Broadway on the Billboard Charts
Remember when showtunes were on the radio? When listening to musicals was considered “cool”? Yeah, me neither. Yet that used to be the norm during the Golden Age of Broadway musicals. For years and years, Broadway songs filled the pop charts and were heard on the airwaves across America. Then, slowly but surely, other styles of music became more popular, and Broadway musicals no longer spawned the popular hits they once did. But every once in a while, a musical proves to be an exception to that rule.
Enter Hamilton. Having already been the “it” musical to see for a while now, Hamilton released its cast album at the end of September. Within days of its release, it was already making history. It debuted on the Billboard 200 chart at number 12, the highest debut for a cast album since Camelot in 1963. It has since broken multiple other records for cast recordings in terms of sales and popularity. It was even described as the best rap album of 2015 by Billboard critic Alex Gale. In an era where popular music no longer comes from the Broadway stage, all of this is a rarity, to say the least.
With that in mind, I have compiled a list of some other showtunes that proved to be exceptions to the rule in terms of success on the pop charts. All of these songs became popular after showtunes were not the norm on the radio, once they were seen as old-fashioned and quaint. Yet they all managed to break through and become major successes on the pop charts as well as on the Broadway stage. Hamilton’s popular success has showed us that maybe, if the circumstances are right, this kind of crossover may again become a regular occurrence.
By 1964, the era of songs from musicals intersecting with the world of pop music was quickly coming to an end. Louis Armstrong recorded the title song from Hello Dolly! in conjunction with the opening of the musical. His recording quickly shot up the Billboard charts, reaching number one (even bumping the Beatles down in the process). It was one of the most popular songs of 1964, and Armstrong ended up winning a Grammy Award for his recording.
There are few songs that you automatically identify with a singular performer, but "People" is one of them. Written by Jule Styne for Funny Girl, this song quickly became Barbra Streisand’s signature anthem and helped launch her career. It peaked at number five on the Billboard pop charts, and became Streisand’s first Top 40 hit of her career. Over the years, it has been covered by many artists, but Barbra’s will always remain the definitive version.
"Send in the Clowns"
This song was written for the character of Desiree in A Little Night Music. Haunting and beautiful, the song worked well in the context of the show, and audiences liked it, but it was never intended as a pop song. Two years after the musical premiered, Judy Collins recorded it, and the song took off. It hit the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975, and a year later it received a Grammy award for “Song of the Year.”
"Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In"
Originally featured in the musical Hair, these songs became popular as a medley recorded by The 5th Dimension. The mash-up became enormously popular, sitting at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for six weeks in 1969 and winning multiple Grammy Awards. This hippie anthem has proved to have staying power, as Billboard also named it #66 on its list of “Greatest Songs of All Time.”
"I’ll Never Fall in Love Again"
Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for the musical Promises, Promises, this tender ballad became a bona fide pop hit when it was recorded by Bacharach’s muse, Dionne Warwick. It reached number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and to this day is one of her most enduring classics.
This song from the musical Cats became a hit for both Elaine Paige, the original star of the show, and pop artist Barbra Streisand. It has since been recorded by countless other artists and remains a favorite of audiences around the world, as well as being one of the most instantly identifiable showtunes ever.
I Don't Know How To Love Him
One of the most famous songs from Jesus Christ Superstar, "I Don't Know How To Love Him" was recorded both by Yvonne Elliman, the star of the musical, and Helen Reddy, a (then unknown) pop singer. Both were hits and entered the Billboard Hot 100, with Reddy’s slowly creeping higher than Elliman’s. Regardless, the song became a classic, and remains so to this day.