Dr. Fringelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Pop Charts and Write More Musical Theatre

There’s a story we’ve been telling ourselves for years, we musical theatre types, and I think it’s a fallacy. It’s a pleasant fallacy, though, because it makes us feel sad and nostalgic. So we tell it to ourselves, until we feel good about feeling sad and nostalgic, and then we bond with one another over our sadstalgic feels.

The story is this:

Once, the sound of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley was the sound of the popular charts. It was the music of the people, and musical theatre sounded fresh and current.

Then rock ‘n’ roll came along, and took over the popular charts. Broadway shows didn’t really take to rock ‘n’ roll, so they soon stopped sounding fresh and current.

Now, hardly any musicals sound like the music of the people. Something valuable has been lost, and it would be nice to get it back.

Sigh. Crank vinyl OBC of ‘She Loves Me‘.

Lately, this Pleasant Fallacy has appeared whenever anything featuring rap/hip-hop lands on Broadway. If the show fails, as Holler If Ya Hear Me did, we ask “why can’t shows sound like the music people are actually listening to?” And if the show does well, as Hamilton is doing, we cry “At last! A show that sounds like the music people are actually listening to!” Then we speculate on which songs might appear on the charts.

Our motives are good. We want younger people to fall in love with the music of musicals, because then we old folks – some of us over forty – can die happy. If the music in musicals sounded more current, we reason, it might appeal to more younger people.

But look again at the Pleasant Fallacy above, and then look at all the misconceptions we have to accept for it to work:

By “Once”, we mean somewhere in the early twentieth century. We don’t look much further back than that.

By “popular charts”, we mean a problematic measure of a particular commodity’s sales, measured over very short periods.

By “the people”, we mean Americans.

By “something valuable”, we mean cultural prominence: songs from current Broadway shows on the radio, and performances from current Broadway shows on primetime television.

Bearing all these misconceptions in mind, I would like to propose two things:

  1. Popular music – really, truly popular music – actually sounds a lot like showtunes.
  2. They’re probably not the showtunes you’d expect.

I’ll begin with …

The most popular music of the 19th century

For the first half of the 19th century, publishers of sheet music didn’t distinguish between what we would now call “classical” and “popular” songs, and popular sheet music sales didn’t really take off until after the 1850s. Nevertheless, sheet music historians have some nifty ways of telling if a song was a hit:

Song sheets: not the full printed music, but just the lyrics, given to a theatre audience so they could sing along. It’s a fair bet the tune to any one of these was well known.

Inclusions in anthologies: in modern terms, if a song is on all the later compilation albums, chances are it did well first as a single.

Answer songs and parodies: if everyone’s supposed to get the references, the original must have been pretty familiar.

Here, then, are some songs you can include in your 1890s cabaret act, and expect your audience to know:

Silent Night, or Stille Nacht (1818) – Franz Xaver Gruber / Joseph Mohr
Home, Sweet Home (1823) – Bishop / Payne
Ave Maria (1825) – the Schubert setting
Jingle Bells (yes, pedants, it’s really called One Horse Open Sleigh, 1857) – James Lord Pierpont
The Lost Chord (1877) – Arthur Sullivan / Adelaide Anne Procter
After the Ball (1891) – Charles K Harris
On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away (1897) – Paul Dresser

Those last two are publishing phenomena; written very late in the century, they sold a wagonload of sheet music. But even without them, you can see what sorts of songs did well in the century before the century before this one: occasional songs, devotional songs and, above all, sentimental ballads.

Furthermore, that sentimental ballad Home, Sweet Home, the song Nellie Melba used as a crowd-pleasing finale in her concerts, is a showtune. It appeared first in an opera (Clari, or the Maid of Milan), and was then quoted liberally by other composers in their own operas and instrumental works, before later being interpolated into practically everything.

When Clara Butt was about to tour Australia, Nellie Melba advised her “Sing ’em muck; that is all they will understand.” This is usually taken as a slight against us Aussies, but what Melba really said, according to a witness, was “Sing ’em muck. ‘The Lost Chord’ and that sort of stuff, the same as you have been singing tonight.” In other words, Aussies loved a weepy ballad back then, and they still do. But so did everyone back then, and so does everyone still.

If we look further back than the early twentieth century, I think we gain useful context for Broadway and Tin Pan Alley’s later heady era of chart success. The listeners of the nineteenth century didn’t have “charts” as we understand them today, but they had their favourite songs: a mix of the devotional, occasional, and sentimental. Some of it came from the stage.

And so to those problematic charts, which have become less problematic since the IFPI started compiling its reports in 2001. Their more recent reports include download and streaming data.

The top selling singles of each year since 2007

Girlfriend – Avril Lavigne
Lollipop – Lil Wayne feat Static Major
Poker Face – Lady Gaga
Tik Tok – Ke$ha
Just the Way You Are – Bruno Mars
Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen
Blurred Lines – Robin Thicke feat T.I. and Pharrell
Happy – Pharrell

Hmmmm, these songs sound like a lot of movies, because that’s where hit songs wind up nowadays, just as hit pop songs used to be interpolated into stage shows. They don’t sound like a lot of today’s Broadway. But then, Broadway scores don’t really behave like singles, do they? Singles burn quickly and brightly, but not for long. Broadway scores used to be like that, so much so that, when people say …

I wish the charts still sounded like Broadway

what they’re really saying is …

I wish shows still ran 200 performances and were forgotten in a year.

The miracle of those old shows is that some of their songs, meant to be nothing more than immediately accessible and popular, turned out to be deeper and more durable than anyone could have predicted.

But hit Broadway scores today behave more like hit albums: they burn steadily, and for a long time. So instead of singles, here are

The biggest selling albums of all time

Thriller – Michael Jackson
The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd
Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) – Eagles
Back in Black – AC/DC
Saturday Night Fever – Bee Gees
Rumors – Fleetwood Mac
The Bodyguard – Whitney Houston
Come On Over – Shania Twain
Led Zeppelin IV – Led Zeppelin
Bat Out of Hell – Meat Loaf

Sceptical about any of these? Fair enough, and look here for why I share your healthy doubt. Nevertheless, two of these albums (Saturday Night Fever and The Bodyguard) sound like a couple of musicals, but that’s only because stage musicals have been made out of their parent films. One of these albums (Thriller) has a stage show based on its main creator’s life and music. Another (Bat Out of Hell) sounds like any musical by Jim Steinman, but that’s because all Jim Steinman sounds like Jim Steinman.

As far as younger listeners go, however, these albums are really old. The most recent is from 1997. So here are

The biggest selling albums of the last ten years

21 – Adele
X&Y – Coldplay
Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends – Coldplay
High School Musical – Original Soundtrack Cast
High School Musical 2 – Original Soundtrack Cast
I Dreamed a Dream – Susan Boyle
Midnight Memories – One Direction
Recovery – Eminem

Man, that’s a whitebread list. But you will notice that, once the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of the singles chart is taken out of the matter, all those artists we’re convinced the kids have been listening to disappear. No Pharrell, no Ke$ha (or, these days, Kesha), and no Lady Gaga. Nobody feat. anybody else. The only rap artist in that list is Eminem.

Also, there are two bona fide screen musicals in that list, plus an album named after a showtune.

That album, Susan Boyle’s (twice as many copies sold as One Direction’s album, incidentally), contains the following sorts of songs:


Silent Night

Sentimental Ballads

I Dreamed a Dream – the showtune I mentioned.
Cry Me a River – originally written for a film set in a 1920s speakeasy.
Wild Horses – cover of the original, by The Rolling Stones
You’ll See – cover of the original, by Madonna
Daydream Believer – not a ballad when The Monkees did it, but this version is
Who I Was Born to Be – a Boyle original
Proud – from the TV show Britannia High
The End of the World – cover of the original by Skeeter Davis, slowed down


Up to the Mountain – cover of the original by Patty Griffin
How Great Thou Art
Amazing Grace

If you ask me, Susan Boyle’s album shows how little we’ve changed, because it’s straight out of the nineteenth century. Sing ’em muck indeed.

To summarise: we need to stop worrying about the charts, music theatre lovers, because they don’t tell us what we think they tell us, and success on them doesn’t mean what we think it means. If we look instead at music that sells steadily over years, rather than weeks, we’ll find that people are actually buying and listening to showtunes, albeit ones written for the screen. Sure, they’re not tunes from Sweeney Todd, or even Rent: the showtunes that are really selling sound like High School Musical. Also, Frozen isn’t on that best-seller list yet, but give it time.

And, as fond as we are of our sadness and nostalgia, I think we should rephrase our favourite fallacy:

Once invented, recorded music used what had come before it, then learned how to make its own kind of thing later. Cinema, radio, television, and video games have all walked a similar path.

Recorded music has always gone after disposable money. Its first marks were high-tech connoisseurs, and later, the middle class (this is the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway period). After World War Two, it chased youngsters, and now it’s after anyone with a smartphone.

There was a period when the pop charts and the sound of Broadway more or less aligned. It didn’t last, and it could conceivably happen again, because correlation is not causation: all it would require is for theatre audiences and pop music listeners to want the same thing from their music.

Meanwhile, if you really want your new musical to sound like the music of the people, you should have Coldplay write a lot of sentimental ballads for Adele. Get Eminem to play the villain.

6 thoughts on “Dr. Fringelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Pop Charts and Write More Musical Theatre

  1. I can’t help thinking the phenomenon the pleasant fallacy is actually identifying is the “hummable tune”.
    It used to be popular, but not so much these days. To illustrate, I think of the AFL footy songs. The old ones were the muck PJC is talking about. They were the hummable songs of the day – Dolly Grey, Keep our sunny side up, When the Saints, Yankee Doodle, Toreador from Carmen etc. Compare the to the AFL songs from the new clubs (Freeo, GWS, etc) – blowed if I can hum one of them (and that’s not just because they don’t get played very often because of a lack of wins!)

    At the risk of banging on, here’s my three tests for a true hummable:
    1. The Sing Along test
    In the old Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, music hall days, if asked to sing along with a final repeat of the chorus after hearing it twice, would you feel confident in the tune? Tin Pan Alley songs always pass this test.
    If you hum it on the way home, it’s time for the…
    2. The Shower test
    Does the tune sound good all on its own in the shower? Does it survive without the track? The old AFL songs do, the modern ones not so much. Old Broadway sure, Les Mis, derr, but how many recent “hits”?
    3. The Parody test
    Does the tune happily survive the rewriting of its lyrics? Muck parodies, mostly incredibly filthy, kept the troops motivated in more than one world war. It’s how those AFL songs got written. Backstage, which songs do the crew have lyrics for?

    How many of these so-called popular songs are hummable tunes?
    The ones we find we have to sing rather than just listen to. The body always knows.

    • I particularly like The Shower Test. Reminds of what Alec Wider wrote about the first time he heard ‘Stormy Weather’, which I then had to go away and look up … away and up which I then had to go and look?


      “The proof of the strength of this melody and its vitality independent of its harmony lies in my first hearing it. I was on the observation-car platform of the Empire State Express on a spring evening with a friend who was a great singer. He told me there was a wonderful new song just out and proceeded to sing it, accompanied only by the sound of the wheels. There went the goose bumps again. And ever since all the extras like the harmony and band arrangements have only been fringe benefits. For I’d heard it under perfect circumstances, in unstormy weather, sung well, and on a spring night.”

      • +1
        Wondering if there’s a 4th: “The Jazz Test” – Would a jazz pianist have fun with this? There’s something about those melodies that just keep unfolding under the hands of an improviser. Stormy Weather’s one of them!

  2. PJC’s post and my inept reply above have been nagging at me, so attempting a rewrite.

    Can’t help wondering that perhaps the shift away from popular = Broadway is paralleled by the shift away from music we mostly play and sing (the good old days of Tin Pan Alley sheet music) and music we mostly listen to (and perhaps mime/karoke). All the current charts tell us is what people listen to. Is this music OF the people (that they sing) or only FOR the people (that they merely consume)?

    Does a people that doesn’t for the most part sing or play even have a music? [Happy Birthday, The National Anthem, and a footy song are the only songs many folk ever actually sing together, as a people – not much of a cultural repertoire!]

    Does the audience not having skin in the game mean the downloadable isn’t really a music of the people (unless they then sing it, which they largely don’t)? Is Dr Fringelove’s music theatre challenge really to write songs people want to sing, which by my logic, becomes a music of (nor for) the people because its what they sing? Re-enter the hummable tune, a music OF the people, by definition?

    Which leads me to commit heresy and ask: can a book song, never really happy being sung outside its context unlike those popular prop songs [propular songs?!], ever sound like the music of the people [or is that not its cultural function]?

    • It’s certainly not easy now, when every song is supposed to be integrated, specific and in character, to produce something generalised enough for the Top 20, which is why I say we shouldn’t bother thinking about it.

      In any case, Top 20 hits today aren’t ‘written’ so much as assembled in the studio. I don’t think this is better or worse – it’s just where the recorded music industry figured out the most reliable money was.

      I like to imagine a conversation between, say, Stephen Sondheim and Ira Gershwin, on how the game has changed:

      Stephen: I find your rhymes effortful; for example, those in the verse for “How Long Has This Been Going On?”
      Ira: Yes, that song was a great big hit. Your point?

  3. Ira: “Now it’s he and not you who’ll be stuck with a shoe, in a stew, in the goo. and I’ve learned something, too,
    something I never knew” isn’t efforful?
    Stephen: Meryl was in my movie.
    Ira: Keith Jarret plays my tunes.
    Richard: Gaga sang mine… at the Oscars.
    Stephen + Ira: Populist.

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