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.”