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Best Broadway Overtures
Every great show begins with an Overture. At least that used to be true...
In the golden age of Broadway, the Overture was part of the essential criteria for putting together a show. Not only did it serve a very practical reason of settling the audience down before the on stage drama began, but it also set the mood of the show and helped showcase the upcoming score, giving the composer another chance to plant the seeds of their melodies into your minds in order for you to walk through the doors three hours later humming one of the soon to be hits.
In the 40s and 50s where the Billboard charts and Broadway were much of the same thing, the Overture acted as a perfect 'shop window' to highlight the main melodies, some of which may have already had cross over in the popular music charts and be recognisable to audiences. Attending revivals of shows such as 'Gypsy', 'Guys and Dolls' and 'Hello Dolly' where audiences come knowing a selection of numbers, Overtures have a much more nostalgic feel, and remind audiences of the great songs coming up and are often met with delight as audiences remember and recognise tunes they had forgotten they were expecting.
Imagine the excitement of sitting down to watch a brand new musical, be it Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman or Cy Coleman and hearing the Overture for the first time – a collection of the melodies yet to come. There literally can be no greater feeling of excitement and anticipation in musical theatre. The Lincoln Center's revivals of 'The King and I' and 'South Pacific' recognised this joy, beginning the show with an open stage, allowing the audience to watch the full overture (with original orchestrations) before the stage moved out over the top of them and the scenes began.
These days the traditional Overture is practically gone. Some composers begin with a 'Prelude', ('Next to Normal', 'The Visit' ), or an 'Introduction' to settle the audience and ease into the action, but more often than not directors choose to begin the show straight off the bat – diving straight into the first song or scene. Those shows that include the more traditional Overture tend to do so in a nostalgic way, using the convention to almost suggest a forgotten time or format, that in turn leads the audience to react in a certain way.
The recent Broadway musical Honeymoon in Vegas by Jason Robert Brown is one of the few new musicals that includes a traditional style Overture that uses a medley format to begin the show. Whilst the piece on the whole doesn't feel old fashioned, the style and structure of the show is certainly 'traditional' in the broadest sense, and so the inclusion of the Overture was a wise move.
A quick search in my iTunes shows I have over 225 Overtures listed, ranging from the classic to the contemporary. The shortest in the group is Elton John's Lestat which clocks in at 28 seconds, with the longest (discounting Opera and those Overtures that blend straight into the opening track) being On a Clear Day You Can See Forever which clocks in at a weighty 6 minutes and 16 seconds. Prizes to anyone who remembers that particular overture...
I decided to run down my favourite Broadway overtures of all time - a list that spans decades, the newest of which is Nine from 1982. Whilst this list isn't in order (come on, it's not 'Sophie's Choice'...), it's interesting to compare their sounds and structure. All but one heavily feature the brass section, with blaring trumpets fulfilling the basic function of an overture in the classical sense and preparing the audience for what is to come...
South Pacific - 1949
Without a doubt the greatest Rodgers and Hammerstein overture, spectacularly orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett. Not only does it manage to seamlessly introduce the many songs that would go on to become standards, but also creates a vivid musical description of the tropical setting - whisking audiences from the Majestic Theatre to the shores of the South Pacific.
Candide - 1956
By far one of the most dramatic and invigorating Overtures ever written for the stage, and a piece that holds its own in the classical music repertoire. Whilst the show may be remembered as being messy and incoherent, Bernstein's Overture is a true masterpiece and in many ways is more famous than the show itself.
Gypsy - 1959
No show has an Overture quite like this one. Jule Styne's beloved musical begins in the most powerful way possible and manages to establish the fun, humour and passion behind the entire show. Probably one of the most famous overtures of all time, nothing screams Broadway quite like this.
Sweet Charity - 1966
Cy Coleman's breakthrough musical begins with one of the most recognisable vamps in history. In what would go on to be Cy's most popular scores, this impressive overture captures the time and period perfectly. For a show that was credited as being the first to use electronic music in the pit, the sound was certainly ahead of its time.
On the Twentieth Century - 1978
A second entry for Mr Coleman comes from a show written over a decade later, despite sounding like an operetta from the 1920s. In a post 'Hair' Broadway, Coleman managed to bring a classical sound back to the pit - pushing and challenging voices with this highly amusing and effervescent hummable score that will stick in your head for days on end.
Merrily We Roll Along - 1981
The only Sondheim on the list - mainly because it's his only real traditional overture. Whilst many of his shows begin with a Prologue or Prelude, most of them dive straight into the action. Merrily however is the exception, and this glorious overture prefaces the melodies to come and sets the tone for the beautiful show.
Nine - 1982
Maurey Yeston begins the show with a sung overture named 'Overture Della Donna', or 'Overture of the Ladies', and that's exactly what it is. Here the characters swarm the stage and fill Guido's head with sumptuous sounds that will continue to reappear throughout the show. It's a bold and stunning move, and makes for a wonderful blend of the modern and traditional.
What's your favourite Broadway Overture? Let us know below!
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