“Overture . . . Dim the Lights”:
The Fifteen Best Broadway Overtures
Oh the overture- that magical moment at the beginning of play when you settle in and get ready to be entertained. Well, Thomas S. Hischak, author of The Oxford Companion To The American Musical: Theatre, Film and Television has highlighted the 15 best overtures below. Hischak is a Professor of Theatre at the State University of New York College at Cortland. He is the author of sixteen books on theater, film, and popular music as well as the author of twenty published plays. In The Oxford Companion To The American Musical Hischak offers over two thousand entries on musicals, performers, composers, lyricists, producers, choreographers and much more.
Does anybody remember musical theatre overtures? You know, those medley of songs you only hear now at the beginning of revivals. They don’t write them anymore. Audiences today seem too impatient to sit through eight to twelve minutes of music when they are anxious to get the show on the road. But in the past the overture to a Broadway musical was a glorious thing. They got your adrenaline going as you heard tidbits of the score, sometimes recognizing a popular tune that was on the radio or other times discovering new hit songs for the first time. When they stopped writing overtures for Broadway, somewhere in the 1960s, they took away an opportunity for anticipation and recognition and found nothing to replace it with.
Overtures go back to opera and were standard with operettas before musical comedies found the value of warming up the audience with selections of the score. Rarely was an overture put together by the show’s composer. Usually the music arranger selected what melodies were to be fashioned into an instrumental sampling and the orchestrator figured out how to blend the various tunes together in an effective manner. The best overtures gave the audience the flavor of the show, be it lush and romantic, as with “Brigadoon,” exotic and mystifying as in “Kismet,” or silly and playful, as with “No, No, Nanette.” Perhaps it was “Carousel” in 1945 that signaled the waning of the Broadway overture. Rodgers and Hammerstein opted for a musical prologue to set up the story and characters of “Carousel” and it was so effective that others started to consider alternatives to the traditional overture. In the 1960s, such hits as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cabaret,” “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and “Hair” all did very nicely without an overture. By the 1970s you only heard overtures in musical pastiches such as “On the Twentieth Century” and “Annie.” By the new century an overture in a new musical was a very rare thing indeed. Mel Brooks wrote and recorded one for “The Producers” and it got laughs when “Springtime for Hitler” was heard. But audiences were too anxious to sit through the whole overture so it was reduced to a musical introduction and the curtain went up.
All the same, I still cherish the traditional musical theatre overture and salute the ones that were so potent that they became showpieces in themselves. I’ve narrowed down my favorites to fifteen. These deserve attention because they did what a great overture should do: prepare the audience for a very specific theatre experience. In chronological order, they are:
1. “Very Good Eddie” (1915) A musical rarely done today, but recordings of this early Jerome Kern musical reveal that the great musical comedy overture was already in place by World War One. Like the show, the overture was contemporary, refreshing, and sparkling.
2. “Oh, Kay!” (1926) The number of Gershwin brothers’ hits in this musical make it my favorite of their many overtures. When the mood of an overture can shift from the silly “Do Do Do” to the heartbreaking “Someone to Watch Over Me,” it is quite an accomplishment.
3. “Show Boat” (1927) Kern’s greatest score easily lends itself to a superb overture. But it is brilliant on many fronts. Notice how the somber “Ol’ Man River” is played fast and upside down for the rhythm section. Who else but Kern would do that, knowing most listeners would never notice?
4. “On Your Toes” (1936) My favorite Rodgers and Hart overture because the battle between classical music and jazz, essential to the plot and score, is right there in the overture.
5. “Annie Get Your Gun” (1946) It not only has more hit songs than any other Irving Berlin show, but this overture holds together so well it feels like a medley of the Best of Broadway all in one composition.
6. “Kiss Me, Kate” (1948) Cole Porter’s best score is well served by this flowing overture that easily switches from operetta schmaltz to brassy big band.
7. “South Pacific” (1949) The Rodgers and Hammerstein overture that is the most effective, in my opinion. From those ominous three notes of “Bali Hai” to the melodic romance of “Some Enchanted Evening,” this overture is a masterwork.
8. “Damn Yankees” (1955) Perhaps the quintessential musical comedy overture of the 1950s, this medley bursts with energy and joy. It does what Bob Fosse’s choreography does in the show: reject gravity and seriousness.
9. “Candide” (1956) The original show may have been an undeserved flop but the overture was a hit and is still played in concerts around the world more than any other Broadway overture. It’s easy to see why. The piece is a musical feast.
10. “My Fair Lady” (1956) Although it uses the show’s least famous song, “You Did It,” as its musical signature, this overture is a masterpiece of mood setting and anticipation. Maybe the arranger thought “You Did It” would be a hit. Regardless, it works marvelously in the overture.
11. “The Music Man” (1957) Marches were always a standby in operetta but no other musical comedy uses them so effectively as in the Meredith Willson score. That influence is heard in the show’s rousing overture as well.
12. “Gypsy” (1959) Legend has it that the audience stood and cheered at the first performance of this riveting overture. I tend to believe it because the overture still packs a wallop. In the opinion of many, this is the greatest Broadway overture of all.
13. “Hello, Dolly!” (1964) Jerry Herman wrote a conventional score for this hit show and, just as the old-fashioned quality of the songs are irresistible, so too is the overture.
14. “On the Twentieth Century” (1978) When train smoke gushes out of the orchestra pit during the opening chords, you know some one still loves the overture in the 1970s. Cy Coleman’s music is a carnival of sounds and it’s all heard in this wonderful medley.
15. “Nine“(1982) No one was writing overtures by the 1980s but Maury Yeston used the old convention in a new way: the medley was vocalized by all the women in the cast. Like much of the show, it was a gimmick but one that was very pleasing.
Honorable Mention: “The Fantasticks” (1960). Harvey Schmidt’s overture for this long-running Off-Broadway classic is unique. It is the only theatre overture I know of in which none of the songs from the score are heard in the overture. Instead Schmidt composed an instrumental piece that bubbles with the charm and playfulness of the score to follow.