In Say, Darling, Johnny Desmond sings, “It’s the second time you meet that matters.”
It’s true of songs in musicals, too. Although a great opening number makes theatergoers assume that they’re going to see a good show, a second great number makes them even more confident that they’ll have a memorable evening.
So what are the best second songs in musical theater history?
Some you know: “It’s a Perfect Relationship,” “Goodbye, Old Girl,” “Rhymes Have I,” “A Little More Mascara,” “The Other Side of the Tracks,” “It’s Today,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “Come up to My Place,” “I Could Write a Book,” “The King of Broadway,” “A Wonderful Day Like Today,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Big Spender” “Something’s Coming” and “Hey, Look Me Over!”
(Or at least I hope you know them. If you don’t, we shan’t be speaking anymore …)
Oh, and let’s not forget Annie’s “It’s the Hard-Knock Life.” When I saw this not-quite-there-yet musical try out at the Goodspeed Opera House in October, 1976, this was actually the opening number. Had it stayed in that place, I would have mentioned “Maybe” — then in the second spot — as my entry here. But no “maybes” about it: both are great songs.
And what are the other great second songs in musical theater history — the ones you might not know and should?
“You Help Me” (What Makes Sammy Run?). Quodlibets are almost always impressive. (Don’t know the term? One person sings a melody, a second person sings another, and then each simultaneously sings his part again.) Here’s one where a sharpie tries to prove to his mentor that he’s innocent of any wrongdoing – at least for the first part of the song. By song’s end, though, he certainly does move the action forward by revealing his true nature.
“One Small Girl” (Once on This Island). Another one that provides forward musical motion. By the time this delicate Stephen Flaherty melody and sensitive Lynn Ahrens lyric conclude, that one small girl is one comely young miss.
“Mine Til Monday” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). Musical theater gives us songs for the most atypical situations. Here men on payday get their prized possessions out of the pawn shop – knowing they’ll be returning them to the pawnbroker first thing Monday morning because they’ll have drunk away the rest of their salaries and will need money for the rest of the week.
“Someday” (The Wedding Singer). Many musical theater songs introduce us to a female character, but precious few make us fall completely in love with her by the time the song ends. But that’s what happens after Julia finishes this winner.
“Brand New World” (Rags). Charles Strouse created a fine hurdy-gurdy melody that evokes the streets of the Lower East Side at the turn of the last century; Stephen Schwartz found the right evocative lyrics for it.
“A Transparent Crystal Moment” (The Last Sweet Days of Isaac). Isaac meets a young woman on an elevator and plays life coach to her – whether she wants him to or not.
“I Wouldn’t Have You Any Other Way” (Maggie Flynn). Shirley Jones tries a soft-sell seduction on some unsavory types in order to get some money for her orphanage. After you hear this, you just might chip in.
“New York” (The Nervous Set). The singers (including eventual Into the Woods narrator Tom Aldredge) complain that “we’re so sick of hearing songs about New York.” This was 1959, and little did they know how many more were coming – including the best one of all that the then-unknown Kander and Ebb would write in seventeen years.
“Keep ‘Em Busy” (Now Is the Time for All Good Men). That’s what the teachers at this small Indiana high school advise new teacher Mike Butler as well as to “keep ‘em quiet, keep the kids in line.” But Mike responds “I’d like to try to do some plays before the year is through. I’ll try a little Shakespeare and perhaps a Giradoux.”
“Paris Loves Lovers” (Silk Stockings). Uptight Communist woman meets carefree man from the United States. How do you think it’ll turn out, given that this is an American musical from 1955?
“Tosy and Cosh” (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). We’ve already heard from Daisy Gamble in the delectable “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here!” Now the time comes for us to meet Melinda, the woman from whom Daisy was reincarnated. Listen to how well composer Burton Lane captured the music of an earlier century.
“I Wish It So” (Juno). Musical theater savant Ken Mandelbaum says of the thousands of show songs he’s heard, this is the one he likes the best. See if you agree.
“All I Need Is One Good Break” (Flora, the Red Menace). When Ed Sullivan invited the musical’s creators to pick the number that he’d present on his famed Sunday night show, this is what Kander and Ebb chose. As they’d write in a show ten years later: “Understandable, understandable!”
“Hushaby” (Inner City). If Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill had been born as African-Americans in the pop-rock era, this is a song they would have written. A young expectant – and abandoned – mother is doing her best to cope with her pregnancy and the difficult days ahead.
“Thank God I’m Old” (Barnum). Joice Heth wasn’t 161 years old, as P.T. Barnum suckered spectators into believing; she was a mere seventy-eight. But thanks to Terri White, she sounds substantially younger in this Cy Coleman-Michael Stewart barn-burner. It has a tinge of ragtime, a dollop of Dixieland and a melody that will have you tap-tap-tapping along even if you’re already between Joice’s real or alleged ages.
“It’s You” (Dames at Sea). It’s merely a list song replete with names of famous stars of the ’20s and ’30s, but it lets us know that the authors knew their Hollywood and that they could be counted on to capture that era all night long.
“Dear Old Syracuse” (The Boys from Syracuse). A Rodgers and Hart song for which the word “jaunty” could have been coined. By the way, we’re talking about old-world Syracuse, not the current New York State city. And fewer than four years later, that first R&H team gave us another show set in an ancient time and place, which bestowed on us another jaunty second-song-in-the-show: “Jupiter Forbid” (By Jupiter).
“The Little Things You Do Together” (Company). After the opening number which was a game-changer (and don’t you love seeing that term applied to a show that isn’t Hamilton?), Stephen Sondheim gave us this acerbic, cynical and oh-so-truthful look at what eventually happens to many marriages. It was also a great “Welcome home!” to Elaine Stritch, who hadn’t sung on Broadway in more than eight years — unless you count the few bars that she sang of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” with the last three words changed to “Virginia Woolf” when she played Martha in Albee’s Tony-winner towards the end of its Broadway run.
“Give the Little Lady a Great Big Hand” (Goldilocks). Stritch again as a star who claims that she’s giving up show business for the simple life. Yeah, that’s about as likely as finding gloves in a car’s glove compartment.
“Two Heads Are Better Than One” (The Robber Bridegroom). And while we’re on the subject of second songs, let me say that the second section of this song – the B-section – is one of my all-time favorite B-sections.
Hmmm, the best B-sections … Now would that be a good subject for a future column … ?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com