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How musical theater creative teams capture an audience

Rick Rogers Modified: June 5, 2013 at 7:05 am •  Published: June 5, 2013

Writers often say the toughest part of their work is getting started. Once they have that first paragraph out of the way, the rest seems to fall neatly into place. It’s much the same with regard to the musical theater. How does one begin a musical? With a full company production number? (“Hello, Dolly!”) An attractive solo? (“Oklahoma!”) Perhaps with an invitation to the audience to become vicarious participants? (“La Cage aux Folles”)

Whatever the method, the first lines can be crucial to the show’s success. Many break the theater’s fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago” is the perfect example: “Welcome ladies and gentlemen. You are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery — all those things we all hold near and dear to our hearts.”

“Irma La Douce” takes a similar approach: “Don’t worry — it’s quite suitable for the children. This is a story about passion, bloodshed, desire and death. Everything, in fact, that makes life worth living.” When the original opening to “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” failed to produce the desired effect, the creators opted for a simpler approach: “Playgoers, I bid you welcome. The theater is a temple, and we are here to worship the gods of comedy and tragedy. Tonight, I am pleased to announce a comedy.”

Then there are those musicals that open on a scene already under way. In Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam,” Sally Adams (a character patterned after Oklahoman Perle Mesta) is seen taking an oath of office: “… that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help me God.” Some have used a variation on this approach, a situation comparable to entering a room and catching people in mid-conversation. As the curtain goes up on Jerry Herman’s “Mame,” Agnes Gooch and Patrick Dennis have just arrived in New York. “Golly, Agnes, New York is like a foreign country!” “You don’t have to worry, Patrick. I’m worried enough for both of us.”

Others feel the need to establish time and/or place. In “The Music Man,” the train conductor bellows: “River City Junction. River City, next station stop!” And in “The Robber Bridegroom,” the narrator informs us that “The town of Rodney, Mississippi, isn’t very much anymore. The river moved away and left us high and dry.”

Though rare, speaking (or singing) in a foreign language can reinforce a musical’s setting. A group of nuns singing in Latin lends a reverential quality to “The Sound of Music,” while two young children singing a French tune emphasizes the French Polynesian setting of “South Pacific.” Unusual but effective is the use of a disembodied voice. In “The Apple Tree,” we hear a voice proclaim, “Adam — Adam, wake up. You are the first man. It shall be your task to name all the creatures in the Garden of Eden.”

“Evita” opens in a Buenos Aires movie theater. The film is interrupted by this announcement: “It is the sad duty of the secretary of the press to inform the people of Argentina that Eva Peron, spiritual leader of the nation, entered immortality at 2025 hours today.” In “Man of La Mancha,” the author Cervantes is introduced to his new quarters in prison: “Anything wrong? The accommodations? No, no, they appear quite … interesting. The cells are below. This is the common room, for those who wait. How long do they wait? Some an hour … some a lifetime.”

A couple of musicals make use of a bait-and-switch tactic. In “The Pajama Game,” the character Hines informs the audience that “This is a very serious drama. It’s kind of a problem play. It’s about capital and labor.” He then goes on to say that “I wouldn’t bother to make such a point of all this except later on, if you happen to see a lot of naked women being chased through the woods, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. This play is full of symbolism.”

Humor can be a surefire way of inviting audiences into the story that’s about to unfold. Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” opens in a bar on board a cruise ship: ”You sure Crocker hasn’t called? He was supposed to meet me here half an hour ago. Another drink while you’re waiting, Mr. Whitney? Sorry, Fred. Seven’s my limit. You sure? O.K., make it a double.” 

Finally, some musicals establish a premise that will be acted upon as the show progresses. In “Sunday in the Park With George,” we hear the painter Georges Seurat thinking aloud: “White. A blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole. Through design, composition, balance, light … and harmony.” Equally effective is John Adams’ proclamation in “1776″: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace — that two are called a law firm — and that three or more become a Congress. And by God, I have had this Congress!”

Getting the audience involved from the outset is the toughest job for any musical theater collaborators. But if they accomplish that without too much difficulty, chances are people will leave the theater knowing that their money was well-spent.


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