The Music Behind The Scenes In New York

The music of Broadway and New York City are forever bound together by history, joined in a symbiotic relationship that has shaped culture and defined eras.

From the composers, lyricists, and performers who have created the music, to the musicians in the orchestra pits of Broadway, the songs in their musical legacy are a rich and ever-changing reflection of not only New York, but also the entire country.

Being part of that changing landscape, the music of Broadway has fallen in and out of fashion with the general public due to a variety of factors.

For the theatergoer, Broadway music has always been popular. Yet, aside from a few exceptions, Broadway doesn’t always feature songs that appeal to the masses well enough to become crossover hits on popular music charts.

However, due in large part to some extraordinary new ground-breaking musicals, Broadway’s influence on popular music is currently on the rise, getting it back into the good graces of the music industry and public – just as it was in the beginning.


The Music Behind The Scenes

Photo: Flickr

The Golden Age of Broadway

Broadway first made its mark in popular music during the 1920s, when broadcast radio was initially introduced into American homes. While the national percentage was lower, in 1929, 58% of New York City households owned a radio.

Radio stations sprang up across the country to satisfy a public hungry for programming, and around this time, The National Broadcasting Company in New York City began airing a variety show that made its way into living rooms nationally – and music topped the bill.

Broadway show tunes were the most popular type of music on this hugely popular show, and accounted for half of the top ten songs played in 1927, although they were usually covered by the era’s popular singers rather than Broadway stars.

Popular composers Irving Berlin, Ira and George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Ray Henderson and more wrote the music for Broadway shows of the day such as Sunny, Show Boat, Hit the Deck!, No, Sally, No Nannette, Good News!, and Betsy.  

Ol’ Man River”, “S Wonderful”, “The Varsity Drag”, “Blue Skies”, and “Hallelujah” were among the Broadway songs that dominated the airwaves in those early years of radio broadcasting.

New Influences Steal Broadway’s Spotlight

In 1935, things changed, and Hollywood became a huge influence on popular music throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. As a result, Broadway songs took a back seat on the national music scene.

During that time, however, an occasional Broadway tune such as “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’”, “Some Enchanted Evening”, and “If I Loved You” broke through.

But soon Broadway had another competitor. The explosion of Elvis Presley on the music scene in 1954, and the subsequent rock n’ roll craze all but closed the curtain on Broadway songs in popular music.


The Music Behind The Scenes

Broadway Crossover Tunes Of The 60s and 70s

Hello, Dolly!

A decade later, in conjunction with the opening of Hello, Dolly! on Broadway, Louis Armstrong recorded its title song in 1964. The recording became the most popular song of that year, knocking the Beatles out of the #1 spot on the US charts, making Satchmo the oldest artist to top the charts.


Try as you might, you just can’t separate the song “People” from Barbra Streisand. Indeed, it is widely considered to be her signature song, and responsible for making her a star. Written by Jule Styne for Funny Girl, the song reach #4 on the charts, making it Streisand’s first top 40 hit.

Send In The Clowns

Like many Broadway songs that crossed over to become pop hits, “Send In The Clowns” became a hit when a popular recording artist – Judy Collins – recorded it. The song was written by Stephen Sondheim three days before A Little Night Music opened on Broadway in 1973. Collins’ rendition reached Billboard’s Hot 100 two years later, before winning a Grammy for “Song Of The Year” in 1974.

Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In

The recording group of the late 60s –The 5th Dimension – along with Producer Bones Howe, made musical history with this medley of two songs from the hit Broadway rock opera Hair. In 1969, the song topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the number one position for six weeks, and won numerous Grammy Awards that same year. “Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In” is also #66 on Billboard’s “Greatest Songs Of All Time” list.


Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster hit Cats features this extremely popular song that Webber was not entirely comfortable using at first. He was fearful that it sounded too similar to a different song from another composer. Luckily for Webber and the world, he decided to put it in the show, and history was made. Several artists have enjoyed success with this song including the original star of Cats (and British recording star) Elaine Paige, Barbra Streisand, Betty Buckley, Barry Manilow, Michael Crawford and more.

I’ll Never Fall In Love Again

The musically collaborative relationship between Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick struck gold when Warwick recorded “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”, originally written by Bacharach and Hal David for the Broadway musical, Promises, Promises. The hit song climbed to number six on Billboard’s Hot 100, and Warwick won a Grammy with it in 1970 for “Best Contemporary Vocal Performance.”

I Don’t Know How To Love Him

This sweet ballad from Jesus Christ Superstar has stood the test of time, and remains a very popular song. Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the song was recorded by Yvonne Elliman, who was handpicked by Webber and Rice in 1969 to play the role of Mary Magdalene in the rock opera.

Elliman’s version topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart while facing competition from both Helen Reddy’s and Petula Clark’s successful renditions of the song.

I Dreamed A Dream

This haunting song from Les Miserablés appeared on a cast recording from the original London production in 1985, sung by Patti Lupone. Around that time, pop artist Neil Diamond’s version of the song made it to #13 on the Adult Contemporary Chart.

However, the song didn’t become a massive hit until 2009 when Susan Boyle sang it on “Britain’s Got Talent” television show. Her appearance created such a buzz that it revived Lupone’s 1985 recording, landing it onto Billboard’s Hot 100. Boyle herself went on to break pre-order records for her release of the song on Amazon.

The Music Behind The Scenes

Recent Broadway Cast Recordings Hit Top 20

How are current Broadway shows faring in popular music?

The long-running hit The Book Of Mormon seems to have started an encouraging trend when it reached number three on Billboard’s top 10 albums sold in 2011.

And history seems to be repeating itself with two Broadway musicals concurrently holding top 20 Billboard positions at the same time – Dear Evan Hansen (number 8) and Hamilton (number 13). The last time this happened was over half a century ago when Fiddler On The Roof and Hello, Dolly! enjoyed Top 20 status for 11 consecutive weeks in 1965.

Does this mark the beginning of a new era in crossover popularity for Broadway songs?

Only time will tell.

Look for next week’s blog, “Walk The Avenues: The Classic Shops Of New York”.

Explore New York City

Discover top attractions and see how close they are.