Counterpoint duets in American musicals

A now Christmas classic has breathed new life into Frank Loesser’s “Baby it’s cold outside / I really must go.” After burning out the household listening to all available recordings, I yearned for other counterpoint duets. Neither Broadway, nor the internet was very forthcoming, hence this post.

For a duet with a similar whimsical wolf vs. mouse dynamic, there’s “Small Talk” from Frank Loesser’s Pajama Game. (Preferred duo Doris Day and John Raitt).

“An old fashion wedding” from the 1966 revival of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. (Ethel Merman and Bruce Yarnell).

“I wonder why / You’re just in love” from Irving Berlin’s 1950 musical Call Me Madam. (Ethel Merman and Russel Nype or Donald O’Connor).

Irving Berlin’s earlier “Pack up your sins and go to the Devil” features syncopation on both parts.

There’s the “Will I Ever Tell You” counterpoint to “Lida Rose” in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. And the combo of “Goodnight my someone” with “Seventy-six trombones” (Shirley Jones and Robert Preston).

There’s the infamous “Tonight Quintet” from West Side Story. (Best remake: South Park).

The 1959 musical Little Mary Sunshine lampoons counterpoint with three parts: Playing Croquet, Swinging, and How Do You Do?

Stephen Soundheim repeated the feat in A Little Night Music with “Now,” “Later” and “Soon.”

Less romantic counterpoint could include “All for the best” from Godspell. Can you think of any other?

(The best pairing for “Baby it’s cold outside”? Physical performance: Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban, best repartee: Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer, best contemporary match: Zooey Deschanel and Leon Redbone.)

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Eric Verlo

About Eric Verlo

On sabbatical
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7 Responses to Counterpoint duets in American musicals

  1. Avatar Marie says:

    Eric embarked on this trip down music lane after I besought him to watch the movie Elf. The combination of Will Ferrell and James Caan is just too funny to miss. It was the Baby It’s Cold Outside duet between Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel that resulted in a two-day counterpoint duet binge which has been really festive and fun.

    If you have any holiday spirit left, check out the Elf website ( and watch the trailer. It’s not too late!

  2. Avatar The 13th says:

    I’ve always been fond of Dean Martin’s version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”. Martina McBride jumped in to sing with Dino in 2006 – over 40 years after his original. Now that’s counterpoint!

    Only other song that comes to mind (perhaps not exactly counterpoint duet but close) is a favorite scene from the musical “1776”. The song is “Sit Down John”. John Adams sings for Independence in America. Congress greets his requests by answering in duality per the heat in the room, and sings “someone ought to open up a window!”

    (It’s a catchy phrase oft sang at home to me by me, as well.)

  3. Avatar Laurence says:

    There’s also: Irving Berlin’s “Play a Simple Melody” (which was in There’s No Business Like Show Business); “Truly Scrumptious”/”Doll on a Music Box” (from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang); “Pinecones & Hollyberries”/”It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” (The Osmonds do the counterpoint version); and the kids song “I Like the Flowers…”

    Just to name a few.

  4. There’s also “Confrontation” from Les Miserables.

  5. Avatar Andy says:

    Sorry, but the best version of the ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ duet has to be Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald.

  6. Avatar Judith says:

    ‘I refuse to sing along’ by Bert & Ernie is a great one.

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