The seven best first-act finales
Which numbers round out act one and keep you wanting more?
A good first-act finale is like a good cliffhanger in a novel: It should be so brimming with drama and suspense that you want to read on to the next chapter (or in the case of the theater, stick around for act two). Here's a list of the seven first-act finales that will have you collecting your jaw from the floor before you rush to the concessions stand.
1. Les Misérables
Adapting a 1,000-page novel into a three-hour musical is no easy task, but composers Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil pulled it off with a clarity and emotional resonance that is exemplified by the first-act finale "One Day More." In under four minutes, we are reminded where all of the main characters are and what they want through the use of overlapping musical motifs. As the actors march in place and a red flag goes up over the ensemble, the stage is set for an epic confrontation in the second act. It's hard not to feel this one in your throat. "One Day More" is the gold standard of first-act finales.
"Non-Stop" chronicles the postrevolutionary activities of Alexander Hamilton, setting up the eventual showdown between Federalists and anti-Federalists in our newly independent nation. A vocal fan of Les Misérables, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda takes a page from Schönberg and Boublil by reintroducing many of his first-act songs in overlapping reprise. It not only reminds us of where we've been in the story thus far, but conveys the flurry of concerns dancing in the head of our protagonist, a man who writes like he's running out of time. It's a breathtaking first-act finale for this Energizer Bunny of musicals.
Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen's musical about the rise and fall of a girl group reminiscent of the Supremes ends its first half with one of the most powerful showstoppers ever written. "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," declares a distraught Effie White, the zaftig lead singer of the group, who is being shoved aside in favor of the thinner, more marketable Deena Jones. Just as her anthem reaches its zenith, she is upstaged by Deena and her backup singers, denying her the ovation she so richly deserves. Few moments in musical theater so directly implicate the audience in crimes against a protagonist, while also perfectly establishing the dramatic conflict of the second act.
4. The Phantom of the Opera
The first act of the most popular Broadway musical of all time ends with the enigmatic title character vowing that his enemies will curse the day they crossed him. Then, as the actors take their curtain call for the opera-within-the-show, the chandelier comes crashing down to the stage. It's the most talked-about moment in a musical full of striking images, and it would be shameful to leave it off this list. In recognition of the dramatic and technical achievement of Phantom, the above video offers a supercut of chandelier crashes from around the world. Enjoy!
5. Sunday in the Park With George
Stephen Sondheim ends the first act of this musical about Georges Seurat with the pointillist putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." As the figures in the painting take their positions, they sing one of the most gorgeous melodies in the Sondheim repertoire. There is an air of bittersweet finality to the proceedings, so much so that Broadway lore tells of early audiences leaving the theater after the first act because they thought the show was over (when Sunday was presented off-Broadway in 1983, only the first act was finished). As a first-act finale, "Sunday" may not serve as a thrilling cliffhanger, but its sheer beauty calls us back for more.
This musical by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry tells the real-life story of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank, accused of rape in 1913 Georgia, then a cauldron of racism and Confederate resentment. At the end of act one, Brown dramatizes Frank's trial with nearly 20 minutes of continuous music, culminating in a tearful statement by the defendant ("It's Hard to Speak My Heart") and the repeated calls of "guilty" as the jury announces its verdict. The terrified Frank couple is surrounded by jubilant dancers performing a cakewalk, as the gravity of the situation collides with the levity of celebration. With that bewildering clash of emotions, Brown invites us back to the second half.
7. West Side Story
Casual fans might think of the "Tonight" quintet (surely a model for "One Day More") as the musical finale of the first act of West Side Story — Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim's modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. But that overlapping reprise only serves as a windup for the real dramatic highpoint: a knife fight between rival gang members that leaves two dead bodies onstage as our protagonist flees from the scene. Bernstein underscores this ballet of violence (called "The Rumble") with symphonic grandeur. It still produces gasps, ensuring that audience members will be eager to return to see what comes next.
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This article originally ran on TheaterMania.