By Peter Filichia
I once asked Charles Strouse if he expected that “Baby, Talk to Me” would be Bye Bye Birdie’s big hit.
After all, it was the first featured song in the overture, placed and played with such authority that it seemed to say “This is the one, folks. This is the one you’ll remember and love.”
Strouse said, “Yes, that’s precisely what I and everyone else thought.”
It didn’t happen. “Put on a Happy Face,” also included in the overture, was such a big hit that Strouse eventually used it as the title of his memoir.
But there was another hit tucked away in Birdie: “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” which is nowhere to be found in the overture. Did orchestrator Robert “Red” Ginzler exclude it because he didn’t like it? Did he not recognize a hit when he heard it?
Well, Ginzler is not alone. Many orchestrators of overtures also didn’t anticipate that certain songs would step out of the show and be big hits.
In making this survey, I decided that the actual word “Overture” would have to be on the recording to count. That eliminated any musical with an “Opening” (Your Own Thing), “Introduction” (Porgy and Bess), “Prologue” (Follies), “Prelude” (Song of Norway) or “Preludium” — a word many us have only seen once in our lives: on The Sound of Music original cast album.
But even there, can we believe an album whose first track is labeled “Overture” when it really doesn’t seem to have one? Take Damn Yankees, whose “overture” offers one song — “The Game” – for all of thirty-two seconds. Was that the extent of the overture in the theater? Did the powers-that-be not infer that “(You Gotta Have) Heart,” “Whatever Lola Wants” and, to a lesser degree, “Two Lost Souls” would be hits? Or were they actually in the overture, and there was just not enough room on the so-called “long-playing record” to include them?
In classic terms, a “real” overture is a glorified medley. Part of its job is to include a would-be hit to whet an audience’s appetite so that the crowd can easily welcome it when it shows up later in the score. So what I’m looking for here are instances when those creating overtures actually underestimated a song’s potential popularity and thus didn’t include it.
For that matter, we can’t even be certain that what we’re hearing on a recording is the actual overture that was played in the theater. The overture to Flora, the Red Menace was actually the musical’s entr’acte. But one would think that a show’s hit song would show up in the entr’acte, too, so the point still holds.
Other shows had overtures that didn’t make it to the recording. Long-playing record buyers didn’t hear the overture to 110 in the Shade when the album was released in late 1963; they had to wait for more than a quarter-century until its CD release to hear its overture. Still, the recordings we have are the best indications.
But what exactly is a “hit song”? I’m not limiting the definition to songs that had million-selling records, such as “Small World” by Johnny Mathis or “Hello, Dolly!” by Louis Armstrong. A song needn’t have had a famous recording made by a certain individual to be termed a hit. My definition of a hit: a song that millions of Americans – not thousands or even hundreds of thousands, but millions — came to know. It could be something they heard on a TV show, a jukebox, between innings at a ballgame, at a bar-mitzvah, in an elevator – or from a good ol’ recording that some artist put on his album. But in any case, it’s a song that a substantial portion of the population came to know.
I eliminated overtures for second-hand scores from jukebox musicals (All Shook Up) to musical movies later adapted for the stage (42nd Street). These shows trotted out their ace-trump hits early and often to let their audiences exclaim “Oh! We’re gonna hear this tonight? Great!”
There is, however, one big exception to that rule: Gigi. The 1973 version of the 1958 movie had a three-minute overture that eschewed “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” “The Night They Invented Champagne” and the famous title song in favor of new songs that Lerner and Loewe had penned. Unfortunately, none of the new songs reached hit status.
There may well be another reason why certain hits didn’t get included in overtures: they were written too late, perhaps during the show’s tryout or preview period, long after the overture had already been set. That may very well be why we don’t hear “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (Promises, Promises) or “Getting to Know You” (The King and I) in their shows’ overtures.
I’m guessing that the reason “I Enjoy Being a Girl” doesn’t appear in Flower Drum Song’s overture is because Rodgers believed more in “You Are Beautiful.” Note that it appears at both the beginning and the end of the show. Guessing again: Frank Loesser had grand intentions for The Most Happy Fella, so he probably ordered an overture that sounded sweepingly important — thus eliminating such musical comedy “numbas” as “Big D,” “Joey, Joey, Joey” and “Standing on the Corner.”
“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” don’t show up in My Fair Lady’s, while the less popular (but arguably more stirring) “You Did It!” did. “We Need a Little Christmas” isn’t in Mame’s overture, but the holiday itself is what helped make this a well-known song. And “Together Wherever We Go” isn’t in Gypsy’s overture – although I suspect nobody’s going to complain the way that that overture turned out.
Others? “And This Is My Beloved” (Kismet), “Bidin’ My Time” (Girl Crazy), “I Believe in You” (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), “Feelin’ Good” (The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd).
What’s interesting about the last-named is that “The Joker,” “Who Can I Turn To?” were included in the overture and indeed became hits – but they haven’t had the staying power that “Feelin’ Good” has had. And as long as there are advertisers who want consumers to believe that their product will start making people “feelin’ good,” this song will probably go on now and forever.
And finally, there’s “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music. Wait, you’re saying, Night Music doesn’t have an overture, but starts with five cast members singing. True, but Stephen Sondheim says that what they’re singing is indeed an overture. And who am I to disagree?