Over the next few days, three of our writers will offer lighter reflections on why they prefer a given genre of music — Rock, Showtunes, and Classical.
We continue today with Showtunes.
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It is said we love the music of our youth. No doubt we respond in a special way to the music that played through our high school and college years. After all, those are the years of first loves, broken vows, and heartaches we believe will never end.
But this implies there is no critical basis for the music we care most about: Its entire value to us is based upon being associated with an early period of our lives, usually more pleasurable in retrospect than they really were.
So it was with me. Broadway shows were the music of my youth. Living in a three-bedroom ranch home down the river from Mt. Vernon, I discovered a stack of LPs — all Broadway shows — which I played in the echoing darkness of our unfinished basement. I was ten years old when I began memorizing the lyrics to Camelot, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Showboat, West Side Story, Stop the World I Want to Get Off, The King and I, and Oklahoma.
Singing those songs, hour after hour, I gradually became informed by a different culture and sensibility — a more articulate way of expressing desire and disappointment. It also took the edge off the Texas accent handed down to me by my parents and grandparents.
Even then, the difference in quality between Broadway shows and most of the music played on the radio was obvious to me. Like everyone else, I snapped my fingers to Buddy Holly, imitated the twang of Elvis, and celebrated the arrival of the Beatles to America, but I knew there was no comparison with the glories of Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner, Jerome Kern, or even Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse (who went onto greater fame with Oliver!).
Popular music was at a crossroads in those days. The dominance of the Great American Songbook, as it is known, which was closely tied to the Broadway musical, was coming to an end. Composers like Harold Arlen ("Over the Rainbow"), Irving Berlin ("White Christmas"), George Gershwin ("Summertime"), and Cole Porter ("Night and Day") were being replaced by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones.
These bands were formed in 1960, 1961, and 1962, respectively — the same years I spent singing show tunes in my basement in Alexandria, VA.
That three of the songs named above came from Broadway shows illustrates the way these composers — while writing for the stage — were also creating the popular music played on the radio and sung around pianos across the country. The musical culture created by these composers was kept alive by the television variety shows I watched avidly. My favorites were The Dinah Shore Show and The Perry Como Show, both of which ended in 1963, and The Andy Williams Show,which lasted until 1971.
When I arrived at the University of Texas in September 1967, I brought a beautiful AKAI reel-to-reel tape recorder with 7-inch reels of Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, and Matt Munro. Yes, my musical tastes did lead to conflict with my room- and suitemates, but a happy compromise was found by listening to the Moody Blues and, reluctantly on my part, the Beatles’ "White Album."
While I still considered Broadway music and the Great American Songbook to be superior to most post-1960s popular music, to be fair, the music of Arlen, Kern, Porter, et al. was the best of its era and justly survived the passing of the years. Similarly, I judge the quality of pop music by whether it makes it into that Songbook or not.
Of course, what finds its way in will have greater appeal than what we love by mere association with our youth. The great songs, whether from Broadway or not, have their impact on young or old because of their musical quality and the deftness of their lyrics in putting words to our most deeply felt experiences.
Most people know the sudden and exhilarating heightening of the senses that comes with falling in love. Has anyone captured this moment, when your sense of self merges into everything else around you, better than Frederick Lerner in My Fair Lady? As you read the lyrics, recall how the melody rises between the two words "And oh!" suggesting a joy that cannot, and will not, be contained regardless of the "people who stop and stare."
I have often walked down this street before;
But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before.
All at once am I several stories high
Knowing I’m on the street where you live.
Are there lilac trees in the heart of town?
Can you hear a lark in any other part of town?
Does enchantment pour out of ev’ry door?
No, it’s just on the street where you live!
And oh! The towering feeling
Just to know somehow you are near.
The overpowering feeling
That any second you may suddenly appear!
People stop and stare. They don’t bother me.
For there’s no where else on earth that I would rather be.
Let the time go by, I won’t care if I
Can be here on the street where you live.
Songs like this are one reason Tony Bennett still has an active career at age 82, while singers like Michael Bublé, Harry Connick Jr., and Michael Feinstein have created a new generation of fans of the Great American Songbook.