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Grumpy Songs - In Honor of National Grouch Day


Finally a topic I can warm to!

You can't have a successful musical without conflict and you can't have conflict without some dissatisfaction or for the purposes of this blog: grumpiness. So there were a lot of songs from which to choose. Some will be familiar and some of them you'll probably think: Does that even qualify for this category? To which I say: Bugger off, will ya?.

"Why Can't the English?" from My Fair Lady. This was fresh in my head after last week's revisiting of the show in honor of Julie Andrews. Henry Higgins (as perfected by Rex Harrison) has to be one of the most irascible heroes of a musical comedy ever conceived. He's totally disagreeable and pretty much remains so for the entire length of the show and yet we want him to get together with Eliza Doolittle, a character we've grown to genuinely love. Why would we want her to have a lifetime of suffering with this awful man? Yet all of that comes after this brilliant introduction to the character of Prof Higgins and his singular view of the world.

"Miss Marmelstein" from I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Two years before nobody but nobody was gonna rain on her parade, Barbra Streisand stopped this show dead in its tracks with this delightfully dizzy character song written by Harold Rome. Other than in What's Up Doc I don't think she has ever been freer or funnier than she is in this number as the hen-pecked and put-upon secretary.

"Piano Lesson" from The Music Man. I've always had a special fondness for this song ever since my sister Jodi played Amaryllis in the Eastmoor High School production of the show in Columbus, Ohio. Of course Amaryllis doesn't sing in the number, she's too busy playing her exercises, which Meredith Wilson deftly incorporated into this Mother/Daughter "discussion" of the Daughter's exacting standards for what she looks for in a man. This song was probably my first exposure to "Balzac, Shakespeare and all those other hi-falutin' Greeks." And probably when I first fell in love with Barbara Cook and the delightful Pert Kelton.

"What Do You Want of Me?" from Man of La Mancha. I think that Aldonza must rival Henry Higgins for disagreeability in a musical. Yes, she's had a rough life "spawned in a ditch by a mother who left [her] there naked and cold and too hungry to cry." But that Don Quixote simply won't take no for an answer…and she needs to know just why. The result is a simply beautiful ballad that, more than asking questions why someone would care, looks deeper and becomes more introspective than the character probably intended. Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion's song is truly beautiful, and here it is definitively rendered by Joan Diener.

"Say Liza" from Liza With a Z. Well she's not that grumpy but she does have a valid complaint. This Kander & Ebb classic was originally heard back in 1972, and I doubt if anyone ever makes that Lisa/Liza mistake any more. This is Ms. Minnelli at her absolute peak, performing one of the best pieces of "special material" ever written. However, my favorite performance of this song was done by the blissfully oblivious Christopher Durang and Dawne (John Augustine and Sherry Anderson) in their show long ago at the Criterion Center in New York wherein Mr. Durang explained that Kander & Ebb wrote this piece of material especially for him.

"You Must Meet My Wife" from A Little Night Music. Only one of the characters in this brilliant Sondheim duet could possibly qualify as "grumpy" and that would be Desiree Armfeldt played to bitchy perfection by Glynis Johns. The other character Frederik Egerman played by Len Cariou is too lovestruck to notice he's being cut down to size every time she opens her mouth. Heaven.

"Class" from Chicago. Every once in awhile a razzamatazz musical has to stop and breathe - giving the cast and the audience a rest before hurtling on to a sensational finale. In Chicagothat miracle of a show from Kander & Ebb—it's this number wherein Mary McCarty and Chita Rivera (or Marcia Lewis and Bebe Neuwirth if you're listening to the revival recording) wonder not-so- ironically "Whatever Happened to Class?" The song always works.

"The Oldest Profession" from The Life. When Cy Coleman (and lyricist Ira Gasman) hand you a six-and-a-half minute jazzy solo in a new musical you take it and run with it. That's just what the soulful and sensational Lillias White did with this tour de force of a number which single-handedly won her a Tony Award. I'm not really a fan of this show but I know a classic Broadway showstopper when I hear one. And boy are her dogs barkin'.

My Favorite Year. I've written before about this Ahrens & Flaherty show, and its thrilling opening number before; but buried late in the show is a sorta grouchy song with an overlay of romance (or is it a romantic song with an undertone of grouchiness?). No matter which it's a beautiful song that tactfully expresses the yin-yang of romantic attachments: why couples who couldn't possibly seem more ill-suited for one another are actually perfectly matched: whether it's Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, Desiree Armfeldt and Frederik Egerman; or in this case Benjy Stone and K.C. Downing (aka the "Breck" girl) charmingly portrayed by Evan Pappas and Lannyl Stephens, exposing one's grouchiness can lead to a happy ending if both parties will just "Shut Up and Dance."

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