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Your Thoughts on Great Broadway Overtures

Does Man of La Mancha have one of the best overtures ever? Sugar? Sweet Charity? Filichia's readers opine. logo
Jim Miller agreed with me. Tony Paradise didn't. Byron Kolln couldn't quite decide. But Bobster didn't mince words at all. "FUNNY GIRL?!?!?!" he wrote in his e-mail, obviously so rattled that he ignored internet etiquette and wrote in upper-case letters. (As the Sleep-Tite factory workers say to Babe: "You're shout-ing!") Opined Bobster, "You really think that Gypsy isn't the best overture? For even a moment? Eek, I'll just assume it's a late April Fool's joke."

At least Len K. gave me the benefit of the doubt regarding my opinion of what is The Greatest Overture in Broadway History. He said, "Thanks so much for the intriguing column pitting Funny Girl's overture's vs. Gypsy's. I tried to see it your way, but it did not work." Brian Bradley was more stringent: "I have never met anyone knowledgeable about musical theatre who has not placed Gypsy in the Number One position."

Paul Mendenhall took issue with my saying that "People," a big part of the Funny Girl overture, is a superior song to "Small World," which owns a big chunk of Gypsy's overture. "Musically," he wrote, "'People' is more deeply felt, yes. But lyrically, I have yet to meet anyone who can tell me what the hell 'People' is trying to say. 'People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.' Uh, has there ever been a person who didn't need people? How can everyone be 'luckiest?' Then it goes on to state that, no, lovers are the luckiest people in the world. Which is it? On top of that, these are awfully weird sentiments for such a self-centered and driven young woman to be expressing, let alone using as a song of seduction, which is presumably her motive for singing it. To me, this is clearly a case of a lyricist being stuck with a pre-written melody and doing his best to fit syllables to it that sound like they kind-of mean something. I remember the famous anecdote about Harold Prince saying he didn't get what the song was about, and Styne replying: 'It's about having a hit song!' Yeah, exactly; and they got it; but it still makes no sense." (Granted, Paul -- but an overture doesn't include lyrics, so I don't think your argument is at all relevant to which is The Greatest Overture in Broadway History.)

Brigadude suggested that Marvin Laird, the current Gypsy conductor, may not have done a superlative job in the current revival and is therefore responsible for my feelings. "Your Funny Girl overture," he wrote, "was conducted by Milton Rosenstock, one of the best." Granted, but I don't think that's why I'd put Funny Girl a whit ahead. Joe Marchese wouldn't place the blame on Laird, either: "I'm surprised the Gypsy overture didn't get you at this revival. I've sat in the front row directly behind Marvin Laird and also up in the second balcony. I had chills both times. In [orchestrator] Sid Ramin's interview with the Times, didn't he mention that this pit is only five musicians short of the original, with only the strings diminished? So that brassiness was at least there to grab me!" (Perhaps, Joe; but five fewer musicians would mean close to a 20% reduction in sound, and that sounds substantial to me.)

But Brian Johnson wrote, "Thank you for saying what I have long felt about the Funny Girl-vs.-Gypsy-overture battle. The six chords that follow the 'I know he's around when the sky and the ground start in ringing' phrase, the excited run up the scale to the beginning of the 'Don't Rain on My Parade' section, and the final, blaring from the brass are some of the most dramatic and thrilling moments not just from an overture of a musical, but from any score of a musical. Perhaps one reason why Gypsy's overture has overshadowed Funny Girl's is that the former signals a show that actually lives up to its phenomenal overture, while the latter, without Streisand, will probably never again live up to the excitement that its overture generates."

Ron Fassler wrote, "You reminded me of something Martin Gottfried wrote when he reviewed Sugar -- that one never feels as comfortable as when he settles into a Jule Styne overture. In fact, I've always been partial to the Sugar overture, even if it's essentially a second-rate score, because it's [orchestrator] Philip J. Lang at his brassy best." Jon Maas seconded that emotion, noting that the overtures of such Styne shows as "Darling of the Day and Look to the Lilies (of all shows) sound like the biggest hits of all time. Too bad they had to bring up the curtain!"

There were plenty of other nominees for Some of the Greatest Overtures in Broadway History. Neil677 opines that "Take Me Along belongs among the best." Brian Bradley feels that "The top five are Gypsy, Candide, Sweet Charity, Dear World, and Funny Girl, with Honorable Mention to Merrily We Roll Along." Joe Marchese suggests that, "after Gypsy and Funny Girl, surely Promises, Promises comes in third, despite its not having a proper ending." John W. Griffin wonders, "Can On the Twentieth Century -- the Greatest Overture Too Few People Have Ever Heard -- be far behind?"

I was pleased to see so many of you mention that one, given the show's relative obscurity. Paul Mendenhall mentioned it, too ("It's a rare month that I don't listen to it, because it is just so joyously daffy!"), but also noted the even more obscure and equally wonderful overture to Tenderloin: "Both it and On the Twentieth Century have that comic-opera feel, but Tenderloin has a ragtime flavor." Len K. feels that "any Top 10 should include On the Twentieth Century, Man of La Mancha, and the original Girl Crazy." And while Michael Barret Jones wrote that "I've always thought the Greatest Overture in Broadway History was between Gypsy and Candide," he did concede that "the first overture to give me chills was On the Twentieth Century."

Some were glad that I wrote the piece just so they could learn the name of the phenomenal trumpeter -- Dick Perry -- who dominates both the Gypsy and Funny Girl overtures as recorded on the original cast albums. "Being an ex-Cornet Man myself," wrote Paul Mendenhall, "I've always been thrilled by his work in both of those shows." The noted orchestrator Larry Blank was able to provide further information on Perry: "Listen to Jamaica, Do Re Mi, Subways Are For Sleeping," he wrote, "and even the not-as-good Whoop-Up and, from that show, 'Men' with the trumpet obligato. They're all Dick. Dick played They're Playing Our Song (though he's not on the recording) and, on opening night, he stood up during the entr'acte when he played 'If He Really Knew Me,' and brought the house down. His last show was the original 42nd Street. He's since died, but he's remembered as a great guy and a great player who defined that sound on those shows."

Blank went on to provided even more information: "Dick was also a member of the original Tonight Show band when it was based in New York. Doc Severinson played second trumpet with Dick on lead, under Skitch Henderson. By the way, at the beginning of the overture of Kean, the lead trumpet is Doc, who was brought in just for the recording." But what Blank wrote that most intrigued me was this: "Gypsy's overture was very flashy and well put together, but the construction of the Funny Girl overture was, in several opinions, just better written. Jule Styne, Milton Rosenstock and many others thought Funny Girl to be the superior overture over Gypsy." Aha! So maybe there was something to my opinion after all!


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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