In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in anticipation of Jersey Boys, we’re picking our favorite songs from musicals.
Is Joe Iconis’ ingenious “Broadway, Here I Come!” technically “from” a musical? Yes and no. Iconis, one of the best of a wave of young stage-musical composers, didn’t write the song for one of his own stage shows, but he does frequently offer it up at New York’s Joe Iconis And Family cabaret shows. In that sense, this is a so-called trunk song, one that Iconis might be hanging onto for the perfect show. At the same time, the only reason many people know the song at all and the only reason it pops up on mixtapes and karaoke lists is because it popped up as the main anthem of Hit List, the show-within-the-show in the second season of Smash. Now, the second season of Smash was atrocious, and Hit List seemed even worse, but Iconis’ song resonated, standing out from the dross surrounding it.
It’s easy to see why. A lyrical ballad that builds to something unexpectedly huge, “Broadway, Here I Come!” seems like the sort of “follow your dreams!” anthem that pops up in all manner of shows about young guns setting their sights on center stage. And yet the melancholy at the song’s center doesn’t seem entirely driven by the idea of leaving behind one’s comfortable life to make a run at giant dreams. The song is haunted, its melody rising above the chords beneath it in a manner that always seems just slightly off, and Iconis makes great use of the phrase “I’ve been bravin’ crazy weather,” so that when the song is performed at its best (as it is by Molly Hager on the terrific album The Joe Iconis Rock & Roll Jamboree), it sounds like “bravin’” is actually “brave in,” making that crazy weather sound all the more defeating with every listen. And then the end of the song comes around, and the final set of lyrics—“The last thing I hear / as the impact draws near / is it a scream or a cheer? Well, never mind / I’ll never find out / cuz Broadway, I am here”—is followed by the WHUMP of the final chord, the impact having arrived. The darker core becomes clear: This is also a song about committing suicide.
This might seem a cheeky joke, but there’s something buried inside of it that’s deeply profound. We refer to the idea of pursuing one’s dreams as “taking the leap” or going off “into the great unknown,” but that’s also how we might refer to someone who’s just leapt from a skyscraper to the pavement below. The fact of the matter is that pursuing your dreams often means letting go of the person you were, letting them recede into the past and into memory, so you can become the other you you’ve always wanted to be. That process can be deeply painful, and it can shatter relationships and leave you broken. But it can also be incredibly rewarding, a constant metamorphosis toward some better self, the journey toward which is more important than the destination. Life is a long series of precipices, a long string of leans over the edge, eyes closed, and taking that last step. Chasing your dreams and committing suicide could seem to be polar opposites, one affirming life and one ending it, but “Broadway, Here I Come!” understands that these things aren’t straight lines. They’re continuums, and the one is never as far away from the other as we’d like. To go after your dreams can mean killing off some other version of yourself, and even if you fail, you don’t get to go back to that person, to that life. We’re all always fearing the screams, hoping they’ll turn into cheers at the last minute.