“Don’t cry for me Argentina – the truth is, I never left you,” sings Eva Peron in Evita. And neither did that song.
It’s one of those iconic pieces of song-writing that becomes synonymous with the place it’s named after, fodder for puns and headlines whenever Argentina finds itself on the global stage.
The same can be said for many musical theatre classics, which manage to capture a sense of a part of the world and ambitions and ideals of those who live there.
From West Side Story to On The Town, we’ve revisited the famous songs that make for a musical theatre journey around the world.
Evita: Don’t Cry For Me Argentina
Evita is a musical very much defined by place. After saying hello to Buenos Aires, the musical’s big showstopper comes in Eva Perón’s paean to the people of Argentina. Don’t Cry For Me Argentina is the iconic show-stopper that everybody knows – even if you haven’t seen the show before. (Spare a thought for the Argentinian football team, who are doomed to hear it every time they get knocked out of the World Cup forevermore.) In the story of the first lady of Argentina, Eva Peron tells her adoring supporters that, while she initially wanted fame and glory, her duty was to the people. The inspiration for the song’s lyrics came from an epitaph on her grave which, translated, says “Don’t cry for me Argentina, I remain quite near to you.”
Sweeney Todd: There’s No Place Like London
It’s hard to agree with Sweeney Todd on the whole baking people into pies thing, but we’re with him on this: there really is no place like London. Granted, Todd is not much of a fan, though this may be justified. He’s returning to the city after the judge convicted him so he could get his hands on Todd’s wife, resulting in a 15 year exile. He trills: “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit, and it’s filled with people who are filled with sh*t, and the vermin of the world inhabit it.” He really doesn’t mince his words (but he does mince people; can’t emphasise that enough).
On the Town: New York, New York
Not to be confused with the ubiquitous anthem sung by Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra, though Frank did star in the film of On The Town , which this song is from. In New York, New York, three sailors – Ozzie, Chip, and Gabey – sing about the wonders of the city, where they are on shore leave for 24 hours. Fun fact: the lyrics were changed from “it’s a helluva town” to “it’s a wonderful town” for the film, so they didn’t sound like cursing.
Rent: Santa Fe
Who hasn’t dreamed at some point of escaping the broke city life for something more relaxing? Collins, Angel and Mark are just about at the end of their tether and, to lighten the mood, they talk about leaving the cockroaches and opening a restaurant in Santa Fe. They could drink wine in the sun and make money like they don’t in New York. Sigh. Doesn’t that sound nice?
42nd Street: 42nd Street
Broadway’s glittering history as the home of musical theatre means that New York gets more songs about it than anywhere else. Very few streets get as much attention as this toe-tapping tribute gives to 42nd Street. The bustling Midtown Manhattan road is the final song in the eponymous musical about the backstage world of show business in all its sequined glory and it really is a joy to watch.
Victor/Victoria: Paris Makes Me Horny
Victor/Victoria doesn’t get a lot of outings these days. It’s surprising considering Julie Andrews was the star on stage and silver screen, even turning down a Tony Award for her part as a woman pretending to be a drag queen. But the funniest song in the musical wasn’t one of hers. It belongs to Norma, girlfriend of the dashing American gangster. She sings Paris Makes Me Horny while she’s trying to seduce him, unaware that he is falling in love with Victor (who he doesn’t know is actually Victoria). She lists all of the places she’s been and how none of them, except Paris, makes her want to get down and dirty.
Hamilton: The Schuyler Sisters
Another ode to New York – but this time in the 1700s. It’s the eve of revolution in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and the Schuyler Sisters, wealthy daughters of New York’s first senator make their entrance into the musical with this banger. Angelica, Eliza and Peggy head into the poorer downtown area of Manhattan where “history is happening”. Change is in the air and “we just happen to be in the greatest city in the world”.
West Side Story: America
West Side Story’s America is this musical’s most famous song, and the melody its greatest earworm. The girls argue about whether it’s better to live in New York or Puerto Rico (or in the film, it’s the girls vs the boys). It’s pretty deprecating to Puerto Rico, though the film version added in new lyrics of social commentary about life in America if you’re not white (“one look at us and they charge twice”). It also has one of the best opportunities for a dance break the stage can offer.
Hairspray: Good Morning Baltimore
Teenager Tracy Turnblad is indefatigable in the opening number of Hairspray. Skipping through the streets on her way to school, she encounters rats and the neighbourhood flasher. Still, in Baltimore, “every day’s like an open door” – at least for Tracy. The upbeat number sets the tone for the rest of the show. In her irrepressible positivity, she hasn’t yet properly registered what life is like for black people under segregation in the 1960s.
Rodgers & Hammerstein changed the musical theatre course with Oklahoma! The songs of this show work to advance the plot and characters rather than acting as a diversion from the story. Its title number revels in the glory of rural life from “pertaters” to “termaters” and with “plenty of heart and plenty of hope”. Unsurprisingly, the state of Oklahoma officially adopted it as its state song in 1953, making it the only official state song from a Broadway musical.