An Open Letter to Emma Thompson

Dear Ms. Thompson,

This past week, I had the unmitigated pleasure of witnessing you make your New York stage debut in the exciting New York Philharmonic concert of Sweeney Todd. I have long been an admirer of your work, ever since I first saw the 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing in high school. Not long afterward, I fell head-over-heels for your Oscar-winning Margaret Schlegel in Howards Endwhich I stumbled upon on Bravo one weekend, back when that station had a more artistic bent.

In the years since, I have come to admire your work as an actress, writer, humanitarian and activist. Your appearances at awards ceremonies and on talk shows show us a smart, genuine Brit with unfailing wit. You seem like you’d make a great friend as well as the best kind of drinking buddy, but that’s another matter entirely. As someone with a vested interest in musical theatre, I also became aware of your presence in the smash-hit West End revival of Me and My Girl opposite Robert Lindsay, which I acquired immediately and have enjoyed many, many times. (I have also watched a charming video of you singing and tap dancing on a giant LP).

I had seen the acclaimed London revival of Sweeney Todd only two years ago, so I wasn’t entirely bowled over by the NY Philharmonic’s initial announcement. However, when it was later announced that you were going to play Mrs. Lovett, the concert immediately jumped to the top of my must-see list, so much so that I made the early decision to see it twice.

One thing that was certain from the two performances I attended was the great love and affection pouring across the footlights in both directions. For someone who hasn’t appeared in a musical in 27 years, you seemed quite at home and at ease in the role. Mrs. Lovett is nothing if not daunting, with unforgiving musical and dramatic demands, and it was delightful to hear how you used your voice to your best advantage through some of the score’s most difficult passages. I laughed in the most unexpected places, the result of your manic energy, wit, and side-splitting physical comedy. However, you were also very careful to make Mrs. Lovett a real individual, someone who has starved, suffered and been down on her luck. I was mesmerized by you from start to finish.

While I enjoyed myself immensely, I had some quibbles with the production. If I were casting, I would have had Mr. Terfel and Mr. Quast switch roles, and would have cast Mr. Johnson as Tobias. I also missed the organ prelude and certain elements of the book and score (I never realized how much I missed the line “How many bells are there?” until it was gone!) However, it was a thrill to hear Jonathan Tunick’s arrangements so expertly played by the Philharmonic, I could hardly contain my excitement. I was so pleased at what you were able to accomplish with such limited rehearsal time that a few minor problems ultimately don’t matter. For a NY debut, I don’t think it could get more memorable than this.

I do hope that the rapturous reception of your appearance with the Philharmonic will entice you to return to the New York stage, and sooner rather than later. Play, musical, Broadway, off-Broadway; whatever you chose, it would certainly be a welcome experience. Personally, I would love to see you tackle the role of Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. I think you have the right comic sensibility, depth and voice to play her.  You and Mr. Sondheim suit each other quite well.

Please come back to us soon. In the meanwhile, I look forward to revisiting your performance on the Live from Lincoln Center broadcast.

Warmest regards,

~Kevin D. Daly
Theatre Aficionado (at Large)

An Open Letter to the Drama Desk Awards

To Whom It May Concern,

Four years ago, a beautiful production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific opened at the Vivian Beaumont to acclaim and plaudits all around. One of Lincoln Center’s boasts was the full size orchestra in the pit.  The first of many thrilling moments came about one minute into the show’s overture. During a thrilling swell of the “Bali Ha’i” motif, the Beaumont stage retracted to display 30 musicians. I was fortunate enough to be at the opening night of this production, and witnessed for myself the cheers and tears (my own included) from an appreciative house. As the final notes played, the audience roared their overwhelming approval. While the melodies are the creation of Richard Rodgers, the man ultimately responsible for this stirring overture was the brilliant orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett.

It was brought to my attention earlier today by Drama Desk-winning orchestrator and arranger Stephen Oremus via Twitter that the Drama Desk committee has unceremoniously dropped the Best Orchestrations Award from this year’s honors. I can’t help but express my great displeasure at this decision. No official reason was given, and I can understand that, because there is no discernible excuse for this short-sighted and disrespectful snub.

I admire orchestrations. I admire orchestras. I love hearing how a melody is colored by instrumental arrangement, whether it be the romantic sweep of South Pacific or, say, the buoyant percussiveness of Irma La Douce or the big brassy “Broadway” sound of Mame. There is craft and artistry involved here. A composer doesn’t just hand a song to the conductor and the musicians can just magically play it. That might be the sort of thing that passes muster in ancient movie musicals, but the reality is that a song goes through a considerable gestation between the composer’s pen and the orchestra pit (with a nod to vocal and dance arrangers as well; other unsung heroes).

Orchestrators must understand the size, the scope, the intent and the economy involved in building a show from the ground up. Some composers know precisely how they want their show to sound, and may even be gifted in orchestrating themselves, and some may not know a quarter note from a hole in the ground. Orchestrator Hans Spialek likened the task to painting: “with the exception that in musical theatre one man (the composer) furnishes a sketch from which another man (the arranger) paints the musical picture the audience actually hears.” It is rare that a composer does his or her own orchestrations. Arranging a score for an orchestra is hard work, it is time-consuming and a composer generally must be free to revise and write new songs as a show develops.

While I have had varied reactions to the musicals of this season, I didn’t have any complaints with the orchestrators. I’ve heard work by the likes of John McDaniel, Larry Hochman, Doug Besterman, Michael Starobin, Martin Lowe, and Bill Elliott, among many others. We have seen show orchestras get smaller and smaller. More and more, it seems that musicians are hidden offstage or in another room (or building) entirely. Many of these orchestrators are forced to make less sound like more, itself a marvel of invention and craft. I can’t help but feel that this snub is just another step in the marginalization of live music in musical theatre.

Orchestrators are artists. They deserve the recognition and respect they have earned through their hard work. I do hope you reconsider this egregious decision.


Kevin D. Daly
Theatre Aficionado at Large

PS: Every one of you would benefit from reading Steven Suskin’s essential The Sound of Broadway Music, a meticulously researched and informative book on musical theatre orchestration.