In which I lay out some cherished expository songs and scene-setters
The opening number of a musical carries by far the most responsibility. It is the means by which the audience is familiarized with the world onstage (and arguably vice versa, as the performers have to judge the sort of crowd they’ve got). It is the show’s first impression, and as such it behooves the composer(s)/lyricist(s) to put their best foot forward.
An opening number’s varying functions have long been analyzed: to introduce characters and their motivations/desires; to establish an environment; to describe the primary problem; and so forth. For the roughly hundred years since musical theatre became a widely recognized and legitimate art form, its creators and writers have experimented with different types of introductions. From the pull-out-all-the-stops ensemble dance number to the intimate soliloquy of a single character, there are countless successful examples. But a few, for as often as I see or hear them, stick in my memory and welcome me into their respective worlds to striking effect.
Here they are, in chronological order of Broadway/West End premiere:
“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” Oklahoma! (1943)
What can I say about this one that hasn’t already been said? It’s a classic. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote it (separately) in about ten minutes, and it gives us as an audience everything we need. The singer and hero, Curly, literally paints a picture of the landscape for us: I’m not sure theatre technology at that time was advanced enough to put an actual bright golden haze on the meadow. But we can visualize it perfectly well because the tune is so beautiful. It’s got bluesy notes, it’s got peaks and valleys. In context it introduces us to the environment of the show; out of context it’s got stand-alone integrity. Any performer worth their salt in a certain time period recorded this song. (Honestly, I think we should bring that back; imagine the glorious rendition Lana Del Rey could offer us.) Between the relative passivity of the female characters and the insinuation that it’s okay to kill a lonely old guy and go right back to your wedding, I’ve got some issues with Oklahoma! overall, but damn if this song didn’t set the golden standard. (See what I did there?)
“Another Openin’, Another Show,” Kiss Me Kate (1948)
This one impresses me because it walks a line and survives; it achieves what lesser numbers from lesser shows can’t. I guess if I’d expect that from anyone, I’d expect it from Cole Porter. But let me elaborate. I consider it a dangerous game to write a show about a show, or make a movie about making a movie. (I won’t even go into what I think of songwriters who include lyrics about writing songs. Unless you’re Paul Simon, get over yourself.) But this opening number about an opening number–a play within a play, which is made even more meta by the fact that it’s a reimagination of Shakespeare–captures everything an opening number ought to. Excitement, nerves, rehearsal-induced stress…it hits the nail on the head. I sing it whenever I prepare for a show. Even if it isn’t a musical. Even if it’s a concert. Basically anytime I’m about to go onstage. It’s a good-luck charm.
“Fugue for Tinhorns,” Guys and Dolls (1950)
I must disclaim that the only version of this one I’ll accept is sung by Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra on the Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre cast recording, as I have found all other versions to be inferior. Notwithstanding that, here’s a prime example of an introductory song that has little to do with the rest of the action. It’s just three anonymous guys talking about the horses they’ve bet on. Of course, this glimpse of the gambling atmosphere foreshadows the involvement of our hero Sky Masterson, but otherwise it’s a jaunty entrée into another place and time–or, I suppose, if you see it in New York, just another time. More than gets the job done. And you can sing along to any of the three vocal lines. Also, great horse names: Epitaph, Valentine, Paul Revere. (I got the horse right heeeeeere!)
“Comedy Tonight,” A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962)
This show was Stephen Sondheim’s first solo foray into Broadway: after he’d made his mark as a lyricist in the late ‘50s by collaborating with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story and Jule Styne on Gypsy, he felt ready to debut his own melodies too. And a number like this is clear proof that he was, in fact, ready. This song is very much in the “welcoming” camp, calling attention to the gravity of the gathering of actors and spectators. Per the ancient tradition, it begins with an invocation of the thespian gods, and then proceeds to introduce us to the players, principally Pseudolus, our slave-hero (not to be confused with Hero, who is someone else entirely). A reprise of the number ends the show, bringing the increasingly convoluted plot to a well-rounded conclusion. It’s a funny number which puts an audience in the mood for the titular funny things. The takeaway being “tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight”–gotta appease all those Muses!
“Willkommen,” Cabaret (1966)
Another classic by now, and particularly potent for me since I moved to Berlin. (Fun fact: I used to work down the street from the Kit Kat Klub. Suffice it to say it’s been…reincarnated since the ‘30s.) Like some of its forebears, it is heavy on spectacle, although a Fosse-envisioned spectacle takes spectacle to new heights. There is relatively sparse instrumentation–the number as a whole is understated–presumably to draw attention to the appearance and movement of the actors. But what we can say of the actors’ appearance we can essentially also say of the song: scant and seductive. The MC’s act transforms the audience into the audience at the club itself; we feel ourselves being drawn into a world where it is hard to tell what’s real, because everything is shadowy and everyone is a performer. It’s playful, but there’s obviously something happening beneath the surface–behind the curtain, as it were. And the shadows go on to become much darker, so the first song becomes a fleeting moment of levity that we must hang on to. Plus, it’ll make you trilingual.
“Heaven On Their Minds,” Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)
Anyone who knows me knows my borderline-destructive attachment to Superstar. I’ll have more to say on it over time, but it all begins with this number. This number alone is probably half the reason I’m so attached–it’s certainly the reason Judas Iscariot is my dream role in the show. It’s the pinnacle of intelligent craftsmanship, incredibly difficult to sing well. Andrew Lloyd Webber knew that in order to write a rock opera he needed strong Leitmotifs to attribute to each principal character; and the guitar riff running through this song–the ostinato which the show perpetually returns to–is the greatest Leitmotif since anything of Wagner’s.* (Not to mention it helps me to locate the key of D minor out of thin air.) Add in Tim Rice’s lyrics–which are not always stellar, but here they really are–and the experiment is complete. In four minutes, Judas is identified as narrator, anti-hero, and odd man out. The depth and complexity of his relationship to his surroundings, especially to Jesus, comes across with searing intensity. Probably the best thing about it is its urgency: we who are versed in Christianity go in with a gist of the “story,” but the song informs even the least religious viewer that we are on a fixed timeline and that the stakes are very high, And it provides the first of many glimpses into the mind of the show’s most compelling and dynamic character, the one we think we know as the “villain.” As Rachel Bloom once said, the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that–and this song is an early hint. Gives me chills every single time.
*I don’t often compliment Wagner because I don’t think much of proto-white-nationalists, so this is kind of a big deal.
“All That Jazz,” Chicago (1975)
Again, no less than iconic. Like the opener of its predecessor Cabaret, it invites the audience into a strange, seductive, and specific world and introduces them to the people who operate on the fringes of society. Velma Kelly is established as the narrator, more or less, though she also quite literally has skin in the game; and Roxie Hart is established as the person whose story Velma is telling. Everything we see in the action during the number–the exposition–happens to Roxie, but we interpret it through Velma’s lens. In essence, the narrator and the protagonist are two separate entities, which doesn’t occur often (at least in my experience), so for a song to strike that balance so well, setting the tone for the rest of the show, is admirable. And there are choral countermelodies and punchy lines of dialogue and fantastic choreography and…well, you know, all that jazz.
“I Hope I Get It,” A Chorus Line (1975)
This is another show I’ll meditate on at length somewhere down the line (hehe), but the main thing about the number is that it is a textbook ensemble piece. Whom are we rooting for? Who knows? Who cares?? They’re all giving one hundred percent to a legendary–and legendarily tricky–dance combination in the hopes of being cast in a Broadway chorus. Interspersed between prolonged choreography sequences are sung snatches, some by characters who are cut from the final round ten minutes later (spoiler). But the fact that minor people can participate in such a major number is a testament to the inclusivity of the staging. And they sing just as intensely as they dance. By the end of the number, the characters vying for spots hit their now-famous positions on “the line,” and we as the audience understand that we’re in for something we’ve never seen before. Stunning to behold. Even more stunning to be part of.
“Little Shop of Horrors,” Little Shop of Horrors (1982)
I learned only recently that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman ran this show through several musical genres, none of them really fitting–until someone suggested doo-wop. That turned out to be the Midas touch, creating a narrative thread for the show (a Chiffons-style Greek chorus) and transforming this song into one of the catchiest tunes in the theatrical canon. For my first high school show, I got to sing it as part of the Greek trio, which I still count among my dearest stage memories. It sets an appropriate, darkly comedic tone, but mostly it’s just great fun.
“Prologue/Into the Woods,” Into the Woods (1987)
Sondheim had really grown into a, uh, giant by now, and it shows. Although this number is roughly twelve minutes long, it can be summarized in the first sung line–“I wish”–as articulated by Cinderella (a role I have played twice, and will once again describe in greater detail in a later post). Over the course of the next three (three) hours, the plot gets layered and complex like no plot had dared to do before, so the cast and their various backstories need to be laid out immediately. Sondheim wastes no time, familiarizing us with Cinderella, Jack (of Beanstalk notoriety), Little Red Riding Hood, and the catalysts of action–a baker and his wife, known only by those titles, and the witch who is their neighbor and tormentor. This show takes the idea of the ostinato to a whole new level: the main theme, a march, returns at least three times throughout the course of the show and evokes from the outset a feeling of propulsion, of constant motion. We are going into the woods, ready or not, even if these characters have to drag us there. Like I mentioned, it’s a whopper, but once you’ve done the show you can recite all twelve minutes word-for-word for the rest of your life.
“Too Much Exposition,” Urinetown (2001)
This one tells us right off the bat how break-the-fourth-wall funny the show is going to be. It allows our two narrators, Officer Lockstock and Little Sally, to become reacquainted with each other: they’ve met before, and the implication is that they will meet again, under the premise of telling the story of a musical. It mocks the very concept of an opening number: Lockstock explains to Little Sally that “nothing kills a show like too much exposition.” But it simultaneously manages to introduce most of the major players and the strange, though not entirely unthinkable, “central conceit of the show” (the water shortage that has led to large corporations’ privatization of toilets). Lockstock and Little Sally make no secret of their status as interpreters of a work of fiction, foreshadowing the self-awareness many characters project at some point in the action. And we all know what a trustworthy comedic device self-awareness can be. In the background of the first half of the number, the non-narrating actors are seen coming out of the woodwork and “putting on” their roles, so that by the end the entire ensemble participates in the music. An entertaining and informative entrée to an entertaining and informative–and, in my opinion, criminally underappreciated–show.*
*It’s worth noting that the show had its Broadway premiere nine days after the 9/11 attacks, so a New York audience would have been starved for bleak humor. This song, not to mention everything following it, supplies that in spades.
“Good Morning, Baltimore,” Hairspray (2002)
This one is possibly the consummate opening number, given that it is one uninterrupted survey of the protagonist’s world through the protagonist’s eyes. We, as the audience, “wake up” with Tracy Turnblad and move through her hometown alongside her on her way to school. The mood of the instrumentation reflects both her unquenchable optimism and her proclivity for dancing, and it infects us. Stagings of the number vary, at least to my knowledge–I freely admit my partiality to the 2007 film, which hit me at an impressionable age–but the fluid motion between sights and situations and people invites us to see all the possibility of a new day in the city that Tracy sees. (If you’ve ever watched The Wire, that’s a hard thing to come back from, but just bear with me.) What’s more, it is the first in a series of musical numbers among which there is hardly a weak one. As my sister pointed out recently, some of them go on a bit too long for their own good (think “I Can Hear the Bells”), but this isn’t one of those. It’s a shiny happy introduction to a person and her place, with an instantly singalong-able melody and darn good choral parts.*
*Only downside: Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton, does not appear in this number, quite a disappointment to me when I played Penny in junior year of high school. That said, she is still my most fun role to date, which vouches for the strength of the show across the board.
“Omigod You Guys,” Legally Blonde (2007)
If you’re at all familiar with the movie, you will instantly recognize this song for the brilliant piece that it is. The show premiered right as the idea of the long contemporary opening number was starting to take root, but it doesn’t stretch to the offensive lengths that some do, and it achieves an impressive amount. In six minutes it rolls out the upbeat world of the Delta Nu sisterhood, the sweeping romance of Elle Woods and Warner Huntington (the third), Elle’s shrewd shopping sensibility, and the undeniable influence she exerts over everyone she meets. There are several movements, and the main theme is insanely catchy. Do not underestimate the song–it’s actually a hint not to underestimate the show. Or the protagonist, who is routinely reduced to her hair color and sorority ways! I wonder if they did that on purpose…??
“Hello!”, The Book of Mormon (2011)
The best–and I do dare say the best–opener to emerge from 2010s Broadway. When I finally got to see it in New York in March 2015, I could tell from the first moment that everyone was in top form. It’s one of those numbers that tells you all you need to know about the performers. An extended introduction to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints via their doorbell-ringing greeting script. The first soon-to-be missionary we meet is one of our two heroes, Elder Kevin Price, as clean-cut and promising as can be; the last is our other hero, Elder Arnold Cunningham, equally disheveled and out of sorts. The fragments of speech, and the way they intertwine, have me singing along for days after each listen. And, in the grand opening-number tradition, it supplies a taste of what’s to come, which in this case is outrageous humor and irreverence. You’ll never hear a doorbell the same way.
As I hope I’ve made apparent, the musical opening number is capable of anything, and the vast catalogue has something for everyone. What are your favorites?