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Question: One of my favorite parts of the theatre experience is the exit music that now regularly occurs at the end of a musical performance, because the orchestra gets one final chance to shine. Where did this tradition come from? Is it commonly written by the composer, or by the orchestrator? —James Kennedy, Boston, MA.
Everyone — even people who have never been to a theatrical show — knows about the overture. It's that musical prelude when the orchestra gives you an aural taste of coming attractions, getting the crowd's juices flowing, like a warm-up comic at a television talk show. But exit music is less celebrated. Like the overture, it usually involves the orchestra playing one or two of the score's more tuneful offerings. But since it's played for the enjoyment of theatregoers who are more anxious about reaching the exit and getting their car out of the parking lot before they're charged for another hour, it's less appreciated or scrutinized.
To get some inside information on exit music, we asked Rob Berman. As musical director of Encores!, he's conducted his share of after-the-show melodies. According to Berman, exit music is as old a tradition as overtures. "Exit music at the end of the show has been in existence since the days of vaudeville, when the band would play some peppy music to get the audience out and bring in the next audience," said Berman. "In those days it was often called the 'Out March' or 'Exit March.' Musicals have always had exit music, and over the years, composers probably realized it was a good way to get the best tunes in the show in the ears of the audience one last time as they left the theatre."
According to Berman, the scope and structure of the "exit march" is a collaborative effort between the composer, music director and orchestrator.
"Generally I would say that composers might have some input into what tunes comprise the exit music," he said, "but it is usually left to the orchestrator and to the music director to piece together the actual arrangement. Often there would be generic utilities of the best tunes in the show that were orchestrated to be used as scene-change music if needed during the production, and these utilities would be strung together to create the bow music and exit music.
"In my experience," he continued, "exit music is usually one of the last pieces of music created for a show because it isn't needed at all during the rehearsal process. I also feel that there's nothing greater than the devoted audience members who wait around until the end of the exit music and give the orchestra and conductor one more well-deserved round of applause."
In this perishable sub-genre of show music, the muscularly jazzy exit music from composer Cy Coleman and lyricist David Zippel's City of Angels is a standout that musical theatre fans remember. In that instance, it was not cobbled together by a music director, but handcrafted by Coleman himself.
Playbill.com reached out to Zippel, and he explained the experience in an email: "It was 'half-hour' before a late preview of City of Angels and Cy Coleman had called all of the creators to come to a special band rehearsal. He was about to present the orchestra with the exit music he had written for the show, which the legendary Billy Byers had orchestrated, and he wanted us all to be present. The 16 players had been carefully selected by Cy, Billy and our contractor John Miller and they were the best of the best.
"This score was particularly personal to Cy as it was a jazz-based score for Broadway, something he had always wanted to write and he rightly felt that the band made an enormous contribution to the authenticity and excitement of the music. Cy thought of the exit music as a gift to the band and they received it as such. It was a swinging showcase for the players and every night, under the baton of Gordon Harrell, they jumped at the opportunity to bring down the house. The selection ends with a percussive, guttural shout by the players and they gave it their all just shy of 900 times.
"The audience responded from that preview on: rather than storm the exits, they crowded around the orchestra pit or stood at their seats and cheered when it was over. I have to admit, it was like a magnet for me and if I were anywhere near the theatre district at final curtain time I would show up just in time to hear these extraordinary guys blow their brains out.
"The [piece] is called 'Double Talk Walk' and it is captured in all its brilliance on the Broadway cast recording."