Choosing ten favourite songs from 1980s musicals was considerably easier than choosing songs for similar lists from the 1960s and 1970s. There just weren’t as many great shows with great scores in the 1980s. Ranking the songs is another story. This kind of thing can be agonising when you’re talking favourites and not craftsmanship, when your subjectivity is battling against objectivity that knows better. I’m sure there will be some naysayers when it comes to the number one spot, for instance, but that’s all right. It is my list, after all, and not everyone can have the same favourites. Even when it comes to the full list, the fans of The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Starlight Express and Aspects of Love will probably will blink when they see that songs from those shows don’t appear there. At least I can offer the Andrew Lloyd Webber fans some honourable mentions: “Think of Me”, “Skimbleshanks”, “Starlight Express” and “The First Man You Remember”. A couple of others: “One of the Boys” from Woman of the Year and a trio of songs from Baby – “The Story Goes On”, “I Chose Right” and “Two People in Love”, all of which have moments where the lyrics are perhaps just clunky enough to pull me out of the song. But it took a long time to choose “I Am What I Am” over “The Story Goes On”, let me tell you that. Anyway, here’s a shot at trying to list my ten favourites – as always, I’ve limited my choices to one per show.
10. “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles
I’m not a huge fan of La Cage aux Folles, but the last revival did manage to shift my perspective on the piece somewhat. (That doesn’t make me turn a blind eye to the chip Arthur Laurents had on his shoulder about this show and the revival that made a success of it without him, not does it make me appreciate Jerry Herman’s little snipe at Sunday in the Park with George in his Tony Awards speech.) Ultimately, I chose this song over the one from Baby because – in context – I have a stronger emotional response to it. In fact, when it’s done as written in the show (George Hearn in full drag) or with that subtext behind it (George Hearn in a tux at the Tony Awards), it is extremely moving, even if gets a bit blustery at some points.
9. “Rich and Happy” from Merrily We Roll Along
The Sondheads are probably going to try to string me up for picking this song over any of the others in Merrily We Roll Along. I could have picked the heartbreaking “Like It Was”, the frenetic “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”, the poppy “Good Thing Going”, one of the two versions of “Not a Day Goes By” or even the wry “Bobby and Jackie and Jack”. I love them all. Instead, I’m choosing a song that Stephen Sondheim found lacking in the context of the show, cut and replaced. Yes, I could have chosen “That Frank”. It uses some of the same musical themes. But it’s just not as thrilling, or as funny. And of course, part of the reason for choosing “Rich and Happy” is because its been cast to the side. Anyway, I think that Sondheim’s problems with the song (as outlined in Finishing the Hat) have more to do with the staging and performance of it in the original production than with the song itself. Check out this video footage from 1981 and see if you agree. When it comes down to brass tacks, Harold Prince and his original production of Merrily We Roll Along has a lot to answer for.
8. “One Day More” from Les Misérables
There was always going to be a song from Les Misérables on this list. For a while I thought it was going to be on my own, but it the end it had to be this thrilling piece from the end of Act I. Even the people I know who don’t like this show, like this number. It’s the perfect example of everything that’s right with Les Misérables. On the plus side, there are the thrilling orchestrations (depending on which version you’re listening to), the careful balance and coming together of all of the narrative threads introduced over Act I and some fantastic pageantry in the staging. On the other hand, there is the way that musical motifs are used totally randomly. There are many times in Les Misérables when you are simply left wondering why a particular character is given a particular musical theme. Why, for instance, do Enjolras and the revolutionaries sing the melody of the bridge of “I Dreamed a Dream”, albeit in a major key, in this song? It’s best just to push the question to the back of your mind and enjoy the marvelous counterpoint. The problem is that the question is always there, niggling.