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Literature, Broadway and the test of time

Larry French, Community Voices • Jul 22, 2018 at 8:15 AM

“Without a song the day would never end/Without a song the road would never bend/When things go wrong a man ain’t got a friend/Without a song” — Vincent Youmans.

Literary giants Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, Ferenc Molnar, T.S. Eliot, Gaston Leroux, Edna Ferber and James A. Michener all have one thing in common, namely music. Music? Yes, gentle readers, music.

While literature has been shaped, in part, by the history and the country of those individuals who produced it; music, specifically the music of Broadway, has helped to increase our understanding of the world and given us an unforgettable journey into the past — a literary and musical journey spanning more than five centuries.

Included in this musical journey are 10 songs, selected from some of Broadway’s most recognizable musicals. Not everyone, of course, will agree with these selections — or their suggested performances — but that’s understandable. Limiting the selections down to 10, however, became a challenging task. In addition to the selected songs below, a glimpse into what inspired certain composers and lyricists to combine their forces with the above-mentioned literary giants and to write such mesmerizing music. To discover their inspiration, take this musical journey down Broadway and “hear” for yourselves.

10. Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” from “Annie Get Your Gun,” performed by Ethel Merman. Casting all show business liberalism aside (it didn’t exist to the extent it does today) nobody sings this song like Miss Ethel does.

9. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s “Somewhere” from “West Side Story,” emotionally performed by Barbra Streisand. Inspired by Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet.”

8. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Music of the Night” from “The Phantom of the Opera,” performed by Ramin Karimloo. Inspired by Gaston Leroux’s novel “The Phantom of the Opera.”

7. Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “They Call the Wind Maria” from “Paint Your Wagon,” performed by Harve Presnell, whose interpretation is both eerie and restless. Of course, Frankie Laine’s wistful singing and the staccato-like rhythm is a close second. “The rain is Tess, the fire’s Joe, and they call the wind Maria.”

6. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “This Nearly was Mine” from “South Pacific.” Ezio Pinza owns this song. Inspired by James A. Michener’s short stories “Tales of the South Pacific.”

5. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memories” from “Cats.” Elaine Paige’s performance or Betty Buckley’s are both impressive and sung with feeling. Inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poems “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”

4. Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music,” performed by Lou Rawls, whose live performance in 1978 is the embodiment of smoothness and beyond perfection. “Maybe, next year.” Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night.”

3. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from “Carousel.” Brilliantly sung, and yes, butchered in every conceivable manner since 1945, this song instantly became obligatory at graduation ceremonies. As for the performances, they’re in the thousands. And, while we all have our favorite, even if it was Bill and Kathy’s heartfelt rendition in the high school auditorium on senior day, the passionate performance by Sir Tom Jones in 1968 surpasses them all. Inspired by Ferenc Molnar’s play “Liliom.”

2. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River” from “Showboat.” While this song is not without controversy — even though it shouldn’t be — only one performance has stood the test of time and that performance belongs to William Warfield. Inspired by Edna Ferber’s novel “Showboat.” A story chronicling life on the Mississippi River from the 1880s to the 1920s.

1. Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha.” As for memorable performances three stand alone: Richard Kiley (Tony Award winner), Robert Goulet and Johnny Mathis. While each singer’s philosophical offering captures the deep and intended meaning of “(marching) into Hell, for a Heavenly cause,” Mathis’s quintessential performance remains a master’s class in singing. Inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ novel “Don Quixote.”

Yes, numerous songs didn’t make this list, but it’s not because they failed the test of time, it’s because they’ve simply been over-hyped and over-recorded into a monotonous abyss. Sometimes, gentle readers, too much is, too much.

And, even if the works of de Cervantes, Ferber and Michener have somehow been overlooked, there are, however, lessons to be learned from these songs. Each one has a distinct personal meaning that offers us a glimpse into our own wellbeing. “No matter how hopeless” life may seem at certain times, or if we become downtrodden and find ourselves on the brink of despair, just remember, there’s really no such thing as an impossible dream because music is timeless and exists to encourage us all “To reach the unreachable star.”

© 2018 Larry French/Johnson City Press

Larry French lives in Butler. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and teaches composition and literature at East Tennessee State University. You may reach him at FRENCHL@etsu.edu.

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