By Ted Chapin
04 May 2013
Here's the tale: Shortly after I got to the Rodgers & Hammerstein office in the early 1980s, John Mauceri called. I had known John from when we were fellow assistants, he to the conductor and me to the director, of the Bernstein Mass at the Kennedy Center in the spring of 1972. John had gone on to conduct a variety of music in various places around the world. But musical theatre was a large part of his life, and he was now working with the Kennedy Center to look at producing musicals from the past, shows that weren't being done all the time. He wanted to do them as they had originally been done. Since the Kennedy Center had a profile of being a national cultural center, it seemed logical as a place to put a toe in the water of being, for lack of a better term, the "Metropolitan Opera" for American musical theatre.
The show chosen was On Your Toes. George Abbott, the original director and co-author, was alive, 95 years young, and willing to direct the show again. George Balanchine, who hadn't done a musical in 40 years, was willing to restage the dances. And Mauceri was determined to perform the show in its original 1936 orchestrations by Hans Spialek. The tendency on Broadway, as in the 1954 revival of On Your Toes, was to throw out the old and create a new, "contemporary" sound. But Mauceri felt there was something important to be done by looking back to the original source material and letting an audience hear what the show sounded like in 1936.
The first stop was the Richard Rodgers archive here at the Rodgers & Hammerstein office, where a remarkable amount of source material—scores and parts— existed, but in a number of boxes and not organized. Some of us wondered who this guy Spialek was, since we weren't familiar with his name. We began tracking him down. ASCAP? No listing. Chappell Music? No listing. Then a thought: look in the New York City telephone book. There he was, at 87, living on West 86th Street. Thus began an extraordinary adventure with a man who had stopped orchestrating for Broadway by name in the 1940s, although he'd done some ghosting for other orchestrators since then. As the production came together, Hans was welcomed to the table. In one instance one brass part was missing, so he wrote an entirely new one. Then the original was found, and it was, note for note, exactly what he had created years before.
The show was scheduled to play the Martin Beck (now Al Hirschfeld) Theatre in New York, which had a pit big enough to fit the 25 players in the orchestra. But at the last minute, another show was booked into the Beck, and On Your Toes was shifted to the Virginia (now August Wilson) Theatre. The problem? The pit at that theatre would hold maybe ten players. So a meeting was called in the auditorium of the Virginia. As Mauceri came up with one creative possibility after another—maybe put the two pianos in the boxes, etc.—the two lead producers, Roger L. Stevens and Alfred de Liagra, wandered around looking in the pit and at the auditorium. They ultimately made the decision to bring in jackhammers and create a bona fide pit (still in use today, I might add!) in which the On Your Toes orchestra could fit.
So when Mauceri gave the down-beat on opening night, March 6, 1983, Broadway heard the first notes of a complete 1936 orchestration of a Rodgers & Hart show. It proved to be a revelation, as people discovered there was gold to be mined from the glories of the past. It felt like the time was right to look at, and listen to, how Broadway musicals were orchestrated in an earlier golden age.
And 11 years later, enter Encores!. The care and discovery of the 1983 Broadway production proved to be just the starting place.
Ted Chapin is President and Executive Director of Rodgers & Hammerstein: An Imagem Company. He was chairman of the Advisory Committee for New York City Center's Encores! series from its inception, and he currently serves on the City Center Board of Directors.