One of the reasons I loved the revival of South Pacific was its fearless use of the entire original overture. The overture, designed originally to play before a show to allow late-comers to be seated before the start of the show, has diminished in use these days, with many shows either opening cold or offering a very brief musical prelude before the start.
I love the overtures. They set a tone for the evening; they allow you to be introduced to musical themes and phrases from within the show and to get a feel for the size and scope of the orchestra and orchestrations. It’s the foreplay. What follows is the sex. It can be long, short, pleasant, exuberant, boring or just downright awful. It’s a part of the experience and I wish that more shows would continue to use them.
My first day of American Musical Theatre class in college, my professor, Stephen Kitsakos, played three as an example to give us a feel for the unending horizons of the musical landscape, as well as use it for a successful introduction to the class. The three he played were The Who’s Tommy, A Little Night Music and Guys and Dolls, (though he actually didn’t use the original overture for the latter, but “Runyonland” from the revival cast recording). When I became his TA I always wanted to toss in some of the ones listed below, but then again I’m always biased towards the greats. But I knew then that I was going to enjoy his class immensely, which I did.
Many of the great overtures are present on their cast albums. Some are truncated due to due the time contraints of the LP but odds are you can find a complete recording out there somewhere. Other recordings, such as Darling of the Day and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, combined the overture and entr’acte for the cast recording (mostly an RCA practice). The original Mack and Mabel, a Gower Champion-directed production (who rarely used a traditional overture in his musicals) opened with a brief fanfare of “I Won’t Send Roses.” When they recorded the cast album, the entr’acte was recorded for the overture. The piece became overwhelmingly popular when Torvill and Dean used it for the 1982 World Championships, where they won the gold medal and ever since, the entr’acte is now officially the show’s overture.
Some of my favorites (alphabetically):
Irma La Douce
The Light in the Piazza
A Little Night Music
My Fair Lady
On the Twentieth Century
110 in the Shade
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue