Interval Issues: A show of two halves
One of the greatest problems in constructing a musical is the structure. Despite having the topic, plot and characters all in place, the hardest decision seems to be in what order to let it unravel. Traditional musical theatre post-Oklahoma! developed a fairly rigid structure that few book writers strayed from – the reason mainly being, if it isn’t broke, why fix it.
Structure is actually one of the aspects of the genre that modern musicals tend to play with most frequently, and it is in many ways the key to success in sustaining audience’s attention. Musicals of the 40s and 50s are so similar in structure that as soon as you get to know a few of them, you can see the signposts popping up from the Overture. A 90-minute first act, followed by a 45-minute second; the ‘I want’ song; the eleven o’clock number; the love duet and so forth. What is interesting when working on shows from this era in a modern context is finding the exact moment, usually around 70 minutes in, where an audience collectively begins to ‘flag.’ As modern human beings surrounded by technology, juggling multi-faceted 24/7 lives, attention spans no longer stretch to that traditionally lengthy first act, and no matter how captivating the production, there is always that moment where the ball drops and the audience begin counting down to the interval (or the intermission for US audiences).
One of the greatest examples of this occurs in Into the Woods. Act One is dense. There’s a 9 minute Prologue full of exposition, a huge ensemble cast to keep track of, and a natural end to the stories that audiences know are coming up which in many ways begins the countdown in their minds from the get go. Just as it feels like we’re catapulting towards the Act finale, along comes ‘On The Steps of the Palace.’ This is without a doubt one of the best songs in the show. The lyrics are almost too clever for their own good and require so much of an audience to be able to fully appreciate the wordplay and the position Cinderella finds herself in. But the song occurs at around the 80-minute mark, where general concentration is at its lowest. Having directed the show on two occasions and seen countless productions I have seen first hand over and over how audiences react when this song begins, and I always feel so sorry for the actress playing Cinderella who has the unenviable task of waking up the crowd and begin the final section of the act.
Structure is something the Sondheim has experimented with most frequently throughout his career. From the more traditional early musicals such as …Forum to the backward running Merrily, structure it seems is as important to the composer as “content dictating form.” Interestingly two of his modern musicals, Assassins (1990) and Passion (1994), as well as the revised version of Road Show (2008), were written with just one act, and despite the richness of both shows, neither outstays its welcome and both leave the audience fully satisfied thanks to a perfectly formed, albeit more modern structure.
This week I experienced my first live production of Pacific Overtures and was struck immediately at how the structure changes the production as a whole. After a 90-minute first act many in the audience returned after the interval with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The couple to my right had slept through most of the first half, the woman in front had read her programme front to back (twice), and the man to my left spent most of the time fiddling with his phone. The general consensus seemed to be that the first act was dull. Whilst this didn’t necessarily reflect the production or performances, the amount of exposition, lack of narrative drive and quite frankly the lack of action even had me, a self confessed Sondheim-ite, count how many lights were placed on the rig. The second act however transformed the show completely. Much shorter in length, it was tighter, clearer and altogether much more engaging. With much of the exposition out of the way, the action was able to unfold, using just five different songs – each as wonderfully constructed as the last.
It’s almost the opposite to his later work Sunday in the Park With George which presents a more troubled second act, which eventually resolves, but shatters the tone established by the perfectly formed first. In dragging the action into the contemporary age, parallels between the modern characters and their first act counterparts are constantly made, yet the audience can’t help but feel somewhat cheated that the characters they have spent the past hour and half investing in have morphed into less interesting modern versions of themselves. Into the Woods is another show of two halves, so much so that in some instances (and the licensable junior version), only the first act is performed. James Lapine’s book perfectly fuses the two acts together whilst allowing the first to exist exclusively in an alternative performance context.
Sondheim is a composer who has managed to master a variety of different structures and use them appropriately in relation to the overall form and content of each show he is presenting. Of all his shows however, Pacific Overtures presents the biggest problem in terms of organization, which perhaps explains its often-troubled performance history.
Modern musicals, especially American ones, almost took audiences into consideration, refining their narratives to fit neatly into the one act format. Whilst many smaller shows and revues have traditionally used this structure, the 2000s saw larger Broadway shows avoiding the second act trap by simply doing away with it altogether. The Wild Party (2000), Spelling Bee (2005), The Drowsy Chaperone (2006), A Catered Affair (2008), Title of Show (2008), Xanadu (2009) and The Scottsboro Boys (2010) are all examples of new musicals throughout the past decade that ran without an intermission, but are they better for it?
Nowadays, many subsequent productions of the above shows have reinstated the interval, (in many cases due to pressure from venues who dislike losing a significant amount of money on the bar), but this reflects the once again changing attitudes of audience members who ‘need’ that break between acts. Artistically some composers are adamant that their work is seen in one sitting, and is specifically designed to carry the audience through the experience without giving them a moment to relax, or more importantly, an opportunity to discuss and share opinions with their friends. LaChiusa’s Wild Party for example is written in this way to give the audience a similar experience to the characters – an overwhelming, inescapable journey that peaks and troughs through one tumultuous evening.
The one-act musical took on a new lease of life as Broadway to Vegas transfers became a regular occurrence. Two act musicals such as Hairspray and Phantom of the Opera became reduced to 90-minute versions, cutting down the fat into a succinct ‘highlights’ version designed to entertain the masses but not keep them off the slot machines for a whole evening. Many of these were on the whole unsuccessful, as the shows themselves didn’t suit their new adaptations. Whilst these abridged versions certainly captured the flavor of each show, they do in many ways undermine the workshop and development process most musicals go through, and you’d like to think that if the original creative team thought the show worked better as a one act, that would have been the way it was primarily presented.
When attempting to write a new musical, structure is, in my eyes, one of the most important considerations. As much as form, style and content shape the overall development, many think of structure too far down the line which results in a messy and sometimes unsalvageable string of ideas that become too difficult to hack down. Consider Julia Houston and Kyle Bishop (God rest his soul) with their index cards carving out the structure of Tony Award winning musical Hit List. I always like to think that Sondheim and Lapine worked in a similar way.