Still working on orchestrating the score for my musical. Actually, what I am doing now is condensing everything to the fewest possible parts (i.e. musicians). This is a medium-sized show, so I can have a real orchestra ... but it's not a huge show, so I don't want the pit for Les Miz or Phantom of the Opera, either.
After a lot of soul searching (and some advice from people who have actually orchestrated shows on and off Broadway) I have reduced my string section from 3 violins, 2 violas, 1 cello (and 1 string bass - sometimes working with the string section, sometimes playing with the rhythm section). The consensus of opinion was that it could be reduced to 2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello (+ string bass when needed). The extra violin + viola don't add enough to make them worthwhile.
Everything will be amplified, so volume isn't an issue. The period of the piece is turn of the (19th) century. So there are a lot of marches, waltzes, etc. (a la Leher, G&S, etc.) It's best to think of it as a pared down operetta. I tired to use the strings only on the quieter sections (accompanying soloists, underscoring dialog, etc) when the string quartet idea would work well. But I do have some big numbers where I really need to add the strings too or it doesn't sound right. A synth fattening the strings (or used in place of them) doesn't sound right to me either (I've tried all my synth libraries with my niece playing her violin and it just doesn't work for me with this style of music.) When the strings play with the wind instruments, I have them in a different octave, playing a dramatically different rhythm to make them stand out (I have also adjusted the relative volume markings).
But here's where I run into problems:
(1) With my earlier instrumentation, I was able to put the three violins in the highest register (alone or in unison with one of the reeds). All my orchestration books say to go with one violin or three, never two (unless they are playing tremolo.) I'm assuming that 2 violins and a flute in unison will sound much the same as three violins and a flute, correct? If not - or if I just want a pure string sound - what do I do? Will it work to have the two violins and one viola playing in unison? What ranges are acceptable? It seems to me that the viola will be playing near the top of its comfortable range, if the part lies at the top or just above the treble staff, and the violin will be playing very low if I go much below the staff.
(2) Regarding other doublings, will the viola & the cello blend well in unison (assuming the dynamic markings and amplification compensate for the differences in volume)? Or should I always give the cello its own part? I'd like to have as many different ways to divide the strings as possible, just for the sake of variety -- but, of course, I don't want to make changes to the voicing that aren't going to be heard. (And, again, to re-iterate, I'm concerned only with the parts of my score where the strings are playing with one or more other SECTIONS, not when it's strings and piano or a solo reed.)
I hope this all makes sense. Thanks.