It’s both a blessing and a curse that half of the biggest names in late-night television right now are fully grown theater kids who will take any opportunity to indulge in some old-fashioned show tunes. On the one hand: talented performers singing classics! Fun! On the other hand: whither the cynicism and the nihilistic humor of the David Letterman era?
If your late-night content preferences tend more toward the latter, then this clip is not for you and I suggest you click away immediately. If, on the other hand, you are all about theater kids singing theater songs, then Monday night’s Broadway Riff-Off segment on The Late Late Show was tailor-made for you. It gave us two beloved Tony winners (Neil Patrick Harris and James Corden) singing musical theater songs from across the decades — and their song picks got seriously esoteric.
Corden, as is his wont, played the traditionalist here, and if you’re going to be a theater snob about it, he came off slightly the worse for it. His pick for “Broadway classic” was Guys and Dolls’ “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” a song so tired that even Glee considered it overused. For “tragic ballad,” he went with Les Miz’s “Own My Own,” which, while an undeniable classic of a torch song, was considered a cliché back when Joey Potter belted it out at the Capeside beauty pageant in 1998. I’ll admit, however, that his pick for the sex song, Chicago’s “All That Jazz,” is an unimpeachable classic.
Harris, meanwhile, had a song list to warm a theater snob’s heart, by which I mean he did a whole lot of Sondheim. He started off with Gypsy’s “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” the showstopping diva song that more or less singlehandedly won Patti Lupone her second Tony in 2008. (Harris is no Patti Lupone, but he does not embarrass himself in the few bars he sings.) For his tragic ballad, he went with Company’s notoriously tricky “Being Alive,” a song Sondheim himself has said tends to be so cold that no one managed to make it moving until Raúl Esparza did it in John Doyle’s minimalist 2006 production. And for the sex song, he went with “Sugar Daddy” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the queer and anarchic show that won Harris his own Tony in 2014.
In the end, Harris and Corden called it a draw and united to sing — what else? — Hamilton’s “My Shot.” But if we’re rating this Riff-Off just on song picks, then Harris walked away with the win.