Friday, January 20

Favorite Musical Numbers

I have seen nearly every musical ever made.  For sure not everyone likes musical films but I have always loved them.   Mind you, I didn't love every one of them but I absolutely loved most.  Musicals took my cares away and I was transported to places and times with a light-heartedness that I never otherwise expected.

I was raised on Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, which, for the most part, I quite loved.  My attention was super-charged when there was singing and dancing up on that big screen.  I didn't care if it was done on a stage in the film or if someone just broke into a song as an answer to a question or done in a barnyard or on the New York streets.

It is difficult to get a favorites list down to a just a few.  It seems that an entire catalogue of songs from any musical are my favorites and most all of the numbers I have finally settled on include dancing.  I would suggest that most or all of these musical numbers are on YouTube for you to enjoy.  Here are a dozen of my favorites, alphabetically:

(from the 1954 film White Christmas,)

A very lively and enthusiastic dance number (no song) featuring Vera-Ellen and John Brascia.  I always remember her wearing a yellow outfit with a short skirt which showcased her too-skinny legs.  This was a brief number that took place in the auditorium of the Vermont lodge where rehearsals were taking place.  Dance numbers always excited me and Vera-Ellen was a favorite of mine.  She didn't do her own singing and made very few movies, but she managed to dance up a storm in films with both Astaire and Kelly.  Brascia was a whirling dervish of a dancer, more of a partner to famous dancers of the day. 

(from the 1961 Academy Award-winning West Side Story)

I read once that this was considered to be one of the top three movie musical numbers of alltime.  It certainly holds a special place in my heart.  Rita Moreno and George Chakiris both won supporting Oscars for West Side Story and I'll offer up that this number is the main reason why they did.  As exuberant and exhilarating a song and dance number as one is ever likely to see, it was used to tell the story of the hardships Puerto Ricans endured after coming to America.  It was lusty, full of comedy and featuring a large ensemble of very capable singers and dancers.

Begin the Beguine
(from the 1940 film Broadway Melody of 1940)

It all came together for this number.  Written by Cole Porter, popularized by Artie Shaw and his band and the immense talents of Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire.  They tapped across an empty stage with an all black background mirrors and twinkling lights.  She was one of the best female tap dancers the movies ever saw and Fred, in turn, made any partner look even better.  As Frank Sinatra said in That's Entertainment, you'll never see the likes of this again.  I even have it in my phone for when I need a fix.  Magnificent.

Birth of the Blues
(from The Best Things in Life Are Free, 1956)

I always thought Gordon MacRae was the finest male movie singer and I have seen every movie he ever made.  This was his final musical and I think it was terrific (and never as ballyhooed as much as it should have been).  MacRae, Dan Dailey and Ernest Borgnine played real-life songwriters Buddy De Sylva, Ray Henderson and Lew Brown, who cranked out many a popular hit in their day.  The title tune was one of them as was Birth of the Blues.  Here it starts off with MacRae playing piano and singing it for Sheree North (one of the most underrated performers ever and one of the best dancers ever).  As he is regaling her with his new song, via her imagination we see her sashaying past a jail where an inmate escapes for a dance with her to this song.  He is Jacques d'Amboise, an American-born ballet dancer who made very few films but together they were beautiful and precise and sexy.

Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend
(from 1953's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)

This was another of those mentioned in that list of alltime best musical numbers and again I recall it as being in the top three.  And if this wonderfully gaudy centerpiece to a gloriously fun film wasn't on the list, it wouldn't be much of a list.  I could watch this until those diamonds lost their lustre.  A kiss on the hand may be quite continental but Marilyn is at her most dazzling and this is without question her signature song.   I think watching her bits of business, particularly with her hands and arms and all her facial gestures, is pure pleasure and I get permasmile.  I also loved the red set and watching the synchronization of the male dancers who back her up.  Did you ever notice how homely the female backup group was?  Why was that?  And why their weird costumes?  This number was a true gem... and I don't mean rhinestones. 

Military Polka
(from The West Point Story, 1950)

When I play this song & dance fest at home, over and over again, my partner begs me to quit and if I don't, the beg is escalated to threat of bodily harm.  And some of you may look over this list and in questioning why this or that dazzling number is not included and this one is, well, I say, oh well.  Admittedly it was a pretty hokey movie out of Warner Bros and starring five from its stable of stars... Jimmy Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Doris Day, Gordon MacRae and Gene Nelson.  The four younger ones made a number of films in various pairings and threesomes.  Cagney made far superior movies with the two ladies... with Mayo in White Heat and with Day later on in Love Me or Leave Me.  This film was about a down-on-his-luck Broadway showman who gets involved in directing a talent show for the Academy.  This number involved all five stars (and a cadre of cadets and dates) with Day leading the way singing and then MacRae taking over and all of them dancing except MacRae.  It was a bouncy tune, admittedly a silly one, but I loved all these performers working together on the same number.

(from the Academy Award-winning best picture Chicago, 2002)

Well, finally, I enter the modern era (but only briefly).  Well, to be fair to me, they just don't make musicals like they used to or more importantly, they rarely make them at all.  Here is one that is among the very best of all time and with one of the best library of songs.  But ultimately I gotta give top honors to the finale, Nowadays, with Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones singing and dancing their little tart hearts out.  This was only one of two numbers in the entire film (the other being All That Jazz) that was not invented in Roxy's imagination.  They were performed for real.  Nowadays knocked me out.

Over the Rainbow
(from 1939's The Wizard of Oz)

Believe it or not this film is not a favorite of mine.  I didn't dislike it at all, but I have never really sung its praises either and praised I certainly know it is.  Yet while it was still in the black and white portion, in a little barnyard in MGM-Kansas, along with a little dog, a young girl steps forward and in a voice bestowed upon her from the gods sings the singlemost iconic song in all of movie musical history.  And ponder this one for a moment... not only was Judy Garland the second choice for the role of Dorothy but Over the Rainbow came close to being cut from the film.  Someone thought it unremarkable and not aligned with the story.  Now we know drugs, drink and delirium ran rampant in 1939 Hollywood.

Pennies from Heaven
(title song), 1981

Every time it rains it rains pennies from heaven.  Doncha know each cloud contains pennies from heaven?  And so it begins.  This film was one of the most depressing I had ever seen at the time although I never disputed that I loved this music.  Revisiting it again years later, I didn't feel the same about the non-musical portions.  It was the Great Depression and it was depressing but that was no longer my focus.  Steve Martin is an unhappily married man who barely ekes out a living selling sheet music and instead of giving in to the grim reaper, he fantasizes these jubilant musical numbers.  The best of the bunch is the title tune, sung and danced to sheer perfection by an enigmatic triple-threat named Vernel Bagneris.  There was stunning choreography. There was a highly original and beautiful set of a roadside diner opening up (dividing in two) and  our senses are treated to singing and dancing in the rain and then a shower of golden coins and an old soft shoe.  This is a truly splendid number.

Put the Blame on Mame
(from Gilda, 1946)

Gilda was a naughty girl.  When Rita Hayworth threw back her mane of red hair in her first scene in the film, you knew she was trouble.  And you knew you were glad she was.  She was married to a rich man she didn't love.  She did love a man she acted like she hated.  He was her ex-lover, whom she'd run away from, and now he's working for her husband.  This film was not a musical although it had a couple of musical sequences, the best of which is Put the Blame on Mame.  And the boys flocked to Gilda.  In real life, Hayworth said that was the problem.  The boys flocked to Gilda but instead they got Rita.  Put the Blame on Mame is essentially a striptease, designed to tantalize the angry Johnny and all those red-blooded boys in the audience.  Hayworth dazzled in her black satin, bare-shouldered gown, sexily peeling off a glove, her full derriere nearly grinding into the camera lens.  Rita didn't do much of her own singing but you'd never know it and her dance moves are spot on, tantalizing, exacting, memorable.

Shall We Dance?
(from 1956's The King and I)

One of the best of the Rodgers and Hammerstein movies which 20th Century Fox considered such a shoo-in for success that they entrusted it to one of their contract directors, Walter Lang, rather than bringing in one of the gods of movie directors.  It had been a major Broadway success with an iconic star in Yul Brynner, who would reprise his role, and one of the most popular actresses of her time, lovely Deborah Kerr, was hired to play "I."  It also had magnificent songs.  I actually do not think there was a dud among them but the one that made me sit up and take notice was Shall We Dance.  Kerr's singing was dubbed by the talented Marni Nixon (who did the same for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady) and the song has some of the best combinations of words and phrases ever put to music.  And my goosebumps always appear when the barefoot king says "come," holding Miss Anna tightly.  The music crescendoes as he whirls her around the floor in the beautiful dress with the big hoop skirt that all the children could have hidden under.  Swept away by the triumphant music as they begin one of screen's most celebrated dances (a polka, no less), I wanted it to go on forever.  

The Sound of Music
(title song), 1965

I had a brief separation from my wife in 1965 and when I walked out of my house, I walked into a newly-refurbished theater and the opening of The Sound of Music.  I could never forget the experience.  Feeling so down and out, I had hoped a musical would lift my spirits at least for three hours.  The red curtains opened, the 20th Fox logo came on without the usual accompanying musical fanfare.  A moment of silence.  Then there were clouds and there was wind.  We were in the mountains, in the air, sailing over cliffs and spotting valleys far below.  Birds chirped.  Over there was a boat on the shimmering water.  There came into view a quaint village and then lakes and castles, one accessible via a drawbridge.  By now the title theme music could be heard... it was like a bird trilling.  Light.  Easy.  Welcoming.  We moved through a very green forest and out again.  In the distance on a hilltop she came.  She was a spot at first and the camera got closer and closer and swooped in on Julie Andrews, dressed as a nun, about to make the most famous turn in movie history.  The hills are alive, she first told us, as she walked a mountain path, through white birches and to a pond where she threw a pebble. The song couldn't have been any better nor could the woman who sang it.  One of my favorite movie songs ever... in a film you'll hear more about later.

I would love to hear which of these might also be some of your favorites and what others would make your list.

NEXT POSTING:  Double Feature


  1. While "Singin in the Rain" wasn't one of my favorite musicals overall, I do like the "Good Morning" number. Loved watching Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds dance and sing such a cheerful song. I've also developed quite an affection for the song since it's one I sing to Cooper in the mornings fairly often. :o)

    I also have to mention "Moulin Rouge!" One of the most creative modern musicals to come around. Granted it was not original music, but that made it that much more fun. Who doesn't crack a smile watching The Duke (Richard Roxburgh) sing "Like a Virgin?" :)

    1. I agree on all you said. The Good Morning" number was so great and the title tune from "Singin in the Rain" came thisclose to making my list. And Moulin Rouge certainly proved there was still an audience for the movie musical.