims and the Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Webbers of the world, but original cast recordings of show-stopping numbers leave me cold—there’s a theatricality in the performances and arrangements that I have trouble appreciating without the accompanying choreography, costumes, overarching story, etc. I’ve had friends slip songs from The Last Five Years onto mix CDs, I’ve ridden in cars with people emoting Les Misérables in my face—yet my heart, predisposed to the musical-theater form as it is, remains unmoved.
The one exception to this hard-to-explain preference is Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s musical Little Shop Of Horrors, and a lot of that has to do with the beautiful absurdity of the whole enterprise. Boiled down to its essence, Little Shop Of Horrors is a story of boy wants girl, boy meets plant, plant helps boy woo girl, boy and girl are eaten by plant. It’s funny, it’s campy, and the 1986 film version directed by Frank Oz just might be the last great studio musical ever made. Oz infamously had to cut the downer ending of Menken and Ashman’s play (and the Roger Corman film that preceded it), but there’s still a dark edge to the film, especially whenever Steve Martin’s gas-huffing masochist, Orin Scrivello, is on the scene.
But then Rick Moranis plays an unwitting hand in Martin’s death, chops up the body, and feeds it to his pet flytrap—a series of events that, ironically, leads to the show’s big love ballad. “Suddenly Seymour” is an earnest, yearning, trembling thing that Moranis and Ellen Greene sang the hell out of for Oz’s camera. Not that their performance is free of schtick: Greene’s vocals are colored by the Noo Yawk accent she puts on as trod-upon shop girl Audrey, and Moranis’ nebbishy airs don’t allow him to lean all the way into the baritone later heard on his oddity of a 2005 country album, The Agoraphobic Cowboy. (Or, for that matter, his essential SCTV impression of Michael McDonald.) Like the falling sun that beams through the sequence’s back-alley set, it’s unfiltered brightness shining through the dark comedy—particularly when the cast opens up their lungs and blasts through the song’s big affirmation, “Yes you can!”—“Suddenly Seymour” is a funny song in that way: It’s a work of big emotions prompted by simple gestures; it’s also the best song ever sung by a guy to a girl whose ex-boyfriend the guy just fed to a man-eating plant.