When musical theatre aficionados list favorite opening numbers, they often include Pippin’s “Magic to Do” with its alluring, break-the-fourth-wall invitation into the world of the show. Almost fifty years after Stephen Schwartz wrote “Join us…” for the Leading Player to address Pippin’s Broadway audience, I arranged for the songwriter to join me for brunch to talk about such songs.
We met on a warmish November day when we could sit outdoors in the (morning glow) sunlight. He had plenty of ideas and launched right into the topic over an omelet and tea, first noting, “The opening number of a musical is really important to whether or not the show is going to work. That’s why often the opening is written very late. I ran into Maury Yeston at a reading for a new musical the other day and he commented that he felt the opening number for this particular show might have been written too early in the process.”
Since the early days of Godspell and Pippin, Stephen has written a range of opening numbers, from big choral pieces like The Prince of Egypt’s “Deliver Us,” to energetic pop songs like Working’s “All the Livelong Day,” to the quiet, folk-like “Chanson” for The Baker’s Wife. But it wasn’t the size of the song that we considered. As Stephen said, the key question is “How are you best telling the story so it’s clear to the audience?”
The following is our conversation edited and condensed for clarity. To begin, we looked at how writers of the past have launched their shows.
Set Up: The “Jerome Robbins school of opening numbers”
Stephen Schwartz: Off the top of my head, there are two main ways to open a musical: Set up the world and/or set up the theme before the story begins (and start the story immediately, see that section below). This is what I call the Jerome Robbins school of opening numbers. The opening of Fiddler on the Roof, “Tradition,” is a number like that. (Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick wrote it at the suggestion of Mr. Robbins). The opening of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was famously changed at the suggestion of Jerome Robbins to be that kind of number (“Comedy Tonight.”).
In another Sondheim score, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” does what “Comedy Tonight” does in letting the audience know what kind of show they’re going to see. It says: This is going to be a thriller, and a kind of Grand Guignol theatre.
“Magic to Do” in Pippin is obviously that type of opening, setting the world and tone before the story actually begins. As you know, I also wrote “Chanson” for The Baker’s Wife at the suggestion of Jerome Robbins. “Chanson” is a variation of the Jerome Robbins opening—it’s not an ensemble number, but it’s all about establishing tone, setting up the world of the show, and stating the theme. Again, the story doesn’t begin until after the opening.
Carol de Giere: My musical writer friend Matt suggests that openings can help orient the audience in subtle ways as well. He said, “The audience needs to feel free to feel what they feel.”
Stephen Schwartz: I love that. I’ve never heard it put that way, but I think that’s very accurate. And it applies directly to the previously cited example of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The lack of success of the early tryout for that show revealed that if you start with a song called “Love Is in the Air” with a kind of sweet tune and clever lyrics (as Sondheim had originally done), the audience isn’t allowed to feel that they are laughing at a low comedy. And if you start with a song called “Comedy Tonight,” particularly if it features low-comedy staging, the audience gets the tone and has permission to “feel what they are feeling” and thus actually feel they’re allowed to laugh – not just laugh, but guffaw.
Start the Story: Like Rodgers and Hammerstein
Stephen Schwartz: The other way to open a musical is to start the story immediately. Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals tend to start right away. If you think of all of their shows, they generally present one of the leading characters in a situation and the story starts. It’s true of Oklahoma, The King and I, and South Pacific. And even though Carousel begins with a ballet, the central characters of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan meet during it.
Annie is an example of a show that opens like that – you’re dropped into the middle of the situation—girls in an orphanage—and the title character sings “Maybe.” With “Why Can’t the English?” in My Fair Lady we are learning who this character (Henry Higgins) is and getting right into the story. It’s like a play with music. Camelot has another Rodgers and Hammerstein-style opening. It doesn’t start with “Camelot.” You dive right in with “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight”; you meet one of your leading characters in a situation.
Another style of show, A Chorus Line, also just starts the story. You’re right in the middle of the audition that encompasses the show. In a way, the audience has to catch up with these shows, which is a good way to lead off with momentum.
Wicked is another show that opens “in media res” like this, even though the opening number sets up a flashback which is almost all of the rest of the show. You meet one of your main characters (Glinda) and the audience catches up to an event—the melting of the Wicked Witch of the West. I basically conceived it as a darker version of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.” The trick with Wicked of course is that it plays with the audience’s preconceptions, so that the assumptions that the opening leads them to make turn out to be false.
As we spoke further, I reminded Stephen of other musicals by showing my own lists and some lyrics I had brought. He concluded there are two other approaches.
Backstory Openings: Give us the backstory so we can start the story
Sometimes the writers need to cover backstory in an opening number. As mentioned, the opening of Wicked covers some of the backstory, as does “Many Moons Ago” for Once Upon a Mattress, and “Welcome to the Rock” in Come From Away. In my discussion with Stephen, we noted his work on a musical drawn from the long and complex Victor Hugo novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Stephen wrote lyrics for the stage and film versions.
Stephen Schwartz: For The Hunchback of Notre Dame the opening gives you the backstory. It’s basically sung exposition. For the stage adaptation, we went back to the Victor Hugo novel and changed the specific backstory from what it was in the movie. But both versions of the number culminate with the audience meeting Quasimodo as an adult, and then the story begins.
Combination of Opening Numbers: Use a combination of these.
The combination style came up when I noted that some musicals seem to have the traditional “I Want” song as part of the opening number. We spoke of “Belle” for Beauty and the Beast, originally written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.
Stephen Schwartz: “Belle” is a combination—first they set up the world, and then plunked in the middle of it, they gave her an I WANT verse. I guess Howard Ashman didn’t feel it merited a full song like “Part of Your World” or “Somewhere That’s Green.” What Belle wants is not very formed. For her to sing a whole song about it would be kind of tedious and there’s not much discovery in it: “There must be more than this provincial life.” That’s it. Whereas in The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s want is very specific and therefore merits an entire number.
Some of my opening numbers kind of do both—they give you the theme, tone, and world, but they also provide the backstory exposition. “Deliver Us” (for The Prince of Egypt movie and stage musical) is a good example. “Deliver Us” (in addition to setting the theme, tone, and world) also answers how did Moses get there, and who is this baby, and how come there are these two brothers that aren’t actually brothers? It gives you all that information so that you can start the plot.
Tips: How to Write Opening Numbers
I shared a tweeted quote from bookwriter/lyricist Joe DiPietro @joedipietronyc. He wrote, “I always try to imagine myself in the audience, and I know nothing about the show. Lights come up, what info am I hungry for? What setting, tone, who am I following, musical style? Openings should spotlight the journey we’re about to take.” After reading this to Stephen, I asked if he ever imagined himself in the audience?
Stephen Schwartz: Yes. Not as literally as Joe says, but basically I (along with my collaborators) am trying to tell a story in a way that I would like the story to be told if I weren’t involved with it at all. So I think what he says is accurate. I try to leave behind everything I know about the story and characters for all the years I’ve been working on it. I try to leave my research behind. I try to have the same level of knowledge about the story as the audience just coming in.
A couple of times lately when I go to readings or whatever, one of my notes to the writers has been: you have done so much research that you know way more than the audience, and you’re not coming to it in your writing from the level of ignorance that the audience is bringing and consequently there are things that are confusing, because you know more than we do.
…one of my notes to writers has been: you have done so much research that you know way more than the audience, and you’re not coming to it in your writing from the level of ignorance that the audience is bringing and consequently there are things that are confusing, because you know more than we do.
We continued to explore reasons why you might try one opening style instead of another. This eventually drew out some other principles of musical writing.
Carol de Giere: If you’re writing a new musical and you’re wondering what type of opening to use, when would you use one as opposed to another?
Stephen Schwartz: I think it depends on how much you feel you need to either get a bunch of exposition out of the way or set up the world and tone before you get into the story OR can you actually just dive into the story and let the world and the tone be revealed as you go along?
Carol de Giere: I never saw Kinky Boots live but I loved the filmed British production that I watched on Broadway HD. As it opens, the dad is singing to his son Charlie, the most beautiful thing in the world is a shoe, almost pleading with him, you’ve got to love it. But Charlie is going, I’m not so sure.
Stephen Schwartz: It’s always about trying to make the audience invest in your story. In that instance, the problem is: How do we make the audience care about shoes? By making them important to somebody we care about. But that’s always a question to ask oneself about any show you’re starting to write: Why should the audience care about this? That is one of the “Four Questions” you ask yourself.
The big Four Questions that you have to answer when writing a new musical are:
1) What is it about?
2) Who am I rooting for?
3) Why should the audience care about this story?
4) When is the story over? Or as Marsha Norman puts it: “When do I get to go home?” What’s the end of the story that makes it feel like I’ve taken a complete journey?
Reworking Opening Numbers
As Stephen knows, few writers get the opening right immediately. He has stories (many of which I share in detail in Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked). In fact, several of his most famous openings evolved over time.
Stephen Schwartz: Pippin used to start with Pippin singing “Corner of the Sky” and it didn’t quite work. During a consultation with Hal Prince, he specifically said, this isn’t your opening. It’s a good song but it’s not your opening number. “Magic to Do” evolved much later.
Wicked’s opening also changed enormously, although it was always a song called “No One Mourns the Wicked.” As I said, our version of “Ding, Dong the Witch Is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz was always the concept for how to open the show. And unusually, the first draft of it was actually the first thing that I wrote for Wicked, though it morphed and evolved as the show was developed. For instance, when I first wrote “No One Mourns the Wicked,” Glinda wasn’t in it. There were all sorts of other narrators we tried out. That was a discovery in development. We were two of three readings in when suddenly Winnie and I went, “Oh, it should open with Glinda!”
Stephen and I finished our meal, and each drove off into the autumn day. Before transcribing my recording, I paused as a breeze shook yellow and brown leaves out of the trees on my street. Mother Nature always has its own magic to do.
Other articles on Opening Numbers:
Curtain Up, Light the Lights – Let’s Talk Opening Numbers
Another Show, Another Opening Number!
For more articles by Carol de Giere, click here.