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by Michael Portantiere

Top 40 Broadway



    While enjoying the original cast album of Funny Girl for the umpteenth time, I was struck by the fact that people who saw the show early in its run were the luckiest people in the world in that they had the rare experience of hearing a current Top 40 hit sung on Broadway by the artist featured on the hit recording.

    Columbia Records had released Barbra Streisand's gorgeous studio performance of "People" before the show opened at the Winter Garden, and it shot up as high as #4 on the singles chart. Can you imagine how thrilling it must have been for theatergoers to hear Barbra herself launch into the song about halfway through the first act? And can you imagine Columbia's chagrin over the fact that the Funny Girl cast album was released by Capitol?

    This got me to wondering how often audiences have had the chance to hear a current pop hit sung on Broadway (or Off-Broadway) by the singer who made it famous. As far as I can tell, the answer is "not very often at all." Even in the middle part of the 20th century, a.k.a. The Golden Age of Broadway, Top 40 versions of show tunes were almost invariably recorded by pop singers. True, Ethel Merman and Ray Bolger respectively made studio recordings "I Get a Kick Out of You" from Anything Goes and "Once in Love With Amy" from Where's Charley? that were released while those shows were running, but I'm not sure if they ever made the hit parade.

    The original Broadway cast LP of My Fair Lady rose to the top of the charts and stayed there forever, but it was Vic Damone who had a hit single with "On the Street Where You Live" -- not John Michael King, who performed the beautiful ballad nightly and twice on matinee days at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. John Raitt sang "Hey There" spectacularly well in the The Pajama Game, but the Top 40 version featured the crooning of Rosemary Clooney. Jack Cassidy and male chorus may be heard singing the title song from Wish You Were Here on that cast album, but Eddie Fisher's wildly popular recording of the number is credited with having saved the show from flopping.

    Ed Ames, not Jerry Orbach, had a hit with "Try to Remember" from The Fantasticks. And it was Louis Armstrong, rather than Carol Channing, who scored a monster hit with "Hello, Dolly!" in 1964. (By the way, his unmatched performance was featured on an Armstrong album that included four other show songs: "A Lot of Livin' to Do" from Bye Bye Birdie, "Hey, Look Me Over" from Wildcat, "I Still Get Jealous" from High Button Shoes, and "You Are Woman, I Am Man" from Funny Girl.)

    The Off-Broadway and Broadway albums of Hair yielded no Top 40 recordings of songs from that score, but The Fifth Dimension and some guy named Oliver respectively hit it big with "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" and "Good Morning, Starshine." Although the Promises, Promises cast recording failed to make pop stars of our friend Jerry Orbach or Jill O'Hara, Dionne Warwick was all over the airwaves with "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" and the title song. Jack Jones had a major success with "What I Did for Love" from A Chorus Line, though I'm not sure if his recording ever reached the Top 40. And "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" from Evita got AM radio airplay in a disco version that was most certainly not sung by Patti LuPone.

    As far as I can tell, this leaves us with only three cases (aside from Streisand's "People") in which Broadway performers had pop hit recordings of songs from shows in which they were appearing at the time (or shortly thereafter). Yvonne Elliman's performance of "I Don't Know to Love Him" from the Jesus Christ Superstar concept album got a fair amount of AM radio airplay prior to the October 1971 opening of the Broadway production, in which Elliman as Mary Magdalene sang the song eight times a week -- but it should be noted that Helen Reddy had an even bigger hit with this number. Also heard frequently on the radio in 1971 was "Day by Day" from the Off-Broadway cast recording of Godspell, featuring Robin Lamont as soloist. The only other instance I can think of in which a track from a cast album became a pop hit? Jennifer Holliday's "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," from Dreamgirls.

    And that, I believe, is that. More recent attempts to massage Broadway songs into pop hits have been unsuccessful -- e.g., the recording of "Seasons of Love" (from Rent) with Stevie Wonder as special guest soloist. If you can name any other examples of musical theater stars having cracked the Top 40 with songs from their shows, please fill me in.

    Published on Monday, August 20, 2007

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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