In my recent zoo post, I said something I very rarely say here: that I thought I’d written a good song. The infrequency of my crowing is related to my lack of a good video or audio of so many of my songs. Foolish to say what’s good that you’ve done if you can’t show it and prove it. And I’m often struck by a paradox: the songs I’ve written I tend to think are the best are the really complex ones, usually involving impressive heaps of counterpoint, quodlibets up the wazoo, and a whirlwind of crisscrossing plot points. But try getting a good audio or video of that! It’s exponentially harder, with all those people, holding different melodies, needing to stand near microphones. So, I can talk about my large ensembles, but words will seem insufficient to relate what’s good about them.
Here’s an example: there’s a musical scene that concludes the first act of Area 51. The villain, who camouflages his perfidy as a Las Vegas lounge act, convinces our hero to repair an unusual weapon by convincing him it’s a telescope. He sings a seductive song about the night sky, Seeing Stars. This meets with resistance until he gets a sexy movie star to coo and croon. Our hero is enraptured, seeing stars of the celebrity sort. All three repeat their tunes simultaneously as the weapon becomes operational. This touches off an American military response and an ambitious member of the Army brass sings of seeing stars (as in four-star general) on her sleeve. Observing all of this is a cub reporter, who pictures her headline surrounded with stars. Plus there’s a chorus of American military and a chorus of evil Nevadans. So, effectively, we hear from seven different parties, all with their own definitions of the title, Seeing Stars. Wow. I’m exhausted just describing all of that.
But the audience wasn’t exhausted; they were exhilarated. So many dramatic conflicts were in play, the intermission had them on tenterhooks: What would happen next? And now I must say something I’ve said too many times before: You had to be there. You had to see the plot unfolding up to this point. You had to see how it was performed, staged, danced (yes, there’s a section of tap dancing…by the soldiers!). So words on a web page can’t convey what’s wonderful about a sequence in a musical.
So maybe it makes more sense to talk about first act finales in a general way. To my way of thinking, it’s essential that you get the audience so involved in what’s going to happen next, suspense is sustained during the entire intermission. Musically, this will probably necessitate a large ensemble, dealing with various conflicts. The sound is likely going to be big.
But of all three collaborators, the onus of making the first act finale work, in my view, is on the book writer. Getting a lot of dramatic balls in the air is tough work. Ideally, the librettist should have the audience wondering what’s going to happen next on every page of the script. But the requirement’s even greater going into intermission; the audience has time to do a lot of wondering as it’s wandering around the lobby.
Arthur Laurents’ book for Gypsy is widely praised as a paradigm of musical script-writing. The show’s first act ends with a solo, one you’ve all heard a thousand times. Now, Jule Styne wrote a lively show tune in the grand tradition. Stephen Sondheim’s words, I think, are fine, although a character not known as a baseball fan is certainly fond of baseball imagery. But Laurents has set up the drama at the train depot at a brilliant emotional pitch (no, that’s not baseball imagery, fan that I am). A stage mother’s one talented daughter has run away from home, and is old and smart enough to stay away. That’s going to knock the remaining trio out of show business, which is fine with the boyfriend and even finer with the untalented daughter, who deeply craves a normal life. And we wonder how the controlling matriarch is going to react to this devastation. And, in the sunniest possible fashion, she sings a peppy uplifting piece as she seizes the remaining daughter, her new project. All of our hopes for the characters are being dashed before our eyes, and the brightness of the tune sets it spinning in contrast. I can’t think of this scene without tearing up.
Oddly, a lot of those Sondheim nuts are more likely to point to one of three of his other first act finales as the exemplar. There’s the marvelously entertaining A Weekend in the Country from A Little Night Music, which has all sorts of characters headed for a collision – after intermission – in a particular place. I think that’s a very good one, but it takes a huge drop in energy every time the little girl talks to the grandmother: too sage, too much observation, for my taste.I was far more thrilled by A Little Priest from Sweeney Todd, as characters found their peculiar joy in a comic way. Since the trading of occupational quips is drawing the pair closer together, we’re getting our first taste of a true emotional connection between characters who like each other: it should evolve from like to lust to love during the long song. And then there’s Sunday, from Sunday in the Park With George, which seems the perfect way to end the act about the creation of a painting. Unfortunately, it gives us no reason to return after intermission. It appears to close a book, not just a chapter. Interestingly, the exact same number works marvelously well as the second act closer, when every character in the painting has gained more meaning, and our interest.
Really, in the theatre, what we’re looking for is emotion. And when the joy of a peasant wedding is interrupted by the horror of armed soldiers turning over tables and trashing the place, acting on orders borne of ethnic prejudice, that turns one’s heart around. It’s Fiddler on the Roof, and at that point I need an intermission. All of intermission, spent heavily sobbing.