Listen to America: The 1960s

To see the intro to this project, as well as links to other decades, click here.

27) “America,” from West Side Story (1961)

The most illuminating song performances of the 1960s are bookends with dance numbers which, if we’re being honest, outshine the songs themselves. In the case of “America,” the signature song from West Side Story because the songs with the leads unfortunately have to include said inevitably insipid leads, it’s fitting that the film emphasizes first- and second-generation Americans rather than second- and third-generation Americans. In the Broadway show, “America” is a song for the women alone, as Anita and basically the rest of the gals gang up on a single woman pining for Puerto Rico. In the film, “America” is set up as a conflict between the young men and young women, the former group angry about having come to a place that hates them and the latter group still optimistic about integrating themselves. Stephen Sondheim argues both sides in “America,” and it’s certainly easy enough to do so without straining. Maybe the pay is better, the apartments are less crowded, and there’s a sense of opportunity, but the pay still sucks, the apartments are still crowded, and the opportunity is on the other side of a barbed wire fence. In any case, “America” allows us to be empathetic in a way that “Gee, Officer Krupke” doesn’t. With these Puerto Rican twentysomethings, the lyrics detail institutional biases. With the Caucasian twentysomethings (and younger), the roadblocks are not institutional but personal. Thus, “America” as a song that gets wry smiles and “Officer Krupke” as a song that gets laughs.

28) “Bye Bye Birdie,” from Bye Bye Birdie (1963)

What an earworm, what a terrible song, what a whiny voice. For all the things I really dislike about this song and this performance, it is an outstanding use of something old to do something new. Putting Ann-Margret on the treadmill is not so different from what you’d see in Gold Diggers of 1933 or Yankee Doodle Dandy, but the effect is completely separate. The goal in something tinged directly or indirectly by Busby Berkeley is to create marching onstage. The goal here is to make sure that Ann-Margret is never out of arm’s reach. There’s no grandeur here, just a nasally schoolgirl biting her lip and playing with her dress and skipping around, but that’s the goal. It’s about intimacy, the feeling of closeness that (presumably) a male audience would want with this slim girl with her breasts quivering inside her dress. We’re a ways away from even softcore pornography, clearly, but the fourth wall has been broken for interests I can only imagine are prurient in nature.

29) “A Spoonful of Sugar,” from Mary Poppins (1964)

As much as I like Julie Andrews, we really only needed one of her songs from her very loaded 1964-65 films, and that one we’re keeping is from the better movie with the better songs. The year after this Andrews would play a ball of twee chaos with a short haircut, and it’s never quite as believable as her being practically perfect in every way here. “A Spoonful of Sugar” is enunciated within an inch of its life, a life that it thanks Andrews for sparing by being a cute little ditty indeed. The sequence, with its amusing tricks in editing to make it appear as if the room really is cleaning itself up, is the first dynamite example we have of Mary Poppins’ magical ability but more important the first domino in the delight of self-governance. For about two-thirds of the movie, this film could credibly be about the lessons children learn to balance enjoyment with obedience, and it’s not until the last third where it becomes plain that the film is about adults who need to invite grace into their homes. The Poppins of it all is mostly limited in that last third, though. “A Man Has Dreams” is sung-spoken by Mr. Banks and Bert while Mary Poppins is elsewhere, and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” omits her too. The basis for this movie as a fun picture is here, though, in the hands of someone whose perfectly controlled voice clarifies that she’ll take care of that for us.

30) “Springtime for Hitler,” from The Producers (1967)

Lost in much of the debate about the present and future of comedy is what I used to think was the whole point of the genre. Whether or not something is offensive or therapeutic seems to me hardly the point of comedy: doesn’t it matter, primarily, that it’s funny? “Springtime for Hitler” is obviously in bad taste, but it’s funny. Rhyming “faster pace” and “master race” is at least clever. Women wearing pretzels is funny. Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder giggling because everything is going exactly the way they dreamed up their harebrained scheme is funny. The transition from Rockettes to goose-stepping is funny. The way the song ends with one dude clapping and everyone else smacking him is very funny, though by now sadly antiquated. There’s such craft in this number, and while the sight gags are manifold, the lyrics lead the way. Some of them are ingeniously terrible (“Don’t be stupid, be a smartie/Come and join the Nazi Party”) while others are just pleasingly dumb (“I was born in Dusseldorf/And that is why they call me ‘Rolf'”). The Producers is built around this song as much as it’s built around anything, the moment of bad taste reigning triumphantly for just a few moments until the entire house of cards falls around Zero Mostel’s ears.

31) “My Man,” from Funny Girl (1968)

Honestly, take your pick of the Barbra Streisand number you’d like to emphasize from Funny Girl, they’re all the right answer. The one that most feels like it’s changing something is “My Man,” famously shot live in order to get as much emotion into an overlong film’s last gasp as possible. Like “Bye Bye Birdie,” the goal is intimacy, and there’s a much more profound intimacy we share with Streisand than we shared with Ann-Margret; Streisand is asking us to reflect on an irony, a pain, a regret, a longing. Much has been made (and I’m not innocent of this) of Streisand placing herself as the successor to Judy Garland, and before she knew she was going to make her own A Star Is Born someday, this is her way of being Mrs. Norman Maine…just with a time-honored song to go along with it. The intimacy she creates with us here is special, not least because the song is so incredibly nonspecific. Even if one were to see this without being able to tell Nicky Arnstein from Nicki Minaj, it would be clear that “my man,” unnamed as he is here, is about somebody.

32) “Rhythm of Life,” from Sweet Charity (1969)

Here we are again with a song that’s got an unimpeachable dance routine to go around it, absolutely eclipsing the song itself. Whatever. In the 1960s, as Arthur Penn was doing his best Jean-Luc Godard impression for Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider was shaping a narrative about ’60s counterculture that persists today, Bob Fosse was doing something equally influenced by European morés. Where Penn and Dennis Hopper looked to France, Fosse looked to Italy; Sweet Charity is a musical version of Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, which was a stupid idea to begin with. And despite making an uneven movie at best, Fosse shows himself to be a true inheritor of the Fellini legacy, importing the sensibilities of another continent to our nation of relative drudgery. Where Fellini emphasizes the circus, Fosse looked around at his nation’s version of the vibing, oddly-dressed, and painted youth: hippies. To lead them: Sammy Davis, Jr., with enough charisma to be the credible head of the Rhythm of Life Tabernacle, ex-performers who have found a religion in their groove. There’s a lot more in the tank that Davis could be giving this song, but I love the way that he throttles back and croons smoothly through so much of it. A preacher thunders; a cultist reverberates.

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