Spotlight on... Arrangers / by Ben Frost

You know that doo-do-doo-doo doo-da doo-do-doo-doody-doo-doo tune that Gene Kelly sings at the beginning of Singin’ In The Rain? How about that amazing overture to Gypsy that blows the roof off the theatre and gets the ball rolling for a hell of an evening’s entertainment? Or even the extraordinary Do-Re-Mi sequence in The Sound of Music which takes the simplest of tunes and stretches it out into one of the most iconic sequences in musical film?* 

What may surprise you is that none of these were put together by the person credited as the composer. 

Instead they are almost entirely the work of the talented music arrangers that are part of the production team yet rarely get any spotlight or public acknowledge for their work.

So who are these people and what are they doing contributing music? Why is the composer letting them do this?

What is Arrangement?

Firstly, on a musical there often isn’t a person credited as the Arranger. However, that doesn’t mean that the role of Arrangement isn’t happening, it’s just been divided up amongst the music department of the show. It’s not unusual for the Musical Director, the Orchestrator and even the Rehearsal Pianist to contribute to this task.

When a brand new musical is created, what is performed on day 1 of rehearsal bears only a scant resemblance to what’s performed on opening night. Sure, the big tunes are there, and the funniest jokes. But the dance sequences won’t be there, nor will the scene change music or the big key change for the star at the end of Act 1. A lot of this usually happens during the rehearsal period, although obviously different composers arrive with differing amounts of work done. 

Music arrangement is the art of taking the composer’s source material: the tunes, the harmony, the intention; and helping engineer it into a cohesive piece of music. Think of it as the same relationship as a structural engineer to an architect: the architect has the Big Plan with the colours and the shapes, and the structural engineer is involved in making those ideas a reality that can stand up. 

So like a structural engineer, an Arranger will take a tune such as Do-Re-Mi and will help sew (a needle pulling thread? Couldn’t resist.) that into a longer number. When rehearsing that song, the choreographer wanted Maria to teach a tune onstage. The arranger Trude Rittmann called up Rodgers and Hammerstein who then provided the tune and lyrics, ‘When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything.’ Miss Rittmann then used that new theme as a building block for the next part of the song. The resulting number is 5 1/2 minutes long, but the source material from Rodgers and Hammerstein is only 45 seconds long. This is not intended to detract from the genius of their contribution, but to highlight the additional contribution of those working with them.

Doesn’t the composer mind?

Who knows? Obviously Mr Rodgers trusted Trude Rittmann enough to do this, having worked with her since Carousel. (She also composed the ballet Small House Of Uncle Thomas from The King and I, and arranged the ballet in Carousel).

Rather splendidly, on the cast album for Wicked, Stephen Schwartz explicitly acknowledges the contributions of the music department on his show, highlighting the first 45 seconds of the track ‘Wonderful’ which he states they contributed. That doesn't happen too often.

Isn’t the composer being lazy?

Quite the opposite! As is often the case in musicals, there simply isn’t time for the composer to create and fix everything. A small change to the order of scenes during rehearsal, for example, can result in whole sequences of appropriate new scene change music being needed, and if the show is in previews, very often required for that evening’s performance. The composer is usually fixing something more important so another member of the music team will very often use the composer’s themes to paper over the cracks. You know how you hear familiar bits of song at the end of scenes, but often in a different mood or version than they appeared earlier? You can bet they were put there by the rehearsal pianist, the musical director or the orchestrator!

I think I appreciate the Arranger an awful lot more now!

And you should! An unsung hero of the production team on a musical, but an absolutely vital one. Any musical theatre composer worth their salt will love and cherish their arranger since they are the people who make the songs fly, who lift them off the page and who help make these composers’ crazy ideas come to life on stage.

Ben Frost

*In the examples above, the doo-do-doos were contributed by Roger Edens who headed up the music department at MGM; the Gypsy overture was put together by the orchestrators Sid Ramin and Robert ‘Red’ Ginzler; Trude Rittmann (pronounced Trudy) engineered the Do-Re-Mi sequence in the rehearsal room.

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