Singing the Praises of Arranger Hugh Martin, Who Gave Blondes a Special Musical Curl

By Rob Berman
11 May 2012

Megan Hilty and Simon Jones in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Not only did Rodgers respond to the letter, but he invited Martin to a meeting where the veteran offered the beginner an opportunity to arrange one song in the newest Rodgers and Hart musical, The Boys from Syracuse (1938). Martin seized the moment, and his arrangement of the female trio "Sing For Your Supper" became an instant classic. Anyone who saw the 1997 Encores! production will remember that this arrangement is full of colorful surprises, rhythmic embellishments and beguiling harmonies, and the result is musical heaven. "Sing For Your Supper" created a sensation and led to more opportunities for Martin, including creating vocal arrangements for Rodgers and Hart's next show, Too Many Girls. He began to have imitators as well, and at this time the term "vocal arranger" became a new title found in the Playbills of Broadway shows.

Martin's technique in choral writing was to use the close, tight jazz voicings employed by popular vocal groups of the day such as the Modernaires. The arrangements in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are typical of his method of writing in eight-part harmony, in which the men sing the same four harmony parts as the women, but down one octave. The result is a thick, textured sound that resembles a saxophone or brass section in a jazz band.

On top of that basic harmonic approach, Martin employed rhythmic variations, syncopations, tempo shifts and even the use of nonsense syllables to further decorate the tunes. Unison lines unexpectedly explode into blasts of harmony. The keys he chose put the voices in exciting ranges. Broadway hadn't heard anything like this before he came along. In an era long before microphones, this new style required singers of superior musicianship, accurate in pitch and rhythm, and possessing great vocal control.

In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, listen to the lively syncopations and exuberant rhythms in "High Time" followed by the lush blend of the singers in "Bye, Bye, Baby". Martin has great fun with the French language in the Paris scene and the song "Sunshine", and he uses some unexpected group scat singing in "Keepin' Cool with Coolidge."

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes provides a look at late-1940s nostalgia of life in the 1920s, but Hugh Martin's fresh and innovative vocals pull the sound of the show into the 1950s. Martin always wanted to be modern, and in striving to put the sounds of popular music on the Broadway stage he recognized that a Broadway chorus could enhance the tune by being jazzy and theatrical. In doing so, he played an important part in the evolution of the Broadway musical, and it's "high time" we celebrate him for doing so.

(Rob Berman is music director of Encores! This piece appears in the Playbill of the May 9-13 Encores! concert of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.)