Tonys: The Importance of a Musical's Opening Number

THR discusses the matter with 2015 Tony contenders Casey Nicholaw ('Something Rotten!'), Diane Paulus ('Finding Neverland'), John Rando ('On the Town'), Christopher Wheeldon ('An American in Paris') and Lisa Kron ('Fun Home').
Joan Marcus
'Fun Home'

One never wants to arrive late to any Broadway show, but arriving late to a musical is particularly problematic. Why? Because the ways in which musicals open almost always offer important clues and context about everything else that is to follow.

This season's diverse crop of Tony-contending musicals serves as an interesting case study of the many different ways a musical can open. Some begin with a big, splashy song-and-dance number (Something Rotten!). Others open with quiet declarations that slowly build into something bigger (Fun Home). Others still kick off with no words at all (An American in Paris). One begins within a narrative framing device before springboarding into music (Finding Neverland). Another starts like a firecracker (On the Town). And the list goes on.

Behind every musical's opening number or sequence is a creative team that has devoted a great deal of thought to how to make an audience connect with the show from the moment the curtain goes up, just like some of the most effective musical openers of the past — among them Fiddler on the Roof's "Tradition," A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum's "Comedy Tonight," Oklahoma!'s "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," The Music Man's "Rock Island," right up through Hairspray's "Good Morning Baltimore."

I spoke with some of the key creative personnel behind five of this season's top musicals to find out why they ended up beginning their shows the way they do.

The big splashy song-and-dance opening number

Most people who spend big bucks on tickets to a Broadway musical want to see a lot of joyful singing and dancing, preferably by a large number of people wearing colorful costumes and performing in front of expensive-looking scenery — in other words, markedly better talent and "production value" than they would get at their local high school or community theater.

Nobody knows how to send those people home feeling like they got their money's worth better than Casey Nicholaw. The 52-year-old director of hits like The Drowsy Chaperone and The Book of Mormon draws upon his experience as a performer and a choreographer when it comes to putting together productions, and has a flair for the spectacular that can now be seen in two shows running on the Great White Way: Aladdin, the Disney adaptation that landed a best musical Tony nom last year, and Something Rotten!, the new musical-comedy about "the first musical" that looks like a slam-dunk to earn a nom in that same category this year.

"Every show has a different need for the opening," Nicholaw says. But what they all share in common, he has come to believe, is a responsibility "to set the tone and handle the audience so that they know what they're in for." This much was hammered home to him through his experience with Aladdin.

"Aladdin went through a lot of changes," Nicholaw notes, reflecting on the show's bumpy tryout in Toronto, when many began to write it off as a failure. "We had the three sidekicks sort of narrating the show, which is how it was originally done for the film. The audience was like, 'Who are these people? I'm here to see Aladdin!'" It was clear that things had to be recalibrated. "When we got here [to New York] I said, 'We have to open it up with the Genie and let people see him, because people won't see him for 45 minutes, and everyone loves him.' So then we ended up introducing all the characters in the number ["Arabian Nights"] because people wanted to see them, too. Then they were like, 'Okay, phew, I'm seeing the Aladdin I know and love!' And then you can depart from it."

Something Rotten! presented a different sort of challenge: being a completely new production, many would arrive at the show knowing little about it at all. Therefore, Nicholaw staged its opening number — "Welcome to the Renaissance" — in a way that quickly and memorably familiarizes audiences with the general thrust of the story and the people who will appear throughout it. It begins with a guy in a minstrel outfit standing on the stage, who — as with Aladdin — is soon joined by the show's entire company, spread across the stage in elaborate period costumes, singing, dancing and cracking jokes.

As Nicholaw describes it, "We introduce the Puritans, we introduce the idea of Shakespeare and we introduce the idea of what the Renaissance is: there are people always looking for new ideas, and there's a lot of competition and Shakespeare's everything." But, he adds, while it certainly deals with plot and personnel, "It was mostly about setting up the world and setting up that it was gonna be comedic and lively." He continues, "We wanted to let everyone see what they're in for and then get into the plot right after, in the second number."

There was never any question in his mind that "Welcome to the Renaissance" would open the show. "It evolved a little bit," he says, "with the more sort of '60s-rock feel in the middle of it; also, we weren't sure if we were actually gonna see Shakespeare or not see Shakespeare and just sing about him; and we added the Puritans in after a little bit."

At this point, Nicholaw feels good about the show's opener: "I just think it's pure joy. It says, 'You're in for a fun evening,' you know? There's so much to see — you just look at it and you just scan the stage. And what I love, too, is all the ensemble members are so specific in the show; it's not like, 'We're just dancers!'"

The wordless opening number

Ballet has never been embraced by the masses. That's why it was somewhat ballsy of MGM to greenlight An American in Paris, a 1951 movie musical starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron that climaxes with a 16-minute wordless ballet sequence. That's why it was somewhat remarkable that the film was not only a critical success but also a commercial success that went on to win the best picture Oscar over the likes of The African Queen, A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. And that's perhaps why that film, unlike most other successful movie musicals, was never brought to Broadway — until now.

The fact that it has finally made it to New York — and is being received as a great triumph by critics and audiences — is largely due to the vision of 42-year-old Christopher Wheeldon, a professional dancer and choreographer who got his start with the New York City Ballet, and whose only prior experience on Broadway was choreographing the short-lived 2002 musical Sweet Smell of Success. Wheeldon landed the gig of both choreographing and directing An American in Paris, and it is because of him that the show is even more ballet-centric than the movie.

The show's opening is a case-in-point: it's a wordless dance, accompanied by stirring orchestral music, that depicts the tearing down of the Nazi flag in Paris at the end of the occupation, followed by an American GI's exploration through the city, during which he repeatedly crosses paths with a beautiful young Frenchwoman with whom he becomes enamored, to the extent that, at the end of the number, he has torn up his airline ticket and elected to remain in Paris rather than return to the U.S.

"That was always my vision for the opening," Wheeldon says. "We wanted to set up the language of dance as the primary storytelling language of the show, so we decided that the opening number should all be danced. It made some people nervous because the opening of a Broadway musical almost always sets up what you're about to see in the show, but in our case it only sets up one of the languages." He explains, "If you're expecting a big kind of razzle-dazzle number [as the opener], you don't get it — even though there are songs and book scenes in our show, as well." So, he adds, "I think there was a little bit of trepidation around that idea. But because I come from a dance background and I'm really confident in the storytelling capabilities of a rich, well-put-together dance sequence, I pushed for us to be a little bit brave in that sense."

From where did Wheeldon derive his belief that dance-without-song is viable in a theatrical setting? From two memorable youthful experiences. The first was a 1994-1995 Lincoln Center production of Carousel choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan that featured, as Wheeldon recalls, "one of the greatest openings of a show ever." He elaborates, "The last thing that MacMillan created before he passed away was the opening 'Carousel Waltz' at the top of Carousel, and it was all done through movement — there's a little bit of vocalization in there in places, but, for the most part, it's an opening ballet similar to ours. I remember just being kind of blown away by that."

The second was seeing West Side Story — which "is primarily movement at the top of the show," Wheeldon emphasizes — and eventually becoming a part of a version of it. "I danced in West Side Story Suite," he says. "It was the first time that Jerome Robbins had lifted all of the dances from West Side Story and put them together as one dance suite for the New York City Ballet. So I worked with Jerry Robbins on that. As a performer, certainly, that was my most formative experience."

Now, thanks to Wheeldon, ballet on Broadway is not only back, but thriving.

The slow-build opening number

How do you make a musical — complete with singing and dancing, things one usually does when one is happy — about a subject as sad as a young woman coming to terms with the suicide of her father? That was a major challenge facing the creative team behind Fun Home (short for "Funeral Home") when they took on the task of adapting Alison Bechdel's graphic novel memoir for the Broadway stage.

Nobody shouldered more responsibility for finding an answer to that question than the playwright Lisa Kron, who had never before worked on a musical, but who was to handle the book and lyrics for this one. And Kron quickly realized that without an opening that clearly communicated the show's unusual tone and the fact that the audience would be seeing three different portrayals of the same character (as a middle-aged adult, as an adolescent and as a child), nothing else that followed would have worked.

"Our opening number is not an opening number," Kron tells me with a chuckle. "It took us a very long time to write it — we wrote many, many opening numbers before we got to this one. [Jeanine Tesori, who composed the music] described it as kind of an anti-opening number, which was interesting. It sort of sneaks in. It's a little bit quiet, I suppose."

The first person who appears on stage is the adult Alison, who goes to a drawing table. As she starts to draw, the child version of herself emerges from the orchestra — sort of like the "Dad" of Kevin Costner's memory emerging from the cornfields to play catch with his son in the film Field of Dreams — and starts to call for her father: "Daddy! Hey, Daddy, come here! I need you!" Then she's the only Alison on the stage and her father comes in with a bunch of boxes, the contents of which he is happy to discuss with her. Eventually, adult Alison interjects, "Am I exactly like you or am I nothing like you?" This brings out the rest of the actors portraying the Bechdel family to perform the song "It All Comes Back."

Kron came to feel that the aforementioned opening plea by the child was essential to have at the top of the show. "She's, in that particular moment, saying a very quotidian thing to her dad," Kron says. "But from the beginning to the end, that's what pulls this musical forward, that primal drive for the most elemental connection between a father and a daughter. She's saying, 'Pick me up in the air! Touch me! Look at me! Connect with me! Connect with me physically!' That's truly the drive of this musical at its most fundamental level." What follows with the boxes is equally symbolic of what's to come, she says. "Basically, you see his ethos and their relationship. You see her watching him. It also sums up what's going to be the nature of their relationship, which is that she wanted his attention, his attention is going towards his house — he's talking to her but only because he's describing what he knows and how he feels about these objects — and then you watch her watch him. She's learning something." As for adult Alison's question right before the first song commences, Kron says, "Trying to figure out which one of those things is true is what she's gonna do through the rest of the piece."

The show's structure was pieced together like a puzzle. She explains: "We knew very, very early that that was the drive of this musical, but how do you put that in an opening number and set up the idea that this adult character is looking back in time and figuring out what her relationship is going to be to these memories? We were trying to set clearly into motion a very ineffable set of rules, in terms of how this memory play was going to work. So it took a long time to figure out."

She recalls, "One of the hardest things in writing this was figuring out how to make the adult Alison fully functional as a character and, in a way, a static narrator. In the many not-successful iterations of that along the way, we kept trying to write her an opening number. We kept doing the thing which normally works, which is saying, 'We have to be more specific, more specific, more specific.' Also, we were looking for an inciting incident. In the graphic novel, Alison doesn't need to explain why she's telling this story now, but that's just a kind of dramatic requirement — 'What is the thing that gives this thing immediacy, necessity, urgency?' And we had a very hard time finding it." She continues, "We kept trying to write her opening numbers that would place her in a very specific situation, but the more specific we got, the worse it got. What we realized, at some point, was that it wasn't naturalistic, that we had to go deeper into her process, to go in deeper into the consciousness of the drive to use that tool [her artwork] to make peace with the past and to forge a new kind of relationship with her father. So essentially the whole show became the inside of her consciousness."

It reminded Kron of a rule that she believes all writers should remember. "All musicals have to have a single-minded, primal, emotional drive to them, and I think that gets set up in the opening number," she asserts. "It has to lay out its thematic ambitions. And then it has to teach the audience what the rules of the thing are going to be — how to watch it. The trick of writing anything, I suppose, is that you can know all of those things, but you can't write it directly — you need for your characters to make the audience feel whatever that primal emotional drive is." Kron had faith in the audience's ability to follow a multi-layered opening to a musical even if it was written, in some respects, more like the opening of a play. (Indeed, she often referred to Fun Home as a "play" during our conversation.)

Apparently, she was right. Fun Home became a phenomenon Off-Broadway in 2013, transferred to Broadway in 2015 and this week received the following review from The New York Times' Ben Brantley: "I can’t think of a recent musical — or play, for that matter — that has done a better job at finding theatrical expression for the wayward dynamics of remembering."

The narrative framing device springboarding into an opening number

The New York Times recently ran an article about the creative rollercoaster that preceded last week's unveiling of Finding Neverland, the new musical — adapted from a 2004 film — that chronicles the origins of Peter Pan. The thing about the piece that stood out most to me were the repeated references to the show's opening, which producer Harvey Weinstein and director Diane Paulus were apparently unhappy and tinkering with right up until go-time. On the afternoon of the show's opening night, I spoke with Paulus — a best director Tony nominee for 2009's Hair, 2012's The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and 2013's Pippin (she won for the third, which opens with the great "Magic to Do" number) — about the opening sequence they decided to go with.

"Coming out of the production that we did at the ART [American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.]," Paulus said, "we knew that the area that we needed to work on was the first 20 minutes of our first act. By the end of the show, the audiences were in completely, but we needed to 'hook' our audiences, so to speak, more powerfully from the get-go."

At the time, the show opened with a song featuring playwright J.M. Barrie (Matthew Morrison), producer Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer) and the company of actors who would ultimately perform Peter Pan, all on stage and performing a version of the aforementioned "big splashy song-and-dance opening number." The problem was it wasn't doing what needed to be done, which was to communicate to the audience that, while it seemed to the world that Barrie had everything, inside he knew he was missing something and had more to give — namely Peter Pan.

"In order to understand how he came to write Peter Pan, we had to start here," Paulus says. This, she realized, necessitated a framing device, a narrative technique that has always been popular in novels (i.e. Wuthering Heights) and movies (i.e. Sunset Blvd.), and that pops up occasionally on Broadway, too, as in last year's best musical Tony winner A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Essentially, it is a tool that allows a storyteller to start in the present and then flash back to the past until the story eventually catches up with the present again, whereupon it arrives at a resolution. With this approach in place, Neverland had a new beginning: after a brief flicker of a light that the audience knows to be Tinker Bell, the show opens on Barrie, sitting on an iconic park bench in Kensington Gardens, reflecting on what led to the creation of Peter Pan.

This leads into a scene at a party where Barrie is supposed to be courting possible financiers for his plays — and into the show's first song. "What you saw in the last week was a new arrangement," Paulus tells me, "a different arrangement than we started our preview period with. We were trying to create this posh, stuffy, Edwardian party, and we realized that we couldn't do that without capturing the sound that [composers] Gary Barlow and Elliot Kennedy created that is unique to this musical, which is a pop score. So the arrangement really changed over the course of the preview period from something that was more classical — kind of the dramaturgy of the number — to something that was much more pop. It was a real revelation for me that we were able to do that and not only get across the drama of what's going on with Barrie, but introduce the audience to the sound of the show that they're going to be living with for the rest of the evening."

Having made these changes, Paulus finally feels comfortable with the show's opener. "A lot of thought has gone into it," she says. "What I love about where we've ended is that, musically and staging-wise and with the choreography, it grabs the audience — you can feel it viscerally. And when the number ends and people cheer, then you know we've landed something."

The firecracker opening

You don't have to be a science major to know how a firecracker works: you light a fuse, the flame slowly makes its way down to the firecracker and then, once it reaches the end, there is a big explosion.

Some Broadway musicals open this way too. In 2008, John Rando — a best director Tony winner for Urinetown (2002), which, incidentally, begins with the hilariously self-referential “Too Much Exposition” — was helming a revival of On the Town, Comden and Green's 1944 Broadway show-turned-1949 Hollywood film, at City Center Encores. As he recalls, "My music director played me the overture in rehearsal and asked what I wanted to do with it. I heard it and I asked, 'What is that? That doesn’t seem right.' I was told it was written for the first revival of the show in the 1960s. I asked, 'What did they do originally in 1944?' It was wartime, so they played the National Anthem. I said, 'Then that is what we are going to do.'"

When Rando landed the job of bringing On the Town back to Broadway this year, he insisted on remaining true to the original opening. So when audiences walk into the Lyric Theatre, the first thing that they see is a huge 48-star American flag. Then the lights go down and a 28-piece orchestra strikes up the opening strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner." As Rando describes it, "The audience rises to its feet and sings, initially shyly, but as the song builds the sound is magnificent. After they settle down, the flag rises on a jelly bean-hued Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1944 and you hear the booming baritone of The Workman (Philip Boykin) singing the soulful lullaby 'I Feel Like I’m Not Out Of Bed Yet.' Then suddenly, with a crash of cymbals and a blare of brass, the Navy Yard comes to life with dance, and in leap our three sailor heroes. They take your breath away at their first sung notes of 'New York, New York.' And you think to yourself, 'All is well with the American Musical theater.' " Rando adds, "It sets the tone for the entire evening."

Indeed, like every strong musical's opening, it certainly does.