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.”

"Music in the Air" at Encores!

I was stunned walking out after Music in the Air at the City Center that I had completely forgotten the melody to “I’ve Told Every Little Star.” I spent the entire intermission humming the oft-repeated hit song from this lost Kern & Hammerstein show until the lights went down. We were even treated to yet another encore during the second act. But lo and behold, as I was walking down the steps from the gallery the only song that I could recall was the rapturous “The Song is You.”

The musical, last seen in NY in a 1985 Town Hall concert revival (with John Reardon, Patrice Munsel, Kurt Peterson and Rebecca Luker), was a moderate success for Kern and Hammerstein in 1932, running for 342 performances and spawning two popular song hits (care to venture a guess there…?). A film version starring Gloria Swanson was released in 1934.

To say Music in the Air has a creaky libretto would be a colossal understatement. The story is highly contrived and was initially meant to be more of a send-up of operetta conventions than anything else. Naive country folks, a doctor, his beloved daughter, her love interest and… brace yourself… their walking club (also the choral singing society) go to Munich. The doctor, an amateur musician, has written a song and the townsfolk insist it is so good that he must have it published. Words are by the love interest. They will take it to his school friend turned music publisher. Of course the daughter will sing it and win over the publisher, as well as the lotharious librettist and his lover-muse-prima donna in residence. Both larger than life characters use the two naive kids as pawns in their romantic battles leading to the young girl starring in a new operetta in Munich. Oh, did I mention there was lederhosen? Yes, it’s that kind of show.

Now before you think all “gee willickers, it’s just like 42nd Street,” it’s not. There is an unusual honesty in the second act about the difficulties of show business, with the disagreeable musical director dropping the necessary truth bombs in order for the show to become a hit. He asks if its unfair that the livelihood of seventy or so people be threatened by a rank amateur with dreams of being on the stage. The girl agrees and goes back to Munich, humiliated only in her love life, but eyes opened to cosi fan tutti. Everything about it isn’t quite so appealing. But never fear, there are still two numbers and two romantic couplings to be repaired, all accompanied by the orchestra and the necessary plot machinations.

Okay. It isn’t much. In fact, it’s a bit of a stretch. However, there is much to enjoy in the soaring Kern-Hammerstein score. Romantic, melodic and enough pastoral imagery to get us through until the next revival of The Sound of Music, it’s hard to resist. Interestingly, the team had just written the musical Show Boat which was one of the first attempts at progression in the musical as an art form. You had a show that combined elements, took on darker themes and bucked trends to create a powerful theatre experience, with most of the score serving dramatic functions for plot and character with some of the period crowd-pleasers tossed in for good measure. With Music in the Air (which would be Hammerstein’s last success until Oklahoma!) the team composed an entirely diegetic score, which is unusual for a musical. Most especially unusual for an operetta. Whenever a musical theatre song is diegetic it means that the character is aware that he or she is singing. For instance, Sally Bowles singing “Cabaret” or the “Parlor Songs” in Sweeney Todd. (This is also where the choral society walking to Munich comes to play. Again, it creaks… but alas that is period convention for you).

The show was given the usual Encores! treatment, with emphasis placed on the score and giving the audience a chance to hear fully restored orchestrations by the great Robert Russell Bennett, the premier orchestrator of the early years of the American musical. Sierra Boggess and Ryan Silverman were the young lovers, vanilla extract and all. It took a few minutes for the show to get jump-started. That happened when stars Douglas Sills and Kristin Chenoweth took the stage as the larger than life divas. They get the funniest moments and some of the better musical numbers (for instance the scenelet where they present the first act of the new show and “The Song is You”). Add to this sight gag of Sills towering over the diminutive Chenoweth, decked out as a brunette and dressed to the nines in period gowns. Dick Latessa and Marni Nixon are on hand to lend some minor support in the second half, the latter stopping the show with a wistful recollection of her hit solo (so many shades of Heidi Schiller in Follies I can’t even begin to tell you…)

While the show itself is virtuable unrevivable, I am grateful for the opportunity to see such a lost show. As one who appreciates seeing and hearing musical scores live, I relish in these opportunities – especially if there isn’t a cast album available to give the full experience. But I have to say having limited expectations, I was surprisingly charmed by the experience. Encores! tends to mix things up a bit, throwing out titles that aren’t as lost as their initial mission statement would lead you to believe, but also allowing us to see a show like the troublesome cult flop Juno, or the 1932 revue Face the Music.

Moving from the hills of Germany to the realm of Missitucky, the City Center’s third and final installment for this season will be the satiric Finian’s Rainbow from March 26-29. Now, if they would only listen give me Darling of the Day, Donnybrook!, A Time for Singing and Very Warm for May.

And they’re off…

The 2008 Antoinette Perry (remember her?) Award nominations were announced this morning. I shall spare you a complete listing, but will touch on a few talking points. In the Heights (13 noms? not bad…), Passing Strange (7) and Xanadu (4) seemed the most likely to receive nominations from the comittee, but I think most people were expecting the fourth slot to go to A Catered Affair before it went to Cry-Baby, a show that has received unanimous pans from everyone I know who’s seen it. However, it’s practically no surprise that the critically eviscerated juggernauts Young Frankenstein and The Little Mermaid didn’t get much love. (Disclaimer, I’ve not seen a single new musical this season). In terms of Best Play, August was a no-brainer there, but I was also quite pleased to see The 39 Steps get recognition as well. Also, was it absolutely obligatory that the Tony committee had to give out four nominations for Best Musical Revival? It’s asinine to think that Grease is anywhere near the other three superlative revivals. I’ve seen the latter three, but will not under any circumstances venture towards Grease. I even turned down a free ticket to that too. Another minor quibble: since when is it Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific? (However that’s nothing in comparison to The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein. What the hell…?)

Let’s hear it for Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton and Rondi Reed, the three superlative Steppenwolfe actresses of August: Osage County in three landmark performances that are helping this play’s reputation as the must-see of the season. Other nominated performances that I’ve seen and am thrilled for: Patti Lupone, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines in Gypsy; Paulo Szot, Kelli O’Hara and Loretta Able-Sayres (who is such an unbelievably adorable person, I almost can’t stand it) in South Pacific (not Danny Burstein though, I feel that Matthew Morrison deserved his slot); Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell in Sunday in the Park With George; S. Epatha Merkerson in Come Back, Little Sheba. (I was secretly hoping that they’d just give an award to Harriet Harris for her triumphant apartment trashing in Old Acquaintance, it’s up there with the act two finale of August as one of my favorite moments in a play this season). There was no Tony love at all for the revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which scored zero nominations. Also, Kevin Kline didn’t make the final cut for Cyrano de Bergerac.

Let it also be known that Robert Russell Bennett, quite possibly the greatest orchestrator in the history of the American musical, is getting a posthumous Tony award for his contributions. A recipient of a special 1957 award, I’m mildly curious as to why (other than the fact that his spectacular South Pacific, which is one of the best of the best in terms of orchestrations, is currently a smash-hit revival) they felt the need to give him another, not to mention waiting until 27 years after he died to do it. He is best represented in an abbreviated list of his original orchestrations: Show Boat, Of Thee I Sing, Anything Goes, Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun, Finian’s Rainbow, Kiss Me Kate, The King and I, My Fair Lady, Bells Are Ringing, Juno, The Sound of Music, Camelot, The Girl Who Came to Supper and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (to name only a few). Not too shabby, huh?

Oh, and Sondheim’s getting one too for the whole “Lifetime Achievement” thing. 😉

I guess we’ll see what’s what on 6/15. Not that the Tony’s play politics or award commercial shows based on whether or not they will tour. Hmmm? What’s that you say? They do? Fiddlesticks! (Yeah, let’s take another look at the Best Musical Cry-Baby).

The Theatre World Award winners will be announced on 5/15. I’m much more excited about what will happen there.