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The best sea shanties in musical theatre

Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas

Every few days or so, new viral trends take over social media. Whether it's photo challenges or dance crazes, millions of creatives get involved in these trends, typically popularising songs released decades ago. The latest viral trend is making sea shanties, and while it may seem mystifiing, there's a musical theatre history to this song style. 

Sea shanties were originally sung by 16th-century sailors to keep them in rhythm as they spent gruelling months working on ships. Fast forward over three centuries — sea shanties are now an alternative type of song to unite communities through a pandemic.

Led by TikTok captain Nathan Evans who started the trend, sea shanties have become the coolest genre of music worldwide. Here's our favourite sea shanties that you can listen to in musicals. 

"Lady Fair" from Anything Goes

Perhaps the best example of a musical sea shanty, "Lady Fair" is sung by a quartet of sailors while working on the S.S. American. At the start of the number, each sailor sings a solo line reflecting on their tough daily lives. Then, as they think about the women who'll look after them, they come together to sing in four-part harmony and sweep the deck. "Lady Fair" may only be a two minute song, but it stands out from the delicate musical numbers like "Delovely" and "Easy to Love" to place emphasis on the sailors' lives. We can't wait to listen to "Lady Fair" in Anything Goes when it opens at the Barbican in 2021.

"Pour, oh pour the pirate sherry" from The Pirates of Penzance

There's no need to worry about the Jolly Roger in Gilbert and Sullivan's pirate affair. Instead, there's plenty of operatic sea shanties to get your head round, especially this ditty that kicks off The Pirates of Penzance. Throughout the song, the pirate ensemble celebrate apprentice Frederic's 21st birthday by literally... passing the sherry around. Although this isn't a traditional sea shanty, the call and response structure with pirates exclaiming "hurrah" is definitely shanty-esque. An all-male production of The Pirates of Penzance was last staged at the Palace Theatre in December 2020 and is available to stream this Easter

"We sail the ocean blue" from HMS Pinafore

Yet another Gilbert and Sullivan entry here, showcasing the versatility of operettas in adopting a sea shanty now and then. In HMS Pinafore or otherwise titled The Lass That Loved a Sailor, the opening phrase ticks off sea shanty tropes: the sailors singing are hard-working men, beaming with pride for their ship and will always put the ship first. Twisting the sea shanty, this jolly musical number also harks to Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue, but sailors on board HMS Pinafore were guaranteed to laugh more. 

"Heave Away" from Come From Away

Although Come From Away may not have any traditional sea shanties, folk music inspiration matched with showcasing the local fishing community means shanty rhythms dominate the musical. The clearest example of this is in "Heave Away," which begins with the use of an ugly stick, a homemade percussion instrument made with a mop handle and bottle lids. Then, as the men and women sing to each other by telling the opposite sex to "heave away me jollies" before a raucuous evening, this short melody becomes a sea shanty of sorts to help the "come from aways" in their newfound community. Come From Away is at the Phoenix Theatre.

"Sweet Maid of Madeira" from Fisherman's Friends: The Musical

The world premiere of Fisherman's Friends: The Musical will transfer to the West End, packed with sea shanties in musical theatre. It's based on the meteroic rise of a Cornwall fishermen singing group, who eventually ended up playing Glastonbury. The production will open in Cornwall, ahead of a London engagement in 2022. 

Photo credit: Giga Khurtsilava on Unsplash

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