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I have always been a big fan of soliloquies in musicals. You know, that moment when a character, usually alone on stage, steps to the footlights and unburdens his or her feelings in song, one that is frequently longer and has a more adventurous musical structure than a standard 32-bar tune. They are ideally suited to displaying wide swings of emotion and fascinating shades of character, and they often culminate in important realizations or decisions. More often than not they are dramatic in tone, but comic ones exist as well. Here are 20 favorites, evenly divided between women and men.

“Lonely Room,” from Oklahoma!
I think of the advent of musical theatre soliloquies as synonymous with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s revolution, which made the integration of character and story in song its central goal. This kind of in-depth focus on character simply wasn’t needed for musical comedies. I was going to begin with the mother of all soliloquies, the one Billy Bigelow sings in Carousel, but then I remembered that it has this predecessor. Jud Fry, alone in his smokehouse, marinating in envy, resentment, and sexual frustration, reveals himself all too clearly to us. It’s a shame that Howard Da Silva, the original Jud, never got to record it, and that it wasn’t retained when Hollywood made the movie. I think it’s one of the best things Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote.

“Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?,” from The King and I
For many years I only knew this R&H gem in its shortened form on both the OBCR and soundtrack recordings, though of course I read the complete lyric in the published script. It’s better longer, because the section usually cut, which portrays Anna’s love for her pupils and fervent hope that as a teacher she has made a difference in their lives, is an effective contrast to her anger at the King of Siam’s imperious ways. It shows us how torn she is in her emotions about Siam.

“Mamma, Mamma,” from The Most Happy Fella
Frank Loesser’s 1956 adaptation of Sidney Howard’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize–winning play is, unusually for a musical, structured in three acts. This number ends Act 2 and has middle-aged vintner Tony Esposito singing to his dead mother that he has finally found happiness with a bride, in this case the much younger Rosabella, formerly a diner waitress. What makes it so poignant is that while Tony’s happiness is real and shared by his wife, we in the audience know what Tony does not, that in a moment of intense emotional vulnerability she slept with his handsome young foreman, Joe, and has just learned that she is pregnant by him. Opera star Robert Weede made his Broadway debut with this show, and the joy he expresses here is vivid and heartbreaking.

“Sunday in the Park With George,” from Sunday in the Park With George
In the opening number of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s 1984 musical about the life and work of French artist Georges Seurat, we get to hear the inner thoughts of Dot, his mistress and model, as she poses for him in a park on an island in the Seine. So though she is hardly alone on stage, she is alone with us. The moment when Dot’s concentration becomes so formidable that her dress pops open and she steps out of it, momentarily free to scamper about the stage, is always a particular delight for me.

“This Is the Life,” from Love Life
I wrote about this 1948 Kurt Weill–Alan Jay Lerner song a couple of columns back in a tribute to Lerner’s centenary, but I’m including it again so soon because it’s not well known and deserves to be. In it a man, just divorced after a long marriage that produced two children, is exulting in his newfound freedom. That exultation, however, rings more than a bit hollow in this expert depiction of “the lady doth protest too much” psychology. Thomas Hampson hits all the right notes, musical and dramatic, under the baton of John McGlinn on Kurt Weill on Broadway.

“One Halloween,” from Applause
This Charles Strouse–Lee Adams song comes midway in Act 2 of this 1970 musical based on the same short story as the classic film All About Eve. In it the conniving Eve Harrington glories in her success at climbing the ladder to stardom while knifing others to get there. The first half is new material, a bitter, minor-key reminiscence about an unhappy childhood, then the second half is an explosive reprise of Margo Channing’s first song in the show, “But Alive.” Eve is trying to usurp Margo’s place in the world, so usurping her music makes total sense. Penny Fuller’s naked ambition is searing.

“The Call,” from Floyd Collins
An ambitious12-and-a-half-minute sequence, this is the first character song in the 1995 musical at Playwrights Horizons, and it announced the off-Broadway arrival of a composer-lyricist of singular vision and ability, Adam Guettel. The title character is spelunking beneath the frozen earth of 1925 Kentucky, looking to discover a cave that he can open as a tourist attraction and use to make his fortune. The sequence is punctuated with Floyd’s exuberant yodels, which are meant to create echoes that will tell him where a cave might be but also dramatize his enthusiasm and optimism. I still vividly recall Christopher Innvar’s dynamic, highly physical performance of it.

“Glitter and Be Gay,” from Candide
This Leonard Bernstein–Richard Wilbur aria, in which the lady Cunegonde reviews her situation, lamenting her morally fallen state while taking refuge in the precious jewels she has acquired as a result of it, is a parody of “The Jewel Song” from Gounod’s Faust. Wilbur’s witty lyric (“And yet, of course, these trinkets are endearing/I’m also glad my sapphire is a star./I rather like a 20-carat earring./If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are!” is a particular delight. Many singers have scaled this songwriting Everest, but no one has ever bettered Barbara Cook’s original rendition from 1956.

“I Hate People,” from Scrooge
In this 1970 film musical with a score by Leslie Bricusse, Ebenezer Scrooge sings this as he traverses the crowded streets of London on his way home from the office on Christmas Eve. The song is heard in voiceover, adding to the sense of Scrooge’s separation from the world in which he lives, and Albert Finney gives it a bitter, biting rendition. Alas, the soundtrack to Scrooge has never escaped vinyl (though you can, of course, buy, rent, or stream the DVD), so for digital download you must settle for the OCR of the show’s stage adaptation, produced in Birmingham, England, in 1992. For that Bricusse doubled the song’s length and retitled it “I Hate Christmas.” Scrooge, as played by Anthony Newley, now also hates Christmas, woman, and children, as well as people. Bricusse provides some neat new wordplay, but I prefer the more concentrated original.

“Old Maid,” from 110 in the Shade
Lizzie Curry, a proud young woman of the West who is too smart and not pretty enough for most men and getting past marriageable age, faces a potential future bereft of husband and children in this searing first-act closer by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. Inga Swenson sang it on a bare stage with an angry red sun glaring down on her during a punishing drought in this 1963 musical based on N. Richard Nash’s 1954 drama The Rainmaker. Swenson is the gold standard, but Audra McDonald did pretty well by it too in Roundabout’s sterling 2007 revival.

“Gigi,” from Gigi
This 1958 Oscar-winning Alan Jay Lerner–Frederick Loewe title song—which Lerner is on record as calling his favorite of anything he wrote—is structured in two parts: a long, pattery verse in which Gaston alternately rants and reminisces about Gigi, followed by a melodically long-lined, flowing chorus in which he recognizes that he now has romantic feelings for her. Lerner carefully constructs the verse to have a psychological through-line leading to the moment when the light bulb goes on over Gaston’s head. Gigi begins as “a babe, just a babe,” and travels through “tot,” “snip,” “cub,” “papoose,” to progress to “child,” and then, finally, “girl.” There is also a series of adjectives to those nouns, culminating in “silly child,” “clumsy child,” and “growing child,” which leads to the idea of girls “getting older, it is true/Which is what they always do/’Till that unexpected hour/When they blossom like a flower”—and flash! It’s light-bulb time for Gaston. Lerner and Loewe reused the music of “Where’s My Wife,” from their 1945 Broadway musical The Day Before Spring, which was never recorded, for the verse.

“Patterns,” from Baby
Middle-aged Arlene and her husband, Alan, have an unplanned pregnancy on their hands just as the last of their brood has left the nest for college. Alan is overjoyed; Arlene is not. She was looking forward to life with just her husband. In this song she contemplates having an abortion, even though the subject is never mentioned in Richard Maltby Jr.’s lyric. David Shire’s stunning music provides the same restricted patterns that Arlene sees in her life so far and longs to break free of. In previews the song was first in Act 1 and then in Act 2. Finally, Maltby cut it, saying that he want to remove all the “melodrama” from this 1983 musical. When he came to her dressing room to tell her of his decision, Beth Fowler told me that her first thought was “there goes my Tony nomination.” Fortunately, Maltby let her record it for the OBCR and has since restored it to Baby. But because it was cut for a time, that’s why it is also in the Maltby-Shire revue Closer Than Ever.

“Donny Novitski,” from Bandstand
Songwriters Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor provided their leading man, Corey Cott, with this pulsing character-establishing song, and the dynamic Cott took it and ran. In it Donny tells us about his childhood, his experience of serving in World War II, his songwriting talents, and his plans to put together a band made up of war veterans, which he hopes will win a national contest that will establish them beyond the confines of Cleveland clubs. It’s smart songwriting, and it made me sit up and take notice in 2017 at the Jacobs Theatre. The show had gotten underwhelming reviews, and I wasn’t expecting too much. The critics were wrong about this one. Though Bandstand was not without flaws, it deserved a much longer run than 166 performances.

“Meadowlark,” from The Baker’s Wife
Producer David Merrick disliked this long Stephen Schwartz story song so much that he climbed into the orchestra pit and stole the parts, so that it would have to be cut from the pre-Broadway tour of the show. In it young Genevieve tries to justify her desire to leave her unprepossessing middle-aged husband for a sexual dalliance with a young hunk from their rural French village. The Baker’s Wife closed in Washington, D.C., prior to Broadway, but the song soon became a cabaret staple, fueled no doubt by Patti LuPone’s full-throttle performance on the OCR, released on Bruce Yeko’s then very small but scrappy label, Original Cast Records. The musical has also managed to live on, getting more revisions with each subsequent production and even a run in the West End, though it never has made it to Broadway.

“O Tixo, Tixo Help Me,” from Lost in the Stars
Rev. Stephen Kumalo’s son, who is black, has accidentally murdered a white man during a botched robbery attempt in Johannesburg, South Africa. A wayward boy with a penchant for falsehoods, he has been shocked by this event into seeing the error of his ways and has vowed to his father never to lie again. But only lying will get him acquitted. Kumalo’s cynical and secular brother also has a son who was involved and is determined to see him deny the charges no matter what. After all, the South African justice system is hopelessly corrupt and biased against blacks. In this soliloquy by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill, the reverend wrestles with his dilemma: Should he advise his son to lie and live or speak truth and die? Todd Duncan, George Gershwin’s original Porgy, is wrenching in his delivery of this aria from the 1949 musical adaptation of Alan Paton’s classic novel Cry, the Beloved Country.

“Fable,” from The Light in the Piazza
Adam Guettel made good on the promise of Floyd Collins with this 2005 musical adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s novel. Due to an accident with a horse in her childhood, Clara Johnson is 26 but has a mental age of about 10. On vacation in Italy with her protective mother, Margaret, Clara falls in love with the young and handsome Fabrizio. Margaret initially does all she can to discourage the romance, but when she comes to believe that Clara and Fabrizio might be happy together, she accedes to their wedding without telling him or his family about her daughter’s condition. This impassioned song, which closes the show, gives us Margaret’s fervent wish for Clara’s happiness as she watches the wedding. Vicki Clark is transcendent. Guettel won a Tony for his score and has not been heard from since. What gives?

“Meditation,” from Shenandoah
Virginia farmer Charlie Anderson justifies refusing to allow his six sons to join the Confederate army to his dead wife in this passionate Act 1 declaration by Gary Geld (music) and Peter Udell (lyric), which returns as a threnody late in Act 2. My friend John McGlinn came back from a trip to New York over Christmas of 1974 with a live tape of the show, an adaptation of the 1965 hit film starring James Stewart, which had just opened. He shared it with me knowing of my penchant for dramatic soliloquies. I saw Shenandoah over the Christmas holiday of 1975, and John Cullum was extraordinary, particularly in this number, though the show was more maudlin and less effective than the film. It’s not sophisticated songwriting, but sometimes blunt force is all that it takes.

“I’m Way Ahead,” from Seesaw
NYC dancer Gittel Mosca brings down the final curtain with this powerful Cy Coleman–Dorothy Fields song at the end of her affair with the WASPy married lawyer Jerry Ryan, in town from the Midwest, in this 1973 musicalization of William Gibson’s two-hander comedy-drama Two for the Seesaw. You can see the great Michele Lee perform it on the 1974 Tony Awards on YouTube. She is something. I, however, only got to see the national tour, starring Lucie Arnaz. It’s a performance burned into my brain. Peerless. Fields was 68 when she wrote this amazingly colloquial and contemporary lyric. How did she do that?

“I’m Talkin’ to My Pal,” cut from Pal Joey
This 1940 Richard Rodgers–Lorenz Hart song is the only pre–Rodgers and Hammerstein one on my list. It’s fairly short, but its introspection serves as a kind of character summation for nightclub hoofer and heel par excellence Joey Evans. In three simple lines Hart proves that he could have flourished in the R&H book musical era: “I can’t be sure of girls./I’m not at home with men./I’m ending up with me again.” Cut prior to Broadway, the song is often reinstated for revivals as Joey’s final number, bringing down the Act 2 curtain. Peter Gallagher did well with it in 1995 at Encores!

“Rose’s Turn,” from Gypsy
Leave it to the self-admittedly competitive Stephen Sondheim to try to top his mentor. Rose Hovick unleashes a lifetime’s worth of pent-up frustration and anger in this sustained outburst that is I think even more psychologically acute than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel “Soliloquy.” The music by Jule Styne is drawn from all the parts of his score that relate to Rose (including “Momma’s Talkin’ Soft,” a cut song that Rose’s young daughters sang as a counterpoint to “Small World”), and the initial road map for the piece was actually made by Sondheim and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins working together at a piano. It’s a feast for actresses, and I’ve seen Tyne Daly, Linda Lavin, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, and Imelda Staunton dine sumptuously on it. I was too young to see Ethel Merman originate it in 1959, and I just missed seeing Angela Lansbury in the 1974 revival. It played Chicago pre-Broadway but left town just a week or so before I was to return to college early to do some late summer work for Northwestern’s Waa-Mu Show. I ended up catching John Payne and Alice Faye in the pre-Broadway tour of a revival of Good News instead. Wasn’t the same.

 


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