The unsung heroes of Broadway

A critic pays tribute to the orchestrators who make all the big musicals sound so good

The unsung heroes of BroadwayIn a Broadway musical, the composer writes the tunes, but someone else writes the score. The new book The Sound of Broadway Music, by theatre critic Steven Suskin, is about the hidden musical geniuses of Broadway’s golden age: orchestrators, who create memorable sounds like the slide whistle in the overture to Gypsy or the sentimental violin solo in Some Enchanted Evening from South Pacific. Almost no Broadway composers have time to orchestrate their own music, so it’s up to lesser-known, fast-working musicians to make a melody and a few chords sound better than anyone ever dreamed. “An orchestrator, handed a song that’s not so good, can dress it up and make it sound great,” says Suskin.

Though they do a big job, orchestrators are mostly unknown, and so underrated that they weren’t eligible for Tony Awards until 1997. (Suskin explains that many composers “didn’t want to admit that they needed help.”) His book gives Broadway fans a sense of how important these men were to your favourite songs. It includes anecdote-filled biographies of classic orchestrators like Robert Russell Bennett (Show Boat, The Sound of Music) and Don Walker (Cabaret, Carousel), as well as some currently active greats like Jonathan Tunick (Stephen Sondheim’s orchestrator), along with explanations of what orchestrators do to enhance a song. With the aid of manuscripts and invoices, Suskin also identifies who scored which songs in shows like The Music Man and Annie Get Your Gun (orchestrators have to work so fast that most of them call on “ghosts” to help them out), giving a sense of how different orchestrators create different sounds.

The book also explains that orchestrators have to do more than just assign notes to the instruments. Many memorable accompaniment figures and harmonies came from them, especially since many of the composers they worked for were not trained musicians; Suskin points to Bob Merrill (composer-lyricist of hits like Carnival), who “composed his music on a toy xylophone.” And sometimes the orchestrator needs to work on the vocal music too: Suskin writes that the title song of Oklahoma! was going nowhere until Russell Bennett created a choral section for the number; his arrangement (in which the chorus spells out “O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A” in song) turned the song into a show-stopping hit.

Even composers with extensive training depend on orchestrators to give their music a sound style that they themselves can’t provide. Suskin went into the project thinking that orchestrators have to write the way the composer wants; instead, he found that “the composers said, ‘I don’t want to sound old-fashioned,’ ” and they gave their arrangers a free hand. Instead of trying to sound like Richard Rodgers or Cole Porter or Sondheim, orchestrators wrote in their own distinctive styles, and the composers liked it: “They didn’t have to subvert their talent to write in the style of the composers. The composers said ‘this guy can make me sound good.’ ”

Many of the men profiled in The Sound of Broadway Music brought new sounds to the world of Broadway, which Suskin says is “usually about 10 years behind” when it comes to musical trends. One example he points to is Robert Ginzler, who came to Broadway after playing in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and on the CBC; he helped introduce musicals to the sound of ’50s jazz bands (in songs like Steam Heat from The Pajama Game) and even rock ’n’ roll (in Bye Bye Birdie). Other orchestrators found ways to serve the story; Walker’s orchestrations for Fiddler on the Roof used unusual instruments to capture the ethnic flavour of the show. These musicians didn’t crank out pages of music; they created theatre with musical instruments.

But you have to pay a lot of people to play those instruments; most producers now spend the money elsewhere. Suskin admires much of the work being done on Broadway today, but it’s a more canned sound, featuring “16 instruments with 10 of them plugged into amps, so the singers can’t be heard over it.” Still, there have been signs of life for classic orchestras. The revival of South Pacific, which won seven Tony Awards, restored the original orchestrations by Bennett, with 30 instruments including a harp (which he often used to set the rhythm instead of the drums). The orchestrations were a selling point of the production, starting with the overture’s thrilling statement of Bali H’ai. Richard Rodgers composed that song, but as Suskin’s book demonstrates, it takes an orchestrator to make a great song sound even better.