Theatre is arguably an immersive experience; musical theatre adds an extra dimension.
Besides the air of culture and refinement that traditionally surrounds a night at the theatre, any show that can cause patrons to quote lines or discuss what they’ve just seen when the house lights come up is bound to be an award winner.
Now, add music to that mix.
Perhaps, rather than discussing plot lines and performances, these theatre-goers are humming snatches of the music that made the show as they exit the theatre. Their hands may even be a bit sore from too much clapping…
The songs that engender such a reaction, songs that drive the audience to interrupt the show for their enthusiastic praise, are called showstoppers.
Composers of musicals strive to create such moments; times when the audience is so overwhelmed, they need a minute or two to rein in their emotional momentum so that the rest of the show is not lost to them.
Whether such breaks in the performance are distracting to the actors – causing them to lose their rhythm, or whether they are like manna from heaven is not known.
Hello? Are there any performers out there who could answer that question?
While we wait for answers, Superprof looks at some of the most popular musicals and their showstopping tunes.
The Lion King
Being Disney Studio’s first all-original musical film – as opposed to being a recreation of a previously-existing story, such as Beauty and the Beast, the writers of this much-loved tale wanted to make sure they had everything right.
To that end, the creative team travelled to Kenya to research the animals that would feature in the story. They also studied music native to the region.
We know well that Sirs Elton John and Tim Rice wrote all of the music and lyrics. Even if you’ve never seen the film (GASP!), surely you’ve heard Circle of Life or Can You Feel the Love Tonight played on the radio… right?
In that version of those songs, you don’t get to hear Lebo M’s amazing contributions to the Lion King soundtrack; you would have to watch the film – or, better yet, catch the show.
With such a musical treasure chest, it would be hard to choose a showstopper but, if any song qualifies, it would be Hakuna Matata for its liveliness and upbeat sentiment.
It is sung at the end of Act I, leaving the audience with a happy feeling rather than one of impending doom for the exiled lion cub.
That’s a great reason to clap and cheer!
Charles Dickens classic tale of an orphaned boy on the streets of London – the brutality, the criminal element, the desperation… this story is not known to give people a happy, upbeat feeling.
Thus, you might be surprised at the show’s longevity. It enjoyed a substantial run in London’s West End, crossed the pond and wowed crowds on Broadway.
Not just often in revival, Oliver! is a popular musical in school theatrical productions, too. That doesn’t mean it is easy determining its showstopper.
In a book musical such as Oliver!, it is generally the last song of Act I that highlights the story’s pivotal scene. Usually, it is sung by several characters.
Be Back Soon, featuring Fagin and his gang, along with The Artful Dodger and Oliver, is sung just before the boys pickpocket Mr Brownlow: the gang runs away with their loot, leaving Oliver to take the fall.
This tune qualifies as a showstopper. It is toe-tapping lively and Fagin is particularly agile, executing a vigorous choreography.
But, for our money, Where is Love is the true showstopper. Wistful and poignant, it is sung by Oliver as he looks out on the nighttime sky.
You’ll have to see for yourself if that song/scene punches you in the heart as it did us.
This sung-through musical is so uniformly terrific that you may contend every song is a showstopper; it would be hard to argue with that assertion.
From Fantine’s death early in the show to Valjean’s death towards the end, passing through Javert’s soliloquy and the ensemble number One More Day at the end of Act I… if you’re streaming Les Mis, you will likely pause a few times to get a grip before watching more.
The Victor Hugo novel that became a worldwide sensation in music theatre had an unusual genesis. First produced as a concept album, the show enjoyed a short run on the Paris theatre scene before it arrived in London.
There, songwriter Herbert Kretzmer did a fantastic job roughly approximating the meaning of the French lyrics but a couple of songs were just a bit off.
Do you hear the people sing…
The French words, ‘By the will of the people’ would have been much more apt but we have to give credit to Mr Kretzmer's genius for devising an evocative replacement, even if some may sardonically think: "Of course we hear you sing, didn't we buy tickets to do so?".
Likewise, Bring Him Home – originally titled Like a Man, as in ‘let him live like a man’, can be a bit distracting.
Is Valjean praying God will bring Marius ‘home’, a euphemistic way of saying ‘claim his soul’? Doesn’t that contradict the general meaning of ‘let him live’?
For this writer, Eponine’s On My Own is the showstopper.
Anyone who has ever suffered unrequited love, who has ever been treated as a best mate when you really wanted to be more…
On My Own is truly a song that cannot be listened to without a wad of tissues to wipe one’s eyes with.
This outrageous bit of musical theater is of a different vein of the ones we’ve discussed so far.
Written for the stage by the powerhouse duo Kander and Ebb, based on the stage show of the same name, Chicago gives us a sardonic peek into the life of celebrity criminals.
Because of the nature of the story, we have to expect several showstopping numbers but, overall, I Can’t Do It Alone takes the cake.
Velma Kelly has to make a desperate ploy to maintain her high profile, otherwise, she will be just a common criminal. Her fevered pitch to the new lady-killer, Roxie, is full-throated and intensely choreographed – a visual and auditory testament to the character’s desperation.
If you haven’t yet seen this delightful musical comedy, you can always stream it from your fav service or get the DVD.
The film doesn’t include all of the songs the show does but it will give you the chance to see Catherine Zeta-Jones doing an unbelievable song and dance routine!
Andrew Lloyd Webber
This composer and impresario is perhaps the most renown and best-loved figure in musical theatre.
He was among the first to offer up a rock musical – Jesus Christ Superstar, which went on to with several Tony Awards as well as other global accolades.
Two shows, in particular, define the genius of Baron Lloyd Webber and, from these shows, we’re treated to several showstopping songs.
Who can forget Elaine Paige’s heartful rendition of Memory?
Cats, based on a collection of poems by T.S. Elliot, takes us to the magical junk heap where, during the Jellicle Ball, one lucky feline will be awarded an extra life.
Memory depicts the sorrow of one bedraggled cat, overlooked for that much-coveted prize, reflecting on her life.
Baron Lloyd Webber excels at putting aspects of the human experience on the musical stage; Cats is no different.
Doesn’t everyone look back on their youth and vigour with sadness and longing? Don’t we all long to be seen a valuable and capable – not consigned to the garbage heap?
The Phantom of the Opera
If Cats was a global sensation, Phantom was a phenomenon.
It explores the concept of being a muse from the unhealthy perspective of the shadowy Phantom and puts the spotlight on the very human need for acceptance and adulation, along with other distasteful aspects of the human psyche…
Christine, in love with the romantic ideal of her Angel of Music, willingly follows him into the sewers of Paris but shrieks in horror when he unmasks himself.
The subsequent ballad, The Music of the Night, sung by the Phantom as he rows the unconscious Christine to his lair, for all that it is sung in hushed tones, is a showstopper.
He knows that his appearance is hideous but begs to be wanted for his musical genius. Our heroine cannot get past his ravaged face.
Isn’t that a rather pointed statement of our selfie-obsessed culture?
The life of a long-dead American president might seem strange fodder for a Broadway musical but Lin Manuel Miranda makes it work.
Hamilton is an American musical about one of that country’s founding fathers, renown for, among other things, establishing its financial system and maintaining friendly trade relations with Britain.
Alexander Hamilton was keen to position himself well in government and society; to that end, he worked tirelessly at self-promotion and at espousing national ideals.
That bit of background about the man is necessary to understand the showstopping song Wait For It.
The man’s drive was so great that he often overshadowed those in his class – at school and in society, which compels his rival, Aaron Burr to contemplate how he is willing to wait for good things to come his way.
Since its off-Broadway debut in 2015, the show swept awards ceremonies, winning the Tony Award and Drama Desk award for virtually every category – thereby proclaiming the age of Rodgers and Hammerstein, those days of ‘feel good’ musicals, over for good.
The best musicals always include at least one show-stopping moment; a musical crescendo that stirs the audience and, mayhap, even the performers.
Perhaps they too need that applause-break to regain their emotional footing…
If you don’t have the chance to catch any Broadway musicals or simply do not like to see musicals (GASP!) at any London theatre, you may still appreciate the music.
We now leave you with a list of musicals of all types, along with their showstoppers. They are all on YouTube - something you definitely don't need to find tickets for!
- My Fair Lady – Get Me to the Church on Time
- The Sound of Music - Edelweiss
- Hairspray – You Can’t Stop the Beat
- Mamma Mia! - The Winner Takes it All
- Fiddler on the Roof – If I Were a Rich Man
- West Side Story – Tonight
- Miss Saigon – The American Dream
- Little Shop of Horrors – Suddenly Seymour
- A Chorus Line – One
- Cabaret – Tomorrow Belongs to Me
- Dreamgirls – And I’m Telling You
Besides the musicals featured throughout this article, this list of Broadway shows and their showstopping songs are sure to thrill.
And who knows? You might discover you love musical theatre after all!