Overtures: Love them or loathe them?

Overtures: Love them or loathe them?

Overtures Hedwig Avenue. Photo by John Moore

To overture or not to overture? The Avenue Theatre’s ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ would argue: Definitely not. That was a show that got right into the rock. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Do overtures make you relaxed or restless? Are they a waste of time? Or a welcome throwback to another time? 

I hold in my hand a melodic can of words, and I am going to open it: Overtures: Love them or loathe them?

In their day, overtures set the tone for the evening. They gave you a few minutes to adjust from the world you just stepped out of and into the one you are about to walk into. David Nehls, one of the busiest Music Directors in Denver (including Off-Center’s recent The Wild Party) also points out that one of the original purposes of Broadway overtures “was about selling sheet music and getting songs on the hit parade.”

But back in the day, companies produced musicals with full orchestras. New musicals rarely features overtures these days, and companies doing the classics often skip them entirely. So have they outlasted their purpose?

Gregg Coffin Here’s something I learned reading this NPR story about overtures: Composers generally don’t write their own overtures. Never have. They are more often stitched together by local orchestrators who take the composer’s scores and create arrangements to suit the size and scope of their own ensembles.

Side note: I also learned that Cry-Baby, nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2008 has an overture of sorts, but it’s a gag: “The orchestra chimes in every eight bars to tell the audience to take their seats, turn off their cellphones and unwrap their candy,” Jeff Lunden reported. Equinox Theatre Company will present the regional premiere of Cry-Baby from July 27-Aug. 18 at the Bug Theatre in northwest Denver.

(Pictured above: Music Director Gregg Coffin leads a rehearsal for the DCPA Theatre Company’s 2016 ‘Sweeney Todd.’ Below, expect an unconventional overture for Equinox Theatre’s ‘Cry-Baby.’)  

Cry-Baby Overtures We asked readers to weigh in, and about 85 percent said they loving overtures (some with conditions.) Reader Randy St. Pierre suggested that Carousel features arguably the best overture ever. Other musicals with beloved overtures included Candide, Gypsy, Funny Girl and Purlie.

“As frequent audience members, we find overtures serve multiple functions,” said Richard Zernow. “They get the attention of the audience and makes them calm down and start paying attention. They set the atmosphere for the start of the play. And they help transition the audience into another reality. We love them.”

For former actor Rich Hicks, overtures trigger a cherished memory: “I remember the rush of excitement that shot through me on any opening night when live musicians struck that first note of the overture. As an audience member, I appreciate them accordingly.”

But Heidi Johnson Elliott says overtures are old-fashioned and make her restless. “I don’t think they are needed anymore,” she said. “There are much more interesting ways to start a modern musical. Nowadays you can memorize the soundtrack before you ever see the show, so it’s not like the music will be unknown — unless you want it to be — or the show has just opened.”

Several readers begrudgingly supported the continuation of overtures, but Lighting Designer Shannon Johnson spoke for many when she said: “For God’s sake — make it the shortened version!” Added Nikki Seabaugh: Two or three minutes, max. I’d rather hear what I’m going to hear, not have you tell me at the beginning what I can expect to hear. Let’s get into the show already.”

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Stage manager Katrina M. Niemisto offered a different take: “For a stage manager, overtures are an opportunity to fix any issues that arise after the show starts, because it’s typically a cue-free few minutes,” she said.

On one issue, everyone can agree: Tracked shows with overtures and entr’actes (the refresher music that is played just after intermission) make me insane,” said actor Maggie Tisdale. “I’m not going to sit and marvel at an amazing track!” To which Niemisto added: “Seriously: No one is impressed that your computer made that. No one.”

Local director Rebecca Joseph found the very question moot. “I love overtures. she said. “How can good music ever be a waste of time?”

What do you think? Do overtures make you relaxed or restless? Are they a waste of time? Or a welcome throwback to another theatrical era? Add your two notes’ worth as a comment at the bottom of this story.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Bonus: More reader comments:

Here are more representative comments from NewsCenter readers:

  • Music Director Eric Weinstein: I generally cut them down to a reasonable length — long enough to set the mood of the show but not much over three minutes. If there is a curtain speech, I’ll usually rely on that to help get the audience’s attention.”
  • Kellie Rockey: “I’d love them if they’d play them during the last five minutes while people are being seated, before the house lights go out.”
  • Overtures Performance Now 400Samantha Jo Staggs: “I love them. They give an overview of the music you will hear that evening. I also like an entr’actes as it allows the audience to get back into the story after the break. As an actor, I like it because it gives me a moment to transition into character.”
  • Terri Ducker: “Honestly, I love the overture because gives all the rude people who come in late a chance to sit down without killing the show. And I love them when they are done right. The Peter Pan overture is my favorite. I believe the musicians playing should have a chance to be heard before the singers take over.”
  • Susan Brabant Baxter: “I love them. I hate when people talk over them as if they were at a disco.”
  • Casting Director Sylvia Gregory: “I like them, but I don’t miss them if they are not there.”
  • Musician Jason Spillman: “I love overtures because you get a little taste of the songs you will be hearing in full later during the show. And they are fun to play.”
  • Sam Baldwin: “I love them. It is nostalgic, gets me all excited for the show, and totally transitions the feel of the room.”

(Pictured above: Music Director Mary Dailey leads the orchestra for Performance Now’s 2005 production of ‘Joseph …’)

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