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Broadway's Best Musical Revival: The Overture?

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.

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."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.