In Praise Of Broadway's Orchestrators Many of Broadway's greatest orchestrators remain little-known. Ever hear of Sid Ramin, Jonathan Tunick, Don Walker, Russell Bennett or Ralph Burns? Exactly. But those are the men who orchestrated West Side Story, Gypsy, A Chorus Line, Sweeney Todd, Hello Dolly and South Pacific.
NPR logo

In Praise Of Broadway's Orchestrators

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/104616751/104648112" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In Praise Of Broadway's Orchestrators

In Praise Of Broadway's Orchestrators

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/104616751/104648112" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now we're pretty sure that contestants can spell the word orchestrator, which is the subject of our next report. In the world of Broadway musicals, the songs are just lonely tunes without the orchestrator, but nobody leaves the theater humming the orchestrations, do they? The Library of Congress convened a symposium on some of Broadway's greatest orchestrators not long ago. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg was listening.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Orchestrators, one wag said, are unheralded but not unsung. To prove the point, ever hear of Sid Ramin, Jonathan Tunick, Don Walker, Russell Bennett, Ralph Burns? Who?

The men who orchestrated "West Side Story," "Gypsy," "A Chorus Line," "Sweeney Todd," "Hello Dolly," "South Pacific." The men who decided this song should start with trumpets, that one needs some violas. And the men who write the overtures, weaving together various tunes the show will present.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEVEN SUSKIN (Author): People think that the composer did it. But usually the composers are so busy with other things that they just don't.

STAMBERG: Steven Suskin, author of "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations."

Mr. SUSKIN: And it's the last thing that gets done is the overture.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: This one is from "Gypsy," music by Jule Styne. Orchestrators Sid Ramin and Red Ginzler wrote the overture for lots of brass and winds. Musicians came from the big swing bands. On Broadway in 1959, it was revolutionary.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: Before "Gypsy," this was the sound of Broadway orchestrations.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JONATHAN TUNICK (Orchestrator): Classic. Russell Bennett bridges the classic Broadway orchestra sound.

STAMBERG: Bennett was Rodgers and Hammerstein's favorite orchestrator. Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrates for Steven Sondheim, says Russell Bennett loved lush violins and pure, rich sound. Conductor Rob Fisher thinks Russell Bennett's "South Pacific" score is gorgeous.

Mr. ROB FISHER (Conductor): He uses horns right at the beginning that sound like flowers opening. And then when the "Bali Hai" theme starts, the strings go soaring way up over it in a way that only Bennett knows how to do.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: Arranger Red Ginzler once used instruments that were less than lovely. Jonathan Tunick, who studied with Ginzler, calls him the greatest theater orchestrator of all time. Tunick tells how Ginzler handled a men's room scene in the show "How to Succeed in Business." A chorus sings while shaving.

Mr. TUNICK: Red thought of the idea of putting the melody on a mass of kazoos, making a buzzing sound like the electric shaver.

(Soundbite of kazoos)

Mr. TUNICK: One of the hallmarks of his genius was his wonderful sense of humor and his ability to translate humor into music.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: A great singer makes the orchestrator's life easy. But get a bad singer — or non-singer, really — like a star of "My Fair Lady."

Mr. JEREMY LANG (Jerry Lang's Grandson): Rex Harrison was a fine actor, but he had a lot of trouble singing.

STAMBERG: Jeremy Lang's grandfather, Philip J. Lang, was the orchestrator behind this story.

Mr. LANG: My grandfather needed to do a lot of writing around his voice, as orchestrators so frequently do. He had to arrange it in the instruments such that Harrison could just speak in sort of melodic cadence but he wouldn't actually hit any notes.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. REX HARRISON (Actor): (Singing) Women are irrational. That's all there is to that. Their heads are full of cotton and rags. They're nothing but exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening, and infuriating hags.

Mr. LANG: After the music rehearsal, Rex Harrison went over and embraced my grandfather and hugged him and said, Thanks to you, I can sing.

STAMBERG: With barely a note being sung. That's orchestration. So is this.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: From "West Side Story," music by Leonard Bernstein, orchestrations by Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin. Ninety now, lively, darling, Mr. Ramin doesn't play any instrument. But he hears them all, in his mind's ear.

So he hands you the melody for "I Feel Pretty," and what do you hear?

Mr. SID RAMIN (Orchestrator): Well, "I Feel Pretty" is going to be feminine, and light, and happy. Strings. Violins. High woodwinds.

(Soundbite of song, "I Feel Pretty")

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (Singing) And so pretty, Miss America can just resign…

STAMBERG: Orchestrators don't start working until after the rehearsals, when the show is set. So masses of notes must be written very quickly. Different orchestrators might work on different songs — even parts of songs — for a single show.

For "A Chorus Line," Ralph Burns was called in to write just the extra final chorus. Arranger-conductor Ted Sperling explains.

Mr. TED SPERLING (Arranger-Conductor): His big touch was that after the word one, instead of going psssst, which is like a cymbal crash or simple brass hit, one bop, he did one baaaaaam, this big - like what we call a shake, with the full orchestra shaking that note. And…

(Soundbite of song, "One")

Mr. SPERLING: A big harp glissando up and down at the same time that amplifies that feeling of excitement. And that was the one touch that hadn't happened yet in that number and it put it over the top.

(Soundbite of song, "One")

STAMBERG: Show's over. And an orchestrator made sure you knew it. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can hear songs from "A Chorus Line," "How to Succeed," and "My Fair Lady," at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.