Whatever Happened to Overtures? | Playbill

Special Features Whatever Happened to Overtures?

Playbill investigates the absence of the once-ubiquitous opening to a musical (it's partially Sondheim and Star Wars' fault).

Richard Rodgers conducting the 2,000th performance of Oklahoma! on Broadway Courtesy of The New York Public Library

There was a time when attending a Broadway musical had a predictable preamble.

When you walked through the door, your ticket would be torn by a taker in the lobby before you were led to your seat. There, you could settle in until the lights dimmed, and the orchestra swelled. In the darkness, you and your fellow audience members would be transported by the melodies of the musical you were about to see, getting a sneak peek at the songs you would be singing upon your exit. By the time the curtain rose, you would be on the edge of your seat, ready to witness the world that such intoxicating melodies were born from.

At least that's the romantic notion. In reality, mid-century overtures served dual purposes: while they did set the stage for the show, they also served as a 5- to 10-minute warning for audience members to get to their seats. Whereas today, most theatres utilize a bell or chime system, as well as a dimming of the lights to instruct patrons to take their seats, overtures were not dissimilar to the opening credits of a mid-century film: well-crafted enough to be enjoyed, but also providing a buffer for last-minute patrons. In archival audience recordings of many mid-century musicals, it is not unusual to hear patrons talking over the overture, finishing their conversations prior to taking their seats.

Our decadent remembrance of overtures has become something of a calling card for those that are nostalgic for the theatre-going experience of olde. The absence of overtures from many modern musicals is a sign many can point to of how things have changed. 

But where exactly did the overture go?

Once ubiquitous, overtures fell out of fashion in the early 1970s, with the increased popularity of musicals based in realism. Perhaps the most famous example is 1975's A Chorus Line, which opens on a stark stage and a rehearsal piano pounding out an audition combination before the hidden orchestra roars to life during the audition itself. To play an overture was to signal to an audience that they were now “at the theatre.” By stripping it away, it gave shows a more realistic tinge, as if the curtain had simply risen on a world that was always in motion.

The decline in overture popularity coincided with a sharp change in film credits. In 1977, George Lucas was fined $100,000 by the MPAA for putting the credits on the back end of Star Wars. He opted to pay the fine rather than reverse the change. And soon, expensive and elaborate title sequences became a thing of the past in the film industry, with visually arresting opening scenes becoming the norm.

Artistic considerations were not the only cause. Broadway is primarily a commercial business, and financial considerations must be made. As orchestras became slimmer and slimmer, overtures began to sound less impressive. After all, a symphonic arrangement is going to sound rather thin without a symphony. 

Additionally, overtures often added minutes to a show’s runtime, which could spell disaster for a show that was skirting the overtime cutoff—the maximum amount of time theatre workers can be in a theatre before they had to be paid overtime (Les Miz famously cut 14 minutes from the show itself to cut down on overtime costs).

When they were first devised, overtures were a critical piece of a show's marketing. In the days where showtunes and popular music were synonymous, the melodies you left the theatre humming were the songs you would buy at the music shop the next day. Psychologically, the more often you hear a melody, the easier it is for it to stick in your mind. By playing the soaring chorus of the show's big love ballad in the overture, your ear would recognize the tune once it came up within the context of the show. And you might even hear it a third time via an Act II reprise. In a time before cast recordings could be streamed upon exiting the theatre, implanting these earworm melodies in audience members ears was crucial to keeping the show at the front of their mind when the time came to purchase an LP, or the sheet music, for the show.

Casting director Joanna Merlin, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, director Harold Prince and book writer George Furth during casting session for the Broadway musical Merrily We Roll Along. Martha Swope (Courtesy of the New York Public Library)

By the 1970s, this ear-worm marketing tactic had begun to grate on composers. In Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, during "Opening Doors," lead characters Frank and Charley meet with a producer who urges them to write "a tune you can hum." Sondheim buttons the sequence with the producer exiting, humming an exaggerated pastiche of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Some Enchanted Evening": one of the best-selling reams of sheet music in the history of the American musical, which features prominently in South Pacific's overture. Sondheim, one of the most respected artists in the history of musical theatre, favored opening sequences rather than overtures. As his influence became a touchstone for composers that came after him, they followed his lead.

As Broadway has progressed into the 21st century, rock- and pop-influenced scores have risen in popularity, the majority of which have no need for the convention of overtures. How many popular music concerts have you been to that open with searing lights and raucous cheers, compared to a gentle medley of the music you're there to experience?

Overtures have become symbols of a bygone era. In fact, many overtures heard on Broadway today are either in revivals, or musicals that have patterned themselves to be old-fashioned—throwbacks to the artistic traditions of yesteryear. Of the new musicals that opened on Broadway in 2022, only two came close to having overtures: Some Like It Hot and Paradise Square.

Who knows! Maybe overtures will have a sudden resurgence in coming years. Maybe artists will discover a whole new way of opening a show that will enchant us just as overtures did in the 20th century. Either way, remember to take your seat. The show is about to begin!

Below, listen to some of our favorite overtures. We guarantee they will have you going, "bum-bum-bum-di-dum."

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