Fall has arrived in NYC, and it's not a moment too soon. Comfy jackets have been donned, the smell of Pumpkin Spice Lattes pervades the crisp autumn air, and I am hard at work writing a joyous musical comedy about a mass suicide (more to come on that later, as I have hopefully piqued your interest and/or disgust). One of the big upcoming challenges of the piece is conceiving of and writing the opening number. Openings, as many of you musical and theatrical types are aware, are a tricky beast; in as brief an amount of time as possible, you need to bring your audience into the world of the show and say "Here is what you are going to see this evening", and do it in a way that is (hopefully) artful and entertaining. Determined to begin crafting an opening number for my show by researching examples, I started by doing what any serious scholar and musician would do - going straight to Google. I was intent on finding a quality list of the greatest opening numbers from musicals, compiled in one convenient location for me to enjoy. Alas, I was rather surprised to find that no such quality list exists (there are one or two lists out there if you do the search, but take my word for it, they're absolute rubbish). So I thought to myself, "Well... why not write your own list?". Hence, I now present to you what I consider to be the twenty five best opening numbers from a musical. A few things to keep in mind before we get started:
- I am ONLY including opening numbers from stage musicals (musicals that were originally written for the stage, as a number of these have been adapted into films). Film musicals are a different animal that function in a different way, and while there are some great ones with great opening numbers, I'm restricting this list to songs specifically written for the stage. I have, however, used clips from the film adaptations of musicals in some of my examples, as those are what's readily available. Yes, I am aware of the irony. SHUT UP.
- I'm also restricting this list to songs that are one singular complete piece of music. By this logic, a few extended musical sequences have been left out, notably the openings of "Into The Woods", "Guys And Dolls", and "Les Miserables". While I consider these to be great openings, I'm interested in looking at how a single piece of music (with our without lyrics) functions as an opening number.
- The list only includes true opening numbers. There exist out there some almost-but-not-quite openers that happen early in a show and "feel" like an opening number (examples include "Some People" from Gypsy and "New York, New York" from On The Town), but there are other minor songs that happen in the show before them, so I'm not counting those as true openings. On a related note, overtures are also not included (sorry again, Gypsy).
- Remember, this list is all in good fun and it's only my opinion. However, my opinion is usually right. So there's that.
And so, without any further babbling on my part, the list...
#25: "Heaven On Their Minds" - Jesus Christ Superstar (Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by Tim Rice)
Andrew Lloyd Webber is of course a popular target these days for wisecracks about musical theater, but to anyone who would say that the man has always been completely devoid of talent, I would point them in the direction of this show. Opening the show with a driving rock song sung by Judas Iscariot tells us that we are about to experience a familiar story into a totally original way. Also, you have to admit, that killer opening groove is a straight-up rump-shaker.
#24: "The Ballad Of Floyd Collins" - Floyd Collins (Music & Lyrics by Adam Guettel)
While it's tempting to open your show with a big, over-the-top musical number, it can be equally effective and affecting to open with something more subtle and intimate, as we see here with Adam Guettel's haunting opening to Floyd Collins.
#23: "The Old Red Hills Of Home" - Parade (Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown)
Those of you familiar with Parade know that the show deals with some difficult subject matter - so how do we find a way in to a story that deals with anti-semitism, racism, and mob justice? This opening number, sung by a Confederate soldier through two stages in his life (the song begins during the American Civil War and ends in 1913), gives us some insight (without making judgements) into the unique cultural complexity that will explored over the course of the show.
#22: "Maybe" - Annie (Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Martin Charnin)
Annie has been lampooned and parodied so many times over the years that it's hard for some people to take it seriously these days, but the fact remains that it's actually a really solid show with some terrific tunes. Using "Maybe" as the opening number is a bit of a risk, as a down-tempo number sung by an orphan about how she imagines her parents doesn't exactly convey that this is going to be a sunny musical comedy ("It's A Hard Knock Life" is perhaps the more obvious choice for an opening), but by showing us up front that there is genuine depth and heart to this story, the "happy" moments of the show are given much more weight. If this song doesn't make you at least a little bit misty, I'm afraid you don't have a soul.
#21: "Little Shop Of Horrors" - Little Shop Of Horrors (Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman)
As the story goes, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were adapting Little Shop Of Horrors, a 1960 B-movie about a murderous houseplant, into a musical comedy, but despite their best efforts something just wasn't clicking. The story was solid, the songs were well-crafted, but the early audiences for the show just didn't seem to get it. Until one day Ashman suggested, "Well... what about doo-wop?" They wrote this opener, went back through the score to incorporate the style, and the rest is history.
#20: "Mama Who Bore Me" - Spring Awakening (Music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Steven Sater)
If you set a musical in 1890 and give it an alt-rock score, you run the risk of confusing the hell out of your audience, but this opener sets the tone lets us know what we're in for. We start with a simple, folk-like melody, then that drum beat kicks in and BOOM - sexual liberation and fierce lady-vocals. And now every all-female a capella group in the known universe has covered this song.
#19: "The Advantages Of Floating In The Middle Of The Sea" - Pacific Overtures (Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
For those who complain that Stephen Sondheim isn't tuneful enough, Pacific Overtures is more than enough to frighten them away; one of Sondheim's most musically and dramatically complex works, the show is rarely performed (and more often by opera companies than by musical theater organizations). Nonetheless, this stunning opening number about the serenity and isolation of Japan in the mid-19th century is a testament to Sondheim's impeccable craft as both a composer and lyricist.
#18: "Tear Me Down" - Hedwig And The Angry Inch (Music & Lyrics by Stephen Trask)
When you're creating a show about a transgender glam rock singer who defected from East Germany, it's probably not the best idea to start out subtle. This rollicking opening number drops us right into the world of the show and effectively serves as Hedwig's mission statement - whatever the world might throw her way, it can't tear Hedwig down. And it's a sweet freakin' jam.
#17: "Aurelia Dolores" - Giant (Music & Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa)
(This song isn't on YouTube, but do yourself a favor and buy the cast album on iTunes; it's absolutely sensational)
Okay, so I might be a little biased about this show because it was written by two of my teachers from NYU (yay Michael John and Sybille!), but this is still an absolutely gorgeous opener. Giant is such a massive story that examines so many characters over a long period of time that it could be difficult to find a way in, but this simple song does a beautiful job of inviting us in to the world of the show.
#16: "Four Jews In A Room Bitching" - Falsettos (Music & Lyrics by William Finn)
With an opening number title like this one, who could resist seeing this show? Falsettos is one of those rare shows that runs the gamut from hysterically funny to heartbreaking while remaining completely honest, and this opening number gives us the first taste of Bill Finn's stellar character writing. Plus, writing a song where a good chunk of the lyrics are just the words "funny" and "bitch"? That's funny, bitch.
#15: "Tradition" - Fiddler On The Roof (Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick)
When Jerome Robbins was developing the original production of Fiddler On The Roof with Bock and Harnick, he would regularly sit the two down and ask them "What is this show about?" They would give long-winded answers about how it's the story of a group of Russian Jews in the early 20th century, but Robbins would shake his head and say "No, what is it ABOUT?" Finally, one day Sheldon Harnick chimed in "It's a show about tradition", and - BAM! - there you have it. Out of that thought came one of the most iconic and recognizable opening numbers in the history of the art form.
#14:" We Are What We Are" - La Cage Aux Folles (Music & Lyrics by Jerry Herman)
La Cage Aux Folles is a remarkable show in that it tells a story about a very specific group of people, and yet the fundamental messages of the show speak to everyone and anyone imaginable. Writing a show about a gay couple who run a drag club on the French Riviera was especially risky during the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980's, when homophobic vitriol was reaching a boiling point, but Jerry Herman's iconic opening number invites us into the show by affirming that, whoever and whatever we are, we should damn well be proud of it.
#13: "All That Jazz" - Chicago (Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb)
Kander and Ebb are the masters of political commentary via dark commentary in my book. The opening of Chicago tells us that the story we're about to see, much like jazz music itself, is fun and sexy on the surface, but hides a dark and devious underbelly (and that's what makes it really fun).
*Interesting/useless historical fact of note - my grandmother went to high school with John Kander, and when the two of them were 15 they went on a date together to a school dance. As my grandma would later recount, "That's before I knew he was gay. Heck, that's probably before HE knew he was gay. But that's okay."
#12: "Another Openin', Another Show" - Kiss Me, Kate (Music & Lyrics by Cole Porter)
The brilliance of this opening number is in how simple the idea actually is. Cole Porter is a man who can dazzle and delight with his lyrical wit as well as anyone, but what makes this song land is the simple, straightforward conveyance of the excitement we (as both performers and audience members) feel as a show is about to begin. Kind of meta, is it not?
#11: "I Hope I Get It" - A Chorus Line (Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Ed Kleban)
If you went to see in Broadway show in the 60's or early 70's, odds are you would have no idea what decade it was based on what was happening on stage. For the most part, contemporary popular simply wasn't being represented on Broadway. When A Chorus Line premiered in 1975, it was a game changer and a breath of fresh air as it told stories of real people dealing with real situations at the time, and the opening number set us up to root for and empathize with the underdogs. And let's be real, we all know that opening routine - Da-da-duh-daaaaa-duh-da-duh-DAT-DAT!
#10: "Ragtime" - Ragtime (Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens)
Yet another massively epic show (that premiered in a massively epic theater), Ragtime opens with a number that connects three disparate communities from early 20th century America via a shared music on which they all put their own unique stamp. And can I just say how awesome it is that even in the midst of a large-scale ensemble number, you can still hear Audra McDonald cut over EVERYONE?! Yup. Awesome.
#9: "Comedy Tonight" - A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
The opening number for this show did not come about easily. In early versions, Sondheim went through a number of opening numbers that never seemed to click (for a long time the opening number was a song called "Love Is In The Air", parts of which were later sung by Robin Williams and Christine Baranski in the film The Birdcage), but nothing seemed to convey to the audience the nature of the show they were about to see. And what were they about to see? A "Comedy Tonight", of course! Once Sondheim went with this decision, audiences "got it" and the show went on to become one of the most beloved musical comedies of the latter 20th century.
#8: "Company" - Company (Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
Earlier in this blog post, I said something along the lines of "If you saw a Broadway show in the 60's or 70's, you would have no idea what decade it was based on what you were seeing". Company is perhaps the most notable exception to this generalization. The show doesn't follow a traditional narrative structure but is rather a character study of the protagonist, Bobby, and those he surrounds himself with. The opening number gives us a sense that, although Bobby seems to be constantly surrounded by friends, lovers, and well-wishers, his life is lacking deeper human connections.
#7: "How To Succeed" - How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (Music & Lyrics by Frank Loesser)
The brilliance of this show, I believe, lies in the fact that is an extremely subversive story hiding behind an extremely optimistic facade. In the opening number, J. Pierpont Finch makes it clear that he will do anything in order to succeed in the world of big business. What does the company he aspires to work for do, exactly? Who cares. What will happen to the people who Finch leaves in the dust in his race he top? Who cares. What the hell is a wicket? Who cares. But Finch is just so damn CHARMING that we can't help but cheer him on. It's manipulation at it's finest and funniest.
#6: "Prologue" - West Side Story (Music by Leonard Bernstein)
At first, I wasn't sure that this number should technically count for this list. It's not really a song proper, there are no lyrics or sung text of any kind, and I'm not counting extended sequences, so why should this be included? I'm including it because, even in the absence of singing, it does everything that a great opening number should do. We are introduced to the world of the show, the characters, and their relationships to each other. The visual and musical languages of the piece are immediately defined via the brilliant choreography of Jerome Robbins and the fan-freaking-tastic musical score by Leonard Bernstein. In these opening minutes, we are told exactly what to expect for the rest of the show, and the rest of the show delivers.
#5: "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" - Oklahoma (Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II)
An audience going to see a Broadway show in 1943 would have certain expectations about an opening number: A stage full of people, lots of singing and dancing and spectacle, and a slew of scantily-clad (for the time, anyway) chorus girls. So when the curtains first rose on Oklahoma to reveal an old woman churning butter, many an audience member likely thought to themselves "... da f*** is this?". But when Curly steps on stage and begins to sing this song, we are ushered not only into the world of the show, but into a new era of musical theater, where story takes precedence over spectacle and sensationalism.
#4: "Hello" - The Book Of Mormon (Music & Lyrics by Robert Lopez, Trey Parker, and Matt Stone)
The term "LOL" gets thrown around quite a lot these days, but how often does a musical make you literally (and I mean "literally literally" not "figuratively literally") laugh out loud? The Book Of Mormon is one of the few musicals that sent me into fits of laughter from my very first listen, and the whole thing kicks with this brilliant opening number, using the "ding-dong" of doorbell as a motive that weaves it's way throughout the entire piece. Three minutes into the show, we can't help but love every single overly-perky person on stage.
#3: "The Carousel Waltz" - Carousel (Music by Richard Rodgers)
I won't hide the fact that I have very mixed feelings about Carousel. In it's best moments, the show features some of the most brilliant, well-crafted, and moving material in the history of the art form. In it's worst moments, it features an uncomfortably ambiguous viewpoint on domestic violence and what is perhaps the worst song ever written for a musical (I'm lookin' at you, Clambake). Whatever you feel about the show as a whole, the opening number (another music-only entry on this list) is stunning, living proof of the old adage that says "Where words fail, music speaks".
#2: "Willkommen" - Cabaret (Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb)
The true brilliance of the Kander & Ebb collaboration was in their ability to tackle a serious social issue by using a well-known popular art form. Cabaret explores the rise of Nazi Germany through a story interwoven with musical numbers set in the fictional Kit Kat Klub in Berlin. We are welcomed into the world of the show by the Emcee, who invites us to "leave our troubles outside"; those unfamiliar with the show might be placated into thinking they're about to enjoy an evening of frivolous entertainment, but as the night goes on we realize that these seemingly silly cabaret numbers are being used to expose the darkest parts of ourselves. This opening number sets the stage for what is to follow: we think we're familiar with what we're about to see, but by the end of the show we'll see it in an entirely different light.
#1: "The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd" - Sweeney Todd (Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
I'm afraid I don't have ample words to describe just how daring of a show Sweeney Todd is, especially considering that it come out at a time when a "horror musical" seemed near unthinkable. A revenge story about a murderous barber who cuts people's throats and bakes them into pies? Not an easy sell. But this remarkable opening, inspired by the film scores of Bernard Hermann and crafted to utter musical and lyrical perfection by Stephen Sondheim, lets us know exactly what kind of a show we're in for, all the while with an implicit wink to the audience that suggests "Don't worry, it's all in good fun". Seriously, there is not a single thing about this number that doesn't kick copious amounts of ass.
Comments? Questions? Glaring omissions? Let me know.
James K. Ballard
A sometimes insightful, hopefully entertaining look into my career and everyday life.