Brazen Overtures

Brazen Overtures

There is nothing better than settling into your seat for a piece of musical theatre and drifting away into the expertly arranged collage of melodies that will indoctrinate you into the score.  I miss the Broadway overture and often wonder why this technique of familiarizing the audience with the music (BEFORE the story starts) is so underutilized nowadays. So much is said about contemporary scores being unmemorable and that you just don't walk away from the theatre humming the tunes anymore. 

This is nonsense. 

In the "old" days, the overture made the music familiar to you. When you heard a melody later in the show, it was already recognizable. Reprises and scene change music reinforced these melodies so that, by the time you walked out into Times Square, you were humming the melodies. A simple trick that is highly effective. When executed well, the overture becomes a startling piece of music unto itself. Through the efforts of a clever orchestrator, the overture becomes an event, an electrified quasi-symphony that ignites the musical that it precedes.  

In today's installment of "The Music That Makes Me Dance", I will discuss my ten favorite overtures and explore why I find them so mesmerizing and infectious. It is hard to say what are the "Ten Best" as each person has their own criteria, but as for me, the criteria are as follows:

  • The overture has to convey the mood and style of the piece, giving me a strong sense of the musical I am about to see.
  • The overture has to explore the possibilities of the musicians in the pit. A highlighted trumpet solo, a haunting use of a French horn, or even a tuba pumping away beneath the melody, painting with glorious sound combinations.  
  • The overture has to have a certain audacity, a brazenness in how it confidently asserts the music for the first time.     
  • Most of all, the overture has to get the pit of my stomach twirling with anticipation, giving me that same lurch of butterflies one experiences just before a rollercoaster makes its first big dip.

With those criteria in place, I shall lift my conductor's baton and start with a strong downbeat.     

My Top-Ten Favorite Overtures

10. My Fair Lady

When I speak of that stomach twirling and the inciting of excitement for the musical to come, My Fair Lady is the first overture that comes to mind. The frantic, staccato build of the melody of "You Did It" as it evolves into the exquisite, sweeping release of "I Could Have Danced All Night" is euphoric. There is a terrific balance between playfulness and lushness that sets you up for the story to come.   

9. On the Twentieth Century

This overture is especially delightful in how it uses the instruments in the pit to capture the sounds of a moving train. Since the musical takes place aboard a luxury locamotive as it races down the tracks, this effect is perfect. We hear the melodies to come, but we also feel the movement of the train. Puffs of steam, the hitting of the breaks, the clickety-clack of the machine moving over the rails all punctuate Cy Coleman's lovely music.  

8. Nine

A unique take on the overture, Nine has an entirely sung one. Movie director Guido Contini, a womanizer who manipulates the women in his life to varying ends, steps out as the conductor and begins to conduct these ladies like they are musical instruments. For a character who treats women like objects, the overture has the double effect of introducing the premise while luring the audience into Maury Yeston's complex musical world.  

Raul Julia and the original cast of Nine.

7. Golden Rainbow

Hardly anyone listens to (or has spent much time with) Golden Rainbow. It's a shame. No, it is not one of the great musical scores, but it is joyous in fits and starts. Where it is the most captivating is in its overture, setting up the brash and bold world of Las Vegas, with orchestrations that are zippy and effective. Indeed, if the musical had been as exciting as its overture, it may have been a bigger success.  

6. Mame

Some people might opt to celebrate Hello, Dolly! in this slot, but I have always been partial to the fizzy, champagne laden overture of Mame. Everything about it screams the show's mantra "Life is a banquet and most sons-of-bitches are starving to death." Lots of brass, and lots of infectious melody, it transitions beautifully to the bold, torchy strains of "If He Walked Into My Life," before settling into a downhome arrangement of the title song, complete with a plinking banjo sound and southern charm. 

5. Funny Girl

The overture of Funny Girl jolts me throughout. The zippy arrangements are alive, with energy punctuated by bursts of brass instrumentation. The overture makes the atypical character of Fanny Brice materialize through music. It expertly wends its way through the show's melodies, but in an unusual way. As some overtures more carefully transition from one melody to the next, the Funny Girl overture seems to have each melody grow out of the last one. It's hyperkinetic, just like Fanny was onstage.   

Sydney Chaplin and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.

4. Me and Juliet

There are many Rodgers and Hammerstein overtures to appreciate, and believe me when I say that I do. Me and Juliet, for some reason, is my favorite one to listen to. The most irresistible portion is the pulsing that comes in the section that features the melody to "Marriage Type Love." There is something to the energy that it creates that makes me excited about the show to come. It teases and tantalizes us. The show may not have been a hit, but it is full of expertly constructed Rodgers' melodies that are at their best in the overture. Here is a show that needs a new recording a la Allegro and Pipe Dream.  

3. Gypsy

For most of you, this probably tops the list of favorite overtures, and rightfully so. The first few bars of it, the rolling of the drums and that singular trumpet blaring out the "I Have a Dream" motif is striking, promising something truly special. Every melody comes across even more exciting than they do in the show proper. The section of "You'll Never Get Away from Me" is especially glorious, slipping back and forth between jaunty playfulness and a creamy romanticism. 

Tyne Daly performing "Rose's Turn" in Gypsy.

2. Promises, Promises

Maybe it sounds dated to some, but I think there is something so charged and rousing in the electric sound that permeates this overture. It is relentless, and over the top, but so is this musical's premise and score. Burt Bacharach hails from the world of popular music, so of course this overture was going to have a unique flavor, unlike prior Broadway musicals. The portion that bolds launches into "Knowing When to Leave" is, perhaps, one of the most stimulating in all overture history.   

1. The Music Man

And speaking of "brazen overtures," the parum-pum-pum, rat-a-tat roll of the drums that sparks the marching band rhythm at the beginning of The Music Man is dauntless. The overture takes command of the audience and has them marching along with the story from the moment the conductor lifts his baton. We become one with the marching band, celebrating in the brassy melody as is it evolves into each and every infectious melody of the show's better-known tunes. It's also a musical that celebrates the power of music to change people and this overture captures that glorious concept. 

Those are my picks. What would you add to the list? Get out your cast albums and have a day that is entirely devoted to the "brazen overtures" you love and tell me what gets under your skin!    

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