The opening ten minutes of a Broadway Musical are critical. Every great show has a great opening. Even if a musical gets the opening correct, the show can still fall apart. But, get the opening wrong and the show surely will fail. The audience’s expectations are sent in the wrong direction and once they realize that they have been misled, they will feel cheated.
The most important question that the opening number must answer is: What is the show about?
Since a musical play is a coalescence of book, music and lyrics, orchestrations, choreography, set design and lighting, if the creative team can’t agree to the answer to that question, odds are they won’t be able to persuade an audience.
Fiddler On The Roof got it right with its opening number. Tevye’s opening speech: “We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word – tradition.” The song begins: “Tradition! Tradition! Tradition!” It ends with: “Without our traditions, our life would be as shaky as…as a fiddler on the roof!” Guess what this show is about?
West Side Story begins with a musical ‘Prologue’ with the Sharks and the Jets dancing, miming and moving increasingly toward hostility with a Shark leader cutting off the ear of a Jet. A police whistle is heard in the background. You know how a tragic and brutal story will be presented in movement as much as anything else.
Gypsy begins with the stage filled with kids in homemade costumes trying to sing. Suddenly, from the back of the theatre, a rasping voice shouts, “Sing out, Louise!” Mama Rose, the ultimate stage mother, barges down the aisle. The principal character effectively hijacks her own show and disrupts the opening number. You now know what the show is about.
Most Broadway overtures are medleys of choruses of the big songs. Jule Styne in Gypsy took the overture seriously. He instructed the second trumpet to blow the roof off when they did ‘Let Me Entertain You’, a bump’n grind strip number. The audience applauded wildly. By the end of the overture, they were already on the show’s side.
Sweeney Todd lets you know what it’s about from the first word of the first line:
“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”
Guys and Dolls opens with three horse players in zoot suits arguing about which pony to bet on: ‘I got the horse right here! His name is Paul Revere.’ We know the story is about low life gamblers in New York.
My Fair Lady’s opening song ‘Why Can’t The English Learn To Speak?’ tells us the show’s about words and language
Crazy For You is a romantic fantasy featuring Gershwin songs. It’s theme is introduced in the second song: ‘I Can’t Be Bothered Now.’ Bobby states what’s important to him:
My bonds and shares
May fall downstairs
Who cares? Who cares?
I’m dancing and
I Can’t Be Bothered Now…
This lyric kick-starts the plot, establishes motivation and the spirit of the show. No wonder audiences love it. It’s my personal all-time favorite show. Gershwin music, lot’s of tap dancing and funny skits. Who could ask for anything more?
Stephen Sondheim realized that he had violated Rule One of Broadway musicals when preview audiences in Baltimore couldn’t relate to his show. They weren’t sure to laugh or not. The cure? Write another opening number. ‘Comedy Tonight’ became one of the great opening numbers in Broadway history. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum lasted 964 shows in its first New York run.
I am an unabashed theatre aficionado who has attended more then 650 stage plays ranging from local dramatic productions to major Broadway musicals. Over the last forty years, few shows have escaped my radar.
My First Rule for enjoying a Broadway musical show is to expect to enjoy the show. I go to a show secretly cheering for the actors. I empathize with the effort being presented. My willing suspension of disbelief is fine-tuned. When the curtain rises, I become transfixed with the action. There is no other place for me to be. I’m there, where I should be…one with the show. Try this. Expectations are powerful. You’ll enjoy more shows with this mindset.
Rule Two, listen to the entire soundtrack at least three times and read the booklet enclosed in the CD before seeing the show. This is also a great way to decide if you want to see a show. A CD is a lot less then a theatre ticket.
Never go to matinees because you can get understudies and audiences tend to be filled with noisy kids. Sophisticated patrons only attend plays on Wednesday, Friday or Saturday evenings. Since I follow this Rule, I have only seen an understudy once in over forty years of theatergoing.
Always sit on the main floor center about 25 rows from the orchestra pit. You must be close enough to see and hear the action. The closer you are to the stage, the more impact the performance has. Don’t be one of those who say, “I was too far away in the second balcony and I didn’t catch some things.”
Arrive early and read the Playbill/Stagebill. Read the play’s synopsis as well as the bios of the cast members and production staff. You’ll be amazed at the background of the participants.
Don’t fight the show. Leave your personal problems out in the lobby. Don’t compare the play to the movie or the book. Judge the show only after it ends. Judge the show for what it is. Ask yourself if it fulfilled your expectations. Did it entertain you? Let the show work its magic.
Let the show in. Be a sponge and let it saturate your senses, your emotions and your heart. Take a chance; the play will not let you down. I can count on one hand the shows that disappointed me.
Remember, if the show entertained you, it did its job.
A couple of more Rules that I learned over the years:
Most revivals are better then the original show because the talent level is higher today.
When you can’t decide which musical to see, pick the show that has legs (the longest running show). Can thousands of theatergoers be wrong?
Widen your range of shows to include traditional Broadway musicals, tap-dance shows, revues and operettas.
SEE AT LEAST ONE PLAY PER MONTH and don’t forget the Off-Loop theatre companies.
Now that you know the Rules for enjoying musical theatre all you have to do is get tickets to a show.
Enjoy! And remember…
“Everything’s coming up roses for you and for me.”
– Mama Rose, from Gypsy