Working in the Theatre: Orchestrations


The first time I went to the theatre I was nine years old. Nine, ten-years old and I continued going weekly. Of course, New York was a much safer place at that time. By the time I was eleven, I was commuting
from Bayside, Queens to Manhattan on the subway by myself and going to matinees of all the
musicals on Broadway. So I got to see things like Golden Boy, with
Sammy Davis Jr. I got so excited about going to the theater,
that I started insisting that I be taken to all the musicals. The first show that my parents took me to
was a musical called Fiorello, which was about the major of New York in the forties. It really made a big impression on me and
in fact the orchestrator on that show was Irwin Kostel, who later became my mentor. I loved hearing the music and there was nothing
better than going to a theatre and there is an orchestra down front with 26 or so musicians
ready to play. And it was an exciting thing when that overture hit. And you heard that sound coming out of the pit. I started out as a drama student for the high
school of the performing arts, but my mother insisted that I learn to play the piano so
I took piano lessons at an early age because she played the piano. Show music was a very popular part of the
culture in New York City, and all the Broadway tunes were on the radio all the time. Along with the Beatles, and the other groups
coming up at that time. I really wanted to be a musician more than
an actor. I was very lucky and conducting on Broadway
at a very young age but I found that I was really drawn to the orchestral part of the music. Not just as a conductor, but hearing it in my head. I really enjoyed hering the work of other
great orchestrators: Robert Russell Bennett, Phil Lange, Irwin Kostel who ultimately ended
up being my mentor, Jonathan Tunick was much later, Robert Ginsler, Don Walker. These guys were so amazing to me and I was
conducting their music all the time. Finally, I was doing a show in 1981 called
Copperfield and Irwin Kostel was the orchestrator. Irwin Kostel with Sid Raymond did the orchestrations
for West Side Story. He won an Academy Award for The Sound of Music,
Mary Poppins. It was a great honor to be working with him
and he admired my conducting and said to me one day “You know, I like the way you’re
writing vocal arrangements, why don’t you come to California and I’ll teach you to
conduct your own music instead of this. Ultimately, I did do exactly that. I moved to California, Irwin took me under
his wing and taught me how to write. What was so good about it, was that he was
so famous that the very nature of having me as a protégé made everybody think I was
good before I was. So, they gave me a lot of opportunities. I was really lucky that way and he really
groomed me to fill that spot. [TO DOGS]
Okay, okay, come on. An orchestrator uses his musical knowledge and experience to distribute the notes to
his orchestra to his taste and to what the music requires. If it’s light music you might be using light
woodwinds and strings. If it’s heavy music you might be using brass
instruments, depending on the composition. I’ll use my Singing in the Rain example. Composer is the guy who writes, “I’m singing
in the rain. I’m singing in the rain.” The arranger is the guy who writes “Da da
dum, da dada dum. Dum dum, I’m singing-” and the orchestrator
is that guy who goes “I’m gonna take that and put it in the flutes and I’m gonna make
sure the bass is going ‘Bum Bum Bum.’ And drummers playing the afterbeats. And there’s some kind of framework for the
singer to hang the melody on.” An orchestrators job primary is to decide
what the sound of the show is, to actually execute that, and to storytell through music. It’s taking the composers vision and finding
a way so that it can be played night after night, by a band inside the theater. At the very beginning, the orchestrator will
decide what the instrumentation of the band will be for the show. So, if you take Dear Evan Hansen, for example,
we knew we wanted the band to be pretty small so as an orchestrator I decided “Okay, let’s
try to find a makeup of a band that has a rhythm section and some strings.” My philosophical view about the whole thing
is that you always want to support the story. You always want the lyric and what it is that
the actor is trying to express: that is always what you should be paying attention to that
is always as an audience member what you should be focused on. So, it’s your job as an orchestrator to
support that and not get in the way of that. You think of a show like Hamilton, where that
has a lot of lyrics in it and there’s a lot of story being through the vocals, my
job as an orchestrator was to get out of that way of that, to leave this big space so that
you could hear what was being communicated through the lyrics. For Dear Evan Hansen, it was about getting
the songs to feel as pop as they could because that was the style of the music that was being
presented to me, the style of the music that the writers were writing. So, I had to have the song sound like something
that you could hear on an independent pop record, and have that be what the sound of
the show is. Much like in the way that composers write
a song suited to a certain actor they work with or know well, I know that I certainly
orchestrate around a certain singer if I know that they are the one singing it. By and large, once you orchestrate a piece
for a musical, it kind of stays that way throughout the run of the show unless something major happens. I have definitely seen the style of orchestration
change throughout the years, and the sizes of the bands change throughout the years. You know, back in the day, before there were
big huge speakers and sound designs in Broadway houses, the only way to get a big large sound
without amplifiers was to have a big large band. It was a holdover from the opera days and
the symphonic days, and it was what was known. Or if there was a big band jazzy feel to it
then you needed certain types of instruments to get that kind of sound. [TO BAND]
Yeah guys, that great guys, sounds awesome. I want to take a couple things … Once you
get to 66 it’s like Baaaaaaaah ba da da, ba da ba da… picture that as one long four
bar phrase as opposed to two short two bar phrases. Can I hear just the strings together from
like…from 58. Nowadays, the shows I work on, the shows that are much more
prominent these days, are more pop shows. A show like Hamilton, for example, it’s
basically a hip hop musical. It’s a pop rhythm section with a string quartet. So, you look at that makeup and you have two
keyboard, guitar, bassdrums, percussion and you have a string quartet. [TO BAND]
Yeah, exactly. It just make it a lot more phrase out of it. Yeah. That’s awesome. Lovely. Beautiful. Thank you so much you’re the best. Dear Evan Hansen is the same concept. You have a rhythm section and a string trio. That to me is a byproduct of what the score
sounds like. And because the style of the music for both
of those shows is not a big huge symphonic sound, not a big band jazzy sound, I will
use different instruments and therefore a smaller band. I’ve always been able to hear the orchestra in my head. That’s a gift. It’s part of the job, being a musician. Since I started out as a conductor, I know
the orchestra from the inside out and the outside in. I can hear it before I put it on the paper. This is where I do all my writing, I like
to write everything by hand but that’s no longer possible because of the speed by which
you need to churn it out. But from this vantage point, I am able to
get my emails, and I’m able to write music, and send texts when I get bored of writing
music, and get the dogs something to eat, usually my hand. It’s basically just a big workstation. Some composers are more complete than others. They all basically write a melody, a harmony,
and sometimes some counterpoint and really good composers give you everything. You just have to transfer from one paper to the other. But then there are some composers who are
songwriters and they also write great songs but they need a lot more assistance in realizing
it for performance. This is one of the songs from the show for the recording. So it gives me an approximation
even though it’s not an authentic sound, which is better than the old days. When you are writing by hand without this
equipment, you just had to imagine it in your head. The advantage of actually having this stuff
is that you can actually hear if you wrote a wrong note. So, it’s instant replay. A lot of times, piano is the root of the composition. A lot of times the composer will sit at the
piano and come up with the song and as an orchestrator you don’t want everything to
have piano all the time. You want variety. You want different colors. So, to me, the funnest part is actually taking
something off the piano and orchestrating in such a way that the piano is not even present,
that it’s actually the strings that are playing the exact voicings, the exact notes
that the piano had written down or the composer had written down so it doesn’t sound just
like a rehearsal. So, that it actually sounds like a piece of
orchestrated, thought out music. This is something I kind of came up with a
few minutes ago. Um, so, a melody like this for example. So, in my mind, the melody is the right hand. And that’s the composition of it. So I wrote that. So, to me, the chords underneath it- so those
are three simple chords. The first thing is how does that get voiced
meaning what are the notes? Because I can E flat 7 minor down here, I
could play it up here, I could play it up here, and there’s also different variations,
like that’s the same chord or arrangement wise if you want it to be more raucous, you
could… like a march or something you could. Or more like a rock thing. It’s all just different permutations, all
of the same thing but all based on the same melody. So, now I’ll figure out how to orchestrate it. I tend to demo everything on Logic just because
I like to be able to hear it back and I get to try ideas based on what it is that I hear. To be a good orchestrator you kind of have
to have some OCD tendencies, which I definitely have. So, it’s just about setting up your workflow,
setting up your workstation, getting detailed and getting into the fine print of stuff. So really, everything that I just added are
decisions that I’ve made on the spot but really they were ways that I use to communicate
the ideas that I want to the player. So that if I wasn/t in the room, a guitar
player could surmise “Okay, that’s gonna be like a rock thing. I need to have a distortion petal. I need to play it loud. And I need to accent these notes.” Using ideas that you already have and recycling
them, that’s a big part of arrangement as well. Having an idea and trying to stretch it out,
trying to permeate, try to develop it, try to evolve it. There was a time, for instance, with the classical
composers; they wanted their own orchestrating. Basically, the orchestration that someone
like myself does is for film, television, and theater. The reason you would need an orchestrator is that
there is such a limited amount of time in theater, and in film, because the rehearsal
period and the time restrictions, 3 or 4 weeks from the beginning of production, it finally
gets on stage or it’s dedicated to picture. So, you need a specialist who just works on
the orchestration. The composer is too busy creating the music
along with the lyricist. The style of the music dictates the way that
it is orchestrated, what instruments are doing, the mood dictates it, the composition dictates
it, what the director wants to impart mood-wise at that time, so many factors, and people
like myself specialize in that. In a studio you can control exactly what you’re hearing. So, sometimes I’ll write a little bit more
delicately because the microphone can pick it up. I’ve been very fortunate because I orchestrated
the show White Christmas, which was written by Irving Berlin that I got the favor of the
Berlin daughters. They liked what I had done and treated their
father’s music very well. That helped me get connected, later on, with
Holiday Inn. Irving Berlin was probably one of the most
popular composers of all time. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin
and they all wrote so many songs in the early part of the 1900s. Puttin’ on the Ritz, that’s Irving Berlin. [SINGING CHEEK TO CHEEK] I think having a cast album for shows is very important for posterity because number one
it demonstrates how the show was originally conceived by its creators: the director, the
choreographer, the music department. So, it’s great for posterity to check when
they do the show in continuing productions in summerstock and across the world. I also work a lot with Michael Feinstein who
is the great promoter of the Great American Songbook. So, I’ve been working with him for several
years on a lot of Irving Berlin songs. It’s very easy for me to manipulate it and
use it orchestrally for the purposes of the stage show. Of course I want to treat the songs with great
respect and not distort the harmony. I want to make the original harmonies as attractive
as possible without coming in and doing Bill Evan’s jazz version of a tune because that’s
not what they expect to hear in theater. They expect to hear a tune, a singer with
the lyric, and not be surprised by distortion. [SINGING SONG OF FREEDOM] What gives me the most joy from orchestrating is to take this familiar material and make
it appear that it is fresh. Make it sound like its fresh without changing
it in a way so that it sounds like a new song. And really the way I say it’s like you take
a song and you put a dress on it. There’s a pretty dress, there’s a prettier
dress, and there’s a not so pretty dress. So, I try to make it as attractive as possible
and listenable so when the audience hears it they say, “Oh, it’s really nice to
hear that song again” and they don’t quite know why except that they’re enjoying it. [SINGING CHEEK TO CHEEK] Dear Evan Hansen was a way to tell a modern,
contemporary story, through the lens of a modern, contemporary vocabulary in terms of
how the internet works, in terms of how music sounds today, what is the way to express in
the digital age that we are living. [YOU WILL BE FOUND] For me, those kinds of shows have an impact
because they’re modern, and they’re current, and they’re contemporary. You take Hamilton, where obviously the subject
matter is of a different era but the vocabulary, the color that it uses to paint that picture
is very modern and very contemporary. That has something that kind of just feels
fresh and what I love about that is that it allows the younger generation a way into musicals
that they might not have gotten into before. [WAVING THROUGH A WINDOW] The oral experience in the times that we’re
living in—we’re now so used to living our lives with iPod headphones in. We’re so used to hearing everything so crystal
clear, so digital and so precise. I feel like that is also informing the way
that music is heard in the theater. Whether people realize it or not, I’m walking
into a theater and expecting to have that kind of sound that sounds perfect and precise
and clean. Not necessarily digital, that’s just the
evolution of music, the evolution of theater, the evolution of sound design, the evolution
of technology. All that is informing, very much, the way
that we as theater storytellers create our craft. Theater orchestras have gotten smaller and
smaller, and downright not being orchestras at all and without strings, it’s a band. When it gets down to nine players it’s just
a little combo that you would have at a wedding or at a bar mitzvah. So, to me an orchestra means that you have
a string section, a woodwind section, a brass section, a rhythm section. Now, for some reason I’m coming up with
the number 12 as the huge orchestra on Broadway. When I was coming up in theater as a conductor,
the orchestra was never less than 26, 24, and we considered that small. I love orchestrating for theater; I’m disappointed
that the orchestras are so small it makes the work much harder and it’s much harder
to create the same depth of sound but our ears are getting accustomed to it. The sound designer is the orchestrators friend
because the sound designer can make sure that that band is heard in the right way. The sound designer has to decide that we’re
going to place all the mics above the all the instruments and get a big global picture
so that it’s acoustically as is everybody was playing in the same room, or the sound
designer decides that I want this to be a very focused sound where we’re going to
mic every single instrument and double mics on certain instruments and get that clean,
precise perfect sound. If you have a good sound designer, he will
make your orchestrations sound good and vise-versa. Real good orchestration makes you hear things
in a way that you might not have thought of before. I am moved when I hear certain things said
in a certain way musically speaking in the same way that you enjoy really good poetry
or really good writing. When someone is able to express a thing that
you haven’t thought of putting together those words in that order before. For me, when I hear music in a way that I
have not thought of how to place the drums just so or how to write the string just so:
something about that really moves me. I think to myself “Oh God, that was so well-done. I wish I had thought of that, I wish I had
was as clever as that.” So, when it is that I see that someone just
do something that kind of tickles the ear in a way. Something that wakes you up and makes you
say “Wow, that was really cool.”

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