The audience has stretched their legs, endured the line to the loo, and checked their email and the likes on their selfie with the night’s Playbill.
Chapter 13 of The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel gives writers a good rule to follow on reintroducing the audience to the show after intermission.
Viertel suggests that Second Act openers are usually light and entertaining—and for good reason. If the writers have done their job well, the first act has ended in a cliffhanger, or at least somewhat of a crisis. Love thwarted, dreams shattered, heroes fallen, and the like. It’s left the audience with enough suspense or curiosity to come back into the theatre and see how the rest of the story will unfold.
As a “reward” to a returning audience, the second act opener is relieved of story pressure and can deliver up a slice of pure entertainment.
“…most Second Acts begin with something virtually expendable: the song that has nothing to do with anything.”1
The song or scene is usually set in a context familiar and consistent with the world of the show, but both in classic and contemporary shows, this particular song has been relieved of all responsibility except eliciting a smile or two from the audience.
[icon name=”question-square” class=”icon-1.5x”] Here are a few examples of lighthearted second act openers from successful musicals. Consider—are they really necessary to advance the plot? What purpose do they serve in the show?
“Together, Wherever We Go” from Gypsy
“Thank Goodness” from Wicked
“Big Doll House” from Hairspray
“Too Darn Hot” from Kiss Me, Kate
“Shipoopi” from The Music Man
“This Was a Real Nice Clambake” from Carousel
Sondheim putting a little more meat (ahem) in the Second Act Opening
Many contemporary writers have tried to interweave more of the plot into the second act opening song, while still keeping it light. Viertel gives an example using Stephen Sondheim’s brilliance in “God, That’s Good!” from Sweeney Todd:
“As the number progresses, more and more plot gets inserted into it, and it develops into a complex musical scene…. When all is said and done the number reverts to a great big cheerful celebration again, the irony having deepened.” 2
Closing Remarks on the 2nd Act Opening
Jack wraps up chapter 13 with some humor… cleverly referencing the hit sensation Hamilton and its Second Act Opening Number that speaks for the audience as well as Thomas Jefferson on his re-entrance into the revolution, “What’d I Miss?”