A showstopper, by definition and by design, is an upstager — an upstart or, in the case of a lame show, a starter-upper — a moment the audience refuses to let go of, hanging on to it with prolonged applause.
All sorts of factors conspire to create this moment, but usually it is a live wire connecting the audience with a charismatic performer (who does not necessarily have to be the billed star). Often, too, The Moment has nothing to do with the rest of the show, advancing neither plot nor character but enhancing the overall whole. Sometimes an 11 o'clock number like "Hello, Dolly!" may be incidental to the plot, yet sum up the spirit of the whole show.
One wonders if great showstoppers are merely a thing of the past since 1) they don't seem to write those kinds of staged and stagy, down-in-one numbers anymore, and 2) the showstoppers of old were more personality- and star-driven. In today's integrated musical theatre, there aren’t a lot of places for old-fashioned showstoppers. But they, like Tammy Grimes's Unsinkable Molly Brown, "ain't down yet." They're hiding out in other forms.
Connecting With the Audience
Showstoppers mark the spots where Spring Awakening really blows its stack and the audience connects with repressed teenagers in a small German village in 1891. Frank Wedekind's classic play gave them something to rage about. Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's contemporary score give them something to rage with. A controversial coupling of rock and Wedekind, this musical has been called envelope-pushing by critics.
How contemporary is it? Well, the two hot hits are called "The Bitch of Living" and "Totally..." er "...Bleeped." Since the kids'musical monologues occur in their heads, argues director Michael Mayer, it doesn't really matter that they're listening to such a radically different drummer. The first song, he said, "takes place inside the heads of these six boys during Latin class. They unleash all their gigantic frustrations. It just bursts forth. Each one has his own personal agenda, and they get to express fully all of their feelings before they bottle them back up again. It really is like shaking a can of soda and then opening it."
The other showstopper is delivered by the lead teen, Jonathan Groff, when he is being made a scapegoat for his best friend's suicide (so the school and the friend's parents don't have to take any responsibility for the death). "This is the first time in the show that one of the characters sings directly to the audience," noted Mayer. "It's a subtle distinction. He's not singing to himself — he's looking right at us and saying there's a moment you know you're screwed. That forms a bond with the audience, and the reason it's such a showstopper, I think, is because it gets all the kids on stage — and the two adults, who sing and dance for the first time all night — to have a direct commune with the audience. We're all agreeing that there's a moment in your life where there is nothing you can do."
Over the Rooftops
Ever since Mary Martin crowed "I'm Flying" and took wing in Peter Pan, right up to Idina Menzel rising literally to her full witch potential by "Defying Gravity" as Wicked's Elphaba, aerial antics have been surefire showstoppers. The man on the invisible high wire this season is Gavin Lee, a young Brit brought over to keep this Eyre-Bourne Mary Poppins company in the clouds. He credits his gravity-defying stunt to two people: Matthew Bourne's co-choreographer, Stephen Mear, and Bob Crowley, the set designer.
"Stephen, when he was thinking about the number, said, 'I want the chimney sweeper to run up and down on the chimneys and jump on things,' and Bob said, 'Well, maybe he can walk up the walls,'" recalled Lee. "And from that Stephen went, 'Maybe he can tap-dance on the walls,' and from that it went to 'What about the ceiling?' It just grew and grew, and then they have me singing up there as well. The first I really knew about it was when they took me to the Prince Edward Theatre and showed me the aerialist they'd hired — a small girl from Cirque Du Soleil — walk up and across and down the proscenium arch. Watching this with Cameron Mackintosh and Richard Eyre, I went, 'Oh. My. God.' They looked at me and said, 'Do you wanna do that?' I said, 'Yeah, I wanna to do that.'"
The song is "Step in Time," one letter off from "Steps in Time," the autobiography of Fred Astaire, who had the dancing-on-the-ceiling concession on film (via "You Are All the World to Me" from "Royal Wedding"). Another man who would be Astaire is David Hyde Pierce in Curtains, and choreographer Rob Ashford allows that fantasy to take flight with Kander & Ebb's "A Tough Act to Follow." Also, Ashford pumps up to showstopper size a raucous, raunchy saloon sing-and-slugfest called "Thataway!"
For Legally Blonde, the showstopper comes at the top of the show: "Omigod You Guys!," in which we are introduced to the world of Elle Woods (Laura Bell Bundy) and she begins her quest to get accepted to Harvard Law School and win back her beau, to the delight of audiences rife with teen female fans.
Donna Murphy and David Pittu both pause to soak in the cheers after Kurt Weill's "Surabaya Johnny" and "Tango Ballad" (respectively) in the biographical musical LoveMusik.
From "Hello" to Heartbreak
Grey Gardens starts its second act with a showstopper: "Little Edie" Beale (Christine Ebersole) explaining rather proudly her eccentric self-made dress code — something that falls between ragtag and whoopie — in a song called "The Revolutionary Costume for Today."
The miracle is that lyricist Michael Korie took many of its words out of the real Edie's mouth in the documentary and somehow made them rhyme. "That's Michael's brilliance," said his composing partner, Scott Frankel, "to be able to distill the text of that and the essence of her. Night after night, Christine stops the show. I marvel at that."
As "Big Edie" (the mother that Ebersole's first-act Edie becomes), Mary Louise Wilson holds her ground with a couple of showstoppers of her own. Both of them involve food and come from the film: "The Cake I Had" and "Jerry Likes My Corn." "Watching the documentary, there's almost an embarrassment of song possibilities," contends Frankel.
"You're saying, 'Well, that could be a song, and that could be a song, and that could be a song.' My favorite song [Wilson's, also] is 'Jerry Likes My Corn,’ the way it goes from ‘Hello’ to heartbreak. I was actually crying when I wrote the end of that song."
"Master of the House," now performed by Gary Beach in the new Les Misérables, certainly behaves like a showstopper, pumping some much-needed comic relief into the proceedings, but it's the ballads that drive the Les Miz fans into a frenzy — particularly Valjean's "Bring Him Home" and Eponine's "On My Own." Colm Wilkinson and Frances Ruffelle earned (respectively) a Tony nomination and a Tony Award with these roles in 1987; this season they were entrusted to Alexander Gemignani and Celia Keenan-Bolger.
Won't Regret, Can't Forget
A Chorus Line is also back with us again. Whereas "The Music and the Mirror" was always considered the given showstopper, this new version musters a worthy competitor in the "Sing!" socked across by Chryssie Whitehead and Tony Yazbeck. The show's true showshopper is spoken, not sung — Paul's monologue, an aching confessional that earned Sammy Williams the Tony, and it's movingly recreated by Jason Tan in its current reprise.
Company is also keeping company on Broadway once more, and this particular company plays its own instruments. To make the director (John Doyle) an honest man, Raúl Esparza even learned to play a patch of piano for the showstopper that ends the show, "Being Alive," a number that Harold Prince had to persuade Stephen Sondheim to write.
"Human Again" is Beauty and the Beast's showstopper recovered from the cutting room floor. It was drawn, sung by Jerry Orbach's Lumiere, then edited from the 1990 animated film. It sparks some exuberance into the stage version, which includes Disney's trademark ditty, "Be My Guest," and the Oscar-winning title tune (delivered originally by Angela Lansbury).
Being "a musical vaudeville," Chicago is stacked to capacity with set numbers — "Mister Cellophane," "Class," "Razzle Dazzle," "All That Jazz," "Nowadays." Marilu Henner said she always loved going on as Roxie right after the jubilantly unrepentant man-killers do "Cell Block Tango." "It was as if the audience had been hosed down," she said.
Big Ballads and Ballets
Showstopping ballads — arguably the best being the exquisite duet of young lovers, "All I Ask of You" — are what has kept The Phantom of the Opera's chandelier swinging on Broadway beyond its unprecedented 8,000 performances. And, of course, director Harold Prince has staged Andrew Lloyd Webber's songs in a grand and magnificent manner.
In Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, showstopping was simultaneously celebrated and sent-up by a sparingly, and smartly used, member of the ensemble named Capathia Jenkins. In her third and last time at bat, she stepped center stage and pretty much laid siege to the musical with a gospel-flavored roof-raiser called "Stop the Show."
Best line: "Something that Stephen Sondheim doesn't know:/ Let the big black lady stop the show."
And, of course, Sutton Foster did a terrible job feigning indifference to the theatrical life with her big — BIG — number in The Drowsy Chaperone. "It’s basically a song called 'Show Off,'" she said, "but it's all about this woman who doesn't want to 'show off,' quote-unquote, and then proceeds to show off." (We're talking cartwheels, jug-blowing, splits, spinning plates, playing glasses, charming snakes, escaping from a straitjacket, shooting a bird out of the sky, diving through hoops — methinks she protests too much).
The Tony-crowned king of jukebox musicals,Jersey Boys, replays the golden oldies of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, camouflaged as a quite credible warts-and-all musical biography of the group. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's book does dramatic drumrolls on the songs before they start their primal pull on the audience — die-hard ditties like "Sherry" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You." Both got standing ovations on opening night. Indeed, the showstopping started even before the show started — when the three living original members of The Four Seasons arrived in the theatre and took their seats.
The moral must be that, like diamonds, showstoppers are forever.
This piece appeared in the 2007 Tony Awards Playbill at Radio City Music Hall.