What Are The Best Showtunes To Sing In A Piano Bar?

Also: Lorna Luft belts and drag queen Chelsea Piers searches for Mama Ru.

Nothing brings people together like a good, old showtune—something written for a stage musical, but which has breakout appeal for groups of folk not playing characters, just themselves. Something about the songs’ inherent sweep, spirit, emotion, and sometimes humor makes these tunes well suited to piano bars—or even to parties—as the crowd connects via familiar sounds that have theatrical life to them.

I asked a couple of accompanists at New York’s long-running piano bar Marie’s Crisis (in the West Village) for their favorite such numbers, and they practically sang their answers, which include a bunch of showstoppers that can actually start up some harmonizing. (Other pianists there include Drew Wutke, Jim Allen, and Brandon James Gwinn.)

Franca Vercelloni

“’Do Re Mi’ from The Sound of Music. It’s hard to find a group of people who don’t know this song. People love the movie, or they played it on the piano or sang it when they were kids, and it’s a go-to when I can’t get the room on the same page. Even the folks who think it’s basic and don’t want to hear it in a piano bar will sing along with gusto. Classic, delightful, and educational.”

“’One Day More’ from Les Miz. It’s occasionally a disaster, but even the most inebriated folks will pick up on a part here or there (even if it’s in the wrong place) and EVERYONE can scream along on the final few lines and feel good about life. It’s such a saga, and everybody loves the drama.”

“’Aquarius’ from Hair. I start my late shift with this because it’s jubilant and packed with good energy. I end my happy hour shift with it because I get the customers to clap along and it keeps the room energy high for the next pianist.” 

“’Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ from Gypsy. It’s such a celebration. People know the movie or they did the show in high school. They always enthusiastically channel Ethel or Patti. Great energy.” 

“’You’ll Be Back’ from Hamilton. People request this show all the time, and some crowds are better at the lyrics and rhythms of the more complicated numbers. But this song gets everyone back on the same page because of its simpler rhythms, and people love to play the villain.” 

“’Seasons of Love’ from Rent. Classic. Everybody knows this song. They’ve all sung it in a show choir, or seen the show or the movie.”

Kenney M. Green

“’All That Jazz’ from Chicago is right at the top of the list for group singalongs. There is a hint of danger with singing a song about adultery and a feeling of being ’Fosse-sexy’ while doing it that tends to bring a crowd together like none other! It tickles me.”

“’Somewhere’ from West Side Story and ’What The World Needs Now Is Love’ by Mr. Bacharach because…well, who couldn’t use a good ’come to Jesus’ moment right about now?” [Note: ’What The World…’ isn’t really a showtune, though it did appear in a 2003 Bacharach revue, The Look of Love, for one thing.]”

So, how about another “come to Jesus” moment? “’What I Did For Love’ [from A Chorus Line],” replied Green. “A song where, upon requesting it, it sounds like the perfect crowd pleaser. While singing the song, the lyrics start to make sense and become real and personal. You start to watch everyone in the room realize at the same time that we are all the same in this exact place in time.”

“And always, ’Rose’s Turn’ from Gypsy. I mean, don’t we all have or wish we HAD a little Mama Rose in us?” 

And a more recent choice? “’The Schuyler Sisters’ from Hamilton. With the women’s movement getting stronger every day and the unique style of the hottest show on Broadway, it makes everyone feel a part of this giant blockbuster, even if only for three and a half minutes.” 

Falling in Love With Luft

At Feinstein’s/54 Below last Friday, Lorna Luft sang showtunes. And ballads. And girl group songs. Reflecting the year of the woman, Lorna highlighted five female lyricists (Diane Warren, Dorothy Fields, Carolyn Leigh, Carole Bayer Sager, and Ellie Greenwich), and she did so with verve and show-womanship, also taking the time to let chestnuts like “The Best Is Yet To Come” really simmer.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images for 54 Below

I always enjoy Lorna’s talent and professionalism. In the dressing room after the show, I congratulated Lorna (and told her she looked like Jane Jetson in her fabulous silver flip dress). In the course of the conversation, Lorna’s editor walked in, so I learned that there are more showtunes in Lorna’s future in the form of a book she’s doing—A Star Is Born: The Film That Got Away—which will come out in September. The book will highlight the five versions of that movie that have been made (including the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper one coming out in October). But the book’s primary focus, of course, will be the one starring Judy Garland, whom Lorna has some kind of special interest in, for some reason. Get ready, gays.

Come Back to Chelsea

A drag queen that should not get away, Chelsea Piers scored the next night with her Laurie Beechman Theatre show, Are You There, Ru? It’s Me, Chelsea (which is running through Wednesday and coming back in the summer). Though Chelsea appears on Shade: Queens of NYC, the theme of the show is her longing to get out of boiler rooms and supply closets posing as dressing rooms and get on Drag Race, as she trots out her talents, memories, and setbacks, while playing around with various segments from the drag competition.

Looking like an even butcher Betty Grable, Chelsea later emerges as a condom-wearing redhead, then morphs into a sort of glitzy Kathy Griffin, all the while singing deftly, tossing out quick jokes, and tirelessly entertaining. She even ends up getting some supreme wisdom from Ru herself. (Well, it seems like Ru at first.) Best of all is Chelsea’s sendup of Celine Dion in all her awkward earnestness, a priceless mashup that captures the singer’s moves and moods.

Direction is by Jackie Cox and the band is headed by the aforementioned Brandon James Gwinn (Chelsea’s boyfriend). All that’s missing is a real call from Ru. Lord knows Chelsea heard from yours truly after I saw her at another club; she’s appearing in a duets show I’m doing, and I know SHE’LL be good.

When Irish Thighs Are Smiling

A full buffet of Irish stew is proverbially on the menu for the well-stuffed THISISPOPBABY: RIOT, an Irish revue that played three performances at Skirball Center last week. Part circus, part subversive arts festival, the show—directed by Jennifer Jennings and Phillip McMahon, co-presented with Irish Arts Center—was done on a Niall Sweeney set that looked like opened silver umbrellas so large they could be satellite dishes.

There was cabaret style seating onstage, in addition to the theater seats (which also included tables up front). There was both lipsynch and live singing/talking. Aerial action and hilarious and surprising dance numbers (the latter by Lords of Strut and Up and Over It). Raging spoken word by Emmet Kirwan. Lively appearances by Panti (also known as Panti Bliss), the Irish patron saint of drag, who performed a staccato dialogue mashup. (The Mommie Dearest and Designing Women bits aren’t fresh here, but she sold them.)

Panti—looking sort of like Joan Rivers by way of a Real Housewife—also served a spirited speech about wanting to be like Farrah Fawcett, the self-made kickass costar of the original Charlie’s Angels. There was even a guest star (author Irvine Welsh) and also a faux-technical glitch! It was all pretty exhausting—but mainly for the cast, and you had to love the mix of tones, with shrieks against injustice alongside bouts of fun and frolic. There’s some ire, but there’s lots of Éire, and it’s done with so much personality and persuasiveness, you expect it to end with a group singalong of “What I Did For Love.”

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.