Spotlight on... Orchestrators / by Ben Frost

Musical Theatre has often been described as the most collaborative art form. It succeeds when every member of the team, from the creatives to the cast, all have the same vision, the same electric idea and the same passion for expressing that through music, words and visuals. But any team is made of individuals, and success relies wholly on how those unique talents and strengths blend together to form a cohesive whole. This week, we’re looking at another under-appreciated yet vital role in the music department, and another transformative step in the journey from the composer’s pen to your ear: The Orchestrator!

Think of orchestration as the final part of the long process of writing a song. The composer writes a song, usually at the piano; the arranger helps turn it into a longer musical sequence, possibly with ensemble vocal parts and dance routines; and the final step is to devise how it will sound played by an entire orchestra. Somebody has to decide who in the orchestra will play what note, and that is the role of the Orchestrator. It’s the final layer of sheen on the music.

He or she has to be a musical magician, a veritable wizard of the octave: the arranger will have provided a certain amount of detail, but the orchestrator uses their musical imagination to take that black-and-white pencil drawing and flesh it out into a fully-realised technicolor canvas. An orchestrator will have at their fingertips a working knowledge of most musical instruments, including their weak points. Every instrument has a place in its register where it sounds the best, just like there is a place in your singing voice where you sound best - go too low and no-one can hear you; too high and it sounds strained and uncomfortable (and neighbourhood dogs panic). A good orchestrator knows these details instinctively and will write so that instruments sound their best. 

An orchestrator will decide what the orchestra is doing to support the singer, and will use the orchestra to help create the atmosphere and to tell the story. What would Fiddler on the Roof be without those orchestral flavours that conjure up a turn-of-the-century Russian shtetl? Or A Little Night Music without the European chamber orchestra, and Miss Saigon without all that extraordinary Asian percussion? On The Town explodes off the stage because of the energy of its dancing, its rhythms and because of the orchestra pit crammed full of brass instruments (8 of them if you’re interested. Some current shows only have 8 players total in the pit, let alone 8 of one section. GodI wish I’d been alive in the 50s.) 

Chicago was written in the mid-70s yet manages to sound like a 1920s prohibition jazz band. The orchestrator, Ralph Burns, was chosen because he had that style in his blood. On the trumpet part for 'All That Jazz', Burns wrote, “Growl plunger solo, give it all hot; quasi Cootie Williams.” He knew who to reference and what to write to make the players in the orchestra pit make the sounds he wanted. 

The orchestrator also has a hand in the overture, a place where he or she can really go to town with the orchestral fireworks. Listen to ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ from Gypsy, and then listen to how Ramin and Ginzler treated the same tune in the overture - the latter is a riot of woodwind runs and excitement. To do the same thing during the song would perhaps have obscured Ethel Merman’s voice (is that even possible?) but certainly distracted from the song, whereas in the overture they can really let the orchestra off the leash and simply have fun. The overture to Mame is another great example of both the arranger (Don Pippin) and the orchestrator (Phil Lang) really going to town with the material. Who can possibly resist that level of exuberance spilling over the pit rail?

The downside to being the orchestrator is that you can only begin your work when all the musical decisions have been settled. On a new production the music changes daily in rehearsal, with songs going in and coming out, dances being added, extended and rearranged. New songs are written at the last minute, keys changed to suit vocalists, what was a waltz becomes a march. The orchestrator has to play chicken with opening night, trying to start work as late as possible in order to capture all the changes whilst still allowing time to get the work done. Inevitably, tweaks and fixes will always have to happen and numbers rewritten up until press night. The orchestrator works non-stop during those final few weeks, churning out new pages as fast as the old ones get torn up*. Ralph Burns used to squirrel himself away in his apartment, and when a page was done he would slide it under his door to the copyist. In exchange, the copyist would slide through the next batch of pages that needed his attention. Sometimes he wasn’t seen for days. Now that’s dedication.

There are way too many incredible orchestrators to examine in detail here, but if you were to listen to the work of Ralph Burns, Robert ‘Red’ Ginzler, Don Walker, Robert Russell Bennett, David Cullen, Jonathan Tunick and William David Brohn you’d be hearing the best orchestration in musical theatre that’s ever happened. Sadly there’s only been a Tony Award for Best Orchestration since 1997 and there has never been an Olivier which is a enormous pity, and means that the extraordinary efforts of this small group people often remain behind the scenes. If this article has helped you appreciate them even a tiny fraction more, then my job is done! 

Ben Frost

* Not literally torn up: every page is kept in case you need to go back to an old version!

Further listening
So here are some more people whose work you should seek out immediately: (in no particular order)
Phil Lang (all of Jerry Herman’s work)
Sid Ramin (West Side Story and Gypsy)
Irwin Kostal (Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on film, Fiorello in the theatre)

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