You only get one chance to make a first impression, and when it comes to musicals, you only get one song to introduce the characters, story, theme, and tone of the rest of the musical. Somehow, the talented composers and writers behind these musical openers accomplished all of this so well that these songs are famous for how well they establish their shows. Here are 5 of the best opening numbers in musical theater.
1. “Little Shop of Horror”
If someone told you that a b film about a carnivorous plant named Audrey Jr. would one day be adapted into one of the most popular musicals of all time, would you believe them? You can’t be blamed for saying no, but thanks to songs like this Prologue, Little Shop of Horrors turned into a hit.
One of the most important things an opening song can do is establish the tone for the rest of the show, and this song does exactly that as well as any song on this list. Mixing a playful “doo-wop” with a dire warning perfectly summarizes the dark humor that launched this show to success. From the dark narrated beginning of this song to its sudden shift to a catchy “doo-wop” style, this is both entertaining and foreboding. Don’t let the fun tone of this song lull you into a sense of security, because you “best believe it, somethin’s come to get ya.”
There is a famous quote by French theologian and physicist Blaise Pascal that goes, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Distilling something down to its core essence is much harder than you think it would be, but this song does exactly that, and delivers its message so effectively that after you hear it, you’ll never hear the word “tradition” the same again.
Just like the other songs on this list, “Tradition” captures not only the theme of the musical but the tone of the rest of the show. Through repetition and powerful ensemble work, you’ll have no doubt what this musical is about and what motivates the characters. Tradition rules over these characters and their culture in every way. Even if it doesn’t do the same in your life, you will immediately understand its importance in Fiddler on the Roof thanks to this memorable introduction.
3. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”
Getting someone in the theater for a horror musical about a barber who kills his clients and bakes them into pies is impressive, but getting them to stay in their seats and actually enjoy the show seems like an impossible task right? Surprisingly, this song describes all the horror and darkness that comes with this story but does it in such an engaging way that audiences have been horrified and charmed by Sweeney Todd ever since it premiered in 1979.
The menacing organ that opens this song warns you that something wicked is coming, but you’ll never be prepared for what’s next. Considering how popular this show has become, most people know what they’re getting into before they see it. Still, this song manages to be both surprising and creepy, and you’ll have a hard time forgetting it after your first listen.
4. “Good Morning, Baltimore”
This song couldn’t be more different from “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” but both songs are great examples of effective opening numbers. With the happy melodies and harmonies that make up this song, any audience member will know what they can expect from Hairspray, but they also get a taste of the humor with lyrics about “the flasher who lives next door.”
That’s not all this song has to it though. “Good Morning, Baltimore” introduces the nostalgic music that carries this show so well and captures the energy you can expect from the rest of the show. This song is so sunny that you might find yourself trying to get on the Corny Collins Show before it’s over.
A number that’s so focused on welcoming people in several languages to a world where “even the orchestra is beautiful” truly makes it one of the best opening songs in musical history. Never mind the fantastic musical that follows this song, this introduction won’t just have you tapping your foot, it will have you completely immersed in the atmosphere of Cabaret.
If you didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t bet that this musical is takes place right when the Nazis were rising to power due to its welcoming lyrics and sound. The contrast of subject matter this song sets up is what makes Cabaret such a compelling show. Jaunty distracting cabaret numbers underscore one of the mankind’s darkest periods. Even if you don’t know a thing about Cabaret you’ll find yourself wanting to see more thanks to this catchy introduction song.