Doctor Eclectic

Doctor Eclectic
Doctor Eclectic

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Broadway Shows

Mary and I just returned from The Greater New York Dental Meeting, which we try to catch almost every year.  One of the serendipity pleasures, aside from seeing relatives and friends, is that we usually get to one or two plays.  This year we saw heavy drama in the Steppenwolf Theater’s production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?” and balanced our mood by a delightful production of a play adapted from a series of books titled “Peter and the Star-catcher”.  The irony that this prequel to Peter Pan, which was written by David Barrie was written as were the Star-catcher series by the columnist Dave Barrie was not lost on us.

Dave Barry has always been a favorite of ours and I used to give Mary a Dave Barry calendar for Christmas until he turned his talents elsewhere.  His humor was manifest in the production and the afternoon was a true delight.  Only one thing was missed:

There was no Overture!

Actually, I wasn’t surprised.  Overtures have been disappearing from Broadway at an alarming rate, with only the revivals of classic shows, with their big casts and big orchestras creating a mood by snippets of every strong song in the score.

I saw my first Broadway show in 1953 and I saw it in Chicago with the original cast, something we rarely see today.  My mother took me to see Alfred Drake (her reason for going) in “Kismet”, an Arabian Nights extravaganza (her reason for taking me) and I loved it, from the Overture, which led into Princes Come, Princes Go, which lyrics I remember to this day: “An hour of pomp and show. Princes come and into the sands of time they go.  Wise men come, wise men go, ever wondering, the riddle of life to know. Wise men come, and into the sands of time they go.  Lovers come, lovers go, and all that there is to know they know. Lovers come, and into the sands of time they flow.” It may explain why I remain a hopeless romantic.

Testing my theory that Overtures are disappearing, I looked at some 35 of the close to 100 shows I have on vinyl or disk; a collection that started more than 35 years ago when some acting friends introduced us to their practice of collecting every musical they saw.  Although we have seen “Gypsy” on Broadway with three different stars, we don’t buy all three Original Cast Recordings. We often listen to shows at suppertime.

The concept of having an Overture in a Broadway musical came because early Broadway musicals were a close relative of Opera.  Most operas at the time had an Overture that was written by the composer, often to assist the audience in how to identify the different movements.  Paradoxically, the one overture most recognized by Americans ran all the movements together.  That would be the Overture to Rossini’s William Tell, which people remember from 30 years of Brace Beemer using it for background to “Hi Yo, Silver, away!”

Broadway Musical Overtures varied in several ways from those of opera, one of the most significant being that they were rarely written by the musical composer.  More often the conductor of the orchestra was given the score and a time limit to introduce the audience as to what would be “memorable” songs, so they could whistle them as they left the theater.  The shows in my collection that had overtures more often than not had this format but on occasion would have instead a Prologue, or occasionally both a Prologue and an Overture.

“Peter…” had a Prologue, but it wasn’t even musical, just a narrative to introduce the characters and set the plot, and perhaps provide an explanation as to why we rarely see Classic Overtures now: there were only two musicians.  When you consider that the William Tell Overture was written for 21 musicians plus Strings, you can see why it might be difficult to do that with a piano and percussion.

And I’m told that one of the major reasons most Symphony Orchestras and Opera Companies are in financial trouble is related.  Classical music is labor intensive, as is opera.  The arts have benefitted less from technology than industry has.  More the loss.

Next post will give a different slant on the Petreaus Affair: from the perspective of a 25-year career officer’s wife.  Mary weighs in!

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