Friday, June 8, 2012

10 FAVORITES (59): An Opening to Remember

It is the first week of June and that means that Broadway's annual Tony Awards are just a few days away (airing this Sunday, June 10 on CBS at 8PM hosted by the incredibly talented Neil Patrick Harris).  As my nickname claims, I love this time of year.  Not only do I catch up on the many musicals and plays that have charmed audiences and critics alike on the Great White Way over the season, but I also think back on the many shows I have loved throughout my lifetime and the landmarks that have made a cultural impact (think hits like My Fair Lady or A Streetcar Named Desire).  And, of course, it is always the musicals that tend to get the most attention from everyone at this time (myself included!).  There is one extremely important element to musicals that have made most of them the successes they have been: The Opening Number.  A lot of shows get defined by how they begin.  If an Opening Number is spectacular enough, you could read the phone book afterwards and audiences would still think it was worth the price of admission.  So for this week's 10 FAVORITES, I am going to countdown some of the greatest Broadway Opening Numbers in some of the most popular Tony Award-winning musicals.  And just to give you all a clue as to how difficult this list was to devise, here are some of the famed musicals that didn't quite make the list: West Side Story, The Music Man, The Phantom of the Opera and even Wicked!  Now, let's see which ones did make the list...


"The Sound of Music," The Sound of Music
Music by Richard Rodgers and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Some may be surprised that this is just an "Honorable Mention," but there is a reason.  Though original star Mary Martin sang this opening song beautifully on Broadway in 1959, the song's (and the musical's) popularity truly stems from the treatment it got in the mega-successful 1965 film starring the luminous Julie Andrews (and her mountain-spinning ways!).

"Another Openin', Another Show," Kiss Me, Kate
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Cole Porter's backstage musicalization of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew was the first musical to win the Tony Award for Best Musical back in 1949.  With this Opening Number, the title itself became a standard phrase within the Broadway lexicon.

"Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'," Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Out of all the Opening Numbers on this list, this is the oldest and the most understated.  When Rodgers and Hammerstein's first collaboration opened back in 1943, the Opening scene threw most people for a loop.  The style was very different from any other musical before and its brilliance lies in its simplicity.

"I Hope I Get It," A Chorus Line
Music by Marvin Hamlisch and Lyrics by Edward Kleban
My Fair Lady opened with a sumptuous Overture.  West Side Story opened with dancing, but no dialogue or singing.  But in A Chorus Line, Director-Choreographer Michael Bennett got straight to the point of the show: Dancers auditioning (and praying!) for a spot in a musical.

"Aquarius," Hair
Music by Galt McDermott and Lyrics by Gerome Ragni & James Rado
Hair was a landmark musical back in 1968 in many different ways.  Its Opening Number, which became a huge pop hit for The 5th Dimension, set the tone of love, peace and community shared by all the characters on the stage.

"Magic to Do," Pippin
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Several Broadway Directors could be called innovative and Bob Fosse is certainly one of them.  In Stephen Schwartz' Pippin, Fosse used lighting tricks, dancers' bodies and the smooth tones of Tony-winner Ben Vereen to lure the audience into the "Magic" that was about to unfold before them.

"Circle of Life," The Lion King
Music by Elton John and Lyrics by Tim Rice
How do you live up to one of the most popular Opening scenes in Disney Animation?  Director Julie Taymor wowed audiences and critics alike with the answer to that question.  Using a mix of puppetry, masks and colorful costumes, the Disney hit has become one of the biggest moneymakers in Broadway history and has proven its stamina over and over thanks in large part to its thrilling Opening Number.

"All That Jazz," Chicago
Music by John Kander and Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Who knew murder could look so good?  Kander and Ebb's delightful killer-diller musical has become synonymous with a "Razzle Dazzle" Broadway show.  From its opening line of "Come On Babe" to its high-strutting final notes, the number wows everyone (whether its sung by the likes of Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth or even Oscar-winner Catherine Zeta-Jones!).

"Tradition," Fiddler On the Roof
Music by Jerry Bock and Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
When it comes to defining what a musical's story is about, this is one of the few Opening Numbers that lays it all out there for you.  And it is a combination of all facets of musical creation: direction, choreography, libretto and score.  Director Jerome Robbins stylized a perfect Opening for Tevye and his fellow villagers from Anatevka where they basically tell the audience what their lives are like and what is important to them: Tradition!

"Wilkommen," Cabaret
Music by John Kander and Lyrics by Fred Ebb
The title is German for "Welcome" and when you think about it, an Opening Number is basically a kind of a "Welcome."  And what a "Welcome" audiences get when they see this show (or even the Oscar-winning 1972 film version).  Mix in scantily clad women, a rousing "Oom-Pah-Pah" styled song and a dynamic performance from the actor cast as the Master of Ceremonies (The role won both a Tony and an Oscar for Joel Grey!) and you have one of the most in-your-face Opening Numbers in Broadway history.

"Comedy Tonight," A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
But when it comes to in-your-face or laying it all on the line, Fiddler and Cabaret were just following in the footsteps of Forum (which is not surprising as they were all originally produced by the legendary Harold Prince!).  This Opening Number doesn't only delight in its performance, but it surprises many to know that it almost never existed!  When Forum was first in out-of-town tryouts, it was getting hammered by the critics and walked out on by audiences.  Enter Jerome Robbins to serve as "show doctor" (basically, a production supervisor).  He told George Abbott (director), Harold Prince (producer) and Stephen Sondheim (composer-lyricist) that the Opening Number they had in place was killing the show (it was an unheard-of Sondheim song called "Love Is In the Air").  He asked Sondheim to write a new song that basically said "baggy-pants farce" and also told him "Don't worry about writing jokes! I'll handle the jokes."  What Robbins came up with the second Sondheim wrote "Comedy Tonight" has gone down in Broadway lore as the most hilarious and most entertaining ten minutes ever to be put on a stage.  I think that serves as qualification enough to top this list.

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