By Zachary Pincus-Roth
14 Mar 2008
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.
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This question comes from Jeremy M. Boegel of Union City, CA.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about the music department of a musical? What happens to a musical score once it is written by the composer? How many people get involved (i.e. orchestrator, musical director, arranger, etc.) and how important is each position? Can you compare today's practices with the way they were done in the "Golden Age" of Broadway (50s and 60s)? Can you also talk about what happens when a show is revived and how that show's score is dealt with?
Answer: To answer these questions, AskPlaybill.com spoke with Seymour "Red" Press, the veteran musical coordinator whose latest Broadway projects are Passing Strange and the current revival of Gypsy, and who received a 2007 Tony Award Honor for Excellence in the Theatre.
Here are the various music-related department jobs on a Broadway musical:
Writes the music.
Writes the lyrics. The lyricist may or may not be the same person as the composer.
The conductor, typically the same person as the music director, not only conducts the orchestra every night but also helps teach the music to the performers and the orchestra during rehearsals.
Occasionally a musical will have an arranger or music supervisor, who takes the melody from the composer and writes it down and fleshes it out by adding chords and other basic elements. Glen Kelly was the arranger for the Mel Brooks musicals and Spamalot, for instance.
A musical will usually hire a dance arranger to work with the choreographer to create the sections of the songs in which the performers are dancing instead of singing. The dance arranger will typically fill the dance sections with "variations on the themes of the basic music of the show," Press says, and they work with the choreographer to make sure the dance music "represent[s] the dancing that’s happening." (Press notes that John Kander created the dance arrangements on the original Gypsy, and they're still being used in the current revival).
Sometimes a show will have a separate vocal arranger to decide which exact words and notes each performer will sing. But most of the time, the conductor does these arrangements.
The orchestrator takes the arrangements that are set up by the composer, arranger or conductor and distributes them across the various instruments in the show. They create a huge document that details every note that every member of the orchestra will play at every moment. They even decide how one trumpet player's part will be different from another's.
Typically, the copyist is suggested by the orchestrator, as many orchestrators like to work with certain copyists. The copyist takes the master score written by the orchestrator, and creates the many different individual scores given out to each musician. "You're not just transcribing," Press says. "They have to make sure that the music accommodates the problems of the different musicians." For instance, they try to arrange the pages so that the musicians can turn the page when they're not playing.
The orchestrator and the copyist are sometimes called in to amend the music at various times throughout its run. For instance, when a new star comes in, the music will sometimes change keys to accommodate the star's voice. The orchestrator has to make sure that the key change doesn't screw up the orchestrations. For instance, if a saxophone is already playing its lowest possible note, and the orchestrations get moved down a key, the saxophone can no longer play that note, and the orchestrator has to figure out whether and how to make up for it. On a show like Chicago, where stars go in and out all the time, this can be a big job.
Seymour "Red" Press is a music coordinator, though he uses the old-school title "contractor." Before a musical's rehearsals begin, he sits down with the orchestrator and conductor (the composer is there, too, on occasion) to discuss "the needs of the orchestra, the size of the orchestra, the style of the players who have to be hired," he says. He eventually hires the orchestra members, negotiates their contracts (usually it's a standard union contract but some will make demands), sets up the orchestra's rehearsal schedule, books the rehearsal studio and determines if instruments have to be bought or rented.
These are the people who play the instruments in the pit every night. The Gypsy orchestra, for instance, has 25 members. The orchestra starts rehearsing together about a week to ten days before the first preview. About five days before the first preview is the "sitzprobe," where the orchestra rehearses with the actors for the first time, and the various people listed above figure out how to make everything meld together. "I describe it as 'sitz' is sitting and 'probe' is analyzing," says Press.
On almost all shows, Press says, the associate conductor is the keyboard player in the orchestra. He or she will often serve as a rehearsal pianist.
Usually, Press says, a musical will also hire a second rehearsal pianist, in addition to the associate conductor. One of them might play piano for the singing rehearsal while the other plays for a dancing rehearsal in another room. During a show's run, the rehearsal pianist could be a substitute for the regular keyboard player.
The librarian collects the music, transports it and hands it out to the various orchestra members. He or she is typically a member of the orchestra. On Gypsy it's a French horn player. On Chicago it's a trombonist.
Press says that the lineup of music roles on a revival isn't that different from the lineup on a new musical. Sometimes a revival doesn't have to hire a new orchestrator, which is the case on Gypsy — they're using the same orchestrations used for the previous Broadway revival, in 2003. As for those orchestrations, "They are changed from the original but very slightly," Press says.
But sometimes a revival does have to hire an orchestrator, and even a new dance arranger. At the Encores! concert revivals, "We desperately try to use original orchestrations," Press says, but sometimes they have to be reconstructed from fragments, or they simply can't be found, so an orchestrator comes in.
Press says that the main change over the last few decades is the advent of computers. Some orchestrators, such as Jonathan Tunick, still write out their orchestrations by hand, and a copyist has to put them into a computer. But most orchestrators have gone electronic. It makes things like key changes very easy. "You can just push a key, and it all goes down a tone," says Press. The only other big difference between now and 50 years ago is the smaller orchestra size — a subject that Press was more reluctant to discuss.