The best three “modern” Broadway songs

November 16, 2022 • 2:00 pm

I’m not going to say anything much beyond giving my opinion that modern Broadway-style musicals, while more sophisticated than the great ones of yore (e.g., “Brigadoon,” “My Fair Lady,” “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific” and the like), aren’t as full of memorable tunes as the older ones.  I was brought up on those old musicals, as my parents had all the LPs, and I can still remember the words to all the songs (“All I want is a room somewhere. . . “, etc.). I’ve also listened to more modern musicals (i.e. those after 1957, when “West Side Story” came out), but, with the exception of a few decent tunes in “Camelot” (1960), I can think of only three truly great and memorable songs, and one of these is from 1957.

Now I may be missing some songs here, and I’m sure readers will remind me, but here are the three ‘modern’ ones I love. I won’t worry too much about dates.  And the three I’ve chosen are all performed here by one of my favorite singers  (in the top two with Karen Carpenter), Barbra Streisand.

In chronological order:

Somewhere” from “West Side Story” (1957). Music by Leonard Bernstein, words by Stephen Sondheim (the next to last great song he wrote). Babs really shows off her pipes on this one, particularly in the last third:

Send in the Clowns“, from “A Little Night Music” (1973). Words and music by Stephen Sondheim. This is a great song, but Sondheim always regarded it as a throwaway song of no great import. He was wrong: he never wrote anything better on his own.  (Judy Collins’s version is better, but this is Barbra’s post.)

All I Ask of You” from “Phantom of the Opera” (1986), written by written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe.  I love it when someone with a voice of this quality can belt, and oy, can she!

I’m throwing this in because even though it’s from a musical (“Funny Girl”, 1964) it goes back to 1920, when it was a French song, and was popularized by Fanny Brice in the late Twenties. This is from the movie. Streisand, playing Fanny Brice, has to go on to sing it while still in tears after her breakup with the gambler Nicky Arnstein, played by Omar Sharif. Then she recovers and brings the song to a rousing finish.

34 thoughts on “The best three “modern” Broadway songs

  1. I have to agree with you on modern musicals though I think West Side Story is an exception, lots of good songs and music in that. I have found little in Sondheim’s music that attracts me, his lyrics of course are something else.

  2. I am not sure where the Golden Age of musicals ends, but, if we take 1957 as the cut-off, there were certainly still plenty of memorable shows and songs. “How to Succeed in Business” (“I Believe in You”), “Hello Dolly” (“Hello Dolly”), “Fiddler on the Roof” (“Sunrise, Sunset”, “If I Were a Rich Man”), “Gigi”, “Annie”, and “Grease.”

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more about the old songs. Re the “modern” ones I might add “I Dreamed A Dream” from “Les Miserables” if that’s not considered too sentimental.

    1. There is nothing sentimental about that song! It’s devastating. I really like “On My Own” from Les Mis, too, which has a gorgeous melody.

      1. Careful with that musical, Eugene (a Pink Floyd reference); next thing you know, you’ll be loving opera!
        I always understood one doesn’t acquire new tastes in music after—when— your mid-twenties? I liked classical music but hated what I had heard of opera. Then in my thirties something clicked and I ended up flying to Toronto three times a year to see a pair of operas each trip! I miss it now, but can’t afford to do it either financially or in terms of covid risk. So it’s LPs and CDs for me now.

        1. The COC is (mostly) great! I’ve subbed for many years, with maybe a 15-year break when my kids were young. It’s open again and fairly covid risk free. Got hooked on opera at 15 when we moved to Vienna (had hated it before.). Have been lucky enough to live near SF or Toronto ever since.🎶🎶

  4. I love the songs you’ve chosen.

    I’d like to throw this one in the mix from Mack & Mabel, a flawed masterpiece by Jerry Herman, which is a biopic of the 1920s Hollywood director Mack Sennett. The plot wanders a bit (because it’s based on a real life) so the musical doesn’t quite work from a dramatic point of view, but this is a beautiful (anti-)love song: I Won’t Send Roses.

  5. Nobody, but nobody, could get outta “Send in the Clowns” what the divine Sarah Vaughan could. Sassy had the pipes to be another Leontyne Price or Marian Anderson, but she preferred performing jazz and standards:

    1. Thanks for the wonderful reminder, Ken! Must get out my many Sassy CDs🥰 Haven’t listened to her in quite a while. Ol’ Blue Eyes does a great version of Clowns, as well. Both these much better than Judy’s, imho.

  6. I know I’m in a minority, but my favourite Streisand musical is “On a clear day you can see forever”, with “On a clear day” as a memorable song. The movie has to do with a professor who discovers that one of his students can remember past lives when hypnotized.

  7. Having never seen West Side Story, I watched the Spielberg movie and was incredibly underwhelmed by the music. The only song I really enjoyed was “America.” I suspect I would be equally unimpressed by any other “classic” musicals, given my taste in music.

    Musicals I have found enjoyable:
    – Les Mis (my wife’s favorite, so I’ve seen it several times)
    – Dear Evan Hansen
    – Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat
    – Wicked

    All of these are more modern musicals, and the latter three have much more pop- and rock-oriented music. I guess that suits my tastes better.

  8. Bill Charlap seems to be making it a lifetime effort to record “all the good songs”.He is a really good piano player and usually has an outstanding rhythm section, From where I sit I can see a stack of his CDs about 8″ tall and which is not all of his work in my collection. For me he has just the right touch and knows all the good chords. Although I have bebop favorites like Thelonius Monk and Lennie Tristano and a multitude of guitar players like Jim Hall and Tal Farlow I definitely favor the piano players who play largely the classic show-tunes of the pre-60s.

  9. One of my favorites not mentioned is They call the wind Maria. From Paint your wagon. Harve Presnell does a wonderful rendition of this song. Saw him once sing it live after a performance of Camelot in a small theater as an encode. It gave me goosebumps.

  10. I must agree with many of the suggestions up there for great songs from Broadway musicals. But still, the ones I download and play while driving would be from the rock musicals that made it to Broadway like Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar. I won’t claim they are equal, but they do rock.

    1. Tastes differ, of course. I cringe at JC Superstar, though I remember buying the LP set for my mom and us all liking it. I’m a Oklahoma, South Pacific, Music Man type of person, with some tolerance for My Fair Lady. West Side Story is a movie to me, and hearing its soundtrack at a home of the first person in my town to have STEREO made a huge impression. Had a crush on Shirley Jones and knew all the words to Music Man back when. I did see Hair live twice, once drove to Chicago for it, but it doesn’t last.

  11. oh spare me Babs! But I did very much enjoy yesterday’s I’m only sleeping video. The art was fantastic and I really enjoyed how the technology and aesthetics were all from the early 60s (before my time but a beautiful era nevertheless).
    And the song is one of my Beatles, and all time faves. Broadway, even though it is blocks from my home… I can miss. 🙂

  12. like buttah! <- obligatory Linda Richmond

    … in this vein, from Funny Lady, I find Babs' "How Lucky Can You Get" wonderful – the melodic line especially at "circle the globe with my circle of friends" is sublime.. :

    … but just ignore the corny male singers in the intro!

  13. Book of Mormon is full of decent tunes. I especially like I Believe, in which the beleaguered Elder Price tries to affirm his LDS tenets, and Hasa Diga Ebowai, which one might say addresses the issue of theodicy in a no-nonsense fashion.

    I also like Welcome to the Renaissance and It’s Hard to be the Bard from Something Rotten.

  14. Just listened to Judy Collins’s studio version of “Send in the Clowns” on CD to compare. The voice preference is a matter of taste. I do like Collins and I am less a fan of Streisand’s usual genre (so I didn’t and don’t listen to her as much) but I think her rendition you posted is streets better technically than Collins: intonation, enunciation, and particularly expressiveness are first-rate. Babs is obviously an outstandingly talented singer….(duh.)

  15. Playing in the pit orchestra for the musicals PCC(E) mentioned [Camelot, West Side Story, Fiddler, etc.] definitely leads to them having a special place in one’s heart…but my favorite musical music still comes from Phantom and Les Mis.

  16. Two of my “modern” favorites, probably showing my preference for musical comedy:

    “Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962);
    “Springtime for Hitler” from the Producers (film 1967, Broadway 2001; the film, of course, was about a Broadway play).


  17. What happened to Kurt Weill? Threepenny Opera? the Brecht/Weill collaborations?
    And Love Life? Masterpiece. Cant imagine how commenters ignore Sondheim….early works maybe just good, not great…but then Pacific Overtures? Sunday in the Park?
    Passion? Ask any Broadway or music theater performer or singer about Sondheim: he was the greatest. Maybe his ideas of a melody werent just catchy Broadway tunes you can hum on the way home. That’s because he created a whole new genre on his own, not just Rodgers and Hammerstein fun but a body of work that moved beyond popular middle brow stuff (nothing wrong with that if you want it..your choice) to serious rethinking of what constitutes music drama thematically, verbally, musically, socially, i.e a giant step into the future for music drama that started with baroque opera, went through Mozart to Verdi and then Wagner, and ended up with first Broadway, and then Sondheim. He was one of the greatest geniuses in this field, along with Gershwin (Strike up the Band). The music theater world will long remember and celebrate him.

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