Tuesday, October 25, 2011

‘DWTS’: Broadway Week?

Last Monday, the series Dancing with the Stars had each of its seven remaining star-contestants dance with their professional ballroom partners to a song from Broadway.  But what struck me about that evening’s show was that a number of the songs danced to weren’t written directly for the Broadway stage.

The first couple to take the dance floor that night (because I’m not interested in the horse race, I won’t mention the performers’ names) cut the rug with a cha-cha to the song “Walk Like a Man.” The tune is from Jersey Boys (2005), a jukebox musical (a musical scored to pre-existing songs, rather than having numbers written especially for it), but the ditty was released as a pop song in 1963.

The next dance was a fox trot to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Spamalot (2005).  But the song was originally written for the British film Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979).

The third song — at last — was actually from a Broadway musical: “We Go Together” from the teenage-musical spoof Grease (1971).  Yes, the first number of the evening specifically written for Broadway was from a spoof.

Next up was a quickstep to a second song written for the Broadway stage: “Luck Be a Lady” from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls (1950).  However, the song was obviously sung in the style of Frank Sinatra, not in a way reminiscent of how it was performed onstage.  

The fifth dance was a tango set to the song “Phantom of the Opera” from the eponymous 1986 musical, a musical originally written for London’s West End and which migrated to America’s Great White Way two years later.

The two remaining individual dances that night were — for a nice change of pace — actually from Broadway shows: Rent (1996) and Chicago (1975).  The much-anticipated group dance, where all the celebrities and their partners take part, was to a medley of two tunes: “Hey, Big Spender” and “Money Makes the World Go Around.”  The first song is from the 1966 Broadway musical Sweet Charity.  The second number was said to be from Cabaret.  However, the tune wasn’t from the 1966 Broadway show, but was written specifically for its 1972 film adaptation, written specifically to have two of its characters, Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) and the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey), perform a duet together, which they did not on the stage.  I think Dancing with the Stars could have done a better job representing Broadway.

I’ve probably been sounding very snooty and pedantic just now.  (Okay, we can leave the “probably” out of that last sentence.)  You may think that I am once again insisting on a firm, restrictive definition for what is and is not the term defined — in this case, “Broadway show tune” — but I don’t mean to.  “Broadway” has always been a rather fluid word, from its origins in vaudeville (with its eclectic series of unintegrated acts) to the recent phenomenon of the jukebox musical (a reflection of the stage’s reliance on familiar material in the face of spiraling production costs).  So, “Broadway” has always had an elusive definition, and I don’t intend to capture it with a restrictive meaning that would only become obsolete tomorrow.

However, Broadway also has a rich songwriting tradition that has boasted world-class tunesmiths like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein.  These writers of music and lyrics have given a melodic voice to the shaping of an American sensibility in the 20th century, and the primary vehicle for their songs was the Broadway stage.  It would have been nice to see at least one of these composers represented in Dancing with the Stars’s Broadway tribute Monday night.  

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