And so, we arrive on Tony Awards Day with another example of an overture for a “retro” themed show, The Drowsy Chaperone. This was a rather self-aware, “meta” musical, spoofing the old-fashioned, frothy entertainments of the late 1920s. It did reasonably well on Broadway, playing at the Marquis Theater from May 1, 2006 to December 30, 2007 for a total of 674 performances. Nothing that was going to make the record books, but a nice, respectable run. Chaperone’s period-sounidng orchestrations were by Larry Blank. Blank has worked mostly as a musical director, doing uncredited work on some shows such as The Producers and Thoroughly Modern Millie before striking out on his own with this show. Subsequent work has included A Christmas Story: The Musical and Honeymoon in Vegas.
Meanwhile, take a moment to watch Sutton Foster (nominated that year for Best Actress in a Musical) show off:
So, evidently I can’t count. When my Overtures list hit 35, I carefully planned to start posting 35 days in advance of the Tony Awards. And then hit Day 35 two days early. (Whoops.) Happily enough, there are two more fine examples of Broadway overtures that I am happy to add to my list, which will now take us to Tony Award Sunday!
Continuing with my theory that the only new musicals with traditional overtures recently are “retro” shows which are set in the early days of Broadway, I present Thoroughly Modern Millie. An affectionate remake of the 1967 film starring Julie Andrews, it incorporates the movie’s title song (written by James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn) along with a couple of old chestnuts from the Roaring 20s into a brand new score by Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan. Orchestrations are by Doug Besterman and Ralph Burns, who died before the show opened on Broadway.
Millie was a reasonable hit, playing at the Marquis Theater from April 18, 2002 to June 20, 2004 for 903 performances. It won that year’s Tonys for Best Musical, Best Featured Actress (Harriet Harris), and Best Actress (Sutton Foster). Foster is a legitimate triple-threat of the old-fashioned variety, and won the role of Millie with a story straight out of 42nd Street. After the show had been workshopped with Kristen Chenoweth, who left the production to appear in a sitcom, the starring role went to Erin Dilly. But when Dilly was fired during previews, the role went to her understudy: Sutton Foster. She opened the show on Broadway to uniformly positive reviews, and was propelled to stardom.
Here it is: the juggernaut. Nominated for a then-record setting 15 Tony Awards (of which it won 12), winning in every single category in which it was nominated. (Fun Fact: the only major category The Producers wasn’t nominated in was Best Actress in a Musical—it fails The Bechdel Test in a big way—which was won that year by the marvelous Christine Ebersole for the revival of 42nd Street.)
The Producers played at the St. James Theater from April 19, 2001 to April 22, 2007 for a total of 2,502 performances (landing at #24 on the longest-running shows list). The West End production ran for over two years, and there were major US and UK touring productions. And then there was the film version, which is really only notable for capturing Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick’s performances and Susan Stroman’s choreography.
Keeping with the “retro” theme (being set in 1959), The Producers has a big splashy overture, orchestrated by Doug Besterman. Besterman is one of the new generation of Broadway orchestrators (born in 1965), getting his start working with Alan Menken on Disney’s Pocahontas before heading to Broadway and working on shows such as Big, Seussical, and Young Frankenstein.
Starting some time in the 1980s, overtures just started disappearing. Shows opened cold, maybe with a “Prologue” or something like that. It’s almost like the way TV shows started phasing out their theme songs. I wonder if it’s for the same reason, to shave a little running time? After all, a show that opens straight into a Prologue got started maybe five minutes earlier than if it had an overture. Cut the overture, more time for show.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, overtures in new shows tended for the most part to be in “retro” shows—shows which called back to the “old days” of Broadway. Crazy for You is a perfect example. Remember Girl Crazy, way back on Day One of this little list? Crazy for You is the remake. Kept some of the songs, re-wrote the libretto, kept the 1930s setting. Orchestrations for “The New Gershwin Musical Comedy” were by William D. Brohn, who also orchestrated Miss Saigon and The Secret Garden.
Crazy for You was a big, splashy hit in a period when new musicals weren’t thriving. It played at the Shubert Theater from February 19, 1992 to January 7, 1996 for a total of 1,622 performances, and won both the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for Best Musical. (It wasn’t eligible for Best Score, and lost Best Book of a Musical to Falsettos.) It was the first major hit for choreographer Susan Stroman (wife of the show’s director, Mike Ockrent), who would go on to choreograph the successful revival of Show Boat in 1994, and then take on the director/choreographer mantle (like Jerome Robbins, Gower Champion, Bob Fosse and Tommy Tune), directing Contact, the 2000 revival of The Music Man, and of course the record-breaking The Producers.
City of Angels is arguably the most successful Broadway show of the past 30 years to not receive a full-scale Broadway revival. Ostensibly that’s because of its relatively large cast, complex plot, elaborate costuming scenic design. Whatever. It’s long overdue for an exciting revival, and I can’t think of a better show to utilize new projection technologies. Plus it’s an awesome jazzy score that deserves to be heard.
City of Angels enjoyed a successful run at the Virginia Theater from December 11, 1989 to January 19, 1992 for a total of 879 performances, winning both the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for Best Musical, along with awards for Best Actor (James Naughton) and Best Featured Actress (Randy Graff).
Including this one is a bit of a cheat, because it’s not an overture, it’s the exit music. It speaks to a larger trend in musicals starting back even in the 1960s—a lot of shows no longer had a traditional overture. City of Angels is one of those shows. But its exit music may well be the best example of the genre in existence. From a Playbill.com article by Robert Simonson and Kenneth Jones:
In this perishable sub-genre of show music, the muscularly jazzy exit music from composer Cy Coleman and lyricist David Zippel’s City of Angels is a standout that musical theatre fans remember. In that instance, it was not cobbled together by a music director, but handcrafted by Coleman himself.
Playbill.com reached out to Zippel, and he explained the experience in an email: “It was ‘half-hour’ before a late preview of City of Angels and Cy Coleman had called all of the creators to come to a special band rehearsal. He was about to present the orchestra with the exit music he had written for the show, which the legendary Billy Byers had orchestrated, and he wanted us all to be present. The 16 players had been carefully selected by Cy, Billy and our contractor John Miller and they were the best of the best.
“This score was particularly personal to Cy as it was a jazz-based score for Broadway, something he had always wanted to write and he rightly felt that the band made an enormous contribution to the authenticity and excitement of the music. Cy thought of the exit music as a gift to the band and they received it as such. It was a swinging showcase for the players and every night, under the baton of Gordon Harrell, they jumped at the opportunity to bring down the house. The selection ends with a percussive, guttural shout by the players and they gave it their all just shy of 900 times.
“The audience responded from that preview on: rather than storm the exits, they crowded around the orchestra pit or stood at their seats and cheered when it was over. I have to admit, it was like a magnet for me and if I were anywhere near the theatre district at final curtain time I would show up just in time to hear these extraordinary guys blow their brains out.”
Me and My Girl took the long way to Broadway. It opened in London’s West End in December 1937, where it ran for 1,646 performances. A film version followed in 1939, and the show was even broadcast on television in 1939. It was revived in the West End in 1985 starring Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson (yes, that Emma Thompson), with book revisions by Stephen Fry. That production ran in for 3,303 performances, and transferred with its leading man to Broadway in 1986. (Actor’s Equity in both America and the UK worked out a trade whereby Lindsay was able to come to the US in exchange for George Hearne going to London for the West End production of La Cage Aux Folles.) The Broadway production also starred Maryanne Plunkett and Jane Connell, and played at the Marquis Theater from August 10, 1986 to December 31, 1989 for a total of 1,420 performances. Jim Dale replaced Robert Lindsay on Broadway, and Tim Curry led the lengthy National Tour. Noel Gay’s vintage score was orchestrated by Chris Walker.
“The Lambeth Walk” inspired a popular walking dance, done in a jaunty strutting style. When the stage show had been running for a few months, C. L. Heimann, managing director of the Locarno Dance Halls, got one of his dancing instructors, Adele England, to elaborate the walk into a dance. This dance version of “The Lambeth Walk” swept the country. The craze reached Buckingham Palace, with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth attending a performance and joining in the shouted “Oi” which ends the chorus. Having seen the choreography from the 1939 film, I’ve got to say I can get behind any dance whose main step is simply walking about in rhythm.
When Emma Thompson was cast in the West End revival in 1985, it provided a breakthrough in her career, as the production earned rave reviews. She played the role of Sally Smith for 15 months, which exhausted the actress; she later remarked “I thought if I did the fucking “Lambeth Walk” one more time I was going to fucking throw up.” You kiss your mother with that mouth, Emma?
(I really should have gotten more ahead on these before summer school started…)
I remember going to see the beautiful first national touring production of La Cage Aux Folles at the Dallas Summer Musicals in probably 1984. It was so lush and fabulous, and some of the stagecraft was breathtaking, and the whole thing scared my little closeted gay boy self to death. Looking back at it now, 30+ years later, the show seems downright wholesome! Look at The Producers, or (my god!) Kinky Boots in comparison now! But in 1983, a musical featuring a plethora of drag queens (what is the collective noun for drag queens?) and a pair of gay men as its protagonists, who don’t die or go crazy or go to prison, but walk into the sunset, hand-in-hand. It was nothing short of revolutionary.
La Cage played at the Palace Theater (the same as Judy Garland—how appropriate!) from August 21, 1983 to November 15, 1987 for a total of 1,761 performances. At the height of the AIDS epidemic and panic, this was no small feat. Jerry Herman’s most successful show in over 25 years after a string of disappointments through the 1970s, La Cage was orchestrated by Jim Tyler, a somewhat lesser-known orchestrator whose best-known score aside from La Cage was Over Here!, a “nostalgic reminiscence of the home front in World War II” starring Patty and Maxene Andrews of the famed Andrews Sisters, with music and lyrics from the Sherman Brothers (of Mary Poppins fame).
But I digress. At the 1984 Tony Awards La Cage beat out The Rink by Kander and Ebb and Sunday in the Park with George by Sondheim for Best Original Score, and from the podium Herman quipped:
This award forever shatters a myth about the musical theater. There’s been a rumor around for a couple of years that the simple, hummable showtune was no longer welcome on Broadway. Well, it’s alive and well at the Palace!
Mike drop. Needless to say, fans of the more “serious” new musicals (such as Sunday in the Park and The Rink) were not amused. (Of course, Sunday in the Park with George ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985, which I doubt La Cage was ever even considered for. So there’s that.)
I didn’t properly discover Nine until I saw the brilliantly-performed concert production staged by Lyric Stage of Irving in 2013. And then I was hooked. Lyric Stage’s production took the conceit of “the many women in Guido Contini’s life” one step further, by having the entire on-stage orchestra be composed of women as well. It was a beautiful evening showcasing a beautiful score.
Director Tommy Tune’s original production, a musicalization of Federico Fellini’s film 8½, played at the 46th Street Theater from May 9, 1982 to February 4, 1985 for a total of 729 performances. The beautiful orchestrations (including the sung-through overture) are by Jonathan Tunick.
I enjoyed Rob Marshall’s 2009 film version, specifically for its visuals and its costume design, although I understand the reservations some critics had with it. I would have loved to have seen the 2003 Broadway revival starring Antonio Banderas, specifically because it also featured by not-so-secret crush Laura Benanti singing the gorgeous “Unusual Way.” I could listen to her sing that song over and over. The 1992 British production starring Jonathan Pryce featured a cast of 165(!), including male characters (as the show was apparently originally conceived).
And because I love her performance of the song so much, enjoy Laura Benanti’s performance of “Unusual Way” from the 2003 revival cast recording.
Sondheim’s second most famous flop (#1 being Anyone Can Whistle, of course), Merrily We Roll Along has had almost as long and storied afterlife as Follies. Although it’s never had a full-fledged Broadway revival, it has had multiple outstanding productions mounted in both the US and UK. The 2012 UK production was broadcast to movie theaters, and the 2012 Encores! production came mighty close to transferring to Broadway (which would have been excellent, but would have gotten in Lin Manuel Miranda’s way of putting those finishing touches on Hamilton).
The production opened at the Alvin Theater on November 16, 1981 and closed on November 28, 1981 for a total of 16 performances. It played a whopping 44 previews, over 2½ times as many previews as actual shows. During previews (and out-of-town tryouts) the show famously changed its leading man (who apparently got markedly less applause during his curtain call than his co-stars), its choreographer, and changed its entire costuming plan. Nothing wrong here, everything’s fine, just keep smiling!
Sondheim continued with his most prolific orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick (they would take a little break from each other for both Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods), who went for a real showbizzy sound with the overture and the orchestrations. When “Good Thing Going” shows up, a French horn was added to the solo melody—but it’s written for solo tuba, which you can still hear underneath the horn. Who writes tuba solos in Broadway overtures? Jonathan Tunick, that’s who!
On the Twentieth Century has probably the greatest overture of any show of its time period. With music by Cy Coleman and orchestrations by Hershy Kay, it’s straight out of the era of the comic operetta, with flavors of Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml. And that overture! It’s a train trip from start to finish, with the steam engine blowing and the bell clanging and the strings churning. It’s an amazing feat of orchestration.
On the Twentieth Century had a successful run at the St. James Theater from February 19, 1978 to March 18, 1979 for a total of 449 performances. Star Madeleine Kahn dropped out of the production after only nine weeks, citing damage to her vocal cords. She was replaced by her understudy Judy Kaye, and the critics were invited back. According to The New York Times, “bang, boom, overnight [Kaye] is a star.” They praised her performance, and Kaye’s theatrical career took off. She later starred in the US tour opposite Rock Hudson, and won a Tony for her performance as prima donna Carlotta Giudicelli in The Phantom of the Opera. On the Twentieth Century was revived for a limited run in 2015 starring Peter Gallagher and Kristin Chenoweth.