STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Where Are The Overtures?

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Where Are The Overtures? "The overture is about to start," wrote Cole Porter in his rousing opening number for Kiss Me, Kate.

"The overture is about to start," wrote Cole Porter in his rousing opening number for Kiss Me, Kate.

No longer. The overture on Broadway doesn't merely seem to be an endangered species. It's extinct.

The occurred to me not long after I took my seat at Annie, Get Your Gun, as I looked forward to an overture that would showcase the hit filled score. I lusted, too, to hear hundreds of theatergoers give recognition-applause as soon as they heard the first few notes of "I Got the Sun in the Morning," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "They Say It's Wonderful," and "The Girl That I Marry." Wouldn't they get everyone's juices flowing?

No, because the current revival has no overture.

It's not alone. Go up and down the streets, and see what you find. Rent. The Lion King. Ragtime. Phantom. Chicago. The Scarlet Pimpernel. Jekyll & Hyde. The Sound of Music. Les Miz. Footloose. Titanic. You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Cats. Smokey Joe's Cafe. Miss Saigon. Cabaret. Not one of them has an overture.

Some have "prologues" before segueing into an opening number. But none has what I'd call an overture, which finishes with a "Da-DahhhhhHHHHHH!" to tumultuous applause. And, at least based on what I saw in New Haven, don't look for The Civil War to quench the drought.

Nowadays, it's curtain up, light the lights -- and play the scene or song that opens the show. Too bad, for, among other things, overtures signaled that you were at an event.

And, if I may be overt about it, an overtureless Broadway is a mistake.

Noted composer Jerry Bock doesn't agree. "Times change," he told me last Saturday night. "They're not really needed." (Of course, this could be though two of Bock's hits -- The Rothschilds; Fiorello! -- had overtures, his smash success -- Fiddler on the Roof -- didn't.)

Still, at one time, who would have thought that an overtureless Broadway was possible?

As Ethan Mordden says in Coming up Roses, his extraordinary book about '50s musicals, overtures were "a fanfare of confidence, ingenuity, surprise ... a touch symphonic, thematic, a kind of bragging."

Could it be that Broadway no longer has the confidence?

Well, it's more than that. Part of the problem is that orchestras, like casts, have become smaller, so the sounds they emit aren't as potent. This was particularly apparent at the revival of Once upon a Mattress, that musical about Winifred the Woebgone, which had a particularly woebegone overture -- ironically setting the tone for the production that was to follow.

Synthesizers, too, may be somewhat responsible. Check out Festival, the 1979 musical, and you'll hear an orchestra that sounds as if it consists of kazoos. Too bad, for there's some nice music in Festival (which -- did you know? -- was co-produced by Leslie Moonves, now the CEO at CBS).

Marvin Hamlisch says, "All my life I dreamed of hearing my music played as an overture by an orchestra," he says. "But when we were creating A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett insisted on simulating the reality of a genuine audition, which of course wouldn't have an overture."

That didn't stop Hamlisch from writing an overture -- and performing it. It's since become a staple of his concerts, with him sitting at the piano, delivering the goods.

Jekyll & Hyde had an overture for a few out-of-town performances. At the risk of aggrandizing myself, I'm the one who urged the brass to have one. "Just imagine," I said, "how an audience would get primed for the show if they heard your three hit songs in a row. The excitement would be intense before the curtain even rose, both from those who knew the show, and those who would be delighted to discover, 'Oh! I didn't know that song came from this show. Or that one, or that one.'"

"You're costing me $30,000 to have it composed an orchestrated," said Gary Gunas, the producing organization's executive vice president with a laugh. But he, too, thought it was a good idea. Alas, when the show was running long, the overture seemed the easiest component to cut.

Perhaps today's audiences need something more to watch than just a red curtain. Many times, though, there was something to see, for as soon as the first note was played, up went that curtain to reveal a pretty scrim that told us something about the show we were about to see.

Says Joshua Rosenblum, musical director of Dream True, the Ricky Ian Gordon musical about to open at the Vineyard, "It's nice to have an overture, because you get a piece where the focus is entirely on the music. It's a few minutes where you don't have to worry if your tempi are matching the singers. But even that aside, it's something of a loss."

Rosenblum's wife, Joanne Lessner, about to play Josephine in the Blue Hill Troupe's production of H.M.S. Pinafore, adds, "Overtures are in themselves wonderful pieces of music. Think how often they've been parts of pop concerts. And in a time when we're always hearing how people don't recall the songs they hear in a show, an overture gives them an introduction to the music."

And yet, overtures are now as rare as revivals of Pacific Overtures. "We've got to put a stop to that," says an astonished Charles Strouse when the fact was pointed out to him. His overtures to Bye Bye Birdie and Annie are classics, and the stirring one from Superman was loved by millions. (Okay, not on Broadway during its abbreviated run, but by plenty of Washingtonians who, during the '70s, heard it every night when they tuned in their 11 o'clock news, where it functioned as theme music.)

Says Strouse, "People want to feel as if they're getting something new, and an overture seems like the old Broadway, something not au courant. But an overture gives an audience an early chance to hear the music they'll hear a little bit later, and that serves as an emotional connection. It also gives the crowd a chance to settle in their seats."

As for an overture's not giving an audience something to watch: "It doesn't have to be that way. For Birdie's overture, Gower (Champion) had this funny movie where you saw Conrad Birdie, and some incongruous things like plane crashes, too."

But even without a film, an overture can be worthy. Strouse says, "Like in The Shoestring Revue," he says of the mid-'50s show to which he contributed songs. "What an overture that had -- the overture to Oklahoma! We all thought that was such crazy fun. And Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't even charge us for using it," he says -- before realizing, "I guess they never found out about it."

Strouse concedes that, while readying Rags, he neither ordered nor constructed an overture. "When we did the recording some time later, though, we put one in. Plenty of people have told me over the years how much they like it. Now I'm sorry we didn't have it for the show."

Indeed. For suddenly, it's been over 20 years since we've had a great overture (On the Twentieth Century), and nearly a quarter-century since we had a fabulous one (Mack & Mabel). Without the latter, what would Torvill and Dean, those Olympic skaters, have used as music? I'm fully willing to believe it was a component in making them champions.

Think of such '60s musicals as Funny Girl, Mame, Sweet Charity, Tenderloin, Tovarich, or Promises, Promises without their stirring overtures. Or such '50s classics as Candide, Goldilocks, My Fair Lady, The Pajama Game, and -- needless to say -- Gypsy.

Or, for that matter, consider a '40s masterpiece like Annie, Get Your Gun without an overture. Unthinkable, isn't it?

Peter Fiiichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com