There’s a phenomenon in modern-day pop songs whereby the main message of a song is often communicated via the repetition of certain lyrics e.g. ‘I Really Like You’ by Carly Rae Jepsen. By the end of the song you get the single simple message that she really likes someone. Although I don’t mind the song, I’d venture to say in most musical theatre songs the approach is a bit more sophisticated.
In my view, the most powerful means to communicate a message in song is through the composition of the music and the different orchestrations. Musical theatre composers, especially the gifted ones, know most love songs in a score serve a purpose and seek to honour and express that. The result is that the songs are rich and multi-layered and somehow capture the personality of the characters involved, the mood of the moment and the different raft of associated emotions. Without necessarily needing to repeat or say a word you can feel the power of what the song is trying to communicate and the lyrics and performance serve to complement this.
Though I’ve sadly not seen many of these songs performed live as they’re meant to be experienced, I have listened to them over and over (and over) again. My choices are not necessarily explicit declarations of love, but provide a perspective of the experience of feeling in love and its different shades. Let the countdown begin!
- SOMETHING GOOD – SOUND OF MUSIC (Music and Lyrics by Rogers and Hammerstein)
This classic musical, with score by Rogers and Hammerstein, tells the story of Maria. She is a misfit nun who takes up a governess position with the Von Trapp family. She finds herself falling in love with the seven children and in time the initially hard-hearted Captain von Trapp.
Here is an example of using simplicity in song to great effect. This song symbolises a pivotal moment in Maria’s and Captain von Trapp’s relationship. After previously not being able to see eye-to-eye, they have warmed to each other more so than they expected to. The softness of the melody conveys subtly the naïve and innocent way they have come to realise the love they have for one another. Julie Andrew’s voice in the film soundtrack makes the song even more wonderful.
- GOODBYE UNTIL TOMORROW / I COULD NEVER RESCUE YOU – THE LAST FIVE YEARS (Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown)
The Last Five Years centres on Jamie’s and Cathy’s five relationship which ends in divorce. This musical uniquely tells Jamie’s story in chronological order while Cathy’s is told in reverse. This form of story-telling really packs a punch in the final number Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You. By the end of the show, Cathy is on a high after going on one of her first dates with Jamie, Jamie in contrast is moving out of their apartment at the end of their relationship.
The song provides a painful reminder that the honeymoon period in relationships doesn’t last forever and although love can bring a lot of joy it can also bring its fair share of sadness. I remember after my first ever date I felt the same excitement and rush as Cathy did. On my way home I decided to listen to this song to bring myself back to reality. And what can I say, the guy never messaged me back.
- SARAH BROWN EYES – RAGTIME (Music by Stephen Flaherty and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens)
Few songs are as bittersweet as Sarah Brown Eyes from the musical Ragtime. I simply adore this song for its charming ragtime melody and portrayal of Sarah’s youthful giddiness during her first encounter with Coalhouse Walker Jnr. It wonderfully re-creates a moment and feeling that I think most people can relate to when meeting their crush. I particularly like the song’s opening dialogue:
Coalhouse: What’s your name?
Sarah: Sarah (soft giggle)
Coalhouse: I’m Coalhouse –
Sarah: Oh, I know
What makes this moment particularly poignant is the context in which it’s played. At this point of the musical, (spoiler alert) Coalhouse Walker Jnr has spun out of all control. Following the tragic loss of his wife Sarah, this man has gone from a respected musician to an underground vigilante. He has developed a cold exterior and has banned all music from his headquarters. But all it takes is for a few musical notes to whistle in the air to penetrate Coalhouse’s thoughts and transport him back to the Harlem Club where he first met Sarah.
The original cast recording the song is beautifully sung by two of my favourite vocalists, Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell and it’s pretty close to perfection in my eyes.
- ALWAYS BETTER – BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown)
Although he may not have had many (any?) home runs in terms of landing successful big budget Broadway musicals – Jason Robert Brown is an outstanding Tony Award winning composer. Bridges of Madison County, based on the novel by the same name, follows the story of Francesca and Robert and their forbidden love.
It was difficult deciding on which Bridges of Madison County song to choose for this top five list as there are so many credible contenders. But I believe ‘Always Better’ tops it. In this song, Francesca has reached peace in knowing that choosing love, as painful as it may be, has been and will always be the right decision for her.
Especially after listening to the cast recording through and ending on this song, I have found myself ugly-sobbing at the end more than once. The music is just so emotive and I love the way it starts small and then crescendos as she is more assured in what she is saying. At the end, Robert repeats one of the motifs of the song ‘you and I are just one second and a million miles to go’ to suggest he memories of him will always linger on even though they have gone their separate ways.
- ALL THE WASTED TIME – PARADE (Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown)
After much self-consultation and deliberation, my number one Broadway love song is All the Wasted Time from Parade. I do realise that I’ve included now three Jason Robert Brown songs, but I think that’s just a reflection of how brilliant he is at writing great Broadway ballads.
Parade the musical centres on Leo Frank, a rich Jewish factory owner from Brooklyn living in Atlanta, Georgia. He is convicted of the rape and murder of one of his factory girls and risks facing a death sentence. His wife Lucile, a meek lady, goes to extraordinary lengths to try and prove the innocence of her husband. Through enduring this ordeal together, Leo’s cold feelings towards his wife melts and they are able to discover that they are in love, but it’s something stronger than romantic love. They both share an admiration for each other’s strength of character and personal will.
The song is one of my favourite love songs because of the journey it takes you on and the unique circumstances they are in. They don’t sing about the fact they love each other but sing in remorseful terms about how they failed to appreciate each other a lot sooner and fear now that it could be too late. The ending is haunting as the parade music is played by a single drum, but sounds like a death knell.
Thanks for reading, if you agree with my choices I’ve created a Spotify playlist with these songs and more for you to listen to. If, however I’ve left some of your favourite out, let me know and I’ll add it to the list!