An unresearched, armchair, modern history of what I like to call the afterture, or: when the end of the plot isn’t the end of the musical.
Have you ever noticed how many curtain calls include the cast singing a refrain from either the most hummable or the most beloved song (often one and the same) from the show? The calculus is clear, and it’s a commercial calculus, not an artistic calculus: if you send the audience dancing out of the theater on the tailwinds of that absolute bop, the lingering infectiousness of the tune will increases the odds they speak glowingly of the experience to other possible ticket-buyers.
The common calculus is to choose the most memorable number, putting the score’s best foot forward as the audience’s dancing feet scuttle out of the theater.
Some musicals up the ante by tacking on a new, albeit generally slight ditty, slight because it’s more of a superficial farewell than a substantive denouement to the story.
Youtube’s available recordings of Hairspray‘s “You Can’t Stop The Beat” lops off the album’s bonus material. If you dial it up on your preferred streaming platform (or, you know, if you own the CD!!!), note how this “finale” technically ends with 40 seconds left in the track, then there’s a tiny pause, and then a seemingly different, 30-second song starts. On stage, this microscopic song is sung after the cast has taken their bows, right before the curtain comes down for good. One last musical pat on the ass on our way out the door.
But since most musicals aren’t blessed with a big finish that goes as fucking hard as “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” they try to recreate through other means this joyous cacophony that might help the audience forget any of their earlier gripes with the show (with Hairspray?! Sacrilege!).
I’m sure there are oodles of older instances to cite — I primed you for this unresearched, armchair history! — but in my theatergoing career, my first exposure to an afterture can be traced to (hold your nose) Mamma Mia!
For two acts over 150 minutes (PTSD alert), this Abba spectacular tells one fairly cohesive story (it’s less a story than it is cohesive!). And then that story ends. Blackout. Cue the curtain call?
More like: cue the curtain call concert!
The cast breaks into what can only be described as a choreographed cover concert. In fairness, that’s an apt description for the whole show…but most of the musical numbers are still positioned as if they’re forwarding the main story (more in attempt than execution). But there’s no more story to forward by the time the concert starts. A possible narrative justification is that we’re witnessing the actual performance at her story-culminating wedding, and the audience has become the partygoers being performed to.
But its primary purpose seems to be to ensure that audiences walk out of the theater on a musical high. To do so, the show puts forth ABBA’s musical highs, a greatest hits curtain call compilation concert encore medley.
But guess what: it freaking worked! I still remember my grandma shouting about how my perennially stoic grandfather was dancing up the aisles with the rest of the house; it was her lasting memory of the show. The artistically questionable fluff that preceded it? Who cares, when it promises to lead to such glory!!!
And she wasn’t alone! Clips of these afterture moments were even used in commercials for the New York run at the time!
The idea of an afterture operates by a similar logic to an overture — excerpts of the score — except it occurs afterwards. Thus: afterture.
I’m a genius wordsmith.
London’s production of The Commitments doubled down on the shamelessness of Mamma Mia!’s afterture. Whereas the latter’s was a relatively minuscule length, The Commitments boasted a full-on 30-minute concert, with nary a plot point in sight.
And honestly, it was the most enjoyable stretch of the evening!
But both of these featured classic songs to which the audience already had a personal relationship.
Six takes this afterture formula a step further, by shoehorning in its original score. During the curtain call, each of the six QWEEENS (SLAAAAY; eyeroll) belt snippets of their individual songs, the greatest hits of the hits, if you will. Remember all those early bangers you loved? Well, in case not, here’s a reminder; NOW TELL ALL YOUR FRIENDS!!!
“Listen up / Let me retell you the story / The story that you know you’ve just heard before.”
It’s like Max Bialystock’s warp-speed recap in The Producers’ “Betrayed.”
And last Broadway season’s POTUS was the rare play to get into the game, but it wasn’t an afterture; merely a dramaturgically-bonkers dance finale to strike a final triumphant note for easily satiated audiences.