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Topic: Orchestrating for the musical theater

  1. #1

    Orchestrating for the musical theater

    I read RK's book long ago, also Forsyth's, Corzine's and Sebesky's (the best so far for this topic) but they are either outdated or skew to recording or huge orchestras. As of the last Broadway musician's contract (following the strike) the largest houses have a minimum of 18 pit musicians (19 if you count the conducter). Some are down to as few as 5 for a first run Broadway show. For those of you who are not connected with the theater, producers normally do not want to pay for a single musician above the minimum. It's nearly impossible to revive any of the classic musicals with their original orchestrations. I recently read an interview (in Playbill, I think) where a contemporary orchestrator said that 20 years ago he remembers having 15 violin players in the pit. These days, most shows have 15 or less players for the entire orchestra. (And don't get me started on how much this number is reduced for tours and other venues without Broadway's capital.)

    I have been a professional actor for more than 20 years. I have occassionally appeared in musicals and I have dabbled in writing musical theater. The last time I tired it, my score was hurt by a poor orchestrator. Now that it is possible to produce a reasonably good demo on a personal computer with sample libraries, I have spent the last couple of years learning how to do this, buy all the necessary equipment and teach myself how to orchestrate, so that my music will be presented at its best. I know full well that, if it ever goes to Broadway, it will be orchestrated by one of the few people who do it all the time -- and it will sound great, even with the smallest pit -- but, realistically, this has to sound good to smaller companies, who will most likely want a print out of the score, right from MIDI tracks in Sonar (score view).

    There are no good books on orchestrating for the musical theater. At any rate, none that deal with the realities of the situation today. You have to make it sound BIG with few instruments. You have to be able to suggest a lot of different genres (often in the same show). Most orchestrators cop out and replace the string section with sampled strings. Audiences can always tell. The comment I hear most often was that they thought the show was recorded or partially recorded.

    But, it's more than just that. A lot of musicians double on several instruments (especially the reed players). You need to know how to realistically double, when you can get away with close harmonies. I know there is a "Broadway" sound (jazzy, brassy, big-bandy) but it's not right for every show -- and not that common any more. You need to be able to suggest any style and have it sound full when you want it to be full. Even the choice of instruments (with so few players) is a big question where some guidelines from the pros would be helpful.

    There's a web site (http://www.custombroadwaymidi.com/mp3_samples.htm). This is for a company that just takes the Broadway scores and sells MIDI files that they create from them (for production companies that have NO budget for an orchestra). This is not meant as an endorsement or a condemnation of this company. I have never dealt with them before. I just found their site and started listening to the samples, because I wanted to hear some Broadway tunes with just the accompaniment. I was struck by how much variety there is in a single, Broadway number. The audience's attention is never allowed to waiver for a second. THAT's what I want to learn how to do.

    I corresponded with Vince Corzine for a while. He was planning to do a book about this, but the last I heard it's been put off indefinitely. What would really help me -- and anyone else interested in how to right for relatively small groups of musicians to perform live -- is a book or online seminar that deals with this subject.

  2. #2

    Re: Orchestrating for the musical theater

    Very interesting article.

    Quote Originally Posted by ejr
    I recently read an interview (in Playbill, I think) where a contemporary orchestrator said that 20 years ago he remembers having 15 violin players in the pit. These days, most shows have 15 or less players for the entire orchestra. (And don't get me started on how much this number is reduced for tours and other venues without Broadway's capital.)
    Sigh. If you look at the gross national product then it has never been as high as now in most western states. That means in clear text that never so much money has been in our societies as now. Nevertheless artist's fees drop every year, at least on the free market. I am not very happy about this.

    Audience can always tell. The comment I hear most often was that they thought the show was recorded or partially recorded.
    Actually the sound of the example files on that site sound crappy IMHO - no wonder they can tell.

    What would really help me -- and anyone else interested in how to right for relatively small groups of musicians to perform live -- is a book or online seminar that deals with this subject.
    I have played in a mini ensemble for a time that was a deviation of the opera house. Opera singer and a small group of musicians did operas, operettas and musicals in smaller towns. Actually without electronic help. It was fun because it was quite challenging. I was the concert master and had much more responsibility than with a big orchestra.

    So yes, this is a very interesting topic.

    All your strings belong to me!

  3. #3

    Re: Orchestrating for the musical theater

    I believe what they are selling is the MIDI files, so the quality of the samples would depend on the MIDI tone generator or soft samples used.

    Be that as it may, the most helpful thing to those of us wrestling with orchestrations for the theater would be input from people who have actually done it (or played in pit orchestras) to offer some advice on what (and what not) to do.

    Every discussion of voicing for woodwinds assumes pairs of instruments (2 flutes, 2 oboes, etc.) which is never going to happen in the theater. The few referances to using only 4 players say to space them widely apart -- but you can't do this in every number or it all starts to sound the same. So, you try some close position stuff, but then there aren't enough strings to fill out the bottom of the chord. Or you voice them over the brass instead, but then you don't have enough high woodwinds and you have to deal with the disparity in dynamics. I think it's easy enough to figure out how to handle small ensembles within the orchestra for solos or underscoring. But in the big numbers (and there have to be some big numbers) making it sound both full and interesting (without resorting to a synth pad) can be quite challenging, especially if don't want all the tuttis to sound the same.

  4. #4

    Re: Orchestrating for the musical theater

    An interesting topic and one that raises issues for the composer. I was talking to a publisher recently who's main business is musicals for amateur societies and schools. He was describing how difficult it is to sell a musical without a backing CD (particularly for school's shows). So there's pressure on the composer to produce such a CD, otherwise the show won't sell, but in doing so you're promoting the use of backing CDs over musicians, which is not good.

    In terms of choosing instruments for a small band, I would be tempted to say be realistic about what can be acheived within the limitations you have, ie. rather than trying to include every instrument from a full orchestra pick the ones that are going to be most useful for the show and concentrate on producing good orchestrations for them. I recently wrote music for a fringe show and while we would have loved a huge band and a chorus line it just wasn't possible on our budget (or allowed time & space). The band ended up being piano, guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, sax, trombone. The rhythm section was pretty much a given and we chose brass over strings or wind because the show needed to get loud & raucous at times. Obviously that sound didn't relate to much that is talked about on this forum!

    I agree in general with comments about synths as imitations of real instruments; although electronic sounds (synths used as synths!) can be used to make a nice big sound if the style of the show allows it. Similarly electric guitar and the range of effects available there. Maybe blending synth sounds with real instruments would be a good way to get a big sound without sounding too 'synthy'. Does anyone have any experience or advice about this?


    P.S. going the other way, I've just been reminded about John Adam's use of the Yamaha DX7 as a member of the orchestra in his violin concerto - have to dig that CD out...

  5. #5

    Re: Orchestrating for the musical theater

    Speaking of electronically helped live performances - I think this http://www.notionmusic.com/liveperf/index.cfm sounds decent (I don't have Notion but maybe will try it one day).

    EDIT The second video (Handel) sounds like a school orchestra but I suppose this is more the typical I-am-student-and-hope-this-is-over-soon-and-dont-really-care sound of the live players. Been there, hated the situation including myself, never want to go back to it.

    There have been many good arrangements for chamber opera or what we call salon ensemble here in the 1920 - 1950's. That would be piano, bass, drums, string quartet, flute/sax, trumpet. Sometimes an accordion is added.

    I have played lots of them and also own quite some notation sets. Maybe there will come a time to dig them out and study the arrangements.

    All your strings belong to me!

  6. #6

    Re: Orchestrating for the musical theater

    Virtually no composers for Broadway do their own orchestrations, but in classical music orchestrations were part of the composition. So part of me does not want to leave that out when writing music. Also, knowing what type of instrument will play a particular motiff can drastically effect voicing, range, even how many notes can be in a phrase and how often you need to put in rests.

    My strategy thus far has been (1) compose everything for the piano (the only instrument that I play, by the way); (2) try to orchestrate the completed work for the largest possible minimums in Broadway pits today (18 players); (3) do reduction scores for smaller ensembles, based on the full score.

    Step 3 appears to be what the licensing houses do -- and these are often further reduced by road companies and stock houses. Paradoxically, many amature groups do the full scores, even filling out the strings, percussion, etc. -- because they don't have to pay musicians. So, my thinking is that, to protect my compositions and have the numbers sound their best whatever the instrumentation, I should concentrate on the full score and then do a couple of reductions myself.

    I have been in the business long enough to know that whatever I do will be changed by an experienced orchestrator if I ever get a first class production. But I also know that most shows have to work their way up from the bottom. So you will be dealing with amature, university theater or showcase productions FIRST -- where money is less of an issue. If you are part of a playwrights' group, an artist in residence, doing workshops, etc. -- that's a different story. You're taking the opposite approach. You're lucky to have a piano and rhythm section. (Also a good argument for starting with a piano score, no matter what you end up with.)

    One final thought ... going through old Playbills, looking at the makeup of pit orchestras for Broadway shows that I have seen (most of the earlier productions do not list the musicians or their instruments) one in particular fascinated me: Peter Brooke's "Carmen" at Lincoln Center. This was a greatly scaled down version of the opera. It was widely criticized for what it cut and re-arranged; but widely praised for the acting and innovative staging (I can attest to the latter.) Trying to look at it objectively, if you had never heard the opera before and had nothing to compare it to, the orchestration was just fine. But what really got me thinking was looking at the credits for the orchestra in the program, because it is so unusual compared to the little advice that I have seen in print and have gotten first hand from Broadway musical orchestrators. They had, essentially, one instrument per part, even for the strings. I don't remember if it was amped. But here is the complete list of instrumentation from the program: 2 violins (presumably Violin I & II), 1 viola, 1 cello, 1 string bass, 1 flute, 1 oboe, 1 clarinet, 1 bassoon, 1 French Horn, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone and 1 harp. There are also two names listed under percussion, but the second person is identified as the "Music Coordinator" so it is unclear whether this person played percussion or conducted or both. As I recall, the orchestra was divided, with musicians in each of the wings of the Vivian Beaumont.

    So, right off the bat, the things that strike me are: how did they balance it? And I am assuming that there was little possible blending. It must have been mostly melodies and countermelodies, over harp and percussion rhythm.

    That brings me to a general question about strings in the theater: How do a small number of solo instruments sound when amplified? I know that two violins, a viola and a cello do not sound as rich and warm as full string sections playing the same parts. But if the volume of the former is boosted to the level where they can compete with the wind instruments, is it really that bad? Certainly having the strings augmented or replaced by synth strings would be worse.

    Based on what I have seen in other shows, the alternative approach seems to be using 3 violins and 2 cellos, to create two fuller sounding string lines (and sometimes using all 5 instruments on a single line, near the middle of the staff, when other sections are playing.) Then you can also divide them, like a chamber group, on passages where only strings and a piano or harp are playing for a little more variety.

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