Favorite musical sequences in musicals
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With Les Misérables in theaters, it’s a good time to discuss your favorite songs or sequences from musicals, movie or stage. I, too, have Stockholm Syndrome love for Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. The barn-raising/dance/fight sequence between the brothers, their brides, and their brides’ suitors is the most exciting dance sequence I’ve ever seen in a musical.
Geesh, I hardly know where to start. I grew up on classic musicals, and I love new musicals to this day. I could probably reel off 20 favorites off the top of my head, and still feel like I was giving my favorites short shrift. Just to keep this remotely rational and not hog too many, I’m going to mostly limit myself to introductory numbers: “What Do You Do With A B.A. In English/It Sucks To Be Me” from Avenue Q, the title song from The Sound Of Music, and “Tradition” from Fiddler On The Roof. All three of those songs set a high-energy standard for the rest of their respective stories, and all of them are terrific, memorable, catchy pieces of music. “Sucks To Be You” and “Tradition” in particular make great use of an ensemble cast and manage to introduce a lot of characters very rapidly and clearly. “Sound Of Music” just introduces one character, but it introduces her so amazingly well, and in such an important way, giving the audience an indelible idea of the joy of being Maria, and the huge, irrepressible spirit that keeps getting her in trouble. To go in a different direction entirely, though, one of my favorites for sheer batshit lunacy is ”Listen To Jesus, Jimmy” from Reefer Madness.
I have a sickness in me wherein whenever the movie Grease is on, I will stop and watch it. The biggest chunk of eye candy in the movie is the dance where Vince Fontaine and his crew come to record the show for TV and we are treated to Sha Na Na singing “Born To Hand Jive.” Any movie that features fun ’50s-style dancing (see also: Back To The Future) is like crack for me, thanks to the moves and the fantastic costumes. (Cha Cha Digregorio had the best dress.) This scene also happens to feature John Travolta in his prime, which is something that always should be appreciated. Just like the movie itself, the “Hand Jive” scene is appealing to a young crowd thanks to the colors and fun, but it also has a bit of an adult element to it that you can feel scandalized by (“we watched that at sleepovers?”) as you get older. I wish high-school dances were really like this.
Unlike Tasha, I kinda hate musicals. And when Genevieve told me that Les Miz wasn’t just a musical, but sung throughout, I nearly ran away screaming. But when it comes to fart jokes, I’m willing to set aside my prejudice against musicals, and to embrace the joy that is “Uncle Fucka.” Though it appears on the soundtrack to South Park: Bigger, Longer, And Uncut, “Uncle Fucka” is technically from the soundtrack to a movie within that movie, Terrance & Phillip: Asses Of Fire. It consists mostly of the characters accusing each other of being, umm, uncle-fuckers (“Shut your fucking face, uncle-fucka!”) and then farting. Musically farting. It’s most assuredly NSFW.
Grease is great, but I like my lubricant a little more on the rancid side. John Waters’ Cry-Baby has just as many cheap teensploitation thrills, only it’s slathered in pomade of far less reputable origins—specifically in the form of the film’s titular delinquent, Cry-Baby Walker. Played with an Elvis swivel-and-sneer by Johnny Depp, Cry-Baby winds up wrongly accused of inciting a riot; in his prison cell, he and his fellow inmates strike up a number called “Doin’ Time For Bein’ Young,” which pays campy homage to Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” while giving it a grittier, gutsier R&B twist.
As someone with iTunes playlists named “Favorite Showtunes,” “Broadway Or Bust,” and “The Movie Beat The Play!”—I have no shame—that collectively contain 100-plus songs from musicals, I find this question especially cruel. There are just so many candidates, and too many factors to consider. Film versions vs. plays? Funny or dramatic? Ask me tomorrow, and I may have an entirely different list. But for now, I’ll say Steve Martin’s rendition of “Dentist!” from the film version of Little Shop Of Horrors is great for its giggles-per-second ratio; “Oompa Loompa” from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory wins for the amount of nostalgia conjured; “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” from Avenue Q had me laughing out loud in a quiet(ish) theater, which is a personal no-no for me; and even though the film was pretty mediocre and the quality of the singing leaves a lot to be desired, I really liked the dazzling underwater spectacle of “Because” from Julie Taymor’s Across The Universe. I’ll admit that some bias is swaying that last pick, as “Because” is probably my favorite song.
Call me a sap, but Zach Braff and Donald Faison crooning “Guy Love” to each other in the Scrubs episode “My Musical” still makes me tingle a little. It’s probably because fans of the show who were anticipating this episode as soon as Bill Lawrence announced it knew the bromance between Turk and J.D. would have to be addressed, and it feels like the culmination of a relationship we’d been seeing onscreen for six years. But what makes the sequence even better is that a) it’s a very singable song, and b) Faison and Braff stay in their well-worn characters during the song. J.D. is overly affectionate, while the manlier Turk is resistant to the notion, clarifying when J.D. sings that Turk is the only guy who’s been “inside of me” that it was because he took out J.D.’s appendix. But he’s only symbolically resistant, as the Turk-J.D. bromance train cannot be stopped, and he knows it.
Having finally gotten on the Book Of Mormon train after seeing the Chicago debut a couple weeks back, it’s hard to think of much else, especially the Lion King spoof “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” (Spoiler: It does not mean “no worries.”) But to go back a little further, I love Passing Strange top to bottom, but “Church Blues Revelation/Freight Train” is a particular highlight, on both the OBCR and in Spike Lee’s film of the production (which you should watch right this second on Netflix Instant if you haven’t yet). And let us not forget the many, many wonderful musical sequences Disney has contributed to the canon; my personal picks would be “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins and “Under The Sea“ from The Little Mermaid, but there are at least a dozen others I could choose. Oh, what the hell, let’s throw in “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book and “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” from Mulan.
The 1942 Fox musical melodrama Orchestra Wives—starring Ann Rutherford as a woman who marries George Montgomery, a trumpet player who’s touring with Glenn Miller’s band—probably isn’t on many people’s short list of classic musicals. But it was one of the dozen or so movies that the local PBS station showed incessantly on Saturday nights and weekday afternoons when I was growing up in Mississippi, so I’ve seen it 20 or so times. (It’s a lot better than the other Glenn Miller musical the station played all the time, Sun Valley Serenade, starring Sonja Henie and Milton Berle.) The part I learned to look forward to is the climactic number, where Tex Beneke and the Modernaires perform “I’ve Got A Gal In Kalamazoo,” and then, just when viewers might start thinking that if the film got any whiter, mayonnaise would start pouring out of the TV tube, the camera shoots over to a platform several feet from the bandstand, a curtain parts, and the Nicholas Brothers come out and do their thing. When Harold Nicholas died in 2000, I mentioned to my girlfriend that I was a fan, and she asked me who the hell he was, and I said he was a dancer, and she asked me how he danced, and without thinking about it much, I extended two upright middle fingers and said, as if I were Charles Bronson contemptuously addressing some punk, “Yo, gravity!” So if you want to know how the Nicholas Brothers danced, try picturing that. Or watch this:
The musical Sweet Charity is best known for “If My Friends Could See Me Now” (a song itself best known for a series of Carnival cruise line commercials at this point). But for my money, the highlight of the show is “Rich Man’s Frug,” a lengthy dance sequence depicting the nightlife inside the upscale Pompeii Club. The choreography is Bob Fosse at his best, but what makes this number stand out above and beyond the dancing is the storytelling on display within this almost wordless sequence. Not only do the three distinct movements within the piece combine to tell a specific story, the movements themselves convey a socioeconomic class enamored of itself. As a former theater geek, I’m naturally predisposed to shows on which I have previously worked. So working tech on Sweet Charity in my mid-20s undoubtedly taints my perspective here. (Once On This Island’s “Pray” and Falsettos’ “Four Unlikely Lovers” almost became my selection here for that very reason.) But as a piece of storytelling unto itself, “Rich Man’s Frug” holds a special place in my theater-loving heart.
It’s hard to beat a good origin story, and Hedwig And The Angry Inch tackles one of the most important origins of them all in “The Origin Of Love.” The first time I saw Hedwig, this was the sequence where I knew I was going to love this movie. The sequence cuts between Hedwig playing the song to a largely disinterested audience and a trippy animation that’s a more-or-less straight visualization of the song’s story as it unfolds. That story offers the harsh divine intervention from a pantheon of gods that includes Thor, Zeus, Osiris, and “some Indian god” (looks like Kali or Shiva to me, but I could be wrong) conspiring to cleave us all in twain, leaving us yearning to find our literal other halves. The song is a great glam ballad, the video is mesmerizing, and the net effect is a suitably epic treatment of a subject near and dear to all of our hearts — the eternal search for the person that completes us.
I grew up loving musicals, because my mom loved musicals, and they were among the few movies I was allowed to watch. As such, I have a ridiculous, somewhat embarrassing knowledge of the musical catalog, especially stage-to-screen adaptations and Broadway cast albums. To me, a great musical sequence is a song that’s so hard to screw up, even the most amateur of amateur productions will get at least a little bit of its spirit. If we’re going to use that as a qualifier, then pretty much the whole of the great Guys & Dolls, one of the funniest stage shows ever made, should get the nomination. But I’m going to pick one of the show’s most famous songs (if not its most famous), “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat,” simply because I’ve never seen a production—even an awful one—that didn’t make this number take off. When performed right, it’s a freight train, taking on so much momentum that it’s easy to forget it’s sung by a fairly minor supporting character. This version, from the 1992 revival, which is supposed to be the best production of the show since the original, is a pretty great example of its effortless verve. (Along this same line of thought: “Run, Freedom, Run” from Urinetown, which never fails to bring the house down.)
It was a big deal when Warner released a Blu-ray of Little Shop Of Horrors last October; partly because the movie had fallen through the cracks and deserved more attention, and partly because the new edition offered a “director’s cut” which featured the film’s original, far darker ending. I was happy to get a chance to see all the great effects work that got buried when preview audiences freaked out at the sight of sweet old Seymour getting devoured, but even this version is a mixed blessing, a gorgeous, well-acted, funny interpretation that gets so much right that what it gets wrong still stings. The new ending looks great, but runs too long, and really is a tonal misfire, but even more frustrating is the fact that the film version cuts out one of the best songs in the show, the full version of “The Meek Shall Inherit.” In the stage version, the number is a sort of musical montage summing up the various temptations Seymour faces urging him to hold on to his talking, singing, people-eating plant—one guy offers him a TV show, another guy promises to “book you on lecturing tours,” which, gosh, who could say no to that? Seymour is dazzled by it all, but in a sung monologue that captures the basic heart of the whole show in maybe a minute, decides that he can’t live with the evil, no matter what it does to his career; but then, after a beat, he realizes that without his fame and riches, Audrey, the love of his life, “might not love me anymore.” It isn’t exactly subtle, but it turns something goofy and sweet into a story far sadder than it might have been; definitely not the best musical sequence I love (that’d be something from Sondheim), but probably the one closest to my heart.
I feel like I’ve responded to countless AVQ&A’s with this title, but I’ve got to go with Brian De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise, and specifically, the one-two punch of “Somebody Super Like You (Beef Construction Song)” into “Life At Last.” Besides being one of my favorite films, and the most deeply felt from one of my favorite filmmakers, Phantom Of The Paradise is great because it’s a musical that isn’t a musical. All the music (save for one snatch of a song that never even made the soundtrack album) exists diegetically, within the narrative of the film itself, meaning that the basic illusion of cinema isn’t ruptured by having to wonder why people are suddenly singing and dancing. These two songs prove a prime example of how seamlessly Phantom weaves music into its satiric Grand Guignol tapestry, explicitly staging the music numbers as a mini rock opera performed before the salivating crowd of a decked-out rock club. The first, sung by the house band of the Paradise, describes wayward youth looking for a Machiavellian rock hero to lead them into the new generation (the decadent mid-’70s) and depicts that icon being Frankensteined together onstage from body parts of dummies planted in the audience. It follows with “Life At Last” song by the sub-Meatloaf grunt-rocker Beef (early De Palma regular Gerrit Graham), the posturing, moronic answer to the prayer of a posturing, moronic generation. In a movie defined in no small part by its sneering at the emptiness and opulence of the post-hippie era, it’s little surprise that its emptiest, most opulent numbers prove its most memorable. This is De Palma, after all.
I’m a huge fan of musicals of both the stage and screen variety, and yet this question wasn’t even a little bit difficult for me to answer. Of all the songs written by my favorite Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, the one that most flabbergasts me is “Finishing The Hat,” from Sunday In The Park With George. The song is sung by the pointillist painter Georges Seurat (played by Mandy Patinkin in the original run) while he flips through his sketchbook, as he laments the loss of a lover who couldn’t abide that he paid so much more attention to his work than to her. Via Seurat, Sondheim explains what it’s like to be an artist: the transportive feeling of becoming absorbed in a single small detail; the feeling of accomplishment that comes from conjuring out of thin air something that has the power to transfix other people; and the constant worry that while documenting one sliver of life, you’re missing so much more. It’s a powerful, personal song, full of precise imagery. (The way Sondheim uses “window” to represent both a barrier and an entryway never fails to devastate me, especially with the way Patinkin articulates the word so exactly.) I’m not an artist myself, but in my own small way as a writer, I know something about what Sondheim is expressing, and as a professional audience member, I’m greatly appreciative of the sacrifices that Sondheim and others make to create hats, where there never were hats.
It’s a Pavlovian response for me at this point: Every time I hear a few bars of Michel Legrand’s “love theme” from The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, it chokes me up without fail. The theme is worked into the medley in the opening credits, but director Jacques Demy doesn’t really deploy it until the latter part of the first act, when Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo, its two beautiful leads, face his departure for the war in Algeria. Demy understands, with heartbreaking acuity, the intensity of young people falling in love for the first time, when their emotions are uncomplicated by experience and they feel like they can’t possibly live without each other. The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg goes on to prove otherwise, but its extraordinary wisdom and perspective on love doesn’t blunt the impact of this departure, where Deneuve and Castelnuovo cling to each other and express their feelings with startling directness. When he finally boards the train, and Legrand’s score swells to its crescendo, the lyrics could not be more simple and pure: “Mon amour.” “Je t’aime, je taime.” They’ll grow up. Their lives will change. They’ll find new sources of happiness. But they’ll never feel like that again.
The art to which I respond most strongly reaches for transcendence, acknowledging the transience and ultimate impossibility of escaping our human limitations, yet at the same time trying over and over again to evoke and touch something beyond. Of the scores of musical sequences that express this, I’ll choose an unlikely representative to stand for all the ones that move me to tears: “Your Song” in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. The inherent artificiality—even silliness—of the movie musical comes right up to the foreground as Ewan McGregor belts out the anachronistic Elton John number; he shares a smile with Nicole Kidman that says “Hey, we’re actors lipsyncing in a giant elephant set!”, enjoying the prima facie nuttiness as much as we are in the audience. But there’s not a trace of irony in the song. The emotions are naked and sincere, and Luhrmann revels in how piling on more and more glitter, clouds, Gene Kelly references, and magical imaginary Parisian scenes only makes those emotions more powerful. It’s not just a musical number; it’s a statement about what musical numbers are for, and how much we need their quixotic, syncretistic power to say the things we most want to be true.
The three original Muppet movies—and the franchise’s recent Jason Segel-shepherded reboot—offer plenty of sequences worthy of inclusion here, but my favorite since childhood has been “Hey, A Movie!” from The Great Muppet Caper. Jim Henson wanted his characters’ second film outing to harken back to the golden age of studio musicals, and the film’s jaunty opening number (with music and lyrics by Sesame Street composer Joe Raposo) sets the pace and scale for an endeavor that eventually enlists Miss Piggy (and a submerged Frank Oz) in an aquatic homage to Esther Williams. Staged on a bustling city backlot, “Hey, A Movie!” makes no bones about its artificiality, and that’s part of the fun. Henson and his team went to such great lengths to seamlessly blend the Muppets into the real world that it’s a joy to watch Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, and a cast of dozens singing lyrics that boil down to “This is all made up—but isn’t it neat?” It’s a succinct breakdown/winking acknowledgement of the genre’s inherent phoniness—with enough pratfalls, meta-gags, and snappy melody to keep the whole thing (to borrow a phrase from The Muppet Movie) moving right along.
When I was a child my father would rent me musicals when everybody else’s dads were renting Chevy Chase and Eddie Murphy comedies for their sons. At the time, it didn’t seem that weird: I just assumed everyone’s dad thought they’d dig black-and-white Astaire/Rogers musicals and Gene Kelly movies. It was as a young boy that I first watched “Make ’Em Laugh” from Singing In The Rain and was absolutely transfixed as Donald O’Connor tries to cheer up buddy Gene Kelly with an elaborate display of monkeyshines and high spirits. The genius of “Make ’Em Laugh” is that it’s physical comedy as song and dance, and song and dance as exuberant, irrepressible comedy. It would probably be a stretch to say that “Make ’Em Laugh” helped steer the direction of my life, but over the course of the next few decades, I took O’Connor’s wise words to heart, and at the very least, attempted to be amusing. You can imagine how excited I was when Joseph Gordon-Levitt paid homage to the number on Saturday Night Live.