But they're dead wrong
I know they are
'Cause I can play this here guitar
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Broadway, New York
(thanks, Aimee Tyrrell)
“On Broadway” is one of those songs that tell the unvarnished truth about struggling to make it in the music business. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote it, with additional help from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and The Drifters had the first hit with it in 1963.
The “Broadway” referred to in the song is an avenue in New York City. It runs through the entire length of the borough of Manhattan and stretches all the way north to the Bronx. However, this is by no means just a song about a street. Rather, it’s about what is also known as the Great White Way, a nickname for the portion of Broadway located in New York’s Midtown region, which is the crux of the city’s Theatre District. It earned its illuminated name because the neon signs are so bright; it is indeed a white light pavement path. This is specifically the segment of the street that borders 42nd on one end, and 53rd Street on the other. It also includes Times Square.
The character in this song sees this bright street as quite a bit darker than its reputation oftentimes portrays it. “They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway,” we’re told, “they say there’s always magic in the air.” When you’re on top of the world and starring in a successful Broadway play, it probably does seem shiny and magical. It doesn’t look nearly so wonderful when you’re on the outside and not near the top of the musical pyramid. “But when you’re walkin’ down that street,” the first verse continues, “and you ain’t had enough to eat/The glitter rubs right off and you’re nowhere.” The glow of neon doesn’t pay the bills, and it won’t fill your grumbling belly when you’re hungry. The glitter is just a frustrating mess.
All the flash of Broadway just twists the knife of poverty into this poor person. The man may want to find a fine woman there on Broadway, but those women aren’t interested in starving artists. “They say the women treat you fine on Broadway,” he says. “But looking at them just gives me the blues.” He’s blue because he doesn’t have the dollar bills to buy any thrills. “’Cause how ya gonna make some time/When all you got is one thin dime,” he says, describing his miniscule income. When you’re that poor, you can’t even make your footwear match the shiny reflections of the theatre windows, as he adds, “And one thin dime won’t even shine your shoes.”
If this character has one reason for hope, it’s a belief in his talent and dogged determination. He’s aware that others may not share his confidence. “They say that I won’t last too long on Broadway/I’ll catch a Greyhound bus for home, they say.” He then argues with such faithlessness by responding, “But they’re dead wrong, I know they are/’Cause I can play this here guitar/And I won’t quit till I’m a star on Broadway.”
This song also became a hit for George Benson in 1978. Another musician not as well known for his guitar work the way Benson is, and who can be heard playing the distinctive electric guitar part on this track, is producer Phil Spector.
“Just Off Broadway” might be a better title for this song because the narrator in it really isn’t a part of the Broadway inner circle quite yet. With shows like American Idol
, it’s evident that many aspiring music stars are still dreaming the dreams of this “On Broadway” character. As long as those neon lights stay bright, new stars-to-be will continue to trek to that famous New York street of dreams, like moths to the flame.
~ Dan MacIntosh
On Broadway Songfacts
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