There are few things I miss about America, but one of them is the proximity of Broadway. It used to be a ritual for my husband John and I to drive down to New York from Boston and catch one or two shows. Luckily, thanks to the wonderful world of electronic transmission, we can still listen to the Original Cast Recordings of musicals we saw (and even a few that we didn’t see).
Today’s category is ‘Musicals That Are Defined By One Song’. Classic shows like ‘My Fair Lady’ pour out a half-dozen hits, and others, like those written by Stephen Sondheim, are ‘integrated,’ meaning that the entire score conveys the message of the show and the arc of the characters’ lives more effectively than any single number. But there are some shows – examples of which are the subject of this essay – where one single song captures -- and, indeed, overrides – the rest of the show. They create indelible moments in which an actor, using only his or her voice and the songwriters’ sense of character, creates an entire scene full of brilliant imagery, profound emotion, and life-affirming drama.
The first of these songs is ‘All The Wasted Time’ from ‘Parade’ by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry. The show is about the trial and lynching of Leo Frank, accused (wrongly) of the murder of a young girl in Georgia in 1913. The subject is tough, and the show is uneven, but the song that Leo and his wife sing at their last meeting -- a picnic in a park just before Leo is incarcerated, when there is still a strand of hope that he will survive -- is a moving testament to the power of love.
In ‘All The Wasted Time,’ Leo sings:
I will never understand
What I did to deserve you,
Or how to be the man
That I'm supposed to be.
I will never understand
If I live a thousand lifetimes
Why you did the things you did for me.
Lucille sings a verse, and then they sing together:
Leaves too high to touch,
Roots too strong to fall.
All the days gone by
To never show I loved you so,
And I never knew anything at all…
And then, Leo repeats this last line, his voice rising an entire octave on the last word:
I never knew anything at all.
This is a performance John and I saw live, and the thrill of hearing Brent Carver soar up to that last, high note, full of hope and sadness, remains one of the greatest memories I have in the theatre.
The second song I wish to single out is ‘Jerry Likes My Corn’ from ‘Grey Gardens’ by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie. It’s based on the movie of the same name, the story of Edith and Edie Beale, the eccentric recluse relatives of Jacqueline Onassis. This song, sung by ‘Big’ Edie about the teenaged boy who serves as the household’s wholly incompetent handyman, is a superlative example of a ‘character’ number. In it, everything you need to know about Edith’s eccentricities, sense of self, and view of the world is contained in three verses. She sings:
Jerry lacks a mother`s tender care,
Nobody to need him.
Mother`s now are barely ever there
Someone`s gotta feed him.
The kind of things that I like
His high school friends all scorn:
Cottage cheese, chamomile,
Dr. Norman Vincent Peale
But, Jerry likes my corn.
By the end of the song, after Big Edie established her preference to Jerry over her awkward and demanding daughter, and just before she falls into a dazed sleep, she concludes:
Jerry doesn`t fight like two fish wives,
Jerry likes relaxing.
Now and then we play my forty-fives,
Hear the old sad sax sing.
No picnic growing older,
Abandon and forlorn.
Stuck in bed, stiff with gout
Alcoholic drinks are out--
The doctor`s warn
Then quick as a wink
I`m in the pink
`Cause Jerry likes my corn!
The last song I’d like to consider is ‘Ring Of Keys’ from ‘Fun Home’ by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron. ‘Fun Home’ is based on the memoirs of the lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel. There are three versions of ‘Alison’ in the musical, and ‘Ring of Keys’ is sung by the 13 year-old version. She starts to become aware of her attraction to women when she sees a butch delivery woman come into the luncheonette where she is eating with her father.
The lyrics are a marvel of specificity, as Small Alison creates an ideal fantasy figure out of the attributes of a real person. She sings:
With your swagger and your bearing and
the just right clothes you're wearing,
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace up boots.
And your keys, oh!
Your ring of keys.
And then, at the very end, the incredible leap from the specific to the general that is the hallmark of all great writing:
I know you,
I know you.
Three little words, and a world.