Broadway's Best Musical Revival: The Overture?

Strike Up the Band

Hear the overtures from this season's Tony Award-nominated musical revivals.

Paulo Szot kisses Kelli O'Hara i i

Paulo Szot and Kelli O'Hara in Lincoln Center's South Pacific revival. The show's orchestra is at full strength — 30 players, as in the 1949 original — for this production. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus
Paulo Szot kisses Kelli O'Hara

Paulo Szot and Kelli O'Hara in Lincoln Center's South Pacific revival. The show's orchestra is at full strength — 30 players, as in the 1949 original — for this production.

Joan Marcus
Laura Benanti peeks from behind a curtain i i

Laura Benanti stars as Gypsy Rose Lee in the Tony Award-nominated revival of Gypsy. Unlike most contemporary shows, this 1959 classic features a splashy overture — and unlike most productions, this one puts the orchestra onstage. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus
Laura Benanti peeks from behind a curtain

Laura Benanti stars as Gypsy Rose Lee in the Tony Award-nominated revival of Gypsy. Unlike most contemporary shows, this 1959 classic features a splashy overture — and unlike most productions, this one puts the orchestra onstage.

Joan Marcus
Elizabeth Stanley and James Snyder

James Snyder (with Elizabeth Stanley) plays title character Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker in the new Broadway adaptation of the John Waters film. A famous Gypsy number insists "You gotta get a gimmick" — and Cry-Baby's overture has one. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus

Who'll Take the Trophies?

Once upon a time, every Broadway musical had one — an overture, that is. But for years now, theater economics have meant shrinking orchestras. And most shows, whether because of budget or for reasons of taste, skip the overture entirely.

Not quite all of them: Cry-Baby, one of the four shows up for the best-musical prize at Sunday night's Tony Awards, has an overture of sorts. (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.)

And in a happy throwback, two Tony-nominated musical revivals — Gypsy and South Pacific — feature not just overtures, but overtures played by large orchestras, in full view of the audience. That makes the two shows a kind of lesson in what we've been missing.

A Musical Bridge

The Broadway overture has traditionally set the tone for the evening to follow; for the audience, it's like a bridge between real life and the world they're about to enter.

In the case of Cry-Baby, it's a satirical world that thumbs its nose at convention; in the case of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, it's a grand canvas of World War II-era romanticism — and drama.

Musical-theater fans like to talk about a bygone golden era, when shows were better. But as Bruce Pomahac of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization points out, that perception "has a lot to do with the fact that, well, they spent a little bit more money and gave a little bit more attention to the music."

"The music just wasn't something to be dealt with on the side, the way it seems to be today," says Pomahac. "Just put the orchestra upstairs, put it in the basement, just get it out of the way, we'll just mike it into the theater ... five pieces, six pieces.

"No, they had what they needed to make the score happen," he says. "Rodgers needed 40 [players] to make Carousel happen, and he got it; he needed 30 to make South Pacific happen.

Broadway overtures, though, were rarely written by a show's composer. They were stitched together by the orchestrators — who'd take the composer's scores and create arrangements for a full orchestra in the pit. Sometimes it was done artfully, sometimes not so much. Pomahac says Richard Rodgers worked with one of the best: Robert Russell Bennett.

"Rodgers could trust him, because Bennett was very organic about it," Pomahac says. Indeed, Bennett is receiving a special posthumous Tony Award this year, in recognition of his contributions to creating the Broadway sound.

Ted Sperling, conductor of the South Pacific revival, has been entrusted with recreating that sound. He says the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization gave him — and his 30-piece orchestra — the opportunity to look at the original musicians' scores from the 1949 Broadway pit. They used several of the markings and phrasings those players scribbled in their books 59 years ago.

"And I encouraged a rather old-fashioned style of playing from the whole orchestra," Sperling says. "I asked everybody to pretend that we lived in an age where being expressive and wearing your heart on your sleeve is not something to be embarrassed about — you know, that we could just go for the bigger gesture, with more vibrato, more schmaltz, if you will."

New 'Gypsy' Gives the Band a Gimmick, Too

When the South Pacific overture ends, the entire orchestra — in formalwear — stands up and takes a bow from the pit of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Eleven blocks downtown, at the St. James Theatre, the 25 musicians in the revival of Gypsy are actually onstage.

Sid Ramin was the orchestrator who, with Red Ginzler, created the Gypsy overture from Jule Styne's tunes in 1959. Ramin says that when he went to see the revival, the overture had the audience from "Hello."

"I was thrilled," Ramin says. "When the audience heard those first four notes, they immediately began to applaud. It was like those four notes were the four magic notes!"

Patrick Vaccariello is music director for the revival. He says putting the orchestra onstage changes the dynamic for the audience.

"They actually listen," Vaccariello says. "Normally ... they're talking. Here I really sense that they are in their seats, opening up their ears and hearing music — and it's a beautiful thing.

"And there's nothing like watching live musicians play," Vaccariello says. "You know, you have real strings, there aren't any synthesizers — [it's] the real harp [and] an old-fashioned piano. And you sense that the audience really, really appreciates the sound."

Gypsy is based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the strip-tease queen of jazz-age America, and there's a raunchy, down-and-dirty trumpet solo toward the end of the overture. In most productions, nobody can see the trumpet player; in this one Tony Kadleck, horn in hand, stands up to play the solo.

"It's nerve-wracking to stand up," Kadleck says, laughing. "I mean we — we've been anonymous so long and, you know, to some degree we're still anonymous, but to stand up and have the spotlight, it's kinda cool. It's a little bit of a rush, and I still get goosebumps."

Reading the Tony Awards Tea Leaves

Deanna Dunagan sits on a sofa;  Amy Morton hovers in the background

Best-actress favorite Deanna Dunagan (front) and co-star Amy Morton in Tracy Letts' drama August: Osage County, the front-runner for best play at this year's Tony Awards. hide caption

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Quick Picks: The Favorites

  • Best Play: August: Osage County
  • Best Musical: In The Heights
  • Best Revival of a Play:
       Boeing-Boeing or Macbeth
  • Best Revival of a Musical:
       South Pacific
'In The Heights' i i

Relationships are forged and altered at the bodega in Best Musical nominee In The Heights. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus
'In The Heights'

Relationships are forged and altered at the bodega in Best Musical nominee In The Heights.

Joan Marcus
Patrick Stewart is nominated for his role in 'Macbeth' i i

Patrick Stewart's performance in Macbeth may break the Scottish play's Tony curse. Alastair Muir hide caption

itoggle caption Alastair Muir
Patrick Stewart is nominated for his role in 'Macbeth'

Patrick Stewart's performance in Macbeth may break the Scottish play's Tony curse.

Alastair Muir

Perhaps the biggest drama of the 2007-2008 season on Broadway was the stagehands' strike, which shuttered most theaters for 19 days during one of the most lucrative times of the year — the Thanksgiving holiday.

The labor dispute, which pitted the producers and the stagehands against each other over work rules, forced several plays to postpone their openings; overall box office took a hit. For the first time in several years, both annual attendance and total ticket sales were down.

Still, the season was notable for some auspicious debuts — chances are the Tony Awards for both best play and best musical will go to Broadway first-timers — and by some distinguished revivals.

Here are my picks for Tony Awards in selected categories:

Best Play

August: Osage County
Rock 'n' Roll
The Seafarer
The 39 Steps

One of the big surprises this season was how many new plays were produced on Broadway: 11 in all. The clear front-runner in this category is August: Osage County, an import from the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and the Broadway debut of playwright Tracy Letts.

His long (three-and-a-half hours) but entertaining portrait of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family has already won several major awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Look for it to clean up in several categories: Deanna Dunagan, as the gargoyle of a matriarch, and director Anna D. Shapiro are both likely to take home trophies.

Honorable mention goes to Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll — a dense and moving examination of the power of pop music and the effect of politics in the Eastern Bloc — and to Conor McPherson's moody, funny The Seafarer, in which a group of drunken Irishmen find themselves playing cards with the Devil on Christmas Eve.

Best Musical

Cry-Baby
In The Heights
Passing Strange
Xanadu

Both In the Heights and Passing Strange were transfers from off-Broadway, and both introduced new voices to Broadway.

In Heights, it's the young songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda and book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes, who tell a somewhat sentimental story set in Washington Heights, infusing it with sounds rarely heard on Broadway: hip-hop and salsa.

In the case of Passing Strange, it's the middle-aged voice of an alt-rocker named Stew, who tells a somewhat sentimental coming-of-age story about a middle class African-American youth, infusing it with some straight-ahead rock and roll.

Both shows received extremely positive reviews, though Passing Strange has been struggling to find an audience. In The Heights has proved more commercially durable; look for it to take several categories, including best musical and best score.

Cry-Baby, based on the John Waters film, got generally negative reviews, though it might win best choreography for Rob Ashford's hilarious tap dance, performed by reform-school inmates with license plates on their feet. And Xanadu, a cheeky campfest based on the awful Olivia Newton-John film, may well win best book for its author, Douglas Carter Beane.

One of the most interesting aspects of this category is the two musicals that are missing from it: Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein and Disney's The Little Mermaid. Both shows were highly anticipated, received dismal reviews, appear to be commercially successful — and were almost completely ignored by the Tony nominating committee.

Best Revival of a Play

Boeing-Boeing
The Homecoming
Les Liaisons Dangerouses
Macbeth

All four nominees are strong in this category. The Homecoming received some of the best reviews of the season, but was a commercial failure; Les Liaisons Dangerouses, starring Laura Linney, got mixed reviews but has been doing well in its limited run at the nonprofit Roundabout Theatre.

The two serious contenders are Rupert Goold's striking, Soviet-era update of Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart, and Matthew Warchus' successful reanimation of a tired '60s sex farce, Boeing-Boeing, featuring a comic tour-de-force from Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance in his Broadway debut. Either production could win — and either of the lead actors could win in their category, as well.

Best Revival of a Musical

Grease
Gypsy
South Pacific
Sunday in the Park with George

In any other season, the Roundabout Theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George — which added clever animations to illustrate the artistic process of painter Georges Seurat — would win the Tony hands down.

But it's not any other season. Patti LuPone brought in her titanic interpretation of Mama Rose in Gypsy, under the direction of 90-year-old author Arthur Laurents, to ecstatic reviews.

And the Lincoln Center Theatre presented the first-ever Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific — to, yes, ecstatic reviews. Look for the latter production, directed with tremendous sensitivity by Bartlett Sher, to win best revival and take several Tonys (among them the lead-actor trophy for Paulo Szot as Emile de Becque).

But look for LuPone to win best actress in a musical — and for her cast mates Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines to win in the supporting categories.

As a footnote, the Grease revival was the first Broadway show to cast its leads through a competition on a reality-TV show. Critics groaned — but audiences have been flocking to it.

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