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Four Overtures by Charles Strouse

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Any serious fan of Broadway musicals has no doubt heard that the three greatest overtures are those for Gypsy, Funny Girl, and Candide. It is true that these overtures are all uncommonly creative in their blending of melodies from the respective shows’ scores, though I half-suspect the Candide one is “the greatest” mainly because Leonard Bernstein wrote it. De rigeur for Broadway musicals since the 1920’s at least, the overture fell somewhat out of fashion from the 1960’s onward; Charles Strouse was among the composers that kept it alive. I believe that several shows by Strouse (who, like virtually every American "classical" composer, studied with Nadia Boulanger) have overtures as good as Jule Styne’s for Funny Girl and Gypsy; one show (Rags) has an overture the equal of Candide's. Strouse’s overtures are exciting, even thrilling. They raised the listener’s expectation for a musical that often did, but sometimes did not, fully satisfy.

Not all of Strouse's shows have “formal,” curtain-down type overtures. The introduction/overture to It’s Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superman! (which flopped in 1966 but has since become popular, with a revised libretto) is staged with action and dialogue; the “overture” to Golden Boy consists of prizefighters warming up—no music, only rhythmic chants (“Don’t swallow the mouthpiece,” “Semi-final in the Garden—make a hundred fifty bucks,” etc.). The “true” overtures discussed here will be those for Strouse’s Bye Bye Birdie (1960), All American (1962), Annie (1977), and Rags (1986).

Broadway's storied Winter Garden Theatre, where All American played its two-month run.

Important to remember is the fact that, while the composer conceives his overtures in piano form, it is the orchestrator we must thank for what finally emanates from the pit. Regular Strouse orchestrator Robert Ginzler had a clever musical imagination, as the Bye Bye Birdie overture proves. Bye Bye Birdie is one of the few shows whose dramatic conflict—between youth and middle age—can be, and is, expressed in purely musical terms; the score contains ‘40’s swing, ‘50’s rock, and ‘20’s syncopation (which, ironically, was the rock of its own time!). At two minutes and forty seconds on the show’s original cast album, Bye Bye Birdie’s is a bit shorter than most Broadway overtures; it begins and ends with an ode to Conrad Birdie, sung by girl fans. Hearing the overture’s three successive melodies—“Baby, Talk to Me,” “Rosie,” and “Put on a Happy Face”—a first-nighter in 1960 might have thought she had wandered into a revival of a 1940’s musical; there is no rock n’ roll—no “One Last Kiss” or “Honestly Sincere.” On Strouse’s part, this was wise: why put the older, more conservative members of the audience—in fact, the majority—off the new show before the curtain had even risen on it? The presentation of “Put on a Happy Face” tells us that Albert Peterson is Conrad's songwriter: the full melody is played by the piano, plucked by the strings, and blared by the brass; it is played legato on the strings, and by the brass in a free and jazzy version. The total effect is that of a song being written and orchestrated before our very ears.

Lyricist Lee Adams (front, with glasses), Charles Strouse (behind him, with glasses), and others at the recording session for Bye Bye Birdie

All American, conceived as a vehicle for Zero Mostel, somehow became one for Ray Bolger, who played a Hungarian math professor who emigrates to the US to teach at a Southern college. The ever-wonderful baritone Ron Husmann played the ingenu lead; George Lindsey (what was a football comedy set in Alabama without him?) played a dim-witted villain. A sentimental musical, All American poked fun at college football and academics, Madison Avenue, and the generation gap. Its overture is even more exuberant and depictive than is Birdie’s--the first thirty seconds, for example, evoke the jarring experience of a wide-eyed immigrant’s first road trek across America--promising a penetrating and fun musical that never quite happened; despite an assured score, the show closed after eighty performances. (The overture’s sequence of melodies, incidentally, is “What a Country,” “Our Children,” “It’s Fun to Think,” “Nightlife,” “Once Upon a Time,” and “The Fight Song.”)

Merely hearing the mellow, opening horns in the overture to Annie, Strouse’s biggest hit, will bring fond memories back for millions. Like many born in or after 1977, this was the first Broadway-musical overture I ever heard; it remains one of my favorites. Listening, now, to its sequence of “Tomorrow,” “The Hard-Knock Life,” “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile,” “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover,” and “Tomorrow,” I am struck by two things: the transitions between the melodies are not very creative (one tune simply follows another), and the overture is restrained where Bye Bye Birdie's is ebullient. Perhaps because of this, Annie’s is the overture that most produces that knot-in-the-pit-of-the-stomach feeling—the barely contained yet gradually mounting, anticipatory excitement of a curtain about to rise—that an overture ought to prompt, for the audience if not for the actors.

Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre (formerly the Alvin Theatre), with what appears to be an Annie show curtain. Annie opened there in April 1977.

A sequel of sorts to Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof, Rags was a Broadway flop; not only did it focus on the dark side of the immigrant experience to the exclusion of the kind of warm humor found in such similarly themed shows as Fiddler, Fiorello!, or Strouse’s own All American, it was “message” rather than character based, always a mistake in musicals. Unlike All American, however, Rags has come back (at the regional level only), with a rewritten libretto. Strouse’s score needed less revision, as it is his most ambitious and impressive. It has an operatic breadth and its overture, five minutes long on the original cast album, is closer in length to a typical opera than to a typical Broadway overture. Strouse’s transitions between his melodies of “Brand New World,” “Children of the Wind,” “Greenhorns,” “Blame It on the Summer Night,” and the title song are inspired, and the varied instrumentation by Michael Starobin rather frequently recalls the concert music of George Gershwin: an apt reference in a show about Russian Jews in America. Finally, Rags’ overture (like that of Bock and Harnick’s Fiorello!) constitutes a tour-in-sound of circa-1910 New York City, evoking its sights and even its smells. If this is more a credit to Starobin than to Strouse, then it has always surprised me that no Broadway orchestrator has achieved a level of fame equal to that of a Broadway composer. Clearly, Strouse worked with some of the best.

Red-haired Metropolitan Opera soprano Teresa Stratas starred in the four-performance wonder Rags. She was replaced on the original cast recording by another Met soprano, Julia Migenes.

Not every Broadway musical has or needs an overture and yet, as a lover of these pieces, I am always somewhat disheartened when I run my eyes down the track list on an original-cast CD and find no overture listed. A show overture raises the audience’s adrenaline and expectations; it is hoped the latter won’t be disappointed once the curtain rises. Musicals from the ‘60’s onward were nearly as likely not to have a formal overture as to have one; those of us for whom the overture is truly the foyer to the mansion of the score should thank Strouse and his orchestrators for crafting such exquisite ones.

Additional links:
Overture to Bye Bye Birdie:

Overture to Annie:

Overture to Rags:

Updated Oct-12-2019 at 21:40 by Bellinilover

Classical Music , Non-Classical Music , Opera , Composers


  1. pianozach's Avatar
    I've musical directed dozens of musicals, and have been in the pit for a hundred more.

    Bye Bye Birdie is one of my least favorite musicals for several reasons, and, as a consequence, not one of my favorite Overtures.

    Phantom of the Opera has never impressed me. I don't enjoy Lloyd Webber's compositional "style" that much, although I do love Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita.

    The Overtures to Funny Girl (I don't know if I've ever heard it at all) and Candide (and I love me some Bernstein) don't really come to mind. But I'll cue them up.

    But I can tell you, of the hundreds I've heard and played, which ones are the most favorably memorable

    Jesus Christ Superstar
    The Fantasticks
    West Side Story
    The Man of La Mancha

    There's a few other openings that are memorable, but they are shows without Overtures or Prologues: Assassins, Fiddler On the Roof, 42nd Street, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Cabaret, Evita, City of Angels.

    There's also some film Overtures that have stuck with me: Wizard of Oz, Around the World in 80 Days, Les Misérables.