Let’s Bring Back the Overture
I thought about starting this blog with a play on a eulogy, mourning the loss of the overture a la La Vie Boheme, but I became so excited to talk about overtures I didn’t want to take the time for an intro. Let’s just jump right in.
I love new musical theatre, as evidenced by my blogging on this site and the number of collective hours I’ve spent falling down the YouTube rabbit hole of Joe Iconis & Family videos. I think this contemporary movement in musical theatre is exciting and revolutionary to the art form, to have composers who articulate thoughts so precisely and play with typical melody to surprise the ear. That said, my one query is the lack of overtures I hear being performed lately.
The overtures are the most thrilling part of musical theatre when you think about it. To me, they’re the most sacred moment in theatre. Think about it. You walk into theatre, whether that’s a Broadway house, a regional theatre, a school cafeteria, it doesn’t matter. You take your seats and the lights dim and all of a sudden there’s a chord. A string section starts up, maybe a bass starts filling the sound, and you’re transported to the world of the story. Sure there’s the one nimrod in the audience who’s unwrapping a candy still or whispering to their neighbor, but other than that it’s this perfect moment where the audience silently comes together to believe in something. They can’t see it, they don’t know what it is yet, but all of a sudden every single person is attentively listening to and believing in this imaginary world yet to materialize. You don’t know if you’re going to love the show, hate it, or find it mediocre. It’s a moment of beauty and of pure hope, as corny as that may sound. It is a damn sacred moment.
And where did it go? I understand why we don’t see many performances of overtures on YouTube—the site is used by many emerging composers as a way to advertise their skill in songwriting and it is much easier to get someone to click when you can advertise a song name or a well-known actor in the title. Overtures, by and large, aren’t really click bait in the world of viral musical theatre (except for Charlie Rosen’s Broadway Big Band, which performs various overtures, including my favorite of all time).
That Gypsy overture, man. It’s so exciting! I remember listening to it for the first time as a kid thinking, “I’m not sure what’s going on or what’s going to happen next, but I can tell this is the starting song to something really special.” A truly fantastic overture gives you those chills, that gut feeling that this is going to be a piece of theatre that could change your life. Just listen to the audience in that video around the 3:50 mark. When the piece starts to embark on the “Rose’s Turn” part, the audience goes wild. Because they’re swept away in the excitement of the story the overture is previewing. Or because they’re friends with the musicians on stage and the music just got louder so they applaud. Either way.
I hope to one day produce a new musical with some of the emerging composers I love and listen to daily; I’m completely in love with the genre. I also know that so much of the new work being developed is small—a few characters in the story with maybe just performed with a keyboard. And there’s an incredible intimacy to those musicals, which I would never want to take away. I know that budget can prevent large orchestras or even small bands, but why not a simple piano overture before the opening scene? Let the audience fall in to the world of the show, not be dropped into it. Plus, overtures serve an important musical purpose, and I believe Darryl of The Office said it best:
I hope there’s a rebirth of the overture because I truly believe it is essential to the art of musical theatre. I know it was edgy at first when shows began without one– it was bold to dramatically begin a story without an introduction, and I see that merits of that. Yet I can’t help but make a plea for the brilliance of the overture to come back into our lives in the form of new musical theatre. Not to mention a further plea to add them to the cast recording.
Now to take us home and hopefully seal my argument to the doubters, let’s listen to one of the most luscious and beautiful overtures in contemporary theatre as composed by the brilliant Adam Guettel: