Sondheim Responds

Stephen Sondheim responds to Susan Elliot’s New York Times piece about Broadway orchestrations in a letter to the editor:

Orchestrations: Who Writes the Songs?
Re “Off the Stage, What’s Behind the Music” by Susan Elliott [Aug. 17]:

Ms. Elliott, in her piece on Broadway orchestrators, claims that Robert Russell Bennett was responsible for the “shifting harmonies and alternating rhythms” (whatever the latter term means) of Richard Rodgers’s score for “South Pacific.”

I can assure you this is not so, and the implication that orchestrators routinely do it is misleading. True, many composers of musicals can neither read nor write music and merely hum their tunes or pound them out on the piano, forcing orchestrators to supply everything from chords to rhythms, but some of us spend long hours working out harmonies and contrapuntal lines, and Rodgers was one of them, as his distinctive harmonic styles — one for Hart, one for Hammerstein — prove.

For those who, like me, write detailed piano copy, the orchestrator’s chief task is to give the dry monochromatic texture of the piano color and atmosphere, which indeed may involve adding additional lines, but the notion that orchestrators do much of the composing for composers who know what they’re doing is inaccurate.

Like everybody else, as Ms. Elliott reports, I deplore the downsizing of orchestras, but I understand the economics. If I had thought for one minute that Roundabout, a nonprofit company, could afford 11 players for the revival of “Sunday in the Park With George,” I’d have asked for them. After reading in Ms. Elliott’s article that Todd Haimes, the company’s artistic director, would have given them to me, I’ll know better the next time we work together (which, I hasten to add, I hope will be soon).

As for Jason Carr, who won the Drama Desk Award for his deft reduction of Michael Starobin’s thrilling 11-player orchestration to an ensemble of five, I’m happy for him, but the atmosphere and most of the extra instrumental lines and decorations were still Michael’s. Six-elevenths of the award, at the very least, belong to him.

Stephen Sondheim
New York
The writer wrote the music and lyrics for “Sunday in the Park With George.”