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‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’: From Broadway Tear-Jerker to Covid-Era Anthem

“Walk on, walk on/With hope in your heart/And you’ll never walk alone.”

Many Americans know “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as the emotional peak of Act II in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Carousel.” But in the 75 years since the number was first heard on Broadway, it has blossomed into a global anthem that strikes a strong chord during tough times.

In recent weeks, it has come to embody the resilience, solidarity and need for promise required in the battle against the coronavirus — and suddenly, it seems everywhere, including a brief moment at the top of the British singles chart. Here are a few steps in the song’s evolution.

This clip from the 1956 Hollywood adaptation helps set up the song in the musical’s story line: The violent Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae) has died and his wife, Julie (Shirley Jones), is consoled by her cousin Nettie Fowler (Claramae Turner), who sings of succor and hope. “Carousel” opened on Broadway on April 19, 1945, and Frank Sinatra recorded a string-heavy, fairly straightforward version shortly after. Covers have been pouring out since.

You may have heard of this other Liverpool hit machine managed by Brian Epstein and produced by George Martin in the early 1960s — that’s not surprising, since Gerry and the Pacemakers’ first three singles all topped the British charts. Their third No. 1 was “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” performed in 1963 with a gentle pop lilt rather than the original’s operatic grandeur. In 1985, the frontman Gerry Marsden took the song to No. 1 again with the Crowd, a supergroup convened to raise funds in the aftermath of the Bradford City stadium fire, which killed 56 people at a soccer match.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” is such a part of Liverpool F.C. that the title is on the soccer club’s coat of arms and engraved atop Anfield stadium’s Shankly Gates. Almost immediately after Gerry and the Pacemakers turned it into a hit, the team’s supporters embraced the song as their anthem. Britain has a long, proud tradition of full-throated fans enlivening matches with chants, but few have the goosebump-triggering power of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” rising out of a sea of red shirts. (The last minute of Pink Floyd’s mellow “Fearless,” off the band’s 1971 album “Meddle,” also integrates the sound of Liverpool fans singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”)

In 1964, the French singer Richard Anthony (real name: Ricardo Anthony Btesh) came out with a translation that took some liberties with the original, as most adaptations at the time were wont. Suddenly, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was a forlorn breakup ballad: “Only you, always you, I love you” and so on. To cover more of the European market, Anthony also recorded versions in Italian and Spanish.

On their second album, “Boom,” the garage-punk band the Sonics led their own “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” with a quote from the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune. While “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is meant to be reassuring, the singer Gerry Roslie quickly morphs into the slightly menacing character you’d expect fronting a band whose signature songs were “Psycho” and “Strychnine.”

Drum and bugle corps have always built their repertoire out of a mix of contemporary hits, show tunes and classical pieces, but few have been identified with a song for as long as the Madison Scouts: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” has been part of this Wisconsin ensemble’s repertoire since the mid-1950s. Never underestimate the power of a large horn line gradually amping up until it can blow the hat off your head.

For decades, Jerry Lewis concluded his annual telethon to raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association by singing you-know-what. But this did not lessen the emotional impact for him, as you can see from this 2010 video, in which he performed “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for what he said was the 59th — and, unbeknown to him, the last — time. (Since his first telethon was in 1966, this means his association with the song went back even earlier.)

Aretha Franklin brought out the song’s spirituality on her best-selling gospel album “Amazing Grace,” recorded live with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir in 1972. (A documentary about its making was finally unveiled in late 2018.) The track starts simply enough, with just Franklin and a piano. The band and choir come in around the four-minute mark, yet they don’t unleash their full power, and the song keeps simmering. The controlled intensity is maybe even more effective than a raise-the-roof escalation.

Of course, escalation is great, too. Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles recorded “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in 1962, and a live video from the Apollo has a casual amble — though that seemingly tossed-off final note reminds everybody who’s boss — sustained by the era’s trademark punchy soul arrangements. But it’s another Apollo performance that brings the audience to its feet, or perhaps knees. Everything is turned to 11 in 1985: the towering crest, the amped-up gospel choir, the electric delivery, the fake ending two-thirds of the way through followed by LaBelle taking everybody back to church. Hit that replay button one more time.

In April, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” topped the British singles chart again, helmed — we’ve come full circle — by a musical-theater performer. Exerting maximum pressure on the lacrimal glands, the track combines the voices of Michael Ball (“Les Misérables,” “Phantom of the Opera”); Thomas Moore, a.k.a. Captain Tom (a 100-year-old World War II veteran who raised millions of pounds for charity by walking around his garden); and the NHS Voices of Care Choir. This cover somewhat eclipsed concurrent ones by the Mumford & Sons frontman Marcus Mumford and by Josh Groban.

There is a very good chance you will tear up at this viral video of a Dutch hospital’s paramedics, nurses and doctors singing to each other through a glass door.

Slicker, and perhaps a little bit more self-serving is a video Barbra Streisand recently posted, which edits together pictures of essential workers and footage of her performing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in tribute to the Sept. 11 victims at the end of the 2001 Emmy Awards.

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