Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fake Gospel Songs, I Love 'Em

This isn't exactly a post, more of a random observation: if I have a favorite type of musical-theatre song, it's not the comedy song or the ballad or the "charm" song. It's the fake gospel song. And if there's one type of number that I think Broadway musicals need to bring back, it's the "Blow, Gabriel Blow" type of gospel extravaganza.

"Blow, Gabriel, Blow" (Anything Goes) was not the first mock-gospel song in musicals; it wasn't even the first hit mock-gospel song. (It might have started with Vincent Youmans's "Hallelujah" from Hit The Deck, though there was also one in Rodgers and Hart's Peggy Ann in 1926, and it probably goes back farther than that.) But it provided the template for that kind of number. For no good reason -- often in the second act when things are getting slow -- a character leads the ensemble in a song that both parodies and straightforwardly incorporates gospel elements: call-and-response, references to Gabriel and judgment day, and such. Often the character starts the song alone and then everyone else on stage gets into the spirit of the thing.

The key point, of course, is that the song is sung by characters and choruses who have no business singing like this. (If you have a gospel song in a Baptist church scene, that's not the kind of song I'm talking about.) So it's a parody and a joke, but it's also exciting, providing lots of opportunities for an applause-milking climax.

Cole Porter frequently incorporated songs like this in his shows after Anything Goes; Irving Berlin did some (in act two of Louisiana Purchase, Carol Bruce led everyone in a song called "The Lord Done Fixed Up My Soul"). And these numbers didn't die out with the coming of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era. One of the most famous examples of the form was made in 1961, in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, the "Brotherhood of Man" number. The hero starts the song, pulls in everyone else in with him, and by the end of it, the boss's prim secretary is standing on the desk and singing about brotherhood and "You, you got me, me, I got you."

Though there have been some examples after 1971, the fake gospel Broadway number kind of climaxed that year with two superb numbers: the epic twelve-minute "Babylove Miracle Show" from The Grass Harp, and "See the Light," introduced by Lillian Roth in John Kander and Ebb's flop 70, Girls, 70. The latter is my favourite song written by Kander and Ebb in their distinguished but uneven career.

I don't know exactly why I love this type of song, though I think it might have something to do with its basically ironic nature. It's a straightforward Broadway showstopper, but it's also ironic because it's a song sung by characters who really shouldn't be singing that way, written by songwriters who usually don't write that way. The result: showbiz pizazz with an edge.

Update: A more recent example is noted in comments: "Run, Freedom, Run!" from Urinetown. There are others, too; I shouldn't have implied that the form went away completely. But it seems to me that that basic combination of gospel pastiche and silliness is harder to find; shows that do pastiche numbers are more likely to take the style somewhat seriously, which kind of misses the point. Even "Run, Freedom, Run," a fun number, leans in the direction of imitating a real gospel number, whereas your "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" type of number is really just a regular Broadway song with a gospel flavor grafted onto it.

Still, there's a reason why "Run, Freedom, Run" was chosen to represent Urinetown at the Tonys: from the '20s to the '00s and hopefully beyond, nothing is as much fun for a Broadway audience as ersatz gospel.


Unknown said...

Seems to me the fake gospel has become ubiquitous. E.g., Urinetown's Run Freedom Run (which sounds an awful lot like Stop the World's Gonna Build a Mountain); there's also my Say Amen! from Our Wedding.

Kate said...

this post is a perfect Thursday pick me up. I will be humming these songs all day

Loren said...

I didn't realize until now just how much I like this musical trope; I knew I liked numbers like "Brotherhood of Man" and "Sit Down, You're Rockin the Boat," but I never quite put together their common style.

While it doesn't seem to appear on anyone's list of this style, I think "Ya Got Trouble" from The Music Man definitely fits the mold too.

And although it's more explicitly gospel than pseudo-gospel, my favorite of all might be the touring revival version of "We Beseech Thee" from Godspell. I loved that number when I was in a production of the show, and the revival really upped the gospel quotient on it.

cool said...

Children of Eden has never been on Broadway but it's great. "Ain't It Good" from the musical has a huge gospel influence.