The Best Original Song Oscar Goes Broadway

Tonight is Oscar night. I had to miss last year’s ceremony as I was in the process of boarding a plane to visit my newborn nephew in the Philippines. Well, I’ll be back at the television, with my usual assortment of ballots and pens. The phone will be silenced and anyone who gets between me and the television should brace him or herself for flying objects. (Those who have watched with me before know what I mean).

The Oscar for Best Original Song has been given since 1934 (when “The Continental” won) and has been awarded to Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser, Jule Styne, Irving Berlin, Yip Harburg, Stephen Sondheim, Alan Menken, David Shire, Howard Ashman and Stephen Schwartz, to name just a few. It used to be that the custom at the ceremony was to present the Best Song nominees with big names performing them, but not those who originally sang them. More recently, the composers or singers who introduced the songs performed the songs in a simple setting, usually solo. Here are a few of the telecast performances, with a decidedly Broadway feel:

Mitzi Gaynor, Georgy Girl. The song “Georgy Girl” was originally performed by The Seekers, in what would be their biggest and most notable pop hit. The song had music from Tom Livingston and lyrics by none other than Tony Award winning actor (and Harry Potter book on tape voice) Jim Dale. Gaynor seized the moment and brought down the house with her spirited delivery of the song. This performance went over so well that it inspired TV executives to give Mitzi her own TV specials, which scored big ratings in the late 60s and early 70s. Georgy Girl made a star out of Lynn Redgrave and was so popular it was a Broadway musical in 1970 – folding after four disastrous performances.

Angela Lansbury, Thoroughly Modern Millie. It just so happened that Lansbury was in LA with Mame when the 40th Annual Academy Awards were handed out in 1968. Along with some of the chorus boys from her show, the star took the opportunity and ran with it, in what was considered by many to be her unofficial screen test for the film version of Mame (which eventually bombed with Lucille Ball).

Richard White, Paige O’Hara & Jerry Orbach, Beauty and the Beast. The three voices from the animated film perform their songs live and in costume (“Belle” & “Be Our Guest”). I wonder if this is where Disney got their idea to put the brilliant animated film on stage. Angela Lansbury later sang “Beauty and the Beast” with Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson on the telecast (the only song listed here that actually took home the award).

Robin Williams, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. This animated film from the hit Comedy Central series surprised critics and audiences alike with its tongue-in-cheek and highly irreverent musical score supplied by Marc Shaiman and Trey Parker. (One that even Stephen Sondheim greatly enjoyed). There are many amusing moments spoofing various stage and screen musicals, but it was this song “Blame Canada” that nominated for the Oscar, and presented on the telecast in full Broadway mode.

Catherine Zeta-Jones & Queen Latifah, Chicago. John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote this song specifically for the film adaptation, which was sung over the closing credits by Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger. Claiming stage fright, Zellweger opted out of singing live on the telecast and their costar Latifah stepped in for the event. It doesn’t really have much of a production number (Zeta-Jones was duequality, but they throw in appropriately lithe dancers around.

Finally, this isn’t related to the Best Song Oscar, but I’d say it was the greatest production number I’ve seen from any Academy Awards telecast. It’s only the second half of the twelve minute tribute to Irving Berlin featuring Bernadette Peters and Peter Allen (I posted it in its entirety last September, part one was taken down) but it’s worth sharing again, particularly for that voracious audience response (they applaud for the last 40 seconds of the song!). This is from the 1982 telecast. Enjoy: