America, from West Side Story (1957)
This is the real deal: a perfect number in which Sondheim’s lyrics, Leonard Bernstein’s score and Jerome Robbins’s choreography exhilaratingly combine with the skirt-shaking elan of the dancers. Bernstein said he was fired up by a dance rhythm he heard in Puerto Rico called huapango. This becomes the excuse for a verbal battle between two women. “I like the city of San Juan,” sings Rosalia. “I know a boat you can get on,” retorts Anita. (This routine was re-scored in the film, above, making it into a male-female sparring battle.) A routine that makes you giddy with delight.
Conga, from Wonderful Town (1953)
Ruth, a writer in 1930s Greenwich Village, is sent to interview a group of young Brazilians just off the boat. Unfortunately, they have only three words of English, one of which is “conga”, so Ruth is forced to lead them on a merry dance through the streets of Manhattan. Again, this shows Leonard Bernstein’s embrace of Latin American rhythms and yields extraordinary performances. When Simon Rattle conducted the piece at the Proms in 1999, he had cast and audience snaking their way through the Albert Hall. I also heard Mark Elder conduct the Halle in a revival at the Lowry, Salford, in 2012 that had spectators jumping out of their seats.
Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, from Guys and Dolls (1950)
I know this induces ecstasy because I’ve actually danced it at the London Palladium. As part of a concert to commemorate the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker, the London theatre critics formed the chorus of sinners in a restaging of the number from Richard Eyre’s fabulous National Theatre production. But you don’t have to dance it to enjoy it: merely to see and hear a group of Times Square crap-shooters joyously singing Frank Loesser’s revivalist number is be taken out of yourself and ushered into another world.
Disque Columbia, This is Broadway’s Best 20 Showstoppers, B2WS 1