On ‘Smash’, By Way of a Preamble … Part Two (11 o’clock Numbers)

In the last post, I proposed this:

Great musical theatre characters are not made with a prop song.

I think it takes a book number to establish a great main character. The only exceptions I can think of are Sally Bowles and Velma Kelly – and I think there is a problem with Velma, which I’ll write about in the next post. But, in short, it’s this:

If you haven’t been established, you haven’t earned an 11 o’clock number.

A brief matter of terminology: to put it mildly, you’ll encounter some debate as to the definition of an 11 o’clock number, and this is because the meaning of the term has shifted. According to legend, a wardrobe person backstage noticed that the song “Oklahoma!”, in the show of the same name, always happened at 11pm – this is from the days when the curtain rose half an hour later, at 8:30pm – so “11 o’clock number” originally meant a big song just before the finale of a show, something to wake an audience up and send them home humming.

But nowadays the term is more often used to describe a central character’s emotional peak for the evening, a moment of great realisation or catharsis, just before the resolution of the plot. This would normally happen at around the same time, near the end of Act Two, and involve a satisfyingly big sing for the star involved.

Obviously (and thankfully), not every show has such a number, but these big solo payoff numbers often counterbalance an earlier ‘I Want song‘, used to introduce the main character to the audience. Hence:

Mamma Rose (Gypsy) – Rose’s Turn, in which it becomes clear that the desperate ambition we learned about in Some People has led to a complete breakdown.

Elphaba (Wicked) – No Good Deed, in which all of the grand plans and optimism of The Wizard and I have turned to shiz.

Judas Iscariot (Jesus Christ Superstar) - Superstar, in which Judas (who spent Heaven on Their Minds calling Jesus a mere man) admits that Jesus is a god, but strangely crap at his job.

Dolly Levi (Hello, Dolly!) – So Long, Dearie, in which an angry Dolly discovers that her breezy meddling, announced in I Put My Hand In, has lost her the man she loves.

But what about the characters who are performers? Are their 11 o’clock numbers ever prop songs?

Adelaide (Guys and Dolls) doesn’t get the 11 o’clock number: that’s Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, led by Nicely Nicely Johnson. Some people think Marry the Man Today, which Adelaide sings with Sarah Brown, is an 11 o’clock number. These people are mad. In any case, neither is a prop song.

Christine Daaé (Phantom of the Opera) – I don’t think Phantom has an 11 o’clock number. Its dramatic climax is scored with reprises, as is Lloyd Webber’s (and many an opera’s) wont. Some will insist that The Point of No Return is Phantom’s 11 o’clock number (and it is a prop song), but I think there is far too much plot (and music) left to go before the curtain.

Nancy (Oliver!) doesn’t get the 11 o’clock number: that’s Reviewing the Situation, sung by Fagin. By this point, poor Nancy is dead. Nancy’s last big sing is As Long As He Needs Me, which is not a prop song.

In fact, 11 o’clock numbers are almost never prop songs, and with good reason: this is not a time to keep an audience at a distance, with a contrived, rehearsed performance that is, within its own dramatic context, already a contrived, rehearsed performance – a double act, if you will. No, this is the time to make an audience forget that they’re watching a manufactured thing. I know of two and a half exceptions: Fanny Brice, Sally Bowles and (the half) Velma Kelly.

Fanny and Sally both succeed because of dramatic irony, and both of them, upon later consideration, make no sense. Velma makes sense, but I don’t think she quite succeeds.

Next post: Fanny, Sally, Velma and ‘Smash’.

(Yes, it has taken me this long to get to ‘Smash’, the second season of which has debuted to disastrous ratings. I’ll attempt to write about it before it goes off the air.)

3 thoughts on “On ‘Smash’, By Way of a Preamble … Part Two (11 o’clock Numbers)

  1. I’m unable to contrast and compare ‘Smash’ with anything because I couldn’t make it to the end of the first episode (much less the first season).

    • Yeah, that’s not uncommon. And the first episode is generally considered the best.

      Hmmm … imagine ‘The Band Wagon’, as performed by the cast of ‘At Long Last Love’. That’ll give you the flavour.

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