On the Town: April Edition

First off, some good news. The Drama Desk Awards committee has decided to reinstate the award for Outstanding Orchestrations, nominating Bill Elliott (Nice Work If You Can Get It), Larry Hochman (Death Takes a Holiday), Martin Lowe (Once), John McDaniel (Bonnie & Clyde), Michael Starobin (Queen of the Mist), and Danny Troob (Newsies). There was a considerable uproar from practically the entire Broadway community as well as theatre fans, with a grassroots campaign to try to rectify the situation. Blogs from Mr. Starobin and Jason Robert Brown went viral, Drama Desk president Isa Goldberg’s inbox was flooded with emails, and an online petition garnered over 3000 signatures, including many of Broadway’s best and brightest. I am relieved to see that all this action had a positive impact, and am glad to see the award reinstated. Congratulations to all the nominees, and all orchestrators, period.

Encores! presented Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream, an unusual failure based on the Steinbeck novel Cannery Row. While there are some lovely tunes in the score (and some gorgeous Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations), there is almost no musical there. Something about bums and prostitutes on the California coast living near each other.  The central conflict between the two would be lovers (a scientist who lives by the sea and a failed prostitute…I think) is that they are two stubborn to admit they love each other. The rest involves colorful characters, including a warm Madam, some bums and a character named Joe the Mexican. I doubt we’ll ever see this show staged again, so it was interesting to hear it at City Center. Will Chase and Laura Osnes played the lovers. Both sang well, but there wasn’t much for them to play. Stephen Wallem and Tom Wopat provided some amusement. The evening belonged to Leslie Uggams, who brought that big voice and charm to the proceedings. Her understated performance of “All At Once You Love Her” brought down the house. I was in hysterics during the last ten minutes, as everything suddenly rushed to the finale. There may have been a musical in Steinbeck’s novel, but it certainly wasn’t for R&H. A live cast album will be released by Ghostlight this summer. This excites me, as this might make it more financially feasible for other Encores! shows to be recorded.

Apparently I did the impossible: I won The Book of Mormon lottery. I was down in the city filming the Leap of Faith video for Patty and Emily, and decided to try. The girls were seeing a different show that night so they offered to help. My pal Russ Dembin joined us, as well. I was delighted and surprised to hear my name called. I entered not expecting to win, but rather to just get an entry in for the upcoming fan performance in June. One thing I’ll never forget is the look on the Lotto Guy’s face as he called my name and as I went to perk up, Patty and Emily started shaking their tambourines. It was the first and only time I’d seen him nonplussed this afternoon. Anyway, I made my way forward, and from the way everyone working the lottery and box office treated me, you’d have thought I just had my first child. I can honestly say I’ve never had a nicer time on line to buy tickets. This marked my first time seeing the hit musical, and my second time playing The Book of Mormon lottery.

Since it’s almost impossible to get into the show, I made the conscious choice a year ago not to listen to the original cast album. While hearing the score hadn’t impeded my enjoyment of, say, Urinetown or Avenue Q, I decided that I wanted to go in fresh. The only thing I knew was the translation of the phrase “Hasa Diga Eebowai” and the song “I Believe” from the Tony telecast. Most of the original cast is still in the show, and are likely staying put for a while. Andrew Rannells will likely never have a better role in his career, at least one that displays his considerable talents so effectively. Jared Gertner was on for Josh Gad, but considering how funny Gertner is it didn’t detract from the experience. When I wasn’t laughing, I was smiling one of those silly, ear-to-ear types, just basking in the joy emanating from the stage. And I just wanted to hug the Tony-winning Nikki M. James, she anchors the show with so much sincerity and heart.

The show is expertly crafted with great tunes and winning characters. Hats off to the writers for crafting an exceptional book, building the show to a gut-bustingly hilarious payoff in (“Joseph Smith American Moses” sent me to another plane entirely). Profane, for sure, but with a rather wonderful message. I’ve made up for lost time with the cast album in the days since, finding my appreciation and laughs growing with each subsequent listen. One of the cool things about being a lottery winner: I was sitting front row dead center, right behind musical director/conductor Stephen Oremus, whose conducting is a show in itself.

On the opening night front, there were something like 12,000 opening nights on Broadway this month. An exaggeration, but as sure hell felt like it. I attended one of them: One Man, Two Guvnors, the hardest I’ve laughed at a show since, well, The Book of Mormon. James Corden stars as the charmingly corpulent harlequin in this delicious update of an ancient commedia dell’arte imported from London with its original cast intact. (A band, The Craze which provides the skiffle music heard before and during the show is made up of American performers). Mixing the low comedy with improvised bits and audience participation, the show is nothing less than an all-out riot. Corden dominates the evening, but he is supported by a brilliant ensemble. Special mention to Daniel Rigby, Oliver Chris and especially Tom Edden for inspired bits of hilarity. I won’t say more, as I don’t want to spoil the fun. Just know that by intermission, my sides ached from laughter and I want to go back again and again. Also, you’re going to want the original London cast album. Trust me.

Now. Here. This. has since closed, but I’m glad I got a chance to see the new show from the [title of show] team at the Vineyard. Jeff, Heidi, Susan and Hunter were back and in glowing adorkable form as they shared personal memories, from hilarious to embarrassing to devastating. I can’t say the new show is an instant classic like their first Tony-nominated outing, but it was a joy to see all four performers together again and hear them sing and dance and quirk up a storm. I was especially moved by the segment about grandmothers, having a reaction similar to that at Love, Loss and What I Wore – their memories unlocked my own. I hope they all continue to give us more to see over the years. The quartet exudes such good will, that it is hard for me not to cheer them on. I hope a cast album is forthcoming. (You heard me, Ghostlight).

Tomorrow comes the Tony nominations and all the insanity that awards season brings. Good news: Hugh Jackman is getting a special Tony Award. I don’t know why these awards bodies decide on whims to delete important categories, especially the still-defunct Special Theatrical Event category that the Tonys had for a mere ten years. Since Mr. Jackman is ineligible to be considered in any category, and has done so much for the Broadway community, it is nice to see him so honored. More good news: Bernadette Peters is deservedly receiving the Isabelle Stevenson Award for all the charity work she has done on behalf of Broadway Barks and BC/EFA. I look forward to both acceptance speeches. (And for God’s sake, let them perform!)

“Give Our Regards to Broadway” – Manhattan School of Music

This past Monday marked my first trip to Morningside Heights. Admittedly, I rarely leave the Midtown/Upper West Side area when in town,  though I do occasionally shoot downtown for a Fringe or Off-Broadway show here and there. However, there was a special concert at the Manhattan School of Music that sounded like it was too good an opportunity to pass up. The school’s Chamber Sinfonia was presenting “Give Our Regards to Broadway,” an evening of Broadway music and overtures under the baton of Paul Gemignani, with special guest artists Kate Baldwin and Alexander Gemignani. The price of admission? $20. How could I resist?

So SarahB, Follies enthusiast Tyler Martins, and I ventured up to the school’s John C. Borden auditorium. General admission had us picking seats in the second row, three on the aisle. Much to my surprise, the program withheld the evening’s line-up; it seemed as though the artists wanted to surprise us and as both Sarah and Tyler can attest, I was pleasantly surprised all evening.

Mr. Gemignani got things started with the South Pacific overture, using the original orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett. I knew instantly we were in for a whirlwind evening. The students are magnificent. I realize that might sound like an obvious statement as they are attending one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the country, but really, these kids are aces. Bennett’s orchestration for South Pacific is among the finest ever created for a musical, and the arrangement of the overture is absolutely staggering. I found myself as overwhelmed by it as I was at the 2005 Carnegie Hall concert and the opening night of the 2008 Broadway revival.

The only verbal remarks of the evening were made by Mr. Gemignani, as he stressed the importance of introducing students to the music of classic Broadway. For 90 minutes, we were treated to a total of 23 pieces. Six of these were overtures, including Oklahoma!, Fiorello! (I practically fell out of my chair when I heard the siren at the beginning), Funny Girl, Gypsy and the special overture created by Mr. Gemignani and Jonathan Tunick for the famed Sondheim 80th Birthday concert.

Kate Baldwin took us on a journey through leading lady land: ingenue, soubrette, star. Ms. Baldwin used her lush soprano on such classics as “What’s the Use of Wond’rin'” from Carousel, “When Did I Fall in Love?” from Fiorello and “Will He Like Me?” from She Loves Me (the latter two can be found on her essential album “She Loves Him“).  She also sang “On the Steps of the Palace” from Into the Woods, which works better out of context than I would have thought. But the two most surprising moments came when she tore through “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Could I Leave You?” offering the audience a glimpse into two potential star turns in Ms. Baldwin’s future.

Alexander Gemignani made his entrance with the famous a cappella opening of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” from Oklahoma, while having a field day with “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” from Kiss Me, Kate, “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story and “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods. His showstopper, though, was a specialty written by Frank Loesser for the Betty Hutton film The Perils of Pauline, called “Rumble, Rumble, Rumble.” The song is about an apartment tenant who needs to move because the neighbor is playing piano night and day. (Tedd Firth was the virtuoso on the piano).

Together, the stars shared a medley from The Pajama Game (he sang “A New Town is a Blue Town, she sang “Hey There”), “Together Wherever We Go” from Gypsy and a spirited “There Once Was a Man,” also from The Pajama Game. One of the more obscure numbers of the evening was “I Want to Be with You,” introduced by Sammy Davis, Jr. and Paula Wayne in Strouse and Adams’ Golden BoyFor an encore, and to the sheer delight of Tyler, they sang “Too Many Mornings,” from Follies.

The musicianship was superb all around. It was a pleasure for me to hear many of these pieces performed with their original orchestration. In many cases, I have only heard experienced the arrangements through the original cast albums. For a mere $20, the Manhattan School of Music gave me the sort of evening I wish I could have every time I see a Broadway musical.

Orchestrators on Orchestrating

What exactly are orchestrations? The word gets bandied around quite a bit, particularly when discussing musical revivals. You have shows that re-orchestrate to accommodate revisals (like those of the late 90s), those that re-orchestrate for economy (the Menier Chocolate Factory imports) and then there are those which tout the full, original orchestra like Gypsy and West Side Story. The Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific has a pit of 30 that was cause for rejoicing all around; whereas the current A Little Night Music has a chamber orchestra of 9 which has proven divisive among musical theatre fans.

Many of my friends and fellow bloggers know that I am a stickler for orchestrations. For me, there is nothing more fulfilling than the sound of a full orchestra playing the hell out of Rodgers or Bernstein or Sondheim, et al. Perhaps I’m too much of an old soul to adapt to the thinner orchestras, or the result of years of musical education. Maybe a combination of both. But it’s my personal preference. I don’t mind a small orchestration if it fits the scope of a show, but I am loathe to reductions for cost-cutting “chamber” productions. If I’m shelling out my hard earned clams, I want the works, plus a cherry on top.

The following excerpts are printed in the foreword to The Sound of Broadway Music by Steven Suskin, the columnist, scholar and critic. Suskin’s new book is a substantial contribution for those curious to understand the function of the orchestrator vs. composer. I’ve only just begun reading it, and it’s going to be a bible of sorts for me over the next couple of months, as this is the first in a series of posts.

Robert Russell Bennett
(Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, Show Boat, South Pacific):

“You are engaged to work with a composer and put his melodies into shape for a performance in the theatre. Your task is to be part of him – the part that is missing. He may be capable of doing the whole score himself or he may not know a G clef from a gargoyle. Your job is to bring in whatever he doesn’t, and make it feel like it belongs there.”

Ralph Burns (Darling of the Day, Funny Girl, No No Nanette – 1971, Sweet Charity):

“Orchestrators are like good, high-priced whores. You’re paid to make people look good. You may think of a better idea, but you try the best way that you can to do it their way and make them look good.”

Philip Lang (Annie, Carnival, Li’l Abner, Mame, My Fair Lady):

“Like the construction manager, you get the right instrumentation; you understand the limits of the artisan and the technology; and you build something that lasts.”

Hans Spialek (Anything Goes, The Boys from Syracuse, On Your Toes, Pal Joey):

“An artist, having an idea for a painting, draws first a sketch before putting the actual picture in all its contemplated color harmonies and combinations on canvas. Painting a musical picture follows the same procedure, with the exception that in musical theatre one man (the composer) furnishes the sketch from which another man (the arranger) paints the musical picture an audience actually hears. While the painter works either in oil, pastel or watercolors, the arranger uses the tone colors of the individual orchestra instruments.”

Don Walker (Carousel, Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, The Most Happy Fella, The Music Man):

“Orchestration is the clothing of a musical thought, whether original or not, in the colors of the musical instruments and/or voices. The Composer creates the basic themes of a composition. The Arrangers develops the basic themes into the desired form. The Orchestrator adjusts the arrangements to fit the size and composition of whatever orchestral combination has been selected.”

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.”