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)

Follow Frost & Hough on Twitter: @frostandhough

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.

Follow Frost & Hough on Twitter: @frostandhough