The 1980s are not known for being a particularly bright moment in the history of Broadway. The decade is largely remembered for the rise of the British-import poperas, the most norotious flop in Broadway history, and seasons so slim with musicals the Tony Awards aired “songs for future productions” to fill out the broadcast.
But as someone who learned to love Broadway in the ’80s, I can get defensive. (Just you try to tell me that Big River isn’t perfect. I will cut you.) While fully acknowledging the shortcomings of the decade, I want to highlight one of the decade’s strengths: Act I Finales.
This morning, I was listening to Nine, and I totally got swept up in The Bells of St. Sebastian. Unfortunately, I can’t find video of any of the major productions, but I think this gives you a decent sense of the song:
When I was a freshman in college, one of my friends was obsessed with this song, and sang it (rather poorly) at every performance opportunity available, so I sort of wrote it off. But here’s the thing - as an Act I finale, it’s pretty damn perfect. The song starts quiet and builds. It conveys important information about Guido — we’re finally getting to the heart of what makes him tick — and moves the story forward — he’s finally getting to understand what makes him tick. While it isn’t quite the cliffhanger that leaves you on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen after the intermission, it does push things so close to a boiling point that you’re eager to jump back into the story.
That got me thinking about other Act I finales from the 80’s, and the first batch that came to mind are all amazing — in fact, each of them is even better than this one:
Dreamgirls: “And I’m Telling You”
Sunday in the Park with George: “Sunday”
La Cage aux Folles: “I Am What I Am” (A performance unfortunately weakened by George Hearn appearing in a tux rather than his costume from the show.)
As often happens on Twitter, once I mentioned these numbers, friends chimed in with their own suggestions:
City of Angels: “You’re Nothing Without Me” Unfortunately, for the Tony Awards broadcast they mashed up the finales from both acts, so you don’t get the full impact here. The show tells two stories at once: Stine, a writer of detective story potboilers, has been hired to adapt his novels for Hollywood, but he’s uncomfortable with the level of “adaptation” being asked of him. Meanwhile, we follow the story of his detective, Stone, in glorious black and white. This is the number where those two worlds finally collide, with Stone accusing Stine of selling out and screwing up the story.
(Has anyone written a great academic look at the interaction of artists and their characters in 1980s musical theater? Because City of Angels, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George and others all have variations on this trope…)
Les Miserables: “One Day More” - This performances is from a Royal Variety concert, but is the closest to the original staging I could find. This number might feel cliche now, but when it was new, it was breathtaking. Junior High show choirs around the world adapted that march-in-place step that came to define Les Miz as much as the turntable or the logo.
Merrily We Roll Along: “Now You Know” Speaking of numbers that are hard to track down in their original versions! This isn’t the entire number, just the (otherwise unrecorded) dance break. But in addition to foreshadowing the emotional trainwreck to come in the second act, “Now You Know” is Sondheim writing a BIG BROADWAY SHOWSTOPPER in a way that he hadn’t since Follies.
42nd Street: “We’re in the Money” - The nostalgia craze on Broadway may have started with No, No, Nannette in the 1970s, but it reached its pinnacle with 42nd Street in the 1980s. Unlike the rest of the numbers featured, the curtain doesn’t drop right after the number - we need to see headlines Dorothy break her ankle so the chorus girl can become a star. But 42nd Street isn’t really about plot - bookwriters Michael Stewart & Mark Bramble were (insultingly) credited for “lead-ins and crossovers.” This was Gower Champion and David Merrick showing the rest of the main stem how it used to be (and someday would again be) done.
Me And My Girl: “The Lambeth Walk” - The same nostalgia engine, with a British overlay, plus the introduction to America of Robert Lindsay, such a major talent that there was strong doubt the show could work without him. (He was succeeded by Jim Dale, who succeeded. I saw Dale. He was brilliant. Then again, I was probably 10 years old, and the internet tells me I actually saw Tim Curry, not Dale, so what do I know?)
Smile: “Until Tomorrow Night” Even the flops had great numbers. (See also: Merrily We Roll Along, above.)
Baby: “The Story Goes On” - Liz Callaway alone on a bed is just as effective as the bombast of any of those other shows.
Anything Goes: “Anything Goes” - then again, there’s something to be said for bombast.
At this point, I went to my trusty Show by Show by Stanley Green. (Naturally, I have the third edition, which ends at Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in 1988.) The first show listed for the ’80s is Barnum! Of course! This, coincidentally, is the first show I did in High School - I was the ringmaster/Bailey and got to lead a couple of showstoppers of my own. But the Act I finale is one of those numbers I wish I got to do. It doesn’t do a heck of a lot for me on the cast album, but put Barnum on a high wire above the stage while singing it and suddenly it’s a masterful theatrical moment:
And then let’s not forget My One and Only, The Tap Dance Kid, and who knows how many others I’m forgetting, can’t find on YouTube, or am too tired to include. What’s your favorite Act I closer (from the 80s or any other decade)?