Top 10 Broadway and Off-Broadway Songs of the Decade
This is a (highly subjective and entirely subject to change at my own whim) list of what I consider to be the ‘best’ songs from Broadway and Off-Broadway from the past five years. These songs are such terrific showcases of craft and technique that they stand up equally as plot movers within their respective shows and as beautiful, self-contained stories.
In some cases, the show from which the song comes may have had a previous incarnation elsewhere, but it is within the past half-decade that it was first heard on the Great White Way (or one of its tributaries).
1. “Go Back Home” – The Scottsboro Boys – Off-Broadway 2010
Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys invigorated critics much more than it did audiences when it moved to Broadway in 2010, and it is not hard to see why – the minstrelsy concept and period sound might not exactly appeal to tourists in town looking for a fun night out. However, they would have missed out on one of the most sophisticated musicals to play New York in many years. This song is an aching ballad sung by Haywood Patterson and his incarcerated compatriots, yearning and heartbreaking in equal measure. As capable of verbal dexterity as he was, Fred Ebb was perhaps at his best when being completely sincere (cf “A Quiet Thing,” “Colored Lights”):
Lying all alone, I’m thinking,
Staring at the stars, I wonder,
Since I been away, I’m lonely,
When I’m gonna go back home?
2. “Invisible” – Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – Broadway 2010
This show was an absolute tornado, good bits and bad bits jumbled together in a hot pink mess. From a motley cast of A-list Broadway talent, Patti LuPone’s (decidedly featured) character was given the show’s 11 o’clock number, this gazpacho-flavoured character song. Staged so simply with the focus is entirely on LuPone and the piece itself, “Invisible” is a devastating look back at her life and regrets. David Yazbek’s lyrics might initially read clunkily, but what they really do is somehow sound like he’s attempting to translate Spanish into English. He achieves this with unconventional, off-kilter images:
totally invisible, but don’t get me wrong,
He was tangible, but invisible,
Like gravity, or the air.
The song builds to a shrieking climax before fading to a whimper, and provides as thorough an exploration of character within five minutes as you are likely to find.
3. “He Wanted a Girl” – Giant – Off-Broadway 2012
Giant is arguably Michael John LaChiusa’s most accessible score, a tapestry of sweeping melodies and an evocative Southern country sound. Katie Thompson features as tomboy Vashti, desperately and unrequitedly in love with Brian d’Arcy James’s Bick. She sings this torch song for him, and Katie knocks it out of the park. LaChiusa’s lyrical voice comes to the fore, beautifully comparing the sophisticated urban girl to her rough country counterpart:
Hearts don’t dress up in fancy new clothes
And hearts don’t wear jewels and put locks on the doors.
Hearts are just drums that go beatin’ with wantin’,
And he was the one that my heart wanted for.
4. “Nothing Short of Wonderful” – Dogfight – Off-Broadway 2012
Modern lyric-writing is rarely finer than in Pasek and Paul’s Dogfight, particularly in this frantic, skittish number. In it, Rose, a plain, homely girl, has been asked out on a date by handsome soldier Eddie, and cannot decide what to wear. Benj and Justin whip this premise up into a storm of words and music, with some of the tightest, sharpest rhyming since Sondheim’s “Ah, But Underneath”:
Hurry up, he won’t wait, he can’t wait half the night,
Either white or maroon, you’re a loon, you’re a mess,
And you think you might bust, but you’ve just got to choose
Pick the shoes, and decide on the dress.
The hubbub builds and builds before suddenly falling away into a rapturous bridge, Rose imagining her and Eddie dancing together – Justin Paul’s soaring music crafting a miniature play over the course of the song. Also noteworthy is Lindsay Mendez’s remarkable performance; it is very easy to forget how technically brilliant her singing is here because her acting is so compelling. How one person can make so many different choices with the phrase ‘oh my gosh’ is just astonishing.
5. “The History of Wrong Guys” – Kinky Boots – Broadway 2013
Sometimes, a song can be sold based purely on its concept, and this is one such example. It’s just an absolutely terrific title for a song, so well done Cyndi Lauper. Similarly excellent are the opening lines:
Women have been making bad choices since the beginning of time.
Are you gonna be another one of mine?
Annaleigh Ashford’s performance is (inexplicable accent aside) a cheeky delight and the song is a rambunctious character number, and great fun from heel to toe.
6. “Daffodils” – Big Fish – Broadway 2013
It is very easy to lambast musical adaptations of big movie titles as lazy, paint-by-numbers, money spinners. Occasionally, however, a skilled writer can musicalize a moment so beautifully that it seems inexplicable that it was every otherwise. “Daffodils” from Andrew Lippa’s Big Fish is one such number. An already powerful scene is heightened and deepened by his glimmering score and Wordsworthy lyrics. Combine this with two stirring performances and Susan Stroman’s breathtaking staging and you start to border on the magical.
7. “Quiet” – Matilda – Broadway 2013
Buried within Tim Minchin’s ricocheting, effervescent score for his and Denis Kelly’s adaptation of Matilda comes “Quiet,” which is just that. The eponymous bookworm takes solace from the noise and the shouting around her by returning to her internal peace. Minchin’s lyrics are so clean and understated:
Like the sound when you lie upside down in your bed,
Just the sound of your heart in your head.
Not one word or idea strays beyond those that would be articulated by a child, and strike a deep chord in us all for that reason. Deliberately lacking the pageantry of the rest of the show, “Quiet” is a beautiful moment of calm.
8. “Changing My Major” – Fun Home – Off-Broadway 2014
“Changing My Major” is virtuosic songwriting. Perhaps even ousting “Barcelona” as the best ‘morning after’ song, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron paint a vivid picture of a young women coming to terms with her sexuality with frankness, tenderness and humour. Beginning with Alison’s awkwardness and shock at what she has just done, the number grows reflective before becoming a rhapsody to Joan. The skill and technical mastery employed by Tesori and Kron is nothing short of stunning – hopefully come awards season, they will be duly recognised.
9. “Ring of Keys” – Fun Home – Off-Broadway 2014
Another Fun Home one, not sorry (watch out Tony Awards 2015 y’all). “Ring of Keys” is in a similar vein to “Changing My Major,” but it explores the beginnings of sexual awakening at a much younger age. The song taps into something so specific, the moment at which a young person feels the first confusing glimmer of a nascent sexuality – particularly the unexpected spark of a same-sex attraction, and what that might mean. This song, with its ums and ers and grasping at something so strange and huge captures this moment of expansion so precisely and beautifully, not least because of Sydney Lucas’s masterclass performance.
With your swagger, and your bearing,
And the just-right clothes you’re wearing.
10. “Candy Store” – Heathers – Off-Broadway 2014
This song is an absolute slam dunk for Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy – high belting, sassafrassing and a laugh riot. “Candy Store” is a temptation number, in the vein of “Feed Me brackets Git It” from Little Shop of Horrors, with the proto-Plastics, The Heathers, enticing Veronica into their ranks with promises of school celebrity and power. Featuring a jaw-dropping vocal performance from Jessica Keenan Wynn and a typically catchy O’Keefe hook, this song alone should justify regional productions of Heathers for years to come.
What are your favourite Broadway or Off-Broadway songs from the last half-decade?
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