Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Praise Of Broadway's Orchestrators

In the world of Broadway musicals, nobody leaves the theater humming the orchestrations. But without the orchestrations, the songs would just be lonely little tunes. The Library of Congress recently convened a symposium on some of Broadway's greatest orchestrators, many of whom remain little-known. Ever hear of Sid Ramin, Jonathan Tunick, Don Walker, Russell Bennett or Ralph Burns? Exactly.

But those are the men who orchestrated West Side Story, Gypsy, A Chorus Line, Sweeney Todd, Hello Dolly and South Pacific. The men who decided which song should start with trumpets, and which one needs some violas. And they wrote the overtures, weaving together the various tunes the shows present.

"People think the composer did it," says Steven Suskin, author of The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations. "But usually, the composers are so busy with other things that they just don't."

Gypsy, which hit Broadway in 1959, was revolutionary. The music was written by Jule Styne, but orchestrators Sid Ramin and Red Ginzler wrote the overture for lots of brass and winds. Musicians came from the big swing bands.

Before Gypsy, the sound of Broadway orchestrations was exemplified by South Pacific. Russell Bennett, who was Rodgers and Hammerstein's favorite orchestrator, scored that show. Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrates for Steven Sondheim, says Bennett loved lush violins and pure, rich sound. Conductor Rob Fisher says the South Pacific score is gorgeous.

"He uses horns right at the beginning that sound like flowers opening," Fisher says. "And then, when the Bali Hai theme starts, the strings are soaring way up over it in a way only Bennett knows how to do."

The Greatest Of All Time

Arranger Red Ginzler once used instruments that were less than lovely. Tunick, who studied with Ginzler, calls him the greatest theater orchestrator of all time. Tunick describes how Ginzler handled a men's-room scene in the show How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. A chorus sings, while shaving.

"Red thought of the idea of putting the melody on a mass of kazoos making buzzing sounds like electric shavers," Tunick says. "One of the hallmarks of his genius was his wit and his ability to translate humor into music."

A great singer makes the orchestrator's life easy. But get a bad singer — or non-singer, really — and it's a different story. Take one of the stars of My Fair Lady.

"Rex Harrison was a fine actor," Jeremy Lang says. "But he had a lot of trouble singing."

Lang's grandfather, Philip J. Lang, was the orchestrator behind this story. "Grandfather needed to do a lot of writing around his voice, as orchestrators frequently do. Arrange it in the instruments such that Harrison could just speak it as melodic cadence but wouldn't actually hit any notes," Lang says. "After the music rehearsal, Rex Harrison went over and embraced my grandfather and said, 'Thanks to you, I can sing.' "

The Mind's Ear

Ramin, now 90, orchestrated West Side Story with Irwin Kostal. Ramin doesn't play any instrument. But he says he hears them all, in his mind's ear.

He says that when Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the music for West Side Story, handed him the music for "I Feel Pretty," he heard it right away.

"We know 'I Feel Pretty' is not going to be for brass," Ramin says. "It's going to be feminine, light, happy. And what pops into a person's head? Strings. Violins. High woodwinds."

Orchestrators don't begin working until after the rehearsals, when the show is set. So masses of notes must be written quickly. Different orchestrators might work on different songs — even parts of songs — for a single show.

For A Chorus Line, Ralph Burns was called in to write just the extra, final chorus.

"His big touch was that after the word 'One,' [he did] what we call a shake, with the full orchestra shaking the note," arranger and conductor Ted Sperling says. "A big harp glissando up and down at the same time amplifies that feeling of excitement ... and it put it over the top at the end."

And with that, the show's over. And an orchestrator made sure you knew it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.
More Stories