21 The Art of Orchestration

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Hi, this is Paul Lazarus. In the 1980s, I produced and hosted a radio series called Anything Goes, a celebration of the American musical theater. Now, the Broadway Podcast Network is bringing back these shows. Today, The Art of Orchestration featuring Jonathan Tunick, Michael Starobin, Hans Spialek, and the words of Robert Russell Bennett. This program was originally broadcast in 1986.

This is ANYTHING GOES, a celebration of the American musical theater – past, present, and future. I'm your host Paul Lazarus. Today, a look at The Art of Orchestration as practiced by four of Broadway's best: Hans Spialek, Jonathan Tunick, Michael Starobin, and Robert Russell Bennett.


Robert Russell Bennett’s words:
Herb Foster Reading: I sit at the same cluttered-up desk hour after hour, almost unconscious of the thousands of movements of the pen in my hand. I am not tired. I am excited. I vaguely hate the symptoms of sunrise that show at the east window but it has no chance to get much attention from me. I'm not even conscious of the reasons for being here: the recording session five hours from now, the music copyist who’ll be here any minute for another ten pages of score, the money I'll get from the job, the ears waiting to hear the sounds I'm conceiving. None of these are what has kept me awake since 6 AM yesterday, but the sound of those violas, cellos, and horns is doing something I never heard before and I'm excited. Their sound must be captured and put into a language that the players can understand and translate into live music. If I don't get these marks on paper no one else will ever hear what I'm hearing.

The words of veteran orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett, read by Herb Foster. The orchestrator’s contribution to musical theater has traditionally been undervalued. Hans Spialek’s work wasn't even acknowledged in theater programs until 1926 when he orchestrated the review AMERICANA.

Spialek: And it was the first time I had my name on the program.

Paul: As orchestrator?

Spialek: Yeah, as orchestrator. Nobody had their name on the program. And you know where? Under the credits at the end. “Hi Miller shoes. Orchestrations by Hans Spialek.”

Jonathan Tunick prefers the term “arranger” to “orchestrator,” as being more comprehensive.

Tunick: An arranger is a musician who uses the same skills as a composer to either finish a piece of music that is incomplete in some way or to adapt a piece of music that is finished to some other medium. That adaptation can take any form. It can be transferring it from one performance medium to another. You can arrange a piece that was written for string orchestra for organ. Now when we move that definition over to the specialty of orchestration, which means specifically applying these skills to adaptation for orchestra, well I guess I’ve defined it.

Michael Starobin’s work is an expansion of the composer’s intentions.

Starobin: A composer or songwriter writes his song sitting at a piano playing the piano. It’s written for the piano, which is a rhythm instrument, which doesn't sustain, has pretty much a similar color over the whole keyboard, though that color can be changed. You then take that song and as a designer respond to it, to the emotional nuances of the song or lack thereof, or, if you're asked to, you go against the emotional nuances that are in the song and respond to it by placing what the composer’s written into the instruments, additional material if what he's written is so pianistic it can't fit other instruments, or just added material that responds to what he's doing and supports it


The opening of William Finn’s MARCH OF THE FALSETTOS, orchestrated by Michael Starobin.

Starobin: A really important thing for orchestration is to play different instruments and I'm a pianist basically, not a particularly good one but in the past when I was young I played flute, tuba, bass, a teeny bit of viola, percussion, timpani – playing all those things even the little bit helps you understand how they work, how to get the colors out of them.


Robert Russell Bennett is best remembered for his orchestrations of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. In his book “Instrumentally Speaking,” he described himself as the missing part of the composer.

Robert Russell Bennett’s words:
Herb Foster reading: You are engaged to work with a composer and put his melodies into shape for a performance in the theater. Your task is to be a part of him. The part that is missing. He may be capable of doing the whole scored himself or he may not know a G clef from a gargoyle. Your job is to bring in whatever he doesn't and make it feel like it belongs there.

Michael Starobin puts it another way.

Starobin: As I'm working on a piece, I don't feel like I'm doing something separate from what the composer has done. I feel like I'm continuing a job they've done and in a well-orchestrated work that's well-composed too, you really don't hear the seams. I mean, they are the same thing.

Jonathan Tunick.

Tunick: I like to sit down with the composer and lyricist and just have them play through everything and talk about it, whatever questions come up, which are usually dramatic questions. If the music is literately written and notated adequately then there are very few questions to ask about that. I mean I might ask - I mean, if there's some discrepancy in the notation I'll check on that, but usually what you want to know is what are the dramatic elements here and what are our intentions dramatically, which may not always be apparent.


Billy Goldenberg’s music. Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration. From BALLROOM.

Orchestrator Michael Starobin claims that his responsibility is to deal with words as well as music.

Starobin: The one thing that's hard to learn to do is to support a lyric without getting in the way of it, and as an orchestrator you don't deal with words directly but very indirectly you deal with them constantly and that's - that's something where, yes, all composers will say to you “that's too busy,” and I tend to get a little too busy sometimes.


Jonathan Tunick feels an important part of his job is to support the singer.

Tunick: You hear a voice and you get to know that voice and what kind of background suits that voice and will show it off best. It's possible to really enhance a voice - to make dull notes brighter, to make notes that are too bright smoother, with an appropriate background. Having an orchestration written for you is like being fitted for a suit or a dress was made for you as opposed to buying it off the rack.

Hans Spialek, famous for his work with Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter, agrees.

Spialek: I always ask: “Please, tell me are you really comfy?

Paul: So, you really think the orchestration should make the singer comfortable?

Spialek: Oh, it makes the singer, gives them certain inspirations. Sometimes they wait for certain figures and then they go out of town with a song, the flute player or the thing doesn’t play, they ask “what happened to the figure?”

From Rodgers & Hart’s ON YOUR TOES, orchestrated by Hans Spialek.


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Jonathan Tunick acknowledges that the old theater orchestra is changing fast.

Tunick: The hip sound now is electric, and conventional instruments are quaint. We have a whole generation that's never heard an orchestra, that’s perhaps heard a recording of an orchestra, but’s never heard an orchestra, or perhaps has even heard an orchestra mic’d and coming through a speaker in a theater. Those are the parents of the people who have never even heard that - they've only heard synthesizers.

Michael Starobin welcomes the orchestrator’s new electronic tools.

Starobin: The synthesizer is to me one of the most powerful tools because it can change its personality so quickly. Its personality, one has to grant, is an electronic one. It's not nearly as warm as a live musician playing an instrument, it can never replace that, and its value in those areas is not high but its value as a source of color to support live musicians, to create color, to create really magical sounds is invaluable, and for theater in particular, it's a wonderful instrument because that quick change of color and personality is what orchestration in the theater needs.

Each of the orchestrators I spoke to described memorable shows he'd worked on. Hans Spialek recalled working with Cole Porter in 1930 on THE NEW YORKERS which featured such great songs as “Love For Sale” and “Let's Fly Away.”

Spialek: He also had a song, it was called “I Happen to Like New York.”

Paul: Yes, I love that song.

Spialek: Now this I did strictly – and it was written that way – in a Ravel style. He was crazy about the orchestration, and you know what he did? He hired the orchestra after rehearsals for a half an hour, and he sat on the stage with a glass of – you know he drank – and had the orchestra play “I Happen to Like New York.” He, himself sitting on the bare stage…

Paul: Cole Porter, sitting on the stage, listening to his own song, with champagne. That’s tremendous.


Jonathan Tunick met the challenge of orchestrating Stephen Sondheim's PACIFIC OVERTURES with its Japanese-influenced score by preparing in an unusual way.

Tunick: Maybe I shouldn’t admit this. My research consisted of the following: I have a friend who's a percussionist, who has a large collection of exotic instruments from all over the world, from Japan and every other country in the world, and he gave me a guided tour of his collection. I took notes and ordered some of these instruments to be used. Relatively few of them were Japanese. I bought a book on kabuki theater and read it, and I got some records of kabuki music and I read the liner notes. That was my research.

Michael Starobin has also worked with Sondheim, on SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, a show that required both contemporary and period sounds from the orchestra.

Starobin: The orchestration was determined for SUNDAY IN THE PARK without any of the 20th century music having been written, and when that came along I just sort of had to find a way to get that out of him. Basically, what I did is I asked the reed players at that point to switch to saxophones, I gave the drummer a hi-hat to play, to imitate a drum set, and the synthesizer I then switched from more subtle sounds to more electronic sounds.

Orchestration’s a desk job. It's theater work but it's a desk job. There's something wonderful about sitting in your own space with your materials around you at your desk with your piano there and discovering something and creating something at that desk. To me, sometimes the most profound wonderful moment is not the realization of the players playing it, but that, finding that texture and like “oh yes, I can do that here. Yes, I can do that there” at the desk and hearing it - hearing your orchestra at your desk. That, to me, can be the most exciting moment of theater.

“I NEVER WANTED TO LOVE YOU” by Falsettos Original Cast

Hans Spialek recalled the first orchestra run-through for “On Your Toes” in Boston. As he remarked, orchestrators rarely get noticed by anyone.

Spialek: The only real appreciation as an arranger, and that concerns newspapers, people, composers and all that, I got in “On Your Toes,” and neither from the composer, nor from the papers, nothing. But I’ll show you what happened at the reading rehearsal. At the orchestra reading in Boston, no actor was supposed to be on the stage, nothing. Unknown to us – I didn’t notice much and I didn’t know him at that time either – Ray Bolger.

Paul: Ray Bolger.

Spialek: - Was sitting on the stage. And then they play “Small Hotel.” Then I found out. I said “hey, Ray.” He was crying. Tears were running down. I said, “what’s the matter, you don’t like it?” Because he sang it – not like in the show, he’s sings it first. In the original, he sang it first. I says, “what’s the matter, you don’t like it?” He says “Oh Dick! It’s so beautiful!” That was the only real appreciation as an arranger, all those billions of notes I wrote through the years, naturally, I got wonderful press notices, I got bad ones… You have to take it, whatever you get.

“THERE’S A SMALL HOTEL” sung by Portia Nelson and Jack Cassidy

Anything Goes Theme

You’ve been listening to The Art of Orchestration.

Sound mixing by David Rapkin. Associate producer Jeff Lunden. Anything Goes – Backstage with Broadway’s Best – is produced and hosted by Paul Lazarus. For more information, visit AnythingGoesPL.com. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to rate and follow us. Thanks for listening.

A look at The Art of Orchestration, featuring four of Broadway’s greatest: Robert Russell Bennett (Show Boat, Oklahoma), Hans Spialek (Anything Goes, On Your Toes), Jonathan Tunick (Company, Pacific Overtures), and Michael Starobin (Falsettos, Sunday in the Park with George). The four artists describe their different techniques and discuss their collaborations with writers and performers to bring out the best in a score for a show. Featured songs: “Overture to CAROUSEL,” “Four Jews In A Room Bitching,” “March of the Falsettos,” “Overture to THE KING AND I,” “A Terrific Band and A Real Nice Crowd,” “The Twenty-Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “There’s A Small Hotel,” “Overture to NINE,” “I Happen To Like New York,” and “I Never Wanted To Love You.”

Originally produced and broadcast in 1986. For more information go to AnythingGoesPL.com or BPN.FM/AnythingGoes. Theme music arranged by Bruce Coughlin. Sound mixing by David Rapkin. Associate producer Jeff Lunden. Anything Goes – Backstage with Broadway’s Best – is produced and hosted by Paul Lazarus.

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