There are few things more exciting, for people who love musical theater, than a good opening number. It sets up the unique tone, characters and story that is about to involve us for the next two and a half hours.
Stephen Sondheim wrote some of the greatest openings, beginning with “Comedy Tonight,” in his timeless musical farce, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), based on Plautus’s ancient Roman plays. In previews, the show had met with a lukewarm response, because audiences didn’t know, from curtain up, that this was a riotous, bawdy, brilliant musical comedy. Sondheim fixed that with his new opening number, that begins: “Something familiar, / Something peculiar, / Something for everyone – a comedy tonight!”
You can see Sondheim’s versatility by comparing that number to the portentous opening of his 1979 “Musical Thriller.” “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” begins: “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. / His skin was pale and his eye was odd. / He shaved the faces of gentlemen / Who never thereafter were heard of again. / He trod a path that few have trod, / Did Sweeney Todd, / The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Below you will find two very different stagings of this number, one from the original 1979 Broadway production directed by Harold Prince, and another from 2011 at Stanford University.
This evolving page is a tribute to one aspect of Sondheim’s astonishing body of work, his opening numbers. Overall, Sondheim wrote the scores, both music and lyrics, for 16 shows, plus the lyrics to three more. PLEASE NOTE that the below links are to the original Broadway cast albums, as showcased on YouTube. Typically, the OBC album is recorded the firsrt Sunday after a show’s premiere. (One of the greatest documentaries I’ve seen is D.A. Pennebaker’s Company: Original Cast Album (1970), about that fraught recording session.) Below, following the title (that links to the Wikipedia entry for the show) is that musical’s opening number.
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) – “Comedy Tonight” (NOTE: The original Broadway cast album is here a continuous track, beginning with the bold, brassy overture, then at 3:16 is “Comedy Tonight.”) Here is “Comedy Tonight,” brilliantly staged by director Jerry Zaks for the 1996 Broadway revival, starring Nathan Lane (who was followed by Whoopi Goldberg). In the words of one of Sondheim’s great Broadway songwriting predecessors, Irving Berlin, “There’s No Business Like Show Business”!
- Company (1970) – “Company”.
- Follies (1971) – “Prologue” (orchestral), “Overture” (orchestral), and “Beautiful Girls” (full cast). NOTE: The original Broadway cast album is here a continuous track. The three-part opening number ends at 4:33 with the conclusion of “Beautiful Girls.”
- A Little Night Music (1973) – “Overture and Night Waltz” (NOTE: on the poster, look closely among the tree branches).
- Pacific Overtures (1976) – “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea” (NOTE: The complete original Broadway production of Pacific Overtures, although poor image quality here on YouTube, was videotaped at the Winter Garden Theatre on June 9, 1976, then broadcast on Japanese public television.)
- Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: A Musical Thriller (1979) – “Prelude: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”. Here is that number fully staged from a television recording of the national tour directed by Broadway’s Harold Prince, but with poor video quality, here on YouTube. For contrast, here’s a very different, but stunning, version from the Stanford University Ram’s Head Theatrical Society 2011 production. Sondheim’s work allows for countless interpretations, including your own, from the unlimited theater of your imagination. From Score to Stage has a brilliant analysis of this number, using basic music theory but aimed at a general audience. (Speaking of countless interpretations of Sondheim, here is a recent Korean staging that includes excerpts from “Epiphany,” “Wait” and “A Little Priest.”)
- Of course, there are many more Sondheim musicals for you to explore and enjoy!
Here are two dozen more curated resources for Sondheim and Sweeney Todd.
Begun February 15, 2022 / Updated March 22, 2022 (the late Mr. Sondheim’s 92nd birthday)