THE IDEAL BACKGROUND MUSIC FOR A PARTY
Here is the jackpot question in advance.
Musically speaking, what are you doing New Year’s Eve at the party you’re hosting?
A young friend excitedly told me that he planned to take many of his cast albums, select his favorite overtures and burn them onto CDs. Once the party began at nine, his guests would hear overture after overture on his sound system until the wee small hours of the morning.
Of course, he thought I’d be mighty pleased that he was devoting the night to Broadway music. So wasn’t he surprised when I put up a hand and said “Stop” with the force that Edna Turnblad did in “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now”?
As I told him, “My friend Paul Roberts tried that years ago for a party he was throwing. What he learned was that an overture is usually a heavy piece of music that indicates an important event is about to occur.”
My young friend put up his own “Stop” hand, but before he could tell me that a Broadway musical is indeed and inherently an important event (which it is), I continued. “Oh, don’t misunderstand. An overture is still the best way to introduce a show. I miss hearing them in this era when there aren’t many. But one overture after the other makes for some pompous listening.”
Of course there are moments in every overture that are filled with fun. Exhibit A: Dick Perry’s trumpet licks during the burlesque sequence in the Gypsy overture. But really, even there, a weighty sequence follows to wrap up what many claim to be The Best Overture Ever. Isn’t that bombastic music too strident for a party?
Please don’t think that I’m advocating that you instead choose selections by The Impotent Sea Snakes, The Dead Kennedys or any other esteemed, famous and best-selling pop groups that rock critics tell us are wonderful and important and far more worthy than our classics that have withstood the test of time and will continue to. No, I have a different solution.
Sure, you say – just make CDs of my favorite songs from Ain’t Misbehavin’s “Find Out What They Like” to The Zulu and the Zayda’s “It’s Good to Be Alive.” No, that’s not the answer, because Broadway show songs with lyrics, be they simple or intricate, often get in the way of people talking at a party.
My solution? Entr’actes.
By and large, entr’actes – those mini-overtures that begin second (or even third) acts – are lighter in tone than overtures. Take “It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman.” The overture starts off with some ominous sounds that suggest that Metropolis is in dire danger. The music is so stirringly severe that in the ‘70s, a Washington TV station used it to introduce its nightly newscasts that inevitably started with a story about some catastrophe.
But the entr’acte to Superman swings. It starts out with the hit song from the show – “You’ve Got Possibilities” — and also includes the barnburner “You’ve Got What I Need.” So it’s all lighter, happier, more festive and better for New Year’s Eve.
Flower Drum Song starts out with two ballads – “Love, Look Away” and “You Are Beautiful” — before ratcheting things up with “Like a God” and “A Hundred Million Miracles.” And need I tell you what kind of music you’ll get if you choose the entr’acte to Ragtime?
Can anyone possibly go wrong with the entr’acte from Anything Goes’ 1987 revival cast album? Every one of the four songs included – “Anything Goes,” “I Get a Kick out of You,” “You’re the Top” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” – is a top-notch Cole Porter hit. They’re all played by the type of orchestra you’d find on a first class ocean liner of the era. These are musicians who know how to have fun – just like your guests.
“The Hate Song” from The Mad Show has dissidents who ostensibly want to “stamp out hate” and whose suggestions turn out to be pretty violent. Yes, it’s all done in ironic fun, but the lyric-less entr’acte is funnier still. Those who remember Spike Jones’ “Cocktails for Two” and its array of hilarious sounds will find a soul mate here: Christmas chimes, drum chaos, wood blocks, bongos, klaxon horns, slide whistles and bubbly sounds are all included. Granted, the selection ends with the sound of a man being horribly tortured, but after all the laughs you’ve given to what has come before, you can only laugh again – and that’s not such a bad thing for a party.
Cabaret doesn’t have an overture, but it certainly as an entr’acte – a nice and funky one played by the Kit Kat Club Girls. Five ladies first play “Two Ladies” and then move into the show’s title song with a great deal of brio and fun. And while we’re on John Kander, Steel Pier’s entr’acte admittedly starts off lugubriously for its first twenty-one seconds, but then it segues into a very sweet society band sound for the fetching “Second Chance.” Give it a first chance.
Actually, the original cast album from Kander’s first show, Flora, the Red Menace, has an overture that won’t drag down your party — because it’s NOT the actual overture. The show didn’t have one. But in those days (1965), so many shows opened with overtures that RCA Victor’s producer George R. Marek decided that his cast album should have one, too. So he put the entr’acte as the first cut on the first side, and the sounds of the jazzy ‘30s did the trick. It will for you, too.
Two other exceptions: Irma La Douce’s overture is replete with xylophones and accordions, so it too isn’t as heavy, but is a lot of Gallic fun. The Full Monty’s overture doesn’t sound like one at all. It’s more like a collection of jazz riffs and is so expertly done that you shouldn’t be surprised if more than one party attendee pulls himself away from the food, drink, anything or anyone to say, “Hey — what’s that playin’? That’s good!”
Bless the revival cast albums that offer entr’actes that can’t be found on their original cast albums. Case in point: Once upon a Mattress. The 1996 recording has an entr’acte that offers only one song – “Shy” – but it offers it in many styles during its eighty-seven second running time. So even if one of your guests is a parvenu who doesn’t appreciate Candide (can such a person exist?), he’ll only have to endure fifty-three seconds from the cut on the 1997 cast album.
And so we have yet another reason why entr’actes are perfect for 21st century listening: each one is usually not too long and far shorter than the average overture — and you know what we hear about the attention spans of people today.
And while we’re at it, you can mix in between some of these entr’actes some orchestral selections from cast albums. First and foremost and arguably the best of the bunch comes from City of Angels. “Double Talk Walk” was actually the show’s “out music” (meaning what the orchestra plays after the final curtain has come down and people are filing out of the theater). No one but Cy Coleman was both a master of Broadway and a master of jazz, and only he could have come up with a swingin’ and pulsating piece of music that was just right for a film noir musical.
Other orchestral recommendations: “Jump for Joy” (The Goodbye Girl) ; “The Riviera Rage” (Irene) ; “Sauce Diable” (Jennie) and of course “The Grapes of Roth” (Promises, Promises) . The last-named has Burt Bacharach music; need I explain?
Revivals of Company are now famous for dropping the dance section “Tick-Tock,” which has some marvelous music by David (Starting Here, Starting Now) Shire. But the original cast album has been a keeper of the flaming-hot music for lo these last forty-two-plus years. Granted, the cut does have a few orgiastic words thrown in now and then, but not enough to dampen your party; indeed, they may spark it.
Finally, there’s The Who’s Tommy whose second act begins with a lyric-less medley, but one whose creators refuse to call an entr’acte. They prefer the term “underture.” Fine! An entr’acte by any other name will sound as sweet to your party guests as they welcome in 2014.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.