A Life in the Theatre: Orchestrator, Composer and Music Director Jonathan Tunick

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Orchestrator, Composer and Music Director Jonathan Tunick Stage professionals look back at decades of devotion to their craft
Jonathan Tunick
Jonathan Tunick

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"The orchestra is one of the theatre's big secrets," says orchestrator, composer and music director Jonathan Tunick. "It can express the unspoken; it can express character and it can express subtext. It can say what the characters are unable to say for themselves, or even that of which they may be unaware. I look for these opportunities: for ambivalence, irony and conflict; feelings that, though unspoken, can be suggested subliminally by the orchestra."

Tunick's search has hit all the right notes on Broadway for more than 40 years, with a list of orchestrator credits that includes Promises, Promises; A Chorus Line; Nine; Titanic; and almost all of Stephen Sondheim's musicals, beginning with Company in 1970.

Tunick has also worked in movies and television — scoring films for, among others, Mike Nichols, Franco Zeffirelli and Sidney Lumet — and he is one of the rare few who have won all four major awards: a Tony (for Titanic), an Oscar (for the movie of A Little Night Music), a Grammy (for Cleo Laine's "No One Is Alone") and an Emmy (for "Night of 100 Stars").

A native New Yorker who was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Tunick attended the High School of Music and Art, Bard College and Juilliard. "I started as a clarinetist," he says. "When I was eight or nine, our teacher would play records like 'Tubby the Tuba' and 'Peter and the Wolf,' and this exposure to musical instruments and orchestras created a passion for them that has dominated my life." Taking up the clarinet led to playing in bands. "I had my own dance band in high school and college, and I started arranging for it. I found I had a knack for music theory and harmony and counterpoint, so I became a composition major in college, where I was drawn into the theatre community."

He studied opera and film scores to learn how the orchestra is used to support drama. "This led me naturally into musicals, and thus into the Broadway theatre." It was there that he discovered the secret of the Broadway orchestra. "I found that what lighting does for the visual aspects of the theatre, orchestration can do for the aural aspects."

Tunick is best known for his work with Sondheim, on shows like Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods. "Steve's work contains, to an extent greater than that of any other composer, the subtleties I've been talking about. I'm grateful to him for taking a chance on an unknown 35 years ago."

Tunick is married to the distinguished singer and actress Leigh Beery, a Tony Award nominee for her performance as Roxana opposite Christopher Plummer in Cyrano. They live on Manhattan's Upper West Side and in the Connecticut Berkshires.

While he is looking forward to working on two highly anticipated Broadway projects — the musical version of The Color Purple and a revival of A Chorus Line — one other thing Tunick would like to do is conduct a little more. "Writing is very lonely work, and I feel the need to balance it with the kind of work where I can exercise the social and visceral aspects of music-making. After all," he says, "the principal urge of my life has been making music with other people."

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