STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: In Praise of Orchestrators

Special Features   STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: In Praise of Orchestrators
I loved that two-piano production of The Most Happy Fella as much as anyone, but is there anything so grand as as hearing a score played by a full orchestra?

I loved that two-piano production of The Most Happy Fella as much as anyone, but is there anything so grand as as hearing a score played by a full orchestra?

Of course, as good as our tunesmiths are, they usually compose on a piano and not for an orchestra. (Bob Merrill, of Carnival and Take Me Along fame -- and Breakfast at Tiffany's infamy -- used a xylophone). Cy Coleman's done orchestrations, and so has Lord Lloyd Webber, but few songwriters can genuinely imagine what their scores will sound like when orchestrators gets their talented hands on them.

What they do is often thrilling, tender, and apt. Don't you love that in Meredith Willson's title song for Here's Love, Don Walker had bells peal at the mention of Norman Vincent Peale? Or when the lyric wishes love from "all the help to all the brass," that's where the brass comes in?

How about in Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down, where Michael Starobin in "Promise of Greatness" punctuated "So I tried to be pop" with guitar chords, and "And classical, boys" with a harpsichord riff? Or, in I Do! I Do!, after Robert Preston complains in "Nobody's Perfect" that he's received a statement from the bank, Philip J. Lang put in a trumpet flourish to indicate that institution's importance?

How nice that the Tonys acknowledge our great orchestrators with an award each year. How awful that it took the administration a full half century before it saw fit to honor them. What a disgrace that Jonathan Tunick won an Oscar for scoring A Little Night Music but couldn't get a Tony when he originally did the show. So which orchestrators would have won the Tonys had the American Theatre Wing been on the ball from the very beginning?

1946-47: Don Walker's Finian's Rainbow.

1947-48: Robert Russell Bennett's Allegro just beats out Philip J. Lang's High Button Shoes.

1948-49: We can only guess Robert Russell Bennett's Kiss Me, Kate over Philip J. Lang's Where's Charley, what with the latter's not having an Original Broadway cast album. There is, of course, that London album, but neither my LP nor my CD names an orchestrator.

1949-50: Robert Russell Bennett is part of the South Pacific sweep.

1950-51: Two medallions this year, one each for George Bassman and Ted Royal for Guys and Dolls.

1951-52: Don Walker is rewarded for managing so well with all those time and key changes for Wonderful Town.

1952-53: Two atmospheric orchestrations shine this season: Arthur Kay's Kismet and Phil Lang's Can-Can. It's Tony's first orchestral tie.

1954-55: Albert who? Yes, it's Albert Sendry for the light touch made Peter Pan makes it fly over Don Walker's The Pajama Game. Ted Royal's House of Flowers would have garnered some votes, too.

1955-56: Tony spreads to a nomination system -- though there are only two Best Musical -- and Best Orchestration -- nominees. Don Walker's Damn Yankees beats Robert Russell Bennett's Pipe Dream.

1956-57: Philip J. Lang wins for My Fair Lady, and not by riding on its coattails. Lang, known for snazziness, had to provide elegance, and certainly did. Leonard Bernstein and Hershy Kay's Candide finishes strong, as does Robert Russell Bennett's Bells Are Ringing and Don Walker's The Most Happy Fella.

1957-58: West Side Story loses Best Musical to The Music Man, but the former's orchestrations by Bernstein, Ramin, and Kostal bests the latter's by Don Walker. The reliable Lang fills the other slots with Jamaica and New Girl in Town.

1958-59: Many wonder how Redhead beats Flower Drum Song as Best Musical, but Robert Russell Bennett knew going in that he couldn't lose: His name shows up on both, though he shared credit with Phil Lang on the latter. Bennett wins for his solo effort. Lang also partnered with composer Leroy Anderson on Goldilocks, which is named, too. Alas, without a cast album for La Plume de Ma Tante, how can we tell if it would have filled out the category?

1959-60: Never mind that Best Musical tie between The Sound of Music and Fiorello! Sorry, Messrs. Bennett and Kostal, but the Tony goes to Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler for Gypsy. Don Walker sneaks in for his rustic -- and distinctive --work on Greenwillow.

1960-61: Camelot disappoints many, but Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang's orchestrations bests Andre Popp and Robert Ginzler's distinctively xylophonic Irma La Douce, Ginzler's Bye Bye Birdie, and Irwin Kostal'sTenderloin.

1961-62: Robert Ginzler's work on How to Succeed is marvelous, but Tony has its second orchestral tie between Ralph Burns for No Strings and, yes, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal for their tribal sounds in Kwamina. Phil Lang is noticed for Carnival.

1962-63: Given that Sondheim's Funny Thing score doesn't score a nomination, Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin don't either. Eric Rogers' buoyant Oliver wins, with Ralph Burns' Little Me close behind. Phil Lang is named for Tovarich, and -- for once in Tony's lifetime -- no fewer than four orchestrators (Ian Fraser, David Lindup, Burt Rhodes, and Gordon Langford) are named, for Stop the World.

1963-64: Though Funny Girl loses to Hello, Dolly! in every other category, Ralph Burns gives the Brice bio its one win, despite Philip J. Lang's sprightly work. (Love that banjo in "Motherhood" that provides an American-as-apple-pie sound.) Don Walker scores both for She Loves Me and, yes, Anyone Can Whistle. (What he did with the end of "The Miracle Song" is enough recommendation.)

1964-65: Don Walker is nominated for both Fiddler on the Roof and Baker Street, but Ralph Burns soft 'n' smooth jazzy orchestrations for Golden Boy beat him. Phil Lang's brassy work for The Roar of the Greasepaint -- The Smell of the Crowd gets noticed, too.

1965-66: There's a slightly ersatz sound to Man of La Mancha (fitting that the credits say "Musical arrangements by Music Makers, Inc."), so Ralph Burns wins for Sweet Charity. Phil Lang's brassiness for Mame can't be ignored, but credit the committee for noticing the fun Eddie Sauter brought to It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman.

1966-67: Listen to the distinctive entr'acte from Cabaret, and you'll know why Don Walker wins. But they won't ignore Larry Wilcox for Walking Happy, Phil Lang for I Do! I Do!, and Eddie Sauter for The Apple Tree. (Check out, "I Got What You Want," and you'll understand.)

1967-68: Hallelujah, Baby may back into a Best Musical win, but there's nothing spurious about Peter Matz's triumph: In a show that travels from the early 1900s to late 1967, he makes each song reflect its decade. Ralph Burns shows a nice new refinement in Darling of the Day, and a mixture of nostalgia and brassiness gets Don Walker's The Happy Time noticed. Many loathe Golden Rainbow but admit that Pat Williams and Jack Andrews do the job in getting the Vegas sound in there.

1968-69: Eddie Sauter's late 18th century sounds for 1776 lose to Jonathan Tunick's late 20th century sounds for Promises, Promises. Walker does better with Zorba than Ralph Burns did with Illya, Darling, and Jim Tyler's percussive Celebration is a cause for one.

1969-70: Applause wins Best Musical, but Phil Lang's orchestrations aren't even nominated. Not with Garry Sherman's inspirational Purlie (the winner), and Ralph Burns' raucous Minnie's Boys. The committee is able to get through Hepburn's voice and see the loveliness that Hershy Kay brought to Coco.

1970-71: Jonathan Tunick's winning for Company is a given, but would the fine work he did (before Billy Van Zandt took over) be noticed in The Grass Harp? In Two by Two, Eddie Sauter is the new keeper of the flame for the late Rodgers' sound. Don Walker's rich sounds for The Rothschilds are acknowledged, too.

1971-72: Here, to be sure, Follies doesn't lose to Two Gents: Two in a row for Tunick. And then there's that new kid on the block, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who gave Jesus Christ Superstar precisely the sound he wanted. Don Walker's 70-Girls-70 gets tabbed for its razz-ma-tazz.

1972-73: Raph Burns gets nominations for Pippin and Irene, but both lose to Tunick's Night Music. Phil Lang gives spice to Sugar.

1973-74: Hershy Kay understands what Hal Prince means when he says, "It has to look like it cost a nickel," and gets that gypsy-violinist-at-your table sound into Candide. Runners-up include Michael Gibson and Jim Tyler for the big band sound of Over Here, Al Cohn and Robert Freedman for the African-American atmosphere in Raisin, and Larry Fallon for Seesaw.

1974-75: With Jerry Herman getting shafted for Mack & Mabel, so does Phil Lang. Harold Wheeler wins for The Wiz in a tight race over Jonathan Tunick's Goodtime Charley and Don Walker's Shenandoah.

1975-76: In a surprise (though a logical one), Tunick wins for the most demanding job of East-meets-West sounds in Pacific Overtures. He was also tabbed along with Bill Byers and Hershy Kay for, of course, A Chorus Line. The others are Robert Waldman's mountain-jug sounds for his Robber Bridegroom and Ralph Burns' Chicago, which would go unappreciated by Tony for decades.

1976-77: Sure, Annie's terrific, and Phil Lang knew what to do with it, but he and it can't beat Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. In fact, Lang finishes third, behind Danny Holgate and Horace Ott for their black-infused Guys and Dolls. Cy Coleman gets a second I Love My Wife nomination for his charts.

1977-78: Hershy Kay's opera bouffe treatment for On the Twentieth Century narrowly wins over Bill Brohn's Timbuktu, Ralph Burns' The Act, and Kirk Nurock's Working.

1978-79: Tunick of Sweeney Todd beats Tunick of Ballroom, as well as Phil Lang for The Grand Tour, and Ralph Burns, Richard Hazard, and Gene Page forThey're Playing Our Song.

1979-80: Hershy Kay and Andrew Lloyd Webber's win for Evita is expected, as are nominations for Hershy Kay (Barnum) and Dick Hyman (Sugar Babies). But composer Garry Sherman gets a nice late Christmas present for Comin' Uptown.

1980-81: Al Cohn wins for Sophisticated Ladies, narrowly over Michael Gibson's Woman of the Year, John McKinney's vest-pocket charm on Tintypes, and Phil Lang's expected sound on 42nd Street.

1981-82: Here's a surprise: Jonathan Tunick beats his "Nine" orchestrations with his Merrily We Roll Along's. (Doncha love, in "Opening Doors," those three crass drum swishes while Jason Alexander is singing "Gimme a melody"?) Harold Wheeler for Dreamgirls finishes second, and Andrew Lloyd Webber for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat brings up the rear.

1982-83: The Drama Desk beats Tony to the punch by giving a Best Orchestrations prize to both Hans Spialek for On Your Toes and Michael Gibson for My One and Only. Had Tony been as astute, it would have proclaimed Spialek the winner, and had David Cullen (Cats) and Bill Byers' (A Doll's Life) fill out the category.

1983-84: Michael Starobin gets the Sunday in the Park with George job that Tunick declined -- and the Tony, too. Jim Tyler makes his first appearance in years for La Cage aux Folles, while Michael Gibson for The Rink and Harold Wheeler for The Tap Dance Kid are also noticed.

1984-85: Steve Margoshes and Danny Troob for Big River, Bill Byers for Grind, are the only contenders. (Why -- would you have endorsed Leader of the Pack?)

1985-86: Rupert Holmes would have brought home a second Tony for his Mystery of Edwin Drood orchestrations. Ralph Burns (Big Deal), Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Cullen (Song and Dance) look on in envy.

1986-87: John Cameron for Les Miserables. (How fascinating that "Master of the House" begins Weillishly, and ends Joplin-esque.) Credit, though, to Chris Walker (Me and My Girl), Larry Wilcox (Rags), and Sid Ramin, Bill Byers, Dick Hazard and Torrie Zito (Smile).

1987-88: For a change, Jonathan Tunick loses for a Sondheim Best Score (Into the Woods). It's David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber for their contemporary gothic sound for Phantom. Michael Gibson (Anything Goes) and Mbongeni Ngema and Hugh Masekela (Sarafina) also score.

1988-89: If Best Score is eliminated, can Best Orchestrations be far behind?

1989-90: In one of the closest races ever, Billy Byers' swinging City of Angels bests Peter Matz's evocative Grand Hotel. David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love is the only other nominee.

1990-91: William D. Brohn of Miss Saigon beats William D. Brohn of The Secret Garden. -- as well as Billy Byers (The Will Rogers Follies) and Michael Starobin (Once on This Island).

1991-92: Luther Henderson wins for Jelly's Last Jam, partly because he did the show's musical adaptation, too. (Hey! How 'bout a category for that?) William D. Brohn (Crazy for You) and Michael Starobin (Guys and Dolls) follow suit.

1992-93: Tony follows the Drama Desk by giving Steve Margoshes the prize for The Who's Tommy. Michael Gibson is applauded for Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Del Newman scores for Blood Brothers.

1993-94: Sure, Jonathan Tunick does well by Passion; ditto Bill Brohn for the new Carousel -- but neither can best Douglas Besterman's Damn Yankees' update that's (Nelson) Riddled with '50s homages. Danny Troob is cited for Beauty and the Beast.

1994-95: He's William David Brohn now, and a winner for Show Boat. David Cullen's Korngold-ish movie-themed charts almost win for Sunset Boulevard, though. Danny Troob and Daviel Siegel succeed with How to Succeed.

1995-96: Billy Byers' Victor/Victoria, Douglas Besterman's Big, and Bruce Pomahac's State Fair are not egregriously overlooked. Until Tony night, at least,when Steve Skinner wins for Rent.

The big winners? Seven statues to Tunick, five to Bennett, four to Walker. Or at least that's the way it should have been.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at

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