The house lights in the theatre dim; as the first chords of the musical score are sounded by the orchestra, the curtain rises to reveal a world called "musical theatre." The next five or ten minutes are crucial, for it is during this time, referred to in Broadway jargon as "the opening number," that the creators of the piece must reach out to the audience and draw it into this rarefied world. The opening number will set the style, the tone, the mood for what follows. Most importantly, a good opening number will state what an audience is going to witness and how this story will be told.
Stephen Sondheim can arguably be considered the finest composer/lyricist currently writing for the American musical theatre. Over the course of some 30 odd years and 15 produced works, written solely by himself or in collaboration with others, he has fine-tuned the art and skill necessary to create an opening number that succinctly states the theme and style of the show which will develop from it. Through an examination of the beginning sequences of many of his works, one may more fully understand how this delicate and often mysterious balancing act can be achieved.
With his very first solo venture, Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sondheim hit the bull's eye with the rollicking "Comedy Tonight." The title itself categorically defines the essence of this musical farce inspired by the plays of the ancient comic writer, Plautus. The song's straightforward lyrics ("Something familiar/Something peculiar... Old situations/New complications...") and bouncing rhythm reminiscent of burlesque or vaudeville make the audience immediately aware that low pranks are waiting around each bend of the musical's complicated plot twists. Furthermore, the brash, brassy tone of "Comedy Tonight" establishes a musical style which perfectly complements the zaniness of Forum's book and its source material. This style, begun in the opening number, subsequently permeates the entire score, most notably in songs like "Free" and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid."
It is perhaps significant to note that "Comedy Tonight" was the third opening song written for Forum. Two others, "Love Is in the Air" and "Invocation," were discarded prior to the musical's Broadway premiere. Craig Zadan in Sondheim & Co. reveals that the show's creators, Sondheim, Larry Gelbart, and Burt Shevelove, judged the former song to be too melodically lilting and lyrically whimsical and the latter not to be--as the musical's director, George Abbott, so tersely put it--"hummable." For these reasons, the production team opted for "Comedy Tonight," an opening number that would more accurately convey both the style and substance of the low comedy to follow. (Ironically, the melody of "Love is in the Air" remains as underscoring to the opening dialogue of the second act.)
One can readily deduce that, even in this early stage of his development, Sondheim realized the vital importance of a strong opening sequence. Whatever their individual flaws, the majority of his subsequent works feature opening numbers that possess strong, clear statements of both style and purpose. By surveying Sondheim's body of work from Forum to his more recent score for Assassins, one can discover distinct structural patterns which aid in his creation of effective opening sequences.
With the exception of Sunday in the Park with George and Anyone Can Whistle, all of Sondheim's musicals immediately introduce the entire population of their respective worlds. This musical community commences to set the agenda for the story and issues to be developed: For example, Sweeney Todd's ensemble delivers a ballad which directs the audience to "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd;" Pacific Overtures's chorus reveals the placid isolationism of nineteenth century Japan, entoning:In the middle of the world we float... In the middle of the sea... Wars are being won, Things are being done Somewhere out there, not here. In his opening sequences, however, Sondheim uses the ensemble in differing ways. Sometimes it acts, more or less, as a single unit as in Sweeney Todd or Merrily We Roll Along, where the ensemble's singular nature sets off in stark relief the struggles of the musicals' main characters (i.e., Sweeney, Franklin Shepard). In other instances the ensemble is particularized. Company's protagonist, Robert, is surrounded by five married couples and three girlfriends whom Sondheim individualizes in the opening number by the way in which they address the main character: "Robert," "Bob," "Bobby," "Kiddo," "Bobby Baby," "Angel," etc. In Into the Woods the complicated exposition of its decentralized narrative is economically handled by the Narrator who introduces each character specifically by name. The characters then proceed to reveal their individual personalities and stories within the context of the opening song.
The structure of Sondheim's musicals essentially falls into one of two formats--the narrative or the revue. Consequently, the content of the opening number differs for each format; the narrative emphasizes plot, while the revue stresses thematic considerations. For example, in Merrily We Roll Along, the opening sequence sets in motion a narrative structure that will trace (albeit backwards) Franklin Shepard's progression from an idealistic young composer to a cynical middle-aged movie producer. Sondheim has the ensemble ask the proverbial musical question, "How did you get there from here, Mr. Shepard ... How did you get to be you?" In the revue-like structure of ├Assassins─, however, the opening number concerns itself with the motives behind the abstract concept of political assassination. In it, a disparate collection of historically real assassins maintains that "Everybody's Got the Right to Their Dreams."
With his opening numbers Sondheim constructs a solid frame on which he paints his musical and thematic ideas. Frequently the musical themes introduced in the opening sequence will be restated throughout the score, although by no means do these re-occurrences evolve into mere reprises of hit tunes. Often Sondheim makes subtle alterations in their lyric content. These changes may advance the narrative as in Sweeney Todd or may act as signposts that announce time and place as in ├Merrily We Roll Along─: "If you look back, you can see. What is the moment and where, Mr. Shepard?/ 1973!" In ├Company─, the repeated use of the opening song's "Bobby Baby, Bobby Bubby, Bobby" refrain serves as a connecting bridge from episode to episode, while in ├Into the Woods─ the composer begins the second act with an abbreviated and distorted version of the work's original opening in order to comment ironically on the characters' fortunes.
Significantly, Sondheim supremely reveals his genius by the way in which he uses the opening number to map out and particularize an individual score's style and tone. In ├Pacific Overtures─'s first song, "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea," the repetition of short musical and lyric phrases and the use of sharp, percussive rhythms quickly establish the score's Eastern flavor. These pounding rhythms, juxtaposed with the haunting use of strings and wood-winds in the song, create a musical tension that will be repeated throughout the score. The pulsating, relentless tenacity of "Four Black Dragons" and "Next" stands in marked contrast to the wistful melancholy of "A Bowler Hat" and "There Is No Other Way."
The revue-like ├Assassins─ commences with an eerie calliope treatment of "Hail to the Chief," which blatantly evokes a tone of Americana and clearly points up the musical's political themes. This traditional American anthem is reprised twice--once as a rousing military march and again in the show's climax, where its orchestration possesses an epic, almost symphonic sweep reminiscent of Copland. Sondheim encompasses this examination of uniquely American music in his complete score: the Civil War ballad ("The Ballad of Booth"); the Sousa march ("How I Saved Roosevelt"); the barber shop quartet ("Gun Song"); the folk song ("The Ballad of Czolgosz"); the spiritual ("The Ballad of Guiteau"); and even a soft rock ballad ("Unworthy of Your Love").
Beginning with Sweeney Todd, Sondheim develops his musical themes with increasing complexity, in an almost operatic manner. Musical and lyric leitmotifs will regularly punctuate his scores, although he does not use Sweeney Todd─'s opening number proper to accomplish this aim. With ├Merrily We Roll Along─ and ├Into the Woods─, however, several recurring musical themes directly realize their gestation in their respective opening sequences. In ├Merrily We Roll Along─,"The Hills of Tomorrow" evolves into the title song. With certain harmonic, rhythmic and lyric augmentation the opening themes, besides serving as reprises and introductions to songs, also become "Good Thing Going" and "Our Time."
├Into the Woods─ features an opening number even richer in its musical and lyric complexity. Many of the characters are assigned individual and shared musical themes. For example, the ominous underscoring of the Witch's entrance and opening dialogue is developed later into "Lament" and "Stay with Me." Cinderella's plaintive cry of "I Wish," is shared by the other characters and receives musical and lyric elaboration in her duet with the Baker's Wife ("He's a Very Nice Prince"), and her coloratura trilling to her guardian birds carries over to "Cinderella at the Grave" and also becomes the lament of another beleaguered heroine, Rapunzel. The main musical theme of the title song, with its skipping, child-like melody and rhythm forms the cornerstone of the score, re-echoed in many of Into the Woods' songs, particularly Little Red Riding Hood's "I Know Things Now" and much of the Baker's and the Baker's Wife's material such as "It Takes Two" and "Maybe They're Magic." The obsession with the "Woods" as a source of magic, danger and enchantment begun in the title song is further developed in both of the aforementioned songs, as well as "Any Moment" and "Moments in the Woods."
Throughout the vast body of Stephen Sondheim's work, the composer deliberately attempts to create opening numbers which draw a precise blueprint from which to build an entire score. Sondheim's opening numbers, although each possessing its own unique qualities, all share the stamp of his brilliance. Through his superb artistry and craftsmanship, he demonstrates that opening numbers need not resort to a kick-line of chorus girls in order to lure an audience into its musical comedy universe. For Sondheim, the opening number continually remains, to quote his character George Seurat, "...a blank page or canvas/So many possibilities."
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