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Encore: Show tunes give people traveling for the holidays something to sing about

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, as you just heard, AAA estimates that a lot of Americans will be traveling and some traveling more than 50 miles from their homes over the holidays, either for vacation or to be with their families. When we mentioned that to critic Bob Mondello, he started humming show tunes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY DO THE WRONG PEOPLE TRAVEL?")

ELAINE STRITCH: (As Mimi Paragon, singing) Travel, they say, improves the mind - an irritating platitude, which, frankly, entre nous, is very far from true.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: If musicals are a trip, trip musicals are a trip and a half. By trip musicals, I mean shows that take you somewhere rather than just arriving somewhere by boat or plane or car or whatever. Quite a few years ago, when I saw the Barbra Streisand musical "Yentl," I called a friend who was a Streisand nut to tell him about it. He only had one question - does she sing on public transportation? - because she always did. Remember "Funny Girl"? She sang "Don't Rain On My Parade" on a train, in a taxi and on a tugboat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T RAIN ON MY PARADE")

BARBRA STREISAND: (As Fanny Brice, singing) I'll march my band out. I'll beat my...

MONDELLO: In "Funny Lady," it was an airplane she sang on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S HEAR IT FOR ME")

STREISAND: (As Fanny Brice, singing) Standing in the wings all prepared to start.

MONDELLO: In "Hello, Dolly," she was belting on a train.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUT ON YOUR SUNDAY CLOTHES")

STREISAND: (As Dolly Levi, singing) All aboard. All aboard. All aboard.

MONDELLO: And my buddy had guessed right. In "Yentl," at the very end, there Babs was on an ocean liner with the wake washing over the vocals as she sang about heading for parts unknown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A PIECE OF SKY")

STREISAND: (As Yentl, singing) Why settle for just a piece of sky?

MONDELLO: Streisand was, let's note, in good company in this singing on transportation thing. Judy Garland not only did it all the time, she tended to sing about transportation - in "Meet Me In Saint Louis"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TROLLEY SONG")

JUDY GARLAND: (As Esther Smith, singing) Clang, clang, clang went the trolley.

MONDELLO: ...In "Easter Parade"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THAT MIDNIGHT CHOO-CHOO LEAVES FOR ALABAMA")

GARLAND: (As Hannah Brown, singing) When the midnight choo-choo leaves for Alabama.

MONDELLO: ...And in "The Harvey Girls."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE ATCHISON, TOPEKA AND THE SANTA FE")

GARLAND: (As Susan Bradley, singing) I can't believe that anything would go so fast.

MONDELLO: May I just digress here for a moment? There's a reason movie directors like to put musical numbers on trains. Trains are propulsive, gushing steam as they pull out of the station, pushing the music forward. You can hear how it gives Garland a boost.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE ATCHISON, TOPEKA AND THE SANTA FE")

GARLAND: (As Susan Bradley, singing) On the Atchison...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (As characters, singing) On the Atchison...

GARLAND: (As Susan Bradley, singing) On the Atchison, Topeka...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (As characters, singing) On the Atchison, Topeka...

MONDELLO: In "The Music Man" a few years later on Broadway, composer Meredith Wilson took a train full of salesmen and did something very clever in his opening number.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE MUSIC MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Train Conductor) River City, next station stop.

MONDELLO: He put the propulsion in the sound of the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK ISLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Traveling Salesman, singing) Cash for the merchandise. Cash for the button hooks.

MONDELLO: The salesmen are talking business and all on one note, but in the sibilance of their first few words...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK ISLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Traveling Salesman, singing) Cash for the fancy goods. Cash for the soft goods.

MONDELLO: ...You can hear the steam engine starting up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK ISLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Traveling Salesman, singing) Cash for the hogshead.

MONDELLO: As the train accelerates, Wilson changed from words with s's and shh sounds to harder consonants to mimic the rattle and clatter of a train clicking down the tracks. And when they made the movie, they just added those sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK ISLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Traveling Salesman, singing) You can talk. You can talk. You can talk, talk, talk, talk, bicker, bicker, bicker. You can talk all you want to, but it's different than it was.

HARRY HICKOX: (As Charlie Cowell, singing) No, it ain't.

MONDELLO: I don't mean to suggest that trains are the only vehicles that show up in musicals. There's that surrey with a fringe on top in "Oklahoma!," the hot rod in "Grease," the helicopter in "Miss Saigon." In "Ben Franklin In Paris," the title character was lifted by hot air to the proscenium arch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A BALLOON IS ASCENDING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Ben Franklin, singing) A balloon is ascending.

MONDELLO: Another '60s musical plunged its whole cast underground.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUBWAYS ARE FOR SLEEPING")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (As characters, singing) Subways for sleeping.

MONDELLO: And as Flo Ziegfeld realized way back in 1927, if you're going to sing about that old man river, you got to have a boat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COTTON BLOSSOM")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #3: (As characters, singing) See the show boat? That's old Captain Andy's Cotton Blossom. Will you go?

MONDELLO: "Show Boat," which takes place almost entirely on a Mississippi paddle wheeler, is that rare Broadway musical that's actually about a mode of transportation. But there are others - "Titanic," "H.M.S. Pinafore," "Starlight Express" and my personal fave, "On The Twentieth Century."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #4: (As characters, singing) We point with the deepest pride to the grandest ride on the New York Central Railroad.

MONDELLO: It's set entirely on a 1930s train that raced between Chicago and Manhattan in less time than it takes Amtrak to make that trip today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #4: (As characters, singing) New York in 16 hours - anything can happen in those 16 hours on that mighty ride, that mighty miracle...

MONDELLO: Quick quiz - what's the best song in the world when you're a kid in the backseat on a trip, the one you drove your parents crazy with when you were 7 - "99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall," right? Perfect traveling song for a reason - it circles back on itself, arriving at the beginning so that it can start over, kind of like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #4: (As characters, singing) Our hearts will be motion reels.

MONDELLO: It doesn't change tempo. It doesn't have a chorus, and it never, ever ends. Well, that's what makes a good song for traveling - all about movement not destinations. And this song - like the one Streisand sang in "Dolly," "Put On Your Sunday Clothes," like "Atchison, Topeka," like a lot of these transportation songs in musicals, really - acknowledges that. It's all transitions and circling back, which means it gets stuck in your head, makes you tap along on the steering wheel. It has that unyielding rhythm, the full-throttle chorus over and over propelling you as you watch the world pass by out the window.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #4: (As characters, singing) Life and love and luck may be changed...

MONDELLO: Sounds like it's ending, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #4: (As characters, singing) ...Hope renewed and fate rearranged...

MONDELLO: Yeah, not so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #4: (As characters, singing) ...On the Twentieth Century, on the Twentieth Century, on the Twentieth Century, on the Twentieth Century...

MONDELLO: In the musical, to make this song stop, the composer pretty much had to beat it to death. I'll play the ending out of kindness so that you can get it out of your head. But trust me, when it's stuck in your head, the ending won't be what you remember.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #4: (As characters, singing) ...On the Twentieth Century, on the Twentieth Century...

MONDELLO: OK. Here it comes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #4: (As characters, singing) ...On the Twentieth Century, on the Twentieth Century...

MONDELLO: Almost.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #4: (As characters, singing) ...On the luxury liner between New York and Chi.

MONDELLO: And now he beats it to death. That is a traveling song. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.