Russell Warner, Orchestrator Who Brought Old Musicals to New Life, Dies at 74

Obituaries   Russell Warner, Orchestrator Who Brought Old Musicals to New Life, Dies at 74
Russell Warner, an orchestrator, composer, music director and dance arranger whose specialty was creating new orchestrations in the style of original period work, died April 26 in Seattle after a battle with rheumatoid arthritis, friends and colleagues in the industry said.

Russell Warner
Russell Warner

If your musical theatre taste is for vintage shows from the so-called Golden Age — roughly 1920-1950, when Kern, Porter, Berlin, Gershwin and Rodgers reigned — and if you have followed the work of Goodspeed Musicals, City Center Encores! and the record labels EMI, Nonesuch and PS Classics in the past 25 years, you have heard the work of Mr. Warner, who wrote new dance arrangements or new orchestrations for long-lost charts.

When record producers, composers' estates, theatre producers and music preservationists saw the urgent need to honor the heritage of musical theatre with new concerts, revivals or studio recordings (think Lady, Be Good; Very Good Eddie; Tell Me More; Fine and Dandy; Strike Up the Band; Show Boat; Oh, Kay!; Sweet Adeline and more), Mr. Warner was the go-to guy to fill in the blanks.

Orchestrations for many shows of the first 40 years of the 20th century have disappeared over the years. For some shows, only a handful of charts exist. His job was to imagine what the original orchestrations might have sounded like, using clues from extant material or old recordings.

Those in the business of creating "restorations" of such shows praised Mr. Warner for his deep research and encyclopedic knowledge of period styles.

Mr. Warner died from lung fibrosis associated with rheumatoid arthritis at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle. He was 74. Elizabeth H. Auman, of the Music Division of the Library of Congress, worked on many projects with Mr. Warner over 31 years. She told in an email, "I think Russell's greatest gift as an orchestrator was that from his many years of working with and loving this material, he had developed an innate sense of what their 'sound' was — how Hans Spialek would have scored a particular number compared to how Robert Russell Bennett would have scored a number compared to how Frank Saddler would have scored a number. And he had a particular fondness for dance choruses — sometimes not being able to resist the occasional temptation to 'throw in' some little quirky rhythmic or instrumental accent of his own…and then we'd giggle."

The music of Jerome Kern surfaced often in the career of Mr. Warner, who contributed some orchestrations for conductor John McGlinn's 1988 complete recording of the groundbreaking Show Boat, considered to be one of the most important musical-theatre recordings ever made (on three discs, no less).

He wrote arrangements and orchestrations for Pacific Northwest Ballet's Silver Lining, using the music of Kern. It premiered in 1998 and became part of the Seattle company's permanent repertoire.

Friend and colleague Rob Fisher, the former music director of City Center Encores! and a champion of vintage shows, told that Mr. Warner wrote a three-movement piano concerto on the songs of Kern that "we decided we should call the Kerncerto." Fisher conducted it with the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall.

"[He had] a special passion and affinity for Kern," Fisher agreed, "but then there are all those Gershwin shows [captured in studio recordings]. The only orchestrated version of Let 'Em Eat Cake is his — entirely in the style of Robert Russell Bennett. He was meticulous, authentic, wildly witty, prolific, extremely well versed in the classics and loved writing for people to sing and dance."

Among his many credits, Mr. Warner arranged and/or orchestrated for concerts, ballet, regional theatre (Arena Stage's Animal Crackers and The Cocoanuts, Goodspeed's Sunny, El Capitan, Tip Toes, Good News, Sweet Adeline and more) and Broadway (Little Johnny Jones, The Five O'Clock Girl, Whoopee!, The American Dance Machine, Going Up, Very Good Eddie and Shenandoah).

His work was also heard for four years on Garrison Keillor's radio program "A Prairie Home Companion," for which Fisher conducted the Coffee Club Orchestra every week.

Michael P. Price, executive producer of Goodspeed Musicals, recalls Mr. Warner and Goodspeed's resident music director Lynn Crigler playing in the pit by night (reading penciled-in sheet music) and orchestrating and arranging by day.

PS Classics, the record label devoted to the heritage of American musical theatre and popular song, will release a studio cast recording of the 1930 version of the Gershwins' Strike Up the Band, which features Mr. Warner's orchestrations. The album will be dedicated to Mr. Warner. Read's story about Strike Up the Band.

Mr. Warner is survived by a brother, Irving Warner, and a cousin, Susan Warner. A memorial will be scheduled at a later date.

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