Whatever happened to overtures? This musical theatre mystery is a hot topic, and Playbill is on a mission to uncover the answers for our readers.
Last week we hammered out how the purpose of the overture has changed throughout Broadway history. This week, Playbill met with celebrated Broadway dance arranger and music supervisor David Chase to get an expert's perspective.
Chase is one of the people that have shaped the sonic landscape of Broadway over the last 25 years. With 38 Broadway credits, including the original Broadway productions of Seussical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Billy Elliot—and landmark revivals of Kiss Me, Kate, Hello, Dolly!, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—his musical signature is embedded in many of the most beloved productions of the 21st century so far. Chase's next project will be the upcoming Broadway production of Back To The Future.
Dance arrangers are musicians who work with composers, directors, and choreographers to create additional music for a show's score, underscoring dance numbers and other movement sequences, depending on the production. That beautiful flourish timed exactly to a lift in your favorite dance number? That's the work of a dance arranger. A motif returning in a musical swell as two characters run across the stage in a passionate embrace? Most likely a dance arranger.
The examples are endless, and dance arrangers are only one piece of the extensive music department puzzle. Below, Chase talks about the changes he has seen take place in orchestra pits across the industry, overtures then and now, and how he helped revamp the overture for the 1999 Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate, now considered the production standard.
Playbill: So, David, where did the overture run off to?
David Chase: The big change came in 1943. Theatre music, throughout the 1920s and 30s, was popular music. Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, the goal of their overtures is to play you the hit tunes, so you remember them. And you go out and buy the sheet music. In 1943, Oklahoma! changed that.
Rodgers and Hammerstein knew they wanted to start the show differently. They still had the overture but, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" set the scene. Nobody thought the overture set the scene. They're using, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" to change your experience in the theatre, the show didn't really start until it began.
On their next show, Carousel, they used the "Carousel Waltz" to change your experience. It's really a dance prologue. Fast forward to West Side Story, and it's obviously the same thing: There's no overture, there's a prologue with dance. Creatives throughout the '40s and '50s and '60s, and even in the 70s, are thinking about what to do with their overtures,.
Yet in the collective consciousness of memory, people usually point to the 1970s as when things changed.
God, I wish [legendary music director and arranger] Bruce Pomahac was still alive. He knew all of this with such authority. Nobody was trying to make reimagined revivals until the 1970s. Before then, revivals were really re-mountings—although there were occasional exceptions, like the 1950 Pal Joey that rewrote the 1940 version because it didn't work the first time. By and large, there were no revivals, it was almost all new shows.
So by the time the 1970s revival boom arrived, the difference between the older shows and the newer shows was more obvious to audience members?
Exactly. Suddenly, people saw what had been happening for years.
As long as I've been working on Broadway, which is since 1992, I've seen people getting mad because the audience would talk during the overture. But [sitting and listening] was not what the overture was for. The overture was to tell the audience in the lobby, and the bathrooms, "Hey, hurry up, get in your seats, It's about the start. Here's some tunes you're about to hear, hope you like them."
The overture was never something you sat down and listened to in the golden age shows, that's a new idea. I remember Bruce showing me the original cello part for The King and I, and the overture that shows a long timeline. The cellist kept notes in the corner of each page: on what time he was to hit his marks; remember that curtain is at 8:30. What we learned from that is that the overture started at 8:24 or 8:25, and completed at 8:31 or 8:32.
It wasn't, "Oh, the show starts at 8:30, now we've started the overture." It was, "Oh, listen, they're playing the overture. We should go sit down. We've got a couple of minutes." I think that mentality changed in the '70s or '80s when there was less new theatre, and more people buying old cast albums, and getting back in touch with old shows. When we started the age of revivals, suddenly people knew those overtures, they expected them and they wanted them. Because of that, a lot of the '90s shows, like Crazy for You or anything that was trying to be like traditional shows, had overtures again.
Because people were familiar with these musical medleys, they became a feature, rather than background music. You've worked on several productions that wrote new overtures for golden age shows, haven't you?
Kiss Me, Kate is the obvious one. There was an overture that existed, but [director] Michael Blakemore very specifically did not want to start traditionally with the overture because so much of that show is about breaking the fourth wall in strange ways.
In the original show, after the overture played, the character of Fred came down to talk to the actual conductor. Blakemore wanted to take that further, and so that version of the show starts with a traditional ghostlight in the middle of stage, a stagehand comes out to start sweeping the floor, and slowly the stage hands prepare the stage while singing, "Another Op'nin', Another Show." And that builds and builds into an adaptation of what was the original overture.
We adapted the middle of, "Another Op'nin', Another Show" into a sort of overture, and used specific themes to introduce the characters. That takes planting the seeds about the songs one step further—which is to say when we see Lily, we're going to play "Wunderbar"; when we see Bianca, we're going to play, "Always True to You in My Fashion"; when we see Bill we're going to play, "Why Can't You Behave?" And so on. It's like their theme songs.
So really, it isn't a black and white question—to have an overture, or not?
You can't have a blanket statement saying, "There used to be overtures, now there aren't." I think it has always been a question of people with imaginative theatre ideas, saying, "How can we play with the audience? How do we get into a world of the theatre."
You simply need to introduce the audience to the world they're about to see. You can do an overture, or prologue, or anything really. There are a million versions of Guys and Dolls that just start a little piece of music and then you're into "Runyonland." But the original had a traditional overture, and then "Runyonland."
Many think something like "Runyonland" or the "Carousel Waltz" are overtures. They're not overtures. At least, certainly not a traditional overture. Follies is another great example of a piece of music—Follies is, to me, the direct descendant of the "Carousel Waltz." The opening, the melody that used to be "All Things Bright and Beautiful"—it's called the "Prologue," but it's how they introduce the audience to the world that they're going into.
The classic one that really threw all the chips in the air was A Chorus Line. And that had a very specific point, which is you can't have an overture because the coup de théâtre is that the audience doesn't know there's an orchestra. Michael Bennett specifically didn't want the audience to see there was an orchestra, so the orchestra pit was completely covered in black and he wanted it to be a surprise when the orchestra comes in after you've just heard rehearsal piano only.
That wall of sound is one of the most iconic openings in musical theatre history.
That's a brilliant coup de théâtre, in the sense of taking your expectations of, "Oh, we're in a rehearsal. We're in an audition. Where are we?" And then suddenly, with that moment, you enter theatricality. Everything up to that moment is "perfectly real." It's people, it's dancers, diagetically dancing, because they're auditioning for a director. And you have a rehearsal pianist playing the dance combination. There's nothing remotely not literal, up to the point the orchestra comes in. I can't imagine how shocking that must have been to the first audience at The Public Theater [Off-Broadway].
It's amazing to think that it has been nearly 50 years since Bennett blew people away with that choice.
We have been experimenting in the theare with how the show starts for a long time. The main purpose of the overture, to plant these numbers in heads and get the audience to their seats, is something I think we've lost. I'll give you three main reasons why.
One is that we're no longer popular entertainment, in the sense that we're not trying to sell these songs as pop songs when we're in the theatre, or at least that's not the goal.
Another is that, because of all of the various economic changes, we no longer have an orchestra pit physically, in most theatres. Most theatres were built megaphone style, they have a big open pit and you can see the conductor and you could see the orchestra play. That was an event in and of itself. Around the '80s and into the '90s is when most theatres lost their orchestra pits—they have pits, but they're much deeper, they're much more covered, or they're backstage and you can't see them, or you can barely see the conductor's top of their head. When the audience can see the orchestra, they perceive it differently.
The other big thing is financial consideration. The size of orchestras is much, much smaller than it used to be. In many revival shows that I have done, the original show traditionally would have had 24 to 26 players, which was the Broadway standard. You can make a lot more sound with 24 or 26 players than with 10 or 14. Obviously, it's different if you're in a rock band situation. But for a traditional score, 24 to 26 was an incredible compromise, because it was kind of a mini symphony orchestra. They already felt that that was too small. But that's the sound that we got used to as the Golden Age of Broadway. People are used to hearing cast recordings with 25 or 26 players, and they might have even added strings for that cast recording. But these days, you're lucky to get half that. I don't think you can do an overture now, without having that larger orchestra.
Things change. It's part of why we go to the theatre: If audiences are happy, then we've done our job, overture or no.