Musings on... Overtures / by Ben Frost

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Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Not so long ago, before all of that, in the stories of Musical Theatre, there was also an Overture to kick things off. Not so often these days, I know, but there was a time when a proper musical introduction was considered an essential part of the evening’s entertainment. The Overture: when the houselights went to half and the orchestra struck up its own five minute showcase of the evening’s musical highlights, with melodies zinging hither and yon, one after the other - some immediately familiar, others new and exciting, and all of them gone in a moment, each quickly replaced with the next tantalising snippet before anyone has even a chance to hum along. In musical theatre of a certain vintage, the Overture is one of my favourite parts of the night. In the musical theatre of today, they’re something of a rarity. And, do you know what? There are times when I miss them. 

You see, the overture became rather unfashionable in the second half of the 20th Century. As the boundaries of musical theatre began to be broken down and the traditional rules were being tossed aside like so many Swatch watches from an Oscars party-bag, the overture was often abandoned as the creative team sought different and more inventive ways to begin their shows.

The Overture is defined as the piece of music that’s played at the beginning of a show, the first bit of the musical that you hear. Often a medley of the best music from the show, and a chance for the composer, arranger (see my earlier article!) and orchestrator to show off. It’s also a chance for the audience to settle into their seats, get comfortable and to begin to zone out the real world and to enter into the spirit of the evening. When the creators get it right the overture leaves you titillated, giddy with melody, and desperate to get to the story. Although if they get it wrong it can leave you rather bored, staring at a closed curtain, and desperate to get to the story for entirely different reasons.

In the days of musical comedy, really up until Showboat changed everything forever, the overture was only there as a signal for people to take their seats. The audience would come in from the bars, stub out their cigarettes and settle down, all the while continuing their conversations. In fact, shows used to be written that NO plot happened during the opening number in order to cater for latecomers: you could still catch up if you arrived ten minutes after the show started as nothing would have happened yet!

In ditching the overture, today’s creative teams have been forced to come up with a multitude of alternative ways to begin their shows. Their solutions are many and varied, and personal to the writers, but all of them have an immediate sense of the dramatic.

Take a look at the opening of A Chorus Line. The very first thing you hear is the familiar ‘da dah da da da da’ on the ‘rehearsal’ piano and the show starts immediately. They are dancing within five seconds and the story has started. We are paying attention straightaway.

How about Into The Woods? The houselights go down, we hear ‘Once upon a time’, and then the words, ‘I wish’. We’ve instantly got the ball rolling. 

Or The Phantom of the Opera. Not only does it not have an overture, it doesn’t even have an opening number! It opens cold on a dialogue scene at an auction, breaking every rule in musical theatre. But what it does do is draw you into the world immediately. You concentrate, you don’t know what’s going on, there is some mystical music.

A large number of shows from the last fifty years have one thing in common: a bold and quirky introduction. A dramatic start. Something that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go for two hours.

In many ways, this is Musical Theatre taking its lead from the “new” media of film and television. It’s no surprise, and eminently sensible, that, as TV and film have become the dominant ways of storytelling and entertainment, musical theatre has had to adjust its methods. Both TV and film are visual media and audiences have become used to always having something to look at. It’s no longer possible to just play music and to keep the audience’s attention. Where’s the storytelling? It’s interesting that over in the opera world, modern productions often now stage the overture and the interludes, meaning that there is action on stage during the music. These were pieces of music that were written to be played while the curtain was in, and for the audience solely to listen to. Cop out? No, just having to try harder to keep an audience’s attention.

Does this mean that Overtures are firmly an artefact of the past, obsolete in the mechanisms of modern story-telling? I don’t think so. Who knows what the future holds but, taking a look at our recent history, it seems like 21st century musicals are turning to face backwards somewhat: they are increasingly embracing older forms, and the Overture has made a minor comeback. Take The Producers, Spamalot, A Christmas Story, or Honeymoon in Vegas: they all have spell-binding old-fashioned overtures. On the other hand Parade, Dogfight, Road Show/Gold!, Sister Act, or Wicked: they just crack on with the story. Sondheim himself has Into The Woods start with a chord, yet has Merrily We Roll Along begin with the most traditional of overtures.

Either way, they all start with a bang and don’t let up. And that’s what we want from the theatre, right? So although I miss the grand-standing Overture, it doesn’t mean I want every show to begin with one - as long as the story grabs my attention, I’m in.

Ben Frost

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