How to write a great Act One finale
We all know there’s something special about an Act One finale. It’s the production’s parting gift to the audience before the interval so it has to make an impact, and, crucially, ensure they come back for the second half. So the last number before the curtain falls really needs to be bigger (musically, dramatically or both) than all that’s preceded it. So what makes the ideal Act One finale? It usually represents a key turning point for the protagonists, in order to keep the stakes high and the audience wanting more. The number might reflect a very specific, single moment in time, like Sondheim’s exquisite “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George, or could cover long periods of time – done to breathtaking effect in “Non-stop” in Hamilton. Often it involves most or all of the cast, and is energetic and upbeat, with plenty of dance in order to end the act on a high.
There are of course exceptions and inversions to every rule, and more good songs than you can shake a conductor’s baton at, but we’ve chosen six crucial styles of Act One finales for you to explore. We’ve made a playlist of them, too, featuring all the other great finales we couldn’t fit into a single blog, so you can listen and marvel at their brilliance.
1. The big dance number
Musical integrity aside, one crucial function of the Act One finale is to send the audience out into the bars feeling uplifted, talkative and thirsty. A key way to do this is to include an epic dance break in your pre-interval number. Employ first-rate choreography and athleticism and you’ll have the audience breathless and eager for more. And this is musical theatre, so if you’re gonna do it, do it with tap. Look no further than the title number from Anything Goes, in which the entire cast performs an energetic, lengthy tap break before they carry on singing in five-part harmony, or “We’re in the Money” from 42nd Street, a veritable feast of glitter, feathers and bow-topped tap shoes, which builds and builds to an ecstatic conclusion. Not that it has to be all top hats and jazz hands – Billy Elliot closes Act One with “Angry Dance”, four solid minutes of ferocious tap performed by young Billy against a background of riot police and protesters. It’s high-octane, brutal and designed to shock. In fact, it’s exhausting just watching. But if you don’t feel out of breath by the time the safety curtain comes down, have you even been to a musical?
2. The montage
The Act One finale is a key opportunity to gather together the disparate threads of story that have run throughout the act, in order to bring all the character’s journeys into one big frame. By layering the parts over one another, we feel as though we are following each individual journey, but also gain a sense of the company and overarching narrative as a whole. And as far as goosebump-inducing musical moments go, having lots of people sing different lines with different lyrics and have them all fit together into a seamless whole is about as good as it gets. The ultimate example of this technique is “One Day More” from Les Misérables, in which the counterpoint sung by the principals highlights the different struggles and emotions each is experiencing. A clear turning point has been reached in the story, and the curtain falls with each character following a slightly altered path. Each line borrows a melody already used in the act, but has been modulated so that the song doesn’t feel like a repeat, but seems just familiar enough for the audience to become instantly engaged. This counterpoint effect is parodied in Urinetown (they even throw in the Les Mis flag-march for good measure) and in The Book of Mormon’s “Man Up”, where you hear themes of several Act One songs with new lyrics folding over the main melody. And just when you think it’s going to reach a thoroughly conventional final note, well, let’s just say it goes beyond your average PG musical rating.
3. The solo anthem
While most musicals end their first act with a whopping big chorus number, a few composers make the unusual-yet-usually-powerful choice to finish with a big solo moment, with minimal company involvement. Even an average song will sound impressive if it’s sung loudly enough by a talented chorus, so writers and performers have to work extra hard to make a small-scale finale work. So it’s gotta be a big song. Step forward “So Much Better” from Legally Blonde – a veritable marathon of a number that starts as a tender reflection on Elle’s lost love to a giant fizzball of excitement the minute she sees that she has been accepted for a prestigious internship. The pace and scale of the number reflect Elle’s feelings of elation: there are nine key changes (yes, really) as she moves from exciting thought to exciting thought, drawing the audience into this wonderful new discovery with each new verse.
In contrast, Shrek the Musical uses an important personal anthem, but turns it inward, finishing Act One with emotional introversion rather than exuberance. “Who I’d Be” is about wishing for a different life, and the sad realisation that such wishing is futile. The music lilts along at the start, as Shrek enjoys his daydream about the person he wishes he could be, before it draws back to almost nothing as he reminds himself “an ogre always hides…an ogre always stays in the dark and all alone.” Despite the sombre mood, the song also makes inspired use of key changes as Shrek’s thoughts progress, even if the result is the complete opposite of Elle’s. Here the audience are drawn into his anguish, the pathos climbing increasingly higher as the music builds. Like “So Much Better” it’s a huge number to sing – a reminder that you can’t close an act with a solo unless you know the singer has the talent to bring the house down (almost) single-handedly. Brian D’Arcy James does this to magnificent effect in the original Broadway recording: each key change is searing, as he uses the full power to his voice to express the keenness of Shrek’s anguish. It’s enough to make you applaud even in isolation.
4. Upcoming tension
If they’re not ending your act with a traditional joyous song-and-dance number, a key weapon in the composer/lyricist’s arsenal is to employ a cliffhanger, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats and wondering what could possibly happen next. This can be implicit in the music or explicit in the action. In Waitress, the Act One finale is the moment in which Jenna and Dr Pomatter finally act upon their mutual feelings of attraction. It’s a joyous thing and a wonderful song, but the number is called “Bad Idea” – an unusual choice for a love duet. It’s a subtle cue, but as both characters are already married, audiences are left wondering how this newfound romance can possibly continue into the second act.
Never one for subtlety, the title character of The Phantom of the Opera makes his Act One exit by singing heartbroken-then-furious reprise of “All I Ask of You” and sending the Paris Opera House chandelier crashing down towards the audience; a chilling warning that there is more terror to come in Act Two. And speaking of leaving an unpleasant taste in the mouth, Sondheim uses the Act One finale of Sweeney Todd for the hatching of Todd and Lovett’s wicked plan to put people into pies. They sing with macabre glee through a classic Sondheim word-fest about all the different flavours that will soon be on the menu, finishing with an uncomfortably jubilant, unpleasant-sounding chord (it’s Dbadd(2,#4), if you’re interested), leaving the audience in no doubt that things will only get worse when the curtain rises again.
But Sondheim subverts the genre further in Into the Woods by resolving every storyline by the end of the Act One, so that the audience could easily think the whole thing was over. But given that the song is called “Ever After” (note the absence of “happy”) and that the piece is in a minor key and rife with clashes, I think it’s fair to say he’s warning the audience that there is more drama to come. With the spoken “To be continued” landing just before the final chord, the first-time viewer is sent into the interval asking “What could possibly happen next?”. Because the brilliance of the show lies not in the fulfilment of its characters wishes, but rather the unintended consequences of that fulfilment. And that’s Sondheim for you.
If you’re not going for a “Consider Yourself”-style upbeat number to bring down the curtain, a common choice is to hit the audience where it hurts with a great emotional punch. It usually involves the whole cast assembled (though there are notably solo exceptions – try getting through “Twelve Children” from Dessa Rose without crying your eyes out), belting out full rich harmonies to accompany a powerful message. “Til We Reach That Day” from Ragtime begins as a song of grief following a cruel, racially motivated murder, but it transforms into a song of hope, and the dream of a day in which such crimes no longer occur and in which all communities are equal. At first, only the African American characters are singing, but as the piece goes on, the immigrants and white Americans join in, creating a visual and aural image of what that bright future could really look like.
This sense of community is used to similar great effect in Dear Evan Hansen’s “You Will Be Found”, which goes for the emotional jugular by breaking up the music with dialogue, so that each time the chorus returns it feels bigger, more urgent and more important. At the start, Evan is speaking awkwardly at an assembly, speaking directly to you as an individual with his simple message of hope, but by the end of the number the message has spread across the country, uniting tens of thousands of people who then speak to you with one voice. Surely no one can go into the bar with dry eyes after that.
6. The high-stakes showstopper
Contrary to what you might expect, a large number of shows use the end of Act One, rather than Two, to pull out all the stops. There are plenty of joyous, sad or super-emotional finale finales, but the pre-interval number is frequently more upbeat and energetic – because nothing is resolved, tensions are mounting and opportunities for happiness still await. To triumph, the stakes must be high, and you can’t fly higher than in Wicked’s “Defying Gravity”. One of the secrets of this number’s success is the fact that it doesn’t give away any hints of its epicness early on; it starts off as a resolute, yet fairly quiet and personal, conversation between Elphaba and Glinda. But as soon as the key decision is made and Elphaba goes off to be a Big Deal, the music explodes out of nowhere and knocks everyone flat – by its sheer volume, if nothing else. Every member of the orchestra is suddenly playing at full-tilt, the strings set a driving rhythm (have a listen to that sumptuous cello line) that builds and slows and builds and slows in time for the heartstopping, surprisingly joyous-sounding conclusion. It’s no wonder Elphaba flies: how else could you match the feeling in that piece of music? The chorus (absent for most of the number) appear at just the right moment as angry hecklers and onlookers, practically screaming in harmony, and beginning the onrush of chills down the spines of onlookers. You’d think those clashes would ruin the moment, but such is Elphaba’s celebration of her freedom and power, she supersedes them and brings everything into blissful harmony for the final note. Glorious.
Want to listen to our selection of the best Act One finales? Check out our official playlist!