A Book of Orchestrators

(and orchestrations)

pit-picture

I just finished reading Steve Suskin’s The Sound of Broadway Music, not five days after Terry Teachout did the same.  What a book!  What a HUGE gap this fills in for anybody interested in how Broadway Melodies get transformed from a tune with words to a what you hear in the theater.

I’ve been conducting musicals since I was 16 years old, and this book for the first time demystified Broadway scores in a major way.  I can remember conducting Kiss Me, Kate when I was a senior in high school and wondering where in Creation the dance music came from – reading the music (specifically, the “Tarantella”), it just seemed impossible that it was written by Cole Porter.  It turns out that a lady named Genevieve Pitot basically improvised it over a period of several days working with choreographer Hanya Holm.  This is what’s known as “dance arranging”, and the dance arranger might improvise something that has nothing to do with the score and then go home and arrange themes from the show to correspond to the dance patterns.

From there, Ms. Pitot’s scores went to Russell Bennett (who was the credited orchestrator on the show) and Don Walker (who did about a third of the total orchestrations – uncredited, as was so often the case).  These two gentlemen, along with very minor contributions from Walter Paul and Hans Spialek, orchestrated the entire score a mere 10 days before the opening.

This book is so tremendously informative, I would recommend it to anybody interested in Broadway musicals.  Suskin did a HUGE amount of research to put this whole thing together, and he is kind enough to share the great stories that he dug up in the process.  For example, a story from Stephen Sondheim that I had never encountered anywhere else, about how a strong-willed director/choreographer can actually trump a composer on his own orchestrations:

Jerry [Robbins] took over the orchestra during the dress rehearsal for “Somewhere,” and proceeded to circle the instruments.  “Now I want those out of there…”  He thought that Lenny had made it too lush.  I remember, I was sitting next to Lenny in the back o f the house.  Jerry hadn’t objected at the two orchestra readings.  But hearing it in the theatre with his dancers onstage, Jerry went running down the aisle, changing the orchestration.  I went, “Oh my God, I can’t wait to write home about this.”  Then I looked over, and Lenny is gone.  Where is he?  Not in the house.  I went out in the lobby of the teatre.  He wasn’t there.  Then I had a hunch.  I went down the street, to the nearest bar.  There he was, in a double booth, with five shots of scotch lined up in front of him.  Nobody could face Jerry Robbins down, so he went to the bar.

And that’s the version that is played to this very day.

lenny-and-jerry-2


On an unrelated note, I found a new young composer that I’m just wild about: Timothy Andres.  He has a big premiere coming up by the LA Phil “Green Umbrella” series; clearly this kid is a major contender of the Muhlian variety.  Dude’s music and the presentation thereof is hot.  I do so hate it when anybody else has talent.

Just Plain Ugly

I just received an e-mail from the NY Phil encouraging me to buy tickets to some upcoming concert:

picture-1

Now, we’ll put aside the fact that I have never been to a NY Phil concert and that I don’t live anywhere near New York — that’s hardly the point.  The point is, what is with that butt-ugly picture of Esa-Pekka Salonen?  I didn’t even know that it was possible to photograph the man in an unflattering light.  He looks like he’s staring into the blinding sun while a skunk gets a little too friendly with his right leg.

I had thought the man was eternally youthful.  Evidence:

desingel_4815

salonenfoto

esapekkasalonen

And now this?

picture-2

What gives?  Is he trying out some new “ugly” look?  Where did those wrinkles come from all of a sudden?  Maybe he thinks that now that he’s a slightly-more-full-time composer, it’s expected that he not be quite so pretty any more.

If he keeps writing music like this, he can be as ugly as he wants:

http://www.willcwhite.com/audio/helix%20clip.mp3

(Helix played by the LA Phil)

Also, celebrate the man while the gettin’s good!  (I can’t wait to see what kind of web site they come up with for Dudamel’s first season.)

More like Whore-ostovsky!

OK, I guess start with this?  Not for any particular reason, just to get some idea for those of you unacquainted with Mr. Hvorostovsky’s talent.  Just watch about 30 seconds or so, you’ll get the picture.

OK, and now, with no further ado, it’s time for this:

which may be the single oddest thing I have ever seen in my life, Ever.  The best part about it is that, as strange as it begins, it only gets stranger as it progresses.

I’ve watched it like 5 times now and I defy anybody to come up with a plausible explanation of the “plot”.  Who is anybody in this video?  Why the barbecued scorpion tail whip?  Where can I buy one of those capes??  Is that an erect nipple at 2:20???

Why yes, upon further review, I believe it is.

I know that the YouTube info states that this was directed by one “Alan Badoev”, but I’m pretty sure they meant to say “Darren Aronovsky”.

Well, there goes the rest of my day.

Sorry-Grateful

sondheim-1

OK, well, admittedly, I did get to speak to Stephen Sondheim TWICE today.  The first time, I asked him a question about orchestrators.  Namely, why did he use Michael Starobin on “Sunday in the Park with George”, which I find to be such a dreadful orchestration.  (Side note: one thing I apparently did not learn from Sondheim today was that you can criticize the deceased to your heart’s content, but hold your tongue when it comes to the living.  Oops.)

Turns out, Starobin was the house orchestrator of the theater company that first mounted “Sunday”, and Steve told Jonathan Tunick who turned out to be working on another show.  The only Sondheim orchestration I like less than “Sunday” is “Assassins”, another Starobin work, but in truth, I do find it hard to separate what I don’t like about the music itself in those scores from what I specifically dislike about the orchestration.

Sondheim came to IU today and delivered two talks: one in the afternoon for students of the Theater Department (i.e. not Music) — into which I snuck, and one in the evening at the IU Auditorium.

I went to both, and, despite the fact that I have read every major book about the man and his work, I did learn a few things.  For example, did you know that he wanted to switch “Officer Krupke” and “Cool” in West Side Story for the original stage version of West Side Story?  And when they finally did it in the movie version, he ended up saying it didn’t work!

Also, I was so glad to hear him say that the central conceit behind the current revival of West Side (the Sharks singing and speaking in Spanish) backfired on Arthur Laurents.  Incidentally, it seems that the version playing in NYC now is significantly less bilingual than the Washington preview that I saw.  So, if it’s only used in one or two scenes, what’s the point??  As Mr. Sondheim said, the Sharks might look menacing at the beginning of the show, but as soon as they start dancing, you’re not afraid anymore!  Also, he pointed out that the Sharks end up looking so much better to the audience then the dimwitted Jets since we see that they have the sophistication of speaking two languages.

But I simply can’t agree with him that the film version of Sweeney is any good.  He says it’s the only film musical that works for him.  For me, it doesn’t work at all.  Helena Bonham Carter was a total mist-cast.  His theory that her low-energy portrayal of Mrs. Lovett somehow adds to the context of the movie just doesn’t hold water with me.

Now for my personal tragedy with regards to today’s fora.  I ran — RAN, I tell you! — all the way around the IU Auditorium to the stage entrance at the end of the second talk.  To my amazement, there were only like 2 other people waiting to greet Mr. Sondheim.  And after waiting another 20 minutes for him to exit the theater, some sycophant comes out of the door and proclaims that, “Mr. Sondheim will not be signing anything.”

AAHHHHHH!!!  I had brought my score of Into the Woods and a Sharpie for him to sign it with!  He couldn’t spare 5 seconds to write his name on a piece of paper?  Perhaps he was expecting a bigger crowd and didn’t want to be detained, but come on Steve!!  I did get to thank him though, and he did acknowledge it, so I guess that’s pretty good.

Still, it was a disappointment…

PS. Steve says you can sing his songs in any key — there is no large scale key structure when he writes a musical, unlike a Puccini opera or some such.