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.
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.