Music doesn’t get any more special then the song numbers featured in musicals. Weather it’s from a stage musical or a movie musical, these are the tunes that tell part of a larger story, submerse us into an experience, play to our emotional sides, and have gone down as classics, with several renditions from various artists. Now for this list I’m specifically singling out “songs”, and not “dance numbers”, that would require another top 10 list to cover all those. Also to be as fair as possible, I’ll only be including one song per musical, and I won’t be including songs from animated films either, but song numbers from classic stage musicals or theatrical musicals are more than welcome. So here we go, these are my personal top 10 favorite songs from musicals.
#10 “Seasons of Love” (from “Rent”)
Kicking off my list is the opening song from “Rent”, and talk about starting things off on a high note. This might just be one of the most depressing and dramatic musicals I’ve ever seen, but the upbeat songs continue to clash and balance out the experience. While there’s lots of standout numbers, it’s this opening song that always gets me in the “feels” every time I hear it. It’s the signature anthem of the musical that’s anything but doom and gloom. This song asks the deep question of how an individual would measure his life, and hoe one would plan upon love. It’s beautiful, sentimental, touching and reminds us to cherish the beauty of life, especially when facing difficult times.
#9 “If I Were a Rich Man” (from “Fiddler on the Roof”)
Here’s a quick recreation of how I felt as a kid when my mother tried to show me “Fiddler on the Roof”. “OH SHOOT, that films two VHS tapes long, drat, this is going to be so boring, and I just don’t want to see this”. Yes, that’s how I initially felt, but then I heard that song “If I Were a Rich Man”, and somehow, I was instantly hooked. In this song, our lead laments his lack of good wealth, and dreams the big dream of a life as a rich man. This musical number features one lone singer in a boring barn setting, yet it’s so enticing, and irresistible to hum along or heck ... actually sing along with. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to “biddy, biddy bum” their days away?
#8 “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” (from “Evita”)
Based on historical Argentina events, “Evita” is the musical about the nation’s first lady, and the massive impact she left behind. Her theme song “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” is about as fitting as they get. In this song, our titular heroine conveys hope and promise to her country through her passion and undying love. It’s a breathtaking song number that demonstrates one persons selfless devotion for the greater good, but isn’t asking for fame or attention in return. It’s actually quiet inspiring, and just an all around beautiful song, with memorable lyrics, and humble message at the center.
#7 “Memory” (from “Cats”)
Well, who didn't expect to see this song on my countdown? It’s about as unforgettable classic songs get, and is often regarded as the greatest of all Broadways musical numbers. Can’t say that it’s my personal favorite, but obviously I love it too, especially the version performed by Barbra Streisan. It’s both a beautiful and tragic song as it resolves around a character who’s reflecting on the warm memories of her life, while also lamenting how far she’s fallen in present day. The lyrics and nostalgic tone all feel relatable, which can hit viewers on a personal level. More than anything, this is the final song of the final act, making it the song that stills plays in our heads as we leave the theater, and what a perfect note to close on.
#6 “Let’s go Fly a Kite” (from “Mary Poppins”)
You know those classic songs that you grow up with as a kid, and they just put a smile on your face every time you hear them, even as an adult? Well, “Let’s go Fly a Kite” is one of those treasured child hood songs that never gets old, even though I do. The lyrics are so simple yet so catchy that it’s impossible not to sing along with them. “Mary Poppins” obviously is a timeless film that no family should be without, and its final song is simply one of the most uplifting numbers you could possibly close on. While not specifically addressed in the lyrics, this is a song about family togetherness, and about loving parents who bring humble joy to their children. I loved this song when I was a kid, it still warms my heart as an adult, and I think it’s the Sherman Brothers best work ... which is saying something.
#5 “Tonight Quintet” (from “West Side Story”)
Oh “West Side Story”, who doesn’t love this classic musical sensation ... well, probably people who don’t like musicals in the first place. Even with that said, “West Side Story” can still thrill and impress those who aren’t fans of the theater. This musical revolves around a turf war going on between two rival gangs. “Tonight Quintet” is the power house, middle ground song number where both teams head down town for a royal rumble. The lyrics and singers overlap each other, the tempo keeps building and the song highlights all the main players, where they are in the show, and each even fits in a little reprise of their own previously established theme songs. It’s exciting, it’s catchy, and so awesome that even Disney animated studios tried to recreate this song in “Pocahontas” ... and even that was kind of epic, but obviously not as good.
#4 “Defying Gravity” (from “Wicked”)
With Hollywood adapting anything they can into a theatrical movie, it makes me wonder why “Wicked” hasn’t gotten the silver screen treatment yet. This is personally one of my all time favorite musicals, and I can’t even begin to imagine how awesome it would be to see all these classic songs brought to life in motion picture quality, or heck, imagine if Disney got the rights to make an animated film adaption of “Wicked”, that would be interesting. Of course the big stand out song is “Defying Gravity”, which just sends my spirit souring whenever I hear it. A lot of my previous songs like “Let’s go Fly a Kite” and “Seasons of Love” are very uplifting, but honestly, even they don’t light a match stick when compared to this epically triumphant musical number. It’s a song about living without limits, breaking your chains, and pushing yourself without ever being held back. If you’re a classic musical theater buff, then you gotta love this iconic song.
#3 “The Show Must Go On” (from “Moulin Rouge”)
When it comes to musicals, “Moulin Rouge” is one of the biggest, most operatic musicals I’ve ever seen, with grand scale song numbers, and sensational visuals. The big stand out song for me is “The Show Must Go On”, which is obviously another big spectacle, beautifully shot, beautifully edited, and sung wonderfully, but with a lot of substance at the center. At this moment in the musical, the female lead is forced to make a very difficult decision that will hurt someone she loves, but it needs to be done in order to prevent something even worse from happening. There’s something about the struggle of moving forward, and facing difficult situations that’s captured fairly well in this song, which is actually kind of inspiring. Also, I just love how the music and tone just builds, and builds. It actually starts on a very somber note, and while it accelerates in melody, it still keeps that same tone hovering overhead. It’s powerful, it’s beautiful, it’s a big visual sensation, and it’s personally one of my favorite moments from a motion picture.
#2 “Tomorrow” (from “Annie”)
Can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of the musical “Annie”, but I will say that for as long as I can remember, I have never heard a song more uplifting, inspiring or triumphant then “Tomorrow”. In this joyfully optimistic song number, an orphan girl named Annie sets aside all the sadness and hardships of her life in favor of hope that times will change. This song has always hit me on a very personal level, and it’s a situation that I’ve been able to relate to countless times. This song is a reminder that hard times don’t always last forever, kind of like experiencing that beautiful rainbow after a storm. However, we still need to be willing to brave that ruthless weather, no matter how hard it gets. I also love the simplicity of this song, as it’s far less operatic than some of my previously mentioned tunes. It’s embarrassing to admit that a song of this sort can make a grown 25 year old man like myself cry, but every time I listen to this, it always brings on those relentless tears of joy.
Before I reveal my favorite, here are the Honorable Mentions ...
“Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz”
“There's a Place Called Home” from “A Christmas Carol”
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Theme” from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”
“Seize the Day” from “Newsies”
“I Only Wan’t to Say” from “Jesus Christ Superstar”
#1 “One Day More” (from “Les Miserables”)
There are lots of standout songs in this classic musical, but “One Day More” goes above, beyond and stands as the most epic song you can possibly have before an intermission. While it’s not too big to upstage the final song, it’s still big enough to bring audiences back, and over all the years of theater experiences, I can’t remember another song that got me more excited for what was coming next. Much like the “Tonight Quintet” from “West Side Story”, this song rounds up all our principle characters, where their standing, and each with their own individual songs that are all tying into one big musical number. It’s a song that thrills me, excites me, and will always hold a special place for me as the most amazing song number I’ve ever experienced in a musical.