Back in the pre-television era — and before the advent of rock and roll — show tunes from stage musicals were popular music. And these days, you could almost say the same. From Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings,” which interpolates “My Favorite Things” from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music,” to Lana Del Rey’s just-released “Doin’ Time,” a cover of the Sublime hit which borrows its melody from “Summertime” by George Gershwin from the 1935 opera “Porgy and Bess,” classic Broadway is new again.
Sure, these snippets of standards are often taken (way) out of their original context, but at the same time, they offer a new view of some of the most familiar music of the last century.
Case in point: Lana Del Rey’s meta-cover of Sublime’s 1996 song “Doin’ Time” which sounds typically dreamy and chilled-out. Musically speaking, her version is more reminiscent of the ska-punk band’s source material — the aria “Summertime” by George Gershwin from the 1935 opera “Porgy and Bess” that went on to become a beloved jazz standard — than Sublime’s loose SoCal cover. The late Bradley Nowell actually sampled a cover of a cover (Herbie Mann’s bossa nova version of the classic Southern spiritual) and lyrically reframed an African-American folk tale into a story about unfaithful lovers in Long Beach. (Del Rey’s version is featured in the forthcoming documentary “Sublime,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.)
On “7 Rings,” Ariana Grande did some heavy lifting of her own with “My Favorite Things” from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music” (so much so that 90% of the publishing for Grande’s song goes to Concord, rights holders for Rodgers and Hammerstein, leaving the more than seven other writers credited to split the remainder). In the original version, the governess character of Maria literally sings the praises “whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens” to ease her mind when times are tough (you know, with the Nazis).
But Grande updated the lyrics to reflect the role retail therapy played following her break-up with SNL’s Pete Davidson, from Tiffany’s rings (“Bought matching diamonds for six of my bitches”) to a faux-ponytail (“I want it, I got it” / “You like my hair? Gee, thanks, just bought it”).
And it’s not just pop stars who have raided the Great American Songbook. Dr. Dre suggested that Gwen Stefani remake Louchie Lou and Michie One’s 1993 song “Rich Girl,” which adapts — and role reverses — “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fidler on the Roof” for her 2004 debut solo album, “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” But the message of this 1964 musical about a poor Jewish milkman raising five daughters in the shtetl seemed to be lost on artist and producer alike: “Think what that money could bring / I’d buy everything,” Stefani sang. “Clean out Vivienne Westwood / In my Galliano gown … book me first-class to my fancy house in London town.”
Rap has embraced the stage, too. Jay-Z channeled unlikely hood rat “Annie” (as opposed to Daddy Warbucks) for one of his biggest hits, the 1998 anthem “Hard Knock Life,” which samples “It’s the Hard Knock Life” from the 1977 musical about the ginger-haired orphan.
And on the rock end, Metallica proved that even head-bangers can appreciate musical theater when they lifted an eight-bar phrase from “America” — arguably the best known song from 1961’s “West Side Story” — for their patriotic single released 30 years later, “Don’t Tread on Me.” Worth noting: Stephen Sondheim’s source material criticized the U.S. and its anti-immigrant prejudice.
“It’s not really that there is a ‘formula’ for these things, but I have learned over the years that pretty much any successful musical you can name has an ‘I Want’ song for its main character within the first fifteen or so minutes of the show,” said lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Wicked”), who was recently honored at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Spring Celebration. “I don’t think it’s surprising that [these] songs tend to be among the most recorded — they are often somewhat more liftable than other songs … that is, they make sense outside the framework of the show.”