The Overture Is about to Start
By Peter Filichia —
Everyone I know who got the recently released Arkiv CD of What Makes Sammy Run? has said the same thing to me: “What an overture!”
Yes, it is, and for three good reasons. 1) There is no shortage of good songs. 2) There are dozens of musicians in the pit, with strings, percussion, horns and brass duly represented. 3) We don’t get many good overtures anymore.
It’s true. Merrily We Roll Along was arguably the last great overture, and that one rolled along almost 30 years ago. On the Twentieth Century, written nearly a third of a century ago, is a close second.
Maybe we don’t have as many overtures today because orchestras don’t have nearly as many musicians in the pit; an overture would expose the dearth before the show could get started. Give a listen to the overture on The Pajama Game‘s original cast album, and then try the one on the 2006 Harry Connick, Jr. revival. To say that the latter sounds watered down is almost an insult to water.
Perhaps we don’t have overtures because our attention spans aren’t what they were. Maybe we just can’t concentrate for three to five minutes when nothing is happening on the stage. Or perhaps we’re all so much busier than we used to be and believe the time spent on an overture would be put to better use in getting home sooner to finish up work or get to sleep.
Whatever the case, overtures are an endangered species. Of the twenty-five musicals currently on Broadway, only five sport them – and two of those shows are revivals from the Nixon era: Promises, Promises and A Little Night Music. The latter doesn’t even have a “real” overture; it uses five characters singing in a medley-like fashion. West Side Story and Next to Normal each has a “Prelude,” but that’s as close as they get.
So let’s appreciate the great overtures of yore on recordings: Bye Bye Birdie, Candide, Finian’s Rainbow, Goldilocks, Goodtime Charley, Gypsy, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, and Wonderful Town are just a few. And while one associates overtures with the Golden Age of Broadway rather than the Rock Era, The Last Sweet Days of Isaac has an overture. The Who’s Tommy may be a second-hand Broadway musical, but it still sports one of the best overtures of all time.
Some overtures start with a bang, but at least one begins with the sound of a Bell telephone: Bells Are Ringing. Another, House of Flowers, starts with a police whistle. At the beginning of New Girl in Town, the bells toll for Anna Christie. But soon we get the banjos strummin’ and plunkin’ out a tune to beat the band. (If the last part of that line sounds familiar, yes, it’s from Mame, which also gets the banjos strummin’ and plunkin’ in its overture.)
Other instruments get their due in their overtures. Hear the kettledrums in The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd. The busy cellos in Song & Dance. The concertina in Dear World. The twin pianos in No, No Nanette. The hillbilly fiddles in Li’l Abner. The xylophones in Irma La Douce. That lovely solo trombone in Flora, the Red Menace.
Should we count Flora? What is said to be the overture on the recording was actually the show’s entr’acte. That’s the official name for what could be termed an “overturette” – a more modest and usually shorter overture — that starts the second (or even third) act.
Other entr’actes of note include the ones for Cabaret and “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman!” As for Superman‘s actual overture, those who lived in the Baltimore-Washington area in the ‘70s and watched WDVM-TV will recognize its overture as that station’s theme song for its nightly news.
Back to Flora, whose upbeat first notes suggest that we’ll hear neither an overture nor an entr’acte but just a piece of swinging music. Orchestrator Don Walker wanted to capture the sound of the ‘30s in the show, and did just that.
Similarly, The Full Monty’s overture relies on cool jazz. Over Here! – subtitled “America’s Big Band Musical” – offers the Glenn Miller sound from sweet to swing to boogie-woogie. Each of these wants you to know that a sheer musical comedy is on its way and that you’re in for a good time.
But usually there’s a majesty to overtures, perhaps best exemplified by The Rothschilds. Alas, we lost its composer Jerry Bock last week, but that shining brass-filled and many-stringed overture of his music lives on.
Sometimes the majestic sound encompasses one of the show’s premier songs. That’s what gets Gypsy off to such a great start: the first notes of the verse of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” It also serves as the crescendo at the overture’s end. In between come the strings to stress The Hit Ballad – “Small World” in Gypsy’s case. Those strings caress “If Ever I Would Leave You” in Camelot and “Make Someone Happy” in Do Re Mi.
Overtures let us know we’ll soon be taken to foreign environments. There’s the Russian flavor in Silk Stockings, the Jewish feel in I Can Get It for You Wholesale and the French in Dear World. What a great way to get across atmosphere.
One show that didn’t have an overture eventually got one – at least for the recording. Nearly four years after Hello, Dolly! opened, Pearl Bailey took over and got her own cast album – and an overture. Note the way that Glenn (Abe) Osser orchestrated the title song with both the insouciance and the knowledge that THIS is the one you’ve been waiting for. Redhead does it, too, when the orchestra reaches “Look Who’s in Love.” You can hear the pride in the instruments saying “Now THIS is a good song.”
Sometimes overtures can offer a nice surprise. In Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, we hear the A-section of “Everybody Says Don’t” and then the B-section of “Anyone Can Whistle.” It happens so seamlessly that a first-time listener would assume they both parts belong to the same song.
Another surprise for long-time Broadway observers was finally getting the overture to 110 in the Shade. It was recorded in 1963 but unreleased until the CD debuted in 1990. Rumor had it that record producer Andy Wiswell felt that one trumpeter didn’t cleanly hit a certain note. My guess is that it’s the one that happens fifty-nine seconds into the overture. Listen for it.
I’ll make another guess: the trumpeter was not Dick Perry, the “boss of the brass,” as he was known. Hear his work on Do Re Mi, Jamaica, 42nd Street, and last but hardly least, Gypsy, in which he stood up and played those phenomenal burlesque licks. It may well be the reason why many think that Gypsy has the best overture of all time. But doesn’t it have lots of competition for that honor?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com