“(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs” from Hairspray

This song has a reputation for being the one dud in the otherwise fantastic score of Hairspray. Leaving aside the fact that the Hairspray score, for all its sublime highlights, isn’t as uniform in quality as you might think (does anyone even care about “It Takes Two”?), let’s examine just what people seem to think is wrong with this song. Granted, the lyrics are extremely crude and frankly rather juvenile, even by the standards of the show’s lyrics as a whole (which were not above the occasional puerile joke at the best of times). But the melody…a rangy and wildly overblown tango that perfectly fits the hammy delivery of the lyrics…does do a lot to sell this song. And remember, the number was specifically designed for the original Velma Von Tussle, Linda Hart, and, at least when performed by her, it’s actually kind of a riot. Also remember that the earlier attempts at a number for this scene had come off as too mean-spirited and humiliating for Tracy (sample title: “No-one On This TV Show Will Ever Look Like You!”), so having Velma lost in her own reminiscences for most of the number was actually a pretty clever solution. As for the Hairspray film’s version of this number, which is far subtler and less overblown, Michelle Pfeiffer played it with a fair amount of relish, but a song with lyrics like ‘they padded their cups/but I screwed the judges’ probably doesn’t gain a lot by being finessed. Overall, it’s not the strongest number in the score, but it’s a very suitable way to musicalize that particular moment, and actually pretty entertaining when you get a performer with sufficient panache, and I can think of plenty of songs from much more lauded musicals that are far weaker (e.g. “It’s a Scandal, It’s an Outrage” from Oklahoma).

Verdict: Not ideal, but oddly effective in actual performance, and far from the worst song to appear in an otherwise wonderful early-2000s Broadway hit (“Love Is My Legs”, anybody?).

“Intermission Talk” from Me and Juliet

Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musicals, Me and Juliet was probably the greatest disappointment. It did throw off one enduring standard, “No Other Love”, but despite an ambitious concept (a sort of proto-A Chorus Line treatise on theater), it never really fulfilled its potential. The plot was little more than an Oklahoma retread set in a Broadway theater, and the score was mostly composed of tuneful-but-generic ballads and up-tunes. However, it did feature two brilliantly inspired numbers that show what the show might have been if it had followed through with its premise…the introspective “The Big Black Giant” and this one. This number, appropriately positioned as the second-act opening, starts out with a collection of random bits of slice-of-life dialogue one might hear in an actual theater lounge, and then segues into a debate between genuine theater lovers and naysayers who insist the theater is dead. It’s a lot of fun to point out this number to modern theater snobs, because it demonstrates that even in the Fifties (which today’s theater snobs tend to view as the peak of their imaginary ‘golden age’), enough people were espousing the same absurd argument they’re peddling today that Rodgers and Hammerstein, of all people, felt the need to write a song about it. The arguments they offer even sound eerily reminiscent of those made by later theater snobs, showing, I suppose, that little has really changed about that class of people (granted, the ‘shows are too serious’ argument was more common in the Eighties and Nineties than it is today, but the point still holds). Admittedly, this song doesn’t feature a top-drawer Rodgers melody, but the unique brilliance of Hammerstein’s lyric more than makes up for it. If everything in Me and Juliet achieved this level of inspiration, the show would be considered a top-level R&H masterpiece today.

Verdict: Good, and a lot of theater critics and commentators today could really stand to take its message to heart.

“Murder, Murder” from Jekyll and Hyde

The people who think Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde musical is a piece of sensationalist trash like to cite this song as though it proved their argument, and even those who view it as a guilty pleasure tend to see this as something of a low point in the score. But the devoted fanbase who unreservedly revere the show tend to relish it as a ghoulish delight, and the truth is that they have a point: for what it’s intended to be, this song is pretty successful. Unlike the other song from this score that everyone complains about, “Facade”, which is actually quite dark and glowering, this song was clearly designed from the beginning to be intentionally cheesy. After all, Jekyll and Hyde‘s camp element is at least partially intentional, and this is simply the most overt example of that. The result is an utterly unique novelty number, simultaneously spine-chilling and enjoyably silly, a kind of much campier equivalent to “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”. And the goofy lyrics which everyone complains about (like ‘To kill outside St. Paul’s/requires a lot of balls’) are clearly a deliberate component of that effect. They may be invoking the enjoyably bad on purpose in this number, but that’s a time-honored art in musical theater, and if it works (and it does), then this song is ‘good’ on the same evidence as, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Baby June’s numbers in Gypsy.

Verdict: Good.

“There’s Nothing Like a Show on Broadway” from The Producers

The credits of the disappointing film version of The Producers were pretty much the only part of the movie that was funny, thanks to the hilarious parody of Oscar Bait ballads “The Hop-Clop Goes On”. Unfortunately, to get to that gem, you had to wait through this tedious and misguided attempt at an ending theme. Not only are most of the jokes fairly obvious (Neil Patrick Harris would do the same ideas much better in his Tony hosting gigs a few years later), but the song’s subject matter and title come off as massively ironic following the movie the audience just sat through. If there was ever a musical movie that was merely a faint echo of its great Broadway source material, it’s this one, so ending the film with a song like this was an almost hilariously stupid move. Ironically, while it consists of the film-makers perfectly summing up their own mistakes, it actually bespeaks a monumental lack of self-awareness. Granted, the tune itself is catchy enough, but even it sounds like a secondhand imitation of the stage score’s distinctive sound. This is one of the all-time monuments of unintentional irony in film-making, and it makes the film even more of an embarrassment than it already is.

Verdict: Not just bad, but depressingly bad.

“Verachtet mir die Meister nicht” from Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg

This was the climactic monologue from Wagner’s very long comic opera, and like most of the material in that opera it has, by common agreement, absolutely wonderful music. The reason it’s being covered in this section is that it has a reputation for being a xenophobic and paranoid rant about the decline and fall of Germany due to foreign influences. In short, it’s what gets this opera in particular mentally associated with Naziism for a lot of people, and I imagine part of the reason Opera For Dummies had to have the track list of its bonus CD changed in later editions was the unwise inclusion of this particular song. And frankly, I think all this is rather unfair. Now, Wagner was indeed known all too well for that kind of rant, but most of them actually occurred in those self-published propaganda pamphlets he used to circulate, not in his operas. I’m not arguing that Wagner had any shortage of thoroughly reprehensible opinions, but they’re not really on display here (or anywhere else in his actual operas, at least in any easily discernible form). The lyric to this monologue is pretty much boilerplate patriotism (respect your traditions and maintain your nation’s independence), but the only reason people are offended by it is because it’s German. And while there’s certainly a good reason that German nationalism has an especially bad reputation, the fact remains that no-one would be particularly bothered by this sentiment if it was coming from any other country…every country is proud of its cultural traditions, and no country wants to be ruled by a foreign power, including our own. Admittedly, this opera did get co-opted by the Nazis to an even greater degree than Wagner’s other work, but they were completely misinterpreting its message in the process, and there’s still nothing particularly offensive about the actual libretto in and of itself.

Verdict: Wagner said an unbelievable number of offensive things during his life, but this monologue really isn’t one of them.

“King Herod’s Song (Try It and See)” from Jesus Christ Superstar

It’s not just the detractors of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar that point this song out as the show’s low point. Even the show’s most devoted fans tend to decry it as a totally out-of-place Vaudevillian novelty in the midst of the show’s descent into tragedy. Many make much of the fact that its melody was originally written for one of Webber and Tim Rice’s unproduced early efforts (it’s original title was “Those Saladin Days”), and some have suggested that Webber simply wasn’t willing to give up the tune, to the point of shoehorning it into a show where it patently didn’t belong. But what all these critics fail to notice is that the song actually works really well on the original concept album. Its mindless frivolity makes a perfect compliment to the callous and uncaring downward spiral that Jesus is being subjected to at the this point, and it actually makes the show’s inexorable descent into tragedy much stronger and more disturbing than it would have been if they had stuck to an ‘appropriate’ tone throughout. That said, it is true that no-one has ever found a way to make this number work on an actual stage, and Josh Mostel’s performance of it in the film version is one of the all-time bad musical numbers from an otherwise good musical. So while I get why it was included in the first place and even consider that inclusion perfectly justified, I will admit that it has wound up being more of a handicap to the show than anything else.

Verdict: Good on the concept album, but varying degrees of bad in pretty much every stage production the show has ever received.