MUSIC: Orchestrations (also, comic-book love triangles)

I haven’t had a lot of posting time today, but here are links to two pieces I wrote elsewhere on this fine website:

My online article on seminal moments in the love triangle of Archie, Betty and Veronica, to celebrate the news of Archie’s imminent proposal to Ronnie. Includes a link to the first Cheryl Blossom story, where she tries to go topless on the Riverdale beach.

– From the print edition, my piece on Steven Suskin’s new book “The Sound of Broadway Music,” a book about the orchestrators of Broadway’s Golden Age. Ever since I listened to my father’s cast-album collection as a child, I have loved the sound of the classic Broadway orchestra and been interested in the names of the men credited under “orchestrations by” — how did they conjure up such different sounds for every number? — so I was glad that someone finally wrote a book like this, not just because it gives more biographical detail about these men and explains how songs go from being a piano-vocal sketch to the great arrangements we hear in the theatre, but because it tells us who orchestrated which numbers. It’s always been difficult for Broadway buffs to really judge the styles of individual orchestrators, because few orchestrators were able to do all the songs themselves. This was taken to an extreme in the ’50s by one of Broadway’s greatest orchestrators, Don Walker; shows like The Music Man say “orchestrations by Don Walker” but were actually done by a team of orchestrators.But even in other shows, there are individual numbers that were farmed out: In South Pacific, Robert Russell Bennett called in Don Walker to do one short number (“You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”), while in the hit The Most Happy Fella, which had more music than any musical ever written up to that time — virtually an opera — was orchestrated by Don Walker almost entirely from beginning to end, but he called in his longtime assistant Robert Ginzler to do one song. With this book, we can finally definitively say who did what, and therefore understand what exactly makes one orchestrator different from another.

The book also has some great anecdotes, like the story about Stephen Sondheim demanding that the orchestrator, Irwrin Kostal, retain Sondheim’s over-elaborate accompaniment for one of his songs in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. The song didn’t work in performance, and Leonard Bernstein, who was in the audience, cornered Sondheim and said: “Who do you think you are? Me?” Upon which Sondheim let Kostal re-arrange the song with a more conventional accompaniment, and the song worked.

Here are some examples of classic Broadway orchestration and what it means: adding colour to the song, re-enforcing what the lyrics say without overshadowing them, and never drowning out the singers (who, remember, didn’t use mikes until the late ’60s). The qualifications for inclusion? They were online and I could find them quickly.

Robert Russell Bennett orchestrated virtually all of Jerome Kern’s music from 1922 onward, and all but two of the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, was head orchestrator on My Fair Lady. His orchestrations for South Pacific are a major selling point of the current revival. Here from the original cast of My Fair Lady is Julie Andrews singing one of the songs Bennett orchestrated, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”


Hans Spialek, a Viennese who escaped to America after being captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia during WWI, was one of Broadway’s two busiest orchestrators in the ’30s; he’s best known for doing all the Rodgers and Hart shows in the late ’30s. Here is his original orchestration for “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from Pal Joey, using weird percussion effects and glissandi to convey the fact that this famous number is halfway between sentimental ballad and cynical sex song.


Don Walker started in the ’30s and worked consistently on Broadway until 1981. He was the main orchestrator on Carousel, Cabaret, Fiddler On the Roof, and many more; of all the old-school orchestrators, he was the one who was most interested in innovative theatre and unusual sounds. Perhaps his best work was on She Loves Me, a 1963 musical by the creators of Fiddler On the Roof; it wasn’t as successful, but it is one of the great musicals of the ’60s, possibly of all time, and Walker’s orchestrations — just right for the romantic story of two shop clerks in Budapest — were a big part of the reason why it was so good. This is from a ’70s TV version of the show, not a great production, but it uses the Walker orchestrations for such numbers as (near the end of this clip) the mock-seductive comedy number “Ilona”.


Robert Ginzler, who had played in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, became a successful arranger for TV shows in New York, and moonlighted by providing additional orchestrations for Don Walker shows (including many hit songs like “Whatever Lola Wants” and “You Gotta Have Heart” in Damn Yankees). He started working on musicals on his own in the early ’60s and quickly became much in demand, but died of a heart attack in 1962. His best-known work as a solo was Bye Bye Birdie, to which he brought the sounds that were familiar from TV shows and radio — including a reed-heavy orchestra with 5 saxophones, 5 clarinets and 4 flutes — but hadn’t really been heard much on Broadway. One of my favourite examples of his work is “Talk To Me” from Birdie, a song that should be much better-known than it is.

Philip J. Lang was the other orchestrator on My Fair Lady, and orchestrated other hits like Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and Annie. He was frequently called on to do brassy, glitzy arrangements for songs like “Dance Ten, Looks Three (Tits and Ass)” in A Chorus Line. But on the other hand, his xylophone-heavy orchestration for the title song of Camelot is one of his most famous arrangements:


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