Restoring Irving Berlin's Face The Music

By Bruce Pomahac
01 Mar 2007

The original Playbill for Face the Music.
The original Playbill for Face the Music.

Bruce Pomahac turned sleuth to help recreate and restore the score of Irving Berlin's 1932 show, Face the Music, for the latest Encores! concert. He shares his investigation notes here.

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When Encores! first inquired about Face The Music, the search for its original musical materials began with the Irving Berlin Collection at the Music Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where the Berlin family had donated a great deal of material after Berlin's death.

It was my task as Director of Music for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization (we also represent the Irving Berlin copyrights) to look through the collection and see what was there. I soon discovered that the set of orchestra parts played in the original 1932 Broadway production was all that remained. This was good news — but only half good news. The best situation for a restoration is also to have the full orchestral scores and the conductor's score, neither of which was anywhere to be found and continue to be lost today.

Upon further examination, we discovered that the original production had been altered at least twice — once when it toured after the initial Broadway run and again when the tour returned to Broadway for a few months. The alterations were made to the parts themselves to reflect the adjustments that were required for the touring production and then for the Broadway return. These included cuts, transpositions, and other modifications. The Overture was especially confounding since it seemed that some of the lesser known songs it had originally contained had been replaced by standard dance band arrangements of songs that had become more popular on the radio and with dance bands as the run of the show progressed. The replacements were made in two ways: new pages were copied and inserted into the parts, or the new material was simply pasted over the old originals. Luckily three instruments — oboe, guitar and viola — were not used on the tour so these parts were untouched. (Unluckily, some pages from other parts — bass and drums — had been removed.) But the three untouched parts provided the best guide we had to what the Broadway production was originally intended to be, which, of course, is what Encores! strives for.



Because musicals are always changing in rehearsal and performance, we continued to search for any clues that could help guide us. For starters, there were no lyrics in the parts. (These tend to be in the conductor's score; again, that was missing.) So to begin the task of assigning the correct lyrics to the music, we had to look at the various versions of the script that exist (none clearly indicating it was the show as it was performed on opening night), Irving Berlin's piano and vocal manuscripts, as well as "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin," which was published in 2001. We also looked for any scribbles at the top and bottom of the pages, anything in fact that could help us solve the puzzle.

To create a full restoration, new full orchestral scores had to be configured from the set of parts at the Library of Congress. But before that could happen, we needed to remove any paste-overs on those parts to see what was underneath. Because the Library of Congress is a bastion of archival conservation, this proved to be a tricky request and one that was enormously costly and time consuming. Interestingly, one song in its entirety was found at the Shubert Archive in New York. (We can only assume a singer needed one of the songs for a Shubert show somewhere along the line, and the conductor never returned the material.) And that song's paste-overs simply fell off the page! What was revealed gave us more needed information about how the original songs were placed, arranged and routined — how many choruses were repeated, how many were used for dances, etc.

Each separate instrumental part, note by note and measure by measure, was entered into a computer file. Then the sleuthing began in earnest. Slowly, we began to identify what had been sung refrains (those would have occurred where the orchestrations were lighter in order to accompany solo voices) and what had been dance arrangements (fully orchestrated sections over which singing would probably not have been possible). Nowhere were there indications of vocal harmonies. Ultimately we came to believe there might not have been much choral arranging in the original production. The topical and comic style of the ensemble songs in this particular show places an emphasis on lyrics and on the audience's ability to hear and understand the lyrics. Lush choral harmonies or counterpoints can undermine an audience's access to the words being sung. Anyway, whatever the reason, there were no choral parts to be found.

Once the full score was as complete as we could make it, we began to correct the errors and edit the dynamics and articulations. Again, with no full or conductor scores to use as guides, we were at the mercy of the orchestra parts. As is often the case, these contradicted themselves. For example, the trumpet part for one song had a penciled in "f" (loudly) while the flute had a "p" (softly) penciled in at the same spot. Was the original musical director being that specific or did different players confuse what may have been last minute or confusing instructions? Sometimes staccato (short) notes were indicated in one part while another had the same notes marked to be played legato (smoothly). Much deliberation is required in these situations, and often there is no way to glean precisely what was.

Once we had created the computer-generated set of parts, it became time to gather musicians and play what had been discovered so far. Much is clarified by listening, and often what we hear helps to fill in the blanks and the make determinations about what we have yet to uncover. So last April we assembled The Encores! Orchestra in a studio with Rob Fisher on the podium. That day many a conundrum was resolved by simply listening to it. And the musicians themselves were helpful as well. Their questions and their attempts to solve our questions brought us closer and closer to what we all believed was a suitable representation of how the music had been performed over 70 years ago. Of course without original full scores, we were not able to identify which of the original three orchestrators (Robert Russell Bennett, Maurice De Packh and Frank Tours, the show's original conductor) created which orchestrations. Those of us who have been around Encores! since its earliest days had fun guessing. But we'll never know for sure until one day some attic trunk is opened somewhere and those missing full scores are found.

It is impossible to say that the finished product Encores! is presenting is a perfect representation of opening night in 1932. Based, however, upon the knowledge we have available to us and the expertise of those of us who have been at this for a while, we have come, for the time being, as close as we can. Perhaps the hardest part of all is resisting the temptation to want to fill in what is missing with our own personalities. Every restoration requires us to dig deeply into the artistic and human impulses of the original creators as we try to match the shadows of what isn't on the page with what has managed to survive. Sometimes it can take real discipline to sublimate one's own ego to the egos of long dead (and no longer meddlesome) creators. After all, the audience isn't interested in what any of us think Irving Berlin and his orchestrators and arrangers were up to. They want to know what Mr. Berlin and his team had in mind. Trying to uncover that truth is the core of the mystery of every restoration. And each score has its own unique secrets waiting to be unlocked.

Thinking back to our first trip to the Library of Congress, I am amazed by what has been accomplished with Face The Music. My thanks go to the support we received from the Berlin family and to the R&H team of musical and computer specialists: Wayne Blood and Ben Lively, who never fail to ask the right questions. I can't help but wonder what echoes of long silent musical shows are still out there waiting for the downbeat that will bring them back to life. I only hope I'll be there when they turn the key and another door begins to open.