Broadway musicals have been producing popular songs since the 1920s, from swinging jazz melodies to soft ballads and political tunes designed to fit the times. The flexibility built into many shows allows the music to remain relevant and contemporary, although some songs are old favorites given new life by appearing in Broadway productions.
Paul Robeson's baritone made "Ol' Man River," the standout song from "Showboat," in 1927. It stood in stark contrast to a big Broadway hit just a few years later, George Gershwin's toe-tapping "I Got Rhythm" from "Girl Crazy." Irving Berlin had a big hit in 1933 with "Easter Parade" from "As Thousands Cheer." But the decade belonged to 1937's "Babes in Arms," which produced two very different songs, the romantic "My Funny Valentine" and the derisive "The Lady Is a Tramp."
Broadway's Golden Age
"Oklahoma!" kicked off Broadway's Golden Age for the war-torn United States with the upbeat "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!" in 1943. Shortly after World War II came the first production of "Annie Get Your Gun," and the classics "Anything You Can Do," "The Girl That I Marry" and Ethel Merman's powerful "There's No Business Like Show Business."
"South Pacific" debuted four years after World War II ended with a slew of hits, including the jaunty "Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" and "There Is Nothing Like a Dame." That musical also produced the sultry "Some Enchanted Evening."
The 1950s began with "Guys & Dolls" and Frank Sinatra's memorable version of "Luck Be a Lady Tonight," which became a concert staple of his. "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" from My Fair Lady climbed the charts in 1956, but it was 1957 that proved to be a banner year for Broadway. "The Music Man" had audiences rollicking with "Trouble" and the Sousa-esque "Seventy-Six Trombones." "West Side Story" touched audiences with "Tonight, "Maria," "America" and "I Feel Pretty."
Broadway underwent stark changes in the 1960s, as musicals like "Hair" brought new ideals to the stage with "Aquarius." Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" added religion to Broadway's repertoire through a rousing soundtrack that included "Superstar." In 1976, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" was a teary number from Webber's "Evita."
More traditional ballads took center stage in 1977's "Annie" ("Tomorrow") and 1981's "Cats" ("Memory").
Songs Famous Before Broadway
"The Who's Tommy," launched in 1992, began a movement toward bringing already popular songs, movies, and groups to Broadway. "Tommy" featured several Who hits, including "See Me, Feel Me," "I'm Free" and "Pinball Wizard." The musical movie "Footloose" led to the stage show of the same name, and the 1967 film "The Producers," about Broadway, became a musical comedy with tunes like "Springtime for Hitler." The same held true for the 1980 movie "9 to 5," which became a Broadway play in 2009.
ABBA regained momentum with 1999's "Mamma Mia!" featuring the disco hits "Dancing Queen" and "Take a Chance on Me." Elton John's "Circle of Life" was a signature tune of 1997's staging of "The Lion King," based on the animated feature.
Some show tunes became famous after being recorded by artists not originally associated with the song. Perry Como had a huge hit in 1956 with "Some Enchanted Evening" and first Judy Collins, then Barbra Streisand, found chart success with "Send in the Clowns" from Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music."
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