Broadway’s best show tunes are not just heard on the stage. There are some songs that really stand out, permeating pop culture, touching a nerve, and inspiring even the shyest to belt the lyrics. From the 1930s to the ’50s, Broadway shows were one of the main sources for major pop singers’ repertories. Crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett would warble their own versions of top tunes from current shows and all of America would listen to them on the airwaves. In the 1960s, though, Broadway took a backseat to rock groups as teenagers dominated record sales. The Beatles recorded a memorable version of “Till There Was You” from The Music Man and Louis Armstrong’s Dixieland spin on “Hello, Dolly” was a hit, but the theater was no longer a major player in the record industry. Today the trend is changing with songs from Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked seeping into the mainstream through TV shows like Glee and American Idol.
Here are our picks for the most memorable show tunes of all time. Listen as you read, and check out the full playlist at the end. Want to hear more top tunes? See — and listen to — our picks for Broadway’s new classic show tunes.
“On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady
Ironically this gorgeous melody was not sung by either Henry Higgins or Eliza Doolittle, the show’s leads. It went to the supporting character Freddy Enysford-Hill who sings it outside Eliza’s window after he has met her at the Ascot races. In a show full of hit tunes, this one stood out and climbed the charts in versions by such pop male songsters as Vic Damone, Eddie Fisher, and Andy Williams not long after the show opened in 1956.
“If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof
This comic musical monologue from Fiddler, details the financial travails of the lead character, Tevye, a poor milkman in a tiny Russian village. Zero Mostel gave the song his customary humorous zing in the original 1964 production, adding influences of Jewish rabbinical music in the “diddle-diddle-diddle dums.” Numerous stars including Topol, Alfred Molina and Harvey Fierstein have endowed the song with their individual personalities. A whole new generation was introduced to its charms when Gwen Stefani sampled excerpts in her hit “Rich Girl.” The show is scheduled to be revived on Broadway for the fifth time in 2015 and Tony nominee Danny Burstein (South Pacific, Follies) has been mentioned as a leading candidate for Tevye.
“Cabaret” from Cabaret
The divine decadence of prewar Berlin is evoked in this title song by Kander & Ebb from one of Broadway’s most popular shows. Cabaret is returning to Studio 54 this spring, where Oscar nominee Michelle Williams will sing the title tune. Liza Minnelli won an Oscar and Natasha Richardson won a Tony for their performances as the reckless chanteuse Sally Bowles, who sings this defiant celebration of good times.
“Magic to Do” from Pippin
The seductive Leading Player and her troupe introduce us to the wonders of the stage and set the tone for the miraculous Pippin with this exciting opening number. Both Ben Vereen in the 1972 original and Patina Miller in the 2013 revival won Tonys for the role and performed the song on the awards broadcast.
“Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music
This tender ballad about missed opportunities was written for Glynis Johns in the 1973 Broadway production. The breathy, almost spoken quality allowed for limited singers such as Elizabeth Taylor in the film version and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the 2009 revival to give full voice to the emotions of the character, Desiree, as she laments the bad timing marking her affair with the married Frederick. This is Stephen Sondheim’s only Billboard chart-topper and it also won the Grammy for Best Song. Judy Collins’ version was a smash hit as was Frank Sinatra’s.
“All That Jazz” from Chicago
Chita Rivera, Liza Minnelli, Bebe Neuwirth, and Catherine Zeta-Jones have all sizzled and shimmied while delivering this jazzy, sexy anthem to booze and good times in the Prohibition-era Windy City. Bob Fosse, director-choreographer of the original Chicago, used it as the title of his autobiographical 1979 film with Roy Schneider as a driven show biz stager not unlike Fosse.
“Tomorrow” from Annie
The optimistic anthem from the ever-hopeful orphan, a favorite of stage-struck little girls everywhere, has been covered by such varied artists as Grace Jones, The Manhattans and Elaine Paige. Andrea McArdle gave a soaring performance in the original 1976 production and Lila Crawford’s rendition was a highlight of the 2012 revival.
“The Music of the Night” from The Phantom of the Opera
The Phantom pours out his twisted soul in this lush ballad delivered to his beloved Christine. Introduced by Michael Crawford in both the West End and on Broadway, The Phantom of the Opera‘s showcase song has sold millions of copies worldwide and has been translated into several different languages. Crawford also sang it a duet version with Barbra Streisand on her Back to Broadway album. In a major controversy, the estate of Giacomo Puccini sued Webber for plagiarism for the song’s resemblance to an aria from the composer’s opera Girl of the Golden West. The case was settled out of court.
“I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables
There isn’t a dry eye in the house when Fantine touchingly recounts her tragic past in this musical memoir. In the stage version, the character sings the heart-wrenching ballad after she has been fired from the factory that the hero Jean Valjean runs. In the 2012 film adaptation, it was placed later in the action when Fantine has descended to prostitution. Anne Hathaway’s passionate performance of the song helped her win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Neil Diamond, Aretha Franklin and Petula Clark are among the pop artists with their own covers, and both Lea Michele and Idina Menzel sang it on Glee. Perhaps the most famous non-theatrical performance of the song was by Scottish songstress Susan Boyle, who used it for her audition for Britain’s Got Talent. She received unanimous praise from the judges, even hard-to-please Simon Cowell, and went to on a major recording career. Fans will hear the moving tune again now that Les Miserables is back on Broadway.
“Defying Gravity” from Wicked
The misunderstood witch Elphaba soars both vocally and physically at the end of the first act of the hit show Wicked as she finds both her voice and her magical powers while blasting out this powerful declaration. Idina Menzel’s powerhouse rendition was a definite factor in her winning the 2004 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical over such stiff competition as Donna Murphy in Wonderful Town, Tonya Pinkins in Caroline or Change and her own Wicked co-star, Kristin Chenoweth.