Have you ever watched a musical (on stage or film) where, somewhere usually around the second act, a song starts and you think to yourself, “What does this have to do with ANYTHING? Can we just get on with the show?”
When writing a musical, one tries to make every song, at the very least, either advance the plot or develop an important character. But frequently, there are songs in a musical that do neither; they only stop the show dead in its tracks and annoy the audience. In short, they don’t work.
But in my opinion, there are a handful of songs in the musical repertoire that, despite stopping the plot or developing an unimportant character, suspend our disbelief and delight us. Here is a list of ten, in a mildly progressive order, with explanations as to why I think they work.
10. “Shipoopi” from The Music Man (1957)
I’ve always said the Act II opener should try to be the best song in the show (you need to convince the audience that staying after intermission was a good idea), and “Shipoopi” does not disappoint. But within the brilliant plot of The Music Man, it serves no function except to allow the character of Marcellus to shine for a bit, since he is basically always in Harold Hill’s shadow; even then, it’s an ensemble number, not really a solo. So why does it work? Because it starts the second act with a bang, and it’s one of the silliest and catchiest songs in the whole show. And if you didn’t love Marcellus already, you will by the end of the song. Family Guy even did an elaborate spoof of it.
9. “Moses Supposes” from Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Singin’ in the Rain is one of the best film musicals of the 1950’s, and the most impressive aspect of it is not the singin’ but the dancin’. Some could argue that this song technically moves the plot forward as the actors learn to speak properly, but let’s be honest…this was just another great opportunity to show how mind-boggingly amazing Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are. The number emerges out of a cute tongue twister the actors are learning, and it’s probably the most impressive dance in the entire film. The characters may not be different by the end of the song, but somehow the audience is.
8. “Les Poissons” from The Little Mermaid (1989)
If you remove this song and the chef from The Little Mermaid, the film would still be perfectly intact. So what do they add? Intense comic relief at a time when Ariel is just “getting to know” Prince Eric. And if there’s one thing I love, it’s a good dose of slap-stick comedy. Not only are the song and ensuing chase scene hilarious, but the song itself is brilliantly crafted by the songwriters.
7. “Sister Suffragette” from Mary Poppins (1964)
The character of Mrs. Banks is even more absent from the film than the pivotal character of Mr. Banks. Therefore, it’s quite odd that she gets her very own song twelve minutes into the film that has nothing to do with anybody or anything integral to the plot. So why does this song work? Two reasons. The first is that it gives us living, breathing, singing proof that Mrs. Banks has become so wrapped up in her political cause that her children are coming second in her life. Sure, she encourages the hiring of a nanny, but in the end, she’s just as guilty of neglecting her children as Mr. Banks is. The second reason? It is one of the Sherman Brothers’ best songs. It’s a rousing number that everyone loves, and it picks you up after the Oscar-winning, but somewhat dreary “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” The song may have been written specifically for Glynis Johns, but it does the film no harm at all, and if anything, it is utterly delightful.
6. “Piragua” from In the Heights (2008)
The same reasoning goes for this song as for “Les Poissons.” While everyone in Washington Heights is freaking out about life, love, college, blackouts, and ninety-six thousand bucks, the piragua seller comes out of nowhere and sings about selling…you guessed it…piragua. The song is short, sweet, and catchy, and also has the endearing hook of “Keep scraping by,” which actually encapsulates the mindset of the community. Half of the song is in Spanish, yet even if you don’t speak Spanish, you still get the message.
5. “Posh!” from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Full disclosure, this is my favorite song on the whole list. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a strange movie to begin with, but the character of Grandpa Potts is delightfully enigmatic and ridiculous. He regularly dresses up in old military garb and secludes himself in a little hut, claiming he’s going on a trip somewhere. Nowadays we would diagnose Grandpa with PTSD, but because he’s in a musical, we just have him sing. Midway through the film, while in his hut, Grandpa gets kidnapped by the Vulgarians in their blimp. The rest of our protagonists are freaking out and attempting to rescue him…but what does Grandpa do? He sings a song about traveling that ALMOST makes no sense…all the while flying through the air in his hut. It has nothing to do with the plot, and it only informs us that Grandpa is a little bit crazy, which we already know…but good god, it’s a delightful, hilarious song that helps the film transition into what would be its second, somewhat darker act.
4. “Barcelona” from Company (1970)
Company is my go-to favorite musical, and while I love the number “Barcelona,” it actually doesn’t seem necessary to the show’s structure. We already have a brilliantly written scene between Bobby and April where they talk about past lovers, as well as an equally brilliant song (“Poor Baby”) that gives it context with the rest of the show. “Barcelona” really just serves as a bittersweet and humorous tag to the whole sequence, and it often feels more like recitative than song. But “Barcelona” provides an interesting perspective that none of the other songs quite tap into. While almost every song in the show is about marriage or dating, “Barcelona” examines both the ecstasy (and awkwardness) of a one-night stand. And even though Amy stays at the end of the song, we can tell that Bobby is still “alone,” as well as annoyed.
In a perfect world, every musical would have a drinking song (well, in my opinion). Alfred P. Doolittle is a delightful character, but he’s non-essential to the main plot of Eliza transforming from flower girl to high society lady. Therefore, his two songs “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” are both non-essential as well. But they both provide sheer fun and humor at key points in a show that is heavy with themes of sexism and classism, especially when examined by a modern audience.
2. “The Lonely Goatherd” from The Sound of Music (1965)
In the film version of The Sound of Music (note that the context of this song is different in the original stage version), “The Lonely Goatherd” marionette show put on by Maria and the children seems to come out of nowhere and has nothing to do with nuns or Nazis. You could say it serves the function of inspiring Max to suggest entering the children into the Salzburg Festival, but “Edelweiss” could have easily served that purpose, and the three hour film would’ve been five minutes shorter. But honestly, if you removed “The Lonely Goatherd” from the film, you’d be losing what is undoubtedly the most musically satisfying and catchy song in the entire musical. No other song builds quite as much as this one, and it’s almost impossible to get out of your head. Plus, the direction and cinematography of it in the film are superb.
1. “The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music (1973)
Stephen Sondheim tops the list with a song that is both perfectly crafted and totally unnecessary. The song is sung by Petra the maid…a great character, but still a minor role. This is her only solo in the show, and in my opinion, it comes at a terrible point in the second act: we just heard “Send in the Clowns” which is a hard song to follow, the plot is getting more confusing and building up to a climax, and the audience is probably fidgeting in their seats, ready to go home after what has already been a two hour show. So to have a minor character come out and sing a solo at this point in the theatrical evening is what I would consider very daring. And yet, “The Miller’s Son” is a memorable, upbeat, and somewhat dark song in which Petra explains to us the reasoning behind her promiscuous ways. In essence, the song sums up one of the biggest themes in the entire show while developing an amusing and endearing character. Sondheim’s craft won out and defied the odds…we as an audience are willing to put the plot on hold and listen to what Petra has to say to us.