My musical theatre professor Stephen Kitsakos teaches his classes about various song types heard in musicals. He would start at the very beginning with the overture and progress in sequence through the general structure of a musical. However, my two favorites were always the eleven o’clock number and act one finale. The eleven o’clock number is that last showstopper that galvanizes or energizes the audience just prior to the finale. With the act one finale, Stephen (facetiously) said its most important function is to entice the audience to return after intermission. That is merely one aspect (and truth be told, a valid one). It should also serve to move the story forward and provide a sort of button for what has been seen so far. There are dozens and dozens of different numbers that come to mind, but I’ll keep it to a few examples.
Dreamgirls. Michael Bennett’s staggering finish to act one is the stuff of theatre legend. The Supremes-like trio is on the rise, but everyone is forced to deal with Effie White’s diva temperament. Effie, the overweight lead singer finds herself pushed to back up position for the prettier Deena. The first act ends with her being kicked out of the Dreams, with a volatile confrontation (“It’s All Over”). Effie sings of not feeling well and pains in her stomach, which hint at the pregnancy revealed in the second act when she struggles to make a comeback. The original production’s first act ended with Jennifer Holliday’s impassioned and defiant “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” a force of nature showstopper that earned the star standing ovations mid-song. There are reports of people standing on their chairs and running down the aisles to the stage screaming while she was riffing. Bennett; however, brilliantly cut off Effie’s moment by upstaging her applause with the debut of the new Dreams as the curtain falls.
A Little Night Music. Stephen Sondheim has written phenomenal act one finales for his shows, but this one in particular is quite dazzling. Fredrik and Desiree have reconnected after fifteen years apart. He’s married to an 18 year old virgin. His 19 year old son is in love with his stepmother. Desiree’s lover is insanely jealous, his wife tells the virgin about Fredrik and Desiree having a fling. As the show approaches the end of the first act, Desiree unhatches a plan to win Fredrik back for good by inviting him and his family to her mother’s estate for “A Weekend in the Country.”
South Pacific. Rodgers and Hammerstein and Joshua Logan ended the first act of the show with a musical scene rather than a curtain number. It’s mostly dialogue between the two protagonists, interspersed with reprises of Nellie’s upbeat songs heard so far. The scene takes a serious turn when Emile and the audience discover a new, uglier facet of Nellie’s personality when she reveals her racial prejudices against Emile’s deceased Polynesian wife. The final reprise in the act is Emile’s “Some Enchanted Evening,” first sung as an expression of love to Nellie, but is now in an entirely new context.
She Loves Me. My favorite musical comedy. The first act ends with Georg realizing that Amalia, his arch nemesis at work, is his lonely-hearts correspondent and soul mate. Knowing this information, he irritates Amalia, who is quite insecure as to whether or not Dear Friend will actually show up. Georg’s teasing leads to an argument between the two and Amalia dismisses him with a withering summation of his character flaws. The quieter-than-usual first act finale is her plaintive plea, “don’t let it end, Dear Friend,” a gentle waltz that brings down the curtain as she becomes quite aware that she has been stood up.
Gypsy. I don’t know that you an have a discussion about act one finales without bringing up Gypsy. Madame Rose dominates the musical and has three major solos that are all at eleven o’clock quality. I look at Rose’s character arc through these three numbers: “Some People” is a defiant expression of her determination, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is her desperation and “Rose’s Turn” is her defeat. As the show approaches the end of the first act, favored daughter Dainty June runs off with Tulsa, the rest of the act walks away while faithful Louise and Herbie want nothing more than to settle down. Rose, ever the pioneer woman without a frontier, sets her sights on bringing stardom to the overlooked Louise, in an incredibly chilling moment where it becomes clear that Rose will stop at nothing.