LIANE HANSEN, host:

Once upon a time, every Broadway musical had an overture. Now because of changes in both taste and economics, it is a rare occurrence. But this season two musical revivals, which are up for several Tony Awards tonight - "South Pacific" and "Gypsy" - feature overtures played by large orchestras in full view of the audience.

Jeff Lunden has this appreciation of the Broadway overture.

JEFF LUNDEN: For years now the Broadway orchestra has been shrinking in size, and most shows these days skip the overture entirely. And when a musical actually has an overture, it seems like, well, an afterthought.

Of the four shows nominated for the best-musical Tony this year, only one, "Cry Baby," has an overture...

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: ...sort of.

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Unidentified Man: Take your seats.

LUNDEN: The Broadway overture has traditionally set the tone for the evening to follow. It's kind of a bridge for the audience between real life and the theatrical world they're about to enter.

Unidentified Man: Cell phones off.

LUNDEN: 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.

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Mr. BRUCE POMAHAC (Director of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization): One of the things when we talk about the golden era and how wonderful everything was 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.

LUNDEN: Bruce Pomahac is director of music for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.

Mr. POMAHAC: The music just wasn't something to be dealt with on the side, the way it seems to be today. 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 in five pieces, six pieces. No, they had what they needed to make the score happen. Rodgers needed 40 to make "Carousel" happen, and he got it; he needed 30 to make South Pacific happen.

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LUDDEN: Broadway overtures, though, were rarely written by a show's composer. They were stitched together by the orchestrators - who took the composer's scores and created arrangements for a full orchestra in the pit. Sometimes artfully, sometimes not so artfully. Bruce Pomahac says Richard Rodgers worked with one of the best.

Mr. POMAHAC: Robert Russell Bennett handled this shore for Rodgers. But Rodgers could trust him, because Bennett was very organic about it.

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LUDDEN: Indeed, Bennett is receiving a special posthumous Tony Award this evening, in recognition of his contributions to creating the Broadway sound.

Ted Sperling, conductor of the revival of "South Pacific," 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 parts from the 1949 Broadway pit. They used several of the markings and phrasings those musicians scribbled in their books 59 years ago.

Mr. TED SPERLING (Conductor, "South Pacific"): And I encouraged a rather old-fashioned style of playing from the whole orchestra. 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.

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LUDDEN: When the "South Pacific" overture ends, the entire orchestra - in tuxedos and formal wear - 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.

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LUDDEN: Sid Ramin created the "Gypsy" overture with Red Ginzler from Jule Styne's tunes way back in 1959. Ramin says when he went to see the revival, the overture had the audience from hello.

Mr. SID RAMIN (Creator, "Gypsy" Overture): I was thrilled when I went to opening just a few weeks ago. And when the audience heard those first four notes, they immediately began to applaud. And it was like those four notes were the four magic notes.

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

Mr. PATRICK VACARIELLO (Music Director, "Gypsy" Revival): They actually listened. Normally the audience in the overture, if they're in the pit, 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. You know, you have real strings, there aren't any synthesizers -real harp, just an old-fashioned piano. And you sense that the audience really, really appreciates the sound.

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

Mr. TONY KADLECK (Trumpet Player): It's nerve-wracking to stand up. I mean we've been anonymous so long and, you know, to some degree we're still anonymous, but to stand up and have the spotlight, I mean, it's kinda cool. It's a little bit of a rush, and I still get goose bumps. And, you know, occasionally or most often they applaud.

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LUDDEN: Both "Gypsy" and "South Pacific" are nominated for Tony Awards for Best Musical Revival tonight.

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LUDDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Ludden in New York.

HANSEN: And to find out more about the Tony Awards, hear music and see pictures from the nominated shows and read theater reporter Jeff Lunden's predictions, go to NPR.org.

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