Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.
This week's question comes from Shawn Spencer in Massachusetts.
Question: Regarding the artistic staff of a Broadway musical, what exactly does a vocal arranger do (e.g., Herbert Greene wrote the vocal arrangements for the original Broadway production of The Music Man)? If a vocal arranger writes harmonies for the songs in the score, why doesn't the show's composer write them?
Answer: To answer this question, Playbill.com spoke with Carmel Dean, the 28-year-old vocal arranger on The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Sometimes the vocal arranger's job is "straightforward harmonizing," Dean says (an example in Spelling Bee is the "Goodbye" songs). When multiple actors are singing the same lyrics, Dean assigns each performer a note to sing so that they all sing in harmony. While creating these chords, Dean is guided by the chord progression of the song.
The notes each actor sings have to fit the character. For instance, Rona Lisa Peretti, the adult moderator of the bee, tends to sing the highest notes because "she's kind of over the top, takes herself and her job very seriously," Dean says.
At other times Dean would write a "write a harmony line or countermelody," she says, for one character to sing while another character is singing in the main melody. For instance, at one point in "The I Love You Song," Olive Ostrovsky sings a countermelody at the same time that her mother is singing the melody. Dean wrote Olive's part by reworking a solo that Olive has in another part of the song, the part that goes "Mama, mama, mama."
"A lot of it is like being a film editor," Dean says. "You take the film and think, 'We'll use that snippet here and we'll cut out here and we'll paste that on top of that.' It's about looking at the overall picture rather than just the individual solo sections." The vocal arranger also has the opportunity to affect the dramatic arc of the show. For instance, the climactic song "Second," in which William Barfee and Olive Ostrovsky are the last two spellers left, was originally just the two of them singing, but "it wasn't quite building up the tension that it needed to build," Dean says.
The creative team decided to bring in the other actors to sing and dance in the background. Dean decided to give the background singers a quasi-operatic arrangement — with Rona Lisa Peretti singing a high A — to help punch up the music. "I was able to make the vocals create more of a dramatic impact," she says.
In Spelling Bee, the teaching of the music to the actors was mainly done by Vadim Feichtner, in his capacity as musical director, but also by Dean, in her capacity as associate musical director (Dean has also played synthesizer in the orchestra throughout the show's run).
Dean says that some composers do their own vocal arrangements, but others, like William Finn on Spelling Bee, do not.
"I just don't think he has any desire to do it because he comes from such a storytelling, lyric-first place," Dean says. "He wants the characters to say whatever they have to say musically and lyrically. But once he's done that — that's the thing that he does best and that's what he wants to do — I don't think he has a desire to take to that next level by adding an eight-part chorus. He doesn't need to, and he knows I love to do it."
Dean was asked why she loves it. "I think it's being trusted with the composer's raw material and then having the opportunity to make it even more exciting and give the singers something that they're excited to sing," she says. "Sometimes great material is written as solo or duet or trio, and that's all it is and all it needs to be. In [the song] 'Pandemonium,' you can't just have kids standing up and singing solo lines. The title just calls for the craziest, most outlandish vocal arranging you can do. You're able to put your own creative stamp on something and give the piece lift and [make it] really work dramatically."