Saturday, August 8, 2009

soul food, the conclusion

I could be in the worst mood ever, and a good musical does just what it advertises: takes all my cares away. Putting together this list of my top-twenty movie musical numbers has given me quite a few hours of glee as I troll around YouTube, or debate with myself over just which Judy number is my fave, or pull yet another entry from the dim corners of my memory (which seems to be much better at retrieving song-and-dance numbers than it is at remembering people from my past including, I must sheepishly admit, old boyfriends), or plunk myself down in front of the telly to watch a Fred-and-Ginger classic for the umpteenth time.

I definitely cheated with this half of the list by including lots of runners-up, especially for my most beloved performers. Still, a few numbers didn't make my list, either for lack of space, or because of memory lapse: Jonathan points out that there's no Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I neglected Dirty Dancing (how could I forget!), and then there's Rita Hayworth delivering "Put the Blame on Mame" from Gilda. James Wolcott puts in a plea for Ryan and Sharpay's number in High School Musical 3, but I admit to having never seen this undoubted masterpiece of (amateur) stage and screen, so I'll have to take his word for it.

Enough already with my eternal second-guessing. Here are my top ten.

10. "Rich Man's Frug," Sweet Charity

A fantastic number from a mediocre mess of a movie. Shirley MacLaine is, of course, charming, but the movie is just all over the place. But the "Rich Man's Frug"! Fosse packs so much whiz-bang choreography into this three-parter that your jaw just drops at the sheer inventiveness. Suzanne Charney (the lead dancer) does the most amazing things with her arms, and Ben Vereen struts his stuff in "The Big Finish." The first time I saw this movie, I made my friend Alex teach me "The Aloof," cigarettes included. Almost makes me want to start smoking again.

9. "Be Our Guest," Beauty and the Beast

I'm sorry, but it's true: This is one of the great movie musical numbers of all time. The sly homages (most obviously to Busby Berkeley and Fantasia), the wonderful tune (one of the last from Howard Ashman), the clever and charming lyrics (I particularly like "Life is so unnerving to a servant who's not serving"), and the late great Jerry Orbach, doing a delicious Frahnch accent - who can resist?

8. "Cabaret," Cabaret

Liza! I decided Liza with a Z didn't count as a movie musical, since it's really a concert; otherwise, "Bye Bye Blackbird" would have been very high on my list. But "Cabaret" - or, really, any of the numbers from this movie ("Money," "Wilkommen," "Maybe This Time") - is more than qualified to be here. In her Broadway show last year, Liza of course sang "Cabaret," with one small but significant change in the lyrics: "I made my mind up back in Chelsea / When I go, I'm not going like Elsie." From your mouth to God's ear, Liza.

7. "I Like Myself," It's Always Fair Weather

My choice for the obligatory Gene Kelly entry. Of course, one's first thought goes to "Singin' in the Rain," but maybe because I can't roller-skate to save my life, this is the number that leaves me gaping. (And wouldn't it be nice if the streets and sidewalks of New York were actually this smooth and clean?) Gene looks so handsome in his Fifties boxy black suit, skinny tie, and snappy fedora. Plus, he's got a mean arabesque.

6. "Barn Dance," Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

I love this movie: the fabulous Johnny Mercer lyrics, the thrillingly charismatic Howard Keel, and Michael Kidd's genius choreography - along with the very young Russ Tamblyn (blue) and Jacques d'Amboise (green) as two of the seven brothers. "Barn Dance" is by far my favorite number in the film; Kidd creates a believable dance vernacular for these frontier folk, and also tosses in some great stunts and acrobatics for the boys.

5. "Finale (Love Is in the Air)," Strictly Ballroom

Take that, Barry Fife. No one can stop Scott Hastings when he's decided to do his own steps at the Pan-Pacific Championships. I challenge anyone - except maybe Evil Warlords like Kim Jong Il and Dick Cheney - to resist the urge to dance once "Love Is in the Air" takes over. I admit, I get a bit teary at this point.

4. "The Lady is a Tramp," Pal Joey

A stunning number from a not-so-stunning movie. Note the gorgeous framing of the shots of Frank with the band in the background, and note the lit cigarette resting on the side of Frank's piano - so cool! No wonder I smoked for years. I'm a lifelong Frank Sinatra fan, especially this period (late 1950s); he was still a cute skinny guy from Jersey, but had developed one of the great swinging styles of any musician, ever, and hadn't yet started his Vegas-era self-parody. Another beloved Frank number is High Society's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," a duet with the incomparable Celeste Holm, who, in my opinion, is far more appealing in this movie than Grace Kelly, who lands with a thud.

3. "The Man that Got Away," A Star Is Born

Judy, of course. Where to start, really - "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from Meet Me in St. Louis? "Get Happy," from Summer Stock? "After You've Gone," from For Me and My Gal (oh, her face in that close-up! heart-breaking!)? "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," from You Know What? I chose this one, because it's a killer song, because Judy radiates confidence and joy, because she was at the top of her game, and because it swings.

2. "Small House of Uncle Thomas," The King and I

If anyone has any doubt that Jerry Robbins was a theatrical genius, please, go buy this DVD today (I couldn't find it online, malheureusement, but I can lend it to you), and watch this number. Buddha make a miracle! Praise to Buddha. Further proof of Jerry's genius, in this same movie, is "Shall We Dance," with the lovely Deborah Kerr and seductive Yul Brynner dancing (and Marni Nixon singing, BTW). There aren't any other Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals on my list, not because I don't adore these musicals (hello! Oklahoma? Carousel?), but because the movie versions are typically pretty insipid. I admit that I probably would have included South Pacific if it weren't for the fact that I saw the Broadway revival last year, and it has simply erased all previous versions from my mind.

1. "Pick Yourself Up," Swing Time

I could easily have made my entire top-twenty list out of Fred Astaire numbers, but if I had to limit myself to just one, it would be this one, from my fave Fred and Ginger. You've got a perfect Jerome Kern song, you've got Fred at first pretending to be a bad dancer, in the way that only the best dancers can do, you've got Ginger doing her best jaded gal act in the beginning, and then you've got the perfect symbiosis of two lovely, tap-tapping dancers, in the smoothest, most delightful choreography imaginable. Plus there's the back-up team of Helen Broderick, Victor Moore, and Eric Blore - a '30s comedy trifecta.

Then again, I just re-re-re-rewatched Top Hat, and "Isn't This a Lovely Day?" bowled me over; Ginger looks so jaunty in her riding togs. And then, from the same film, there's "No Strings" (where Fred dances Edward Everett Horton, Ginger, and his own self to sleep) and "Cheek to Cheek." I admit that I also love "Bojangles of Harlem" in Swing Time, despite the (I know, I know) blackface. Other Fred runner-ups for me are "I'm Old Fashioned" from You Were Never Lovelier; perhaps the only golf-inspired dance number in film history, "Since They Turned Loch Lomand Into Swing," from the bizarre Carefree; "A Shine on Your Shoes" and "Girl Hunt Ballet" from Band Wagon... Oh, who am I kidding: If Fred danced it, I loved it.

That's all, folks. Hope you've enjoyed this glimpse into what makes me get happy.


  1. So where's the other half of the list - not that this one isn't excellent, but I'm a completist...

  2. Never mind - I finally noticed the title of this entry, and then found the other link just where it's sposed to be... End of a long day.

  3. Bummer that Ginger Rogers got her job back, but the secretary was still fired....

  4. "Let's Face the Music and Dance" from Follow the Fleet sums up F&G for me as succinctly as possible.

  5. What about "The Rhythm of Life" from SWEET CHARITY, with Sammy Davis, Jr. at his swingingest, sock-it-to-me best?

  6. After spending the last week in an endless highlight reel of sputtering Constitution-defenders who are warning of health-care-reform-fueled genocide, I think a weekend marathon of MGMs and RKOs might just be the perfect way to dig myself out of my Great American malaise. Thanks!

  7. Hmm, if you're gonna do Disney, two scenes from the Little Mermaid spring to mind:

    1) Poor Unfortunate Souls - Ursulla (or Divine as an octopus) singing about "helping" all the mer-people who come to her -- talk about channelling

    2) Les Poissons - The French chef in the Prince's palace, eagerly chopping up all the seafood for dinner. Best line: Les poissons, les poissons -- hee hee hee, hawn hawn hawn