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musicals without beginnings

One of my favorite musicals, The Drowsy Chaperone, begins with an overture.

Only sort of, though. Technically, it begins with a character speaking from a dark stage to a dark audience. He reminisces about an age when shows were sparkly and glamorous, all escapism and bright tunes that transported you away—an age when shows had overtures. “It’s the show’s way of welcoming you,” he says, a “musical appetizer,” and one that—he laments to say—is becoming less and less common.

It’s true. Hamilton (a very recent show taking Broadway by storm in terms of attendance and reviews alike) does not have an overture. Neither does In The Heights, another show by the same creator, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2008. Neither, in fact, did the 2015 winner, Fun Home, nor the 2014 winner, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, nor the 2013 winner Kinky Boots, nor the 2012 winner Once… You have to go back to 2005—that’s a solid decade—to find a Best Musical winner with an overture, and that was Monty Python’s Spamalot. I haven’t seen any stagings of the show, let alone the Broadway version, but a forum post I found online suggests that the overture includes a lot of sound effects and the conductor shooting a renegade trumpet player. Hardly your traditional musical appetizer.

The New York Times ran an article in 2006 (“Whatever Happened to the Overture?”) about the disappearance of the overture, and a central conceit was that there has been a shift in the way we view the music aspect of musicals. Listening to an overture while watching an empty stage feels like waiting for something to happen; once, we would have felt that the music itself was something happening. We no longer listen carefully to what instrumental music is expressing; now we rely on words or gimmicks when overtures do occur to set the tonal stage for the show.

The shift started, the article explains, when the musical began to draw away from the operetta, leaning more towards storytelling and less towards spectacle, and continued with the advent of the pop opera. Pit orchestras have been moved onto the stage or out of the room. Music grows more modern, and orchestration has been inching more and more towards synthesizers. Even with recent shows that are more melodic, the trend has persisted. It is no longer just about the music. We like the cold open, now: being dropped into the audition room in A Chorus Line, or lights up on Washington Heights and the action in In The Heights. Music is waiting, and shows are meant to start.

I should confess here that my favorite shows are not the old ones. The ones that have a hold on my heart mostly don’t have overtures. The thing that grabs me about them is the power of the story being told and the strength of the format as a compelling way to tell it. My grandmother, on the other hand, loves musicals too, but her favorites are all the old ones with their lush sweeping music. She may find them compelling, but their primary lure is in their scope and extravagance. They evoke something older and more romanticized, an aura of escapism. They have overtures.

Musicals are all still transporting, of course; this is the point of any good piece of creative storytelling. I would argue, though, that escapism is far less universal as a purpose of modern shows. It and spectacle have waned in tandem. Many musicals, especially the comedic ones, are absolutely still escapist, but they are the ones that still have a firm hold on the spectacular anyway. There are also now shows that present themselves as spectacles but ultimately use their outsize and captivating nature to drive home a point (see: Pippin). But while these shows chug along, there has also been a huge upswing in shows where the point is ultimately some sort of catharsis. I don’t think that anyone could argue that Fun Home, this year’s Best Musical winner, is really about escaping to another world. Instead, it gives you the sense of elevated understanding and peace that having cried yourself out can give, about a story that isn’t yours. It can shape you. (My favorite shows are often this way. Call me sentimental. That’s fine; I own that. But I believe, deeply and strongly, that there is great value in emotive shows that make us think about what it means to us to be alive.)

Here’s another confession: I haven’t seen Fun Home yet. All I have done is listen to the soundtrack. And there is where I think that the point of view which laments the loss of the overture is too jaded. It bemoans ultimately our loss of appreciation for music, sacrificed on the altar of needing to skip to the story. The modern attention span and so on.

Honestly, I think that’s sort of silly. It’s one more instance of the past looking at the present and lamenting what has changed: understandable, but relentlessly and one-dimensionally downbeat about the differences. If there is a cohort of fans listening to musical soundtracks at home without a show onstage to entertain them, then the musical aspect of the musical is not dead, not dying. The way we appreciate it has simply changed. It lives in tandem with a story now.

Musical cues are still relevant and revealing, and audiences still access them to appreciate the show, only now appreciation is tied in more deeply in with the story. Les Mis would be a much weaker show without recurring musical themes to tie scenes and characters together (for example, the parallel melodies between “Who Am I?” and “Javert’s Suicide”). In The Heights uses varying musical styles including rap and salsa to shape the very world where its action turns, and the styles of the characters’ songs influence the way we see them, their identities, and their relationships.

It’s worth noting that the music of musical theatre can now be appreciated in multiple ways. When the overture was at its peak, so was the record as a method of listening to music. Albums were more holistic, and the sequence of songs was a relatively set thing. Now, with mp3s, I can listen to any single song from a show whenever I’d like to. I do, often—the number of times I listened to “No One Is Alone” after this spring’s commencement week production of Into The Woods is off the charts—but what I really prefer is to listen to shows in sequence. Listening to a soundtrack, tied closely as it is to plot and story, is instantaneous musical theatre.  It’s why I listen to Fun Home even though I haven’t seen it yet, and it’s why I’ve listened to The Drowsy Chaperone through in order time after time. It isn’t being there or watching the show, but it’s something close.

There’s another and less-discussed way of experiencing shows now as well, and that’s the bootleg. Broadway still does not put out videos of its productions, but as video devices have gotten smaller and their video/audio quality have improved, the number of available recordings on the internet has exploded. The popularity of these recordings also attests to the fact that  musical theatre fans want to experience shows holistically. People lament the disappearance of the overture as heralding a loss of appreciation for music, but there’s a lot of instrumental music out there. That’s not what we turn to musical theatre for. It exists for the story.

It’s still nice to be welcomed to the theatre by an overture, of course. It’s a preview for what is to come, an announcement of what the show will be. It’s comforting to have that liminal time to sink into the show. And maybe the overture will come back. I would be thrilled.

But for now, musical theatre is about the story. Music is just as integral as it has always been, but this is so because it guides us willingly into the narrative. Musical theatre has always been meant to transport. In the words of the main character from The Drowsy Chaperone, “It does what a musical is supposed to do… it takes you to another world. And it gives you a little tune to carry in your head.” The songs from a show are not only there to welcome you to the theatre; they’re to take with you when you leave.

So we bring the songs with us, and when we return to them, we don’t need to be welcomed to the theatre. There’s no overture. Curtain up. Let’s begin.