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Let The Drums Roll Out
Let The Drums Roll Out
By Jon Alan Conrad

What does an orchestrator actually do?"

The question may not arise as often as "Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?", but it is probably as great a musical theatre mystery. Some songwriters provide merely a tune with lyrics – some even need a copyist to write down that much for them – and the orchestrator must supply every element of harmony and accompaniment. At the other extreme, a composer may provide a comprehensive piano score with instrument specifications, and the orchestrator simply carries out a detailed set of instructions.

We have Gershwin's manuscripts to prove that he supplied complete piano-vocal notation for his songs, full of ideas for instrumental figures. (Orchestrator Herbert Spenser recalls that when his friend Edward Powell was scoring Let 'Em Eat Cake, Gershwin would hand him a sketch containing "all the main information," then Gershwin and Powell would discuss the desired instrumental colors in detail.) Yet a theater orchestrator cannot work solely from these production decisions have to be made. What keys best suit the singers? What kind of orchestral introduction is needed? Shall the verse come before the refrain, as written, or would it sound better as an interlude? How many refrains, and in what new keys? Will there be instrumental dance refrains? What about a countermelody, or a special ending? All such decisions are made by the writer, director, choreographer, and musical director, and they add up to the "routine" of a particular number. Then the orchestrator must execute these decisions, inevitably having to do some composing in order to provide links between refrains and to invent new accompaniment ideas as the number proceeds.

Such decisions are controlled, of course, by the instruments available in the show's orchestra. These days it is taken for granted that a show's character should determine a unique instrumental combination (think of Fiddler on the Roof's accordion, Cabarets banjo, or Shenandoah's harmonica – all three orchestrations, as it happens, the handicraft of Don Walker, probably a pioneer in this respect). But in the 1920’s and 30’s, pit orchestras were basically of two kinds, with the “dance Show” or “jazz show” on one side and the “operetta” on the other.

One major difference between the two types of shows lay in the choice of woodwind instruments. Operettas used the European light opera complement (flutes, oboe, clarinets, bassoon), whereas dance shows included saxophones, whose assertive tone had become an essential part of the jazz sound. The first version of Strike Up the Band, which took its cue from Gilbert and Sullivan, conformed to the operetta plan, with its six "legit" woodwinds. But when the show was revised in 1930 with an eye to greater accessibility, some of the woodwind parts came to include saxophones.

Another difference can be found in the rhythm section. American popular rhythms as developed in the 1920's needed bass and drums, plus piano or guitar, to provide the necessary strength for the beat. Several shows of this era had two pianos in the pit, often using popular teams and giving them a featured spot: In particular, many of the Gershwin shows of the Twenties, including Lady, Be Good! and Oh, Kay!, showcased duo-piano specialists Arden and Ohman. Operettas, on the other hand, used harp, a stylistic distinction that persisted through the 1950's: Some shows of mixed genre, like Kiss Me, Kate, luxuriated in both piano and harp (and guitar as well).

Both versions of Strike Up the Band followed operetta practice by omitting piano and including harp, a definite departure for the Gershwins.

With no piano in the pit, and the less domineering harp taking its place, rhythmic propulsion had to be supplied elsewhere, usually by strings. An overriding consideration is that in the 1920's, It is partly for this reason that the orchestra for Strike Up the Band included two sections of violas – those reliable middle voices of the string section - to make sure that the "oompahs" were heard and that the orchestral sound had a solid middle.

The sound of theatre music has changed tremendously over the years, orchestral sonorities forming no small part of the change. For decades after the revolution wrought by Oklahoma!, the universal assumption was that earlier musicals could be revived only if thoroughly reconceived and reorchestrated. This assumption remained unexamined until the 1983 Broadway revival of On Your Toes proved that orchestra earlier orchestrations were not only usable but brilliantly successful.

Now, when shows like Strike Up the Band are reconstructed, the challenge is for present-day arrangers to match the style of the surviving orchestrations convincingly. Russell Warner, who provided the orchestrations for the 1987 recording of Let 'Em Eat Cake, as well as many of the new orchestrations for Strike Up the Band, finds the characteristic of the period style elusive: "You have to think yourself into it, and somehow cleanse your ears of the sounds that are constantly around us now. It’s very hard, undoubtedly harder than it was for them then, because we perceive this style as a constraint and they didn't.'

An overriding consideration is that in the 1920's, despite the recent American innovation of the rhythm section and the "hot" musical-comedy style, orchestral sound was still very close to a classical concept, in which each part has a sensible musical line in its own right. This meant, for one thing, that the vocal melody was always doubled in the orchestra and formed the foundation for the rest of the orchestration. Of this style, Warner remarks, "It's more work-intensive, there are more notes to write," but when one looks at the surviving orchestrations from a show like Strike Up the Band, "you can see that the original fellow did wonderfully, and it's just right, just perfect."

An example of this style, valuable because the song is so familiar, is William Daly's original orchestration of "The Man I Love." The melody is of a rhapsodic nature that most contemporary arrangers would leave out of the accompaniment entirely, to allow the vocalist room for interpretation. Daly, who contributed orchestrations to nearly a dozen Gershwin shows, made a different, almost Tchaikovskian choice: All the strings (harmonized) play the melody with the voice.

As orchestrator Bill Brohn states, "When you have the likes of Daly and [Robert Russell] Bennett to model missing orchestrations after, you have a pretty good running start." Or a solid point of departure.

In creating a new orchestration for the second-act reprise of "The Man I Love" (entitled 'The Girl I Love"), Brohn decided to transcend the stylistic conventions of the period, to create "something with a respectful nod to the past, but with a bite on the present and future."

All that was known of "The Girl I Love" was that it served as "special material" for Morton Downey, a highly admired Irish tenor. How then to construct and orchestrate this lost scene? According to Brohn, "Theatrical insight had to guide us. Tommy Krasker came through by linking 'The Girl I Love' to 'Homeward Bound' and supplying all the staging vision: the convivial doughboys gathering on the aft deck of a returning ship, singing 'Homeward Bound' (with our tenor soloist leading), making their light-hearted exit whistling. Now alone at the taffrail, he leans staring at the wake of the ship threading off in the moonlight. Will he find the girl of his dreams waiting at home?"

Brohn and Krasker rejected the use of generic sounds such as ship's bells and sea-gulls, and instead mused on the inner meaning of the moment. They concurred that to change the mood effectively, the soloist had to be given the freedom to phrase the song his way. The schottische-derived rhythms that Daly used in his orchestration of "The Man I Love" would be too constraining here; thus, a new musical setting was required.

As Brohn recalls, "First, I tried a completely new link from the end of 'Homeward Bound' where I broke up the whistling phrases into shorter fragments, then added the woodwinds in French Impressionist harmonies (a style not unknown to George). I then took a phrase from the last part of the verse of "The Man I Love" that, as a cello fill, dropped us right into the refrain. I kept the high ethereal register in the strings to let the tenor breathe unencumbered and, voila: moonlight, water, yearning. A lonely cello answers his first phrase, and by and by, the flute and oboe add their nod of accord through simple motions within Georges chromatic scaffolding."

These remarks by Brohn suggest the kind of imaginative involvement a good orchestrator needs. The best arrangers of the 1920's and 30's unquestionably went about their craft with similar care, although theatrical orchestration was not yet a prized endeavor. Nevertheless, with their names likely to be hidden away in the program, or omitted from it, the orchestrators of that period took their work seriously enough for it to satisfy when re-examined today. Long before amplification of stage voices (and even longer before microphones were used in the pit), these orchestrators balanced their sonorities with care, and let their imaginations soar even when their work was likely to go unnoticed. And they did this for what they had every reason to regard as throwaway light entertainment, to be forgotten within the year – as just one part of busy careers that included radio, film, and recording work, and often conducting and composing. Fortunately their work is finally being rediscovered and restored; it commands our attention and respect.

Jon Alan Conrad teaches music theory and literature at the University of Delaware. He wishes to thank Jai Jeffryes, Tommy Krasker, Herbert Spencer, Russell Warner, and Bill Brohn for their assistance with this article.
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