Let's talk about one of the most crucial parts of a musical: The Overture. The overture sets the tone for the show. It features samples of songs that will be heard throughout the show and sets the mood for the next 2½ hours. It is a piece of music that basically says to the audience, “Hi there. I’d like to introduce you to this musical. I really think you’ll get along.” Then you say, “Holy Hell, what did I just hear!? I am so friggin’ PUMPED for this musical to start!!!!”
There is nothing like a super kickass overture. A great one feels like the opening of a Queen concert, the kickoff at the Superbowl, and a screening of Oprah’s “My Favorite Things”. Combined. I have scoured the annals of Broadway for overtures and opening numbers that simply peel the paint off the walls. I present to you (in no particular order) the Top 10 Broadway Overtures and Opening Numbers Of All Time.
1. "Prologue" - Ragtime
Ragtime tells several intertwining stories of the African Americans of Harlem, the upper-class suburbanites of New Rochelle, and the European Immigrants populating America at the start of the 20th century. The opening number portrays the three groups clashing (musically and physically) with each other as they express their respective ambitions and creeds at the start of a new century. The big “company front” at the end gives me chills every time I hear it.
2. Phantom of the Opera
In all fairness, the overture of POTO only samples the titular song. But boy, is it a doozy! Just the opening six notes is like the clouds parting and Zeus popping out of his Olympus fortress with a Les Paul going, “Hey, mortals! Check out this tasty riff!” *metaphorically throwing panties on stage*
3. Jesus Christ Superstar
Yup, Andrew Lloyd Webber gets double love in this entry. Superstar puts the “rock” in “rock opera”. This overture sets the haunting mood from the very first note. But then the wicked horn, drums, and guitar action kicks in and I just wanna grab a lighter and wave it in the sky while head banging like Wayne’s World.
4. “Tradition” – Fiddler On The Roof
This overture basically says “Here’s this detailed layout of our community’s simplistic-yet-moribund way of life. Stay tuned and see how it all falls apart! …plus we’re all Jewish! Hope that doesn’t have any repercussions in Tzarist Russia!” And you gotta love the ridiculously lively, klezmer-inspired score going on here! I triple dog dare you to breathe when the bottle dancers move to the ground.
5. “I Hope I Get It” – A Chorus Line
I wrote about this show last year, so I’m just gonna reiterate my crazy love for this musical here: From the first “Five, six, seven, eight…” when the dancers turn and face the audience for the first time, you can hear the underlying stress and anxiety among the flying arms and legs in the music and choreography. This reflects the characters’ desperation to land this job because it means one more opportunity to dance; they want this with all their heart and soul. This opening number hits the ground running with both guns blazing while yelling “ENERGY” in your face. ‘Nuff said.
6. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” – Sweeney Todd
When I first watched the video recording of this show at the tender age of 9, I ran out of the room in fear at one point. Listening to the album alone gave me the creeps (mostly because of that friggin’ factory whistle). But super-creepy subject matter aside, this opening number is, in short, bad-ass. What other musical starts with the lead emerging from an oven and an ensemble calling us to the campfire for a gourmet scary story? There is not a single thing about this number that doesn't kick copious amounts of ass.
I’ve never actually seen Candide, nor do I know very much about it (except that it contains the greatest Broadway coloratura aria EVER). But this overture is arguably the liveliest, peppiest classical-fusion piece Leonard Benstein’s ever gifted to Broadway. It doesn’t even give the audience a moment to breathe, so I can only imagine how the members of the orchestra handle it!
Two words: Trumpet. Solo.
9. “Circle of Life” – The Lion King
This opening number is definitely more of a visual feast than an audio one, but Sweet Baby Jesus, it’s amazing! It almost makes the rest of the show a bit of a low because there are few points in the show higher and bigger than the opening. This number puts every Superbowl halftime show to shame ...and they typically do it twice a day.
10. West Side Story
Before a single note is played, Mr. Bernstein gets our attention with the show’s trademark short-long-short whistle (which I personally prefer as a gang signal over oddly-and-most-likely-dangerously-placed graffiti defacing public property). Then he unloads this loud, wild plethora of food for the ears with urgent tones and south of the border flavor. The clashes and interactions between the rival Jets and Sharks, the star-crossed lovers, and the law are represented in this pumping, beautiful traffic jam of an overture. *Fun fact: West Side Story didn’t do well its first time around on Broadway. Audiences weren’t quite ready for the “gritty, dark” musical genre. It lost the Best Musical Tony to Music Man that year.*