Thursday, December 9, 2010

Another Quote on the NY Times Theatre Blog

And now for a moment of shameless bragging:

The New York Times periodically offers the chance to ask questions of a theatre-related figure, some of which get answered. I was fortunate to get a question answered by Charles Isherwood back in February, and I've been fortunate enough to do so again. It was one of three questions answered yesterday after the three he answered Tuesday. 

You can read the whole piece over at the site, but here's the question I asked:

Is there any figure — writer, performer, director, designer — who you feel has not been given enough credit for his or her influence on musical theater, or the quality of his or her work? Similarly, is there anyone you think gets too much credit? — Zev Valancy, Oak Park, Ill.

He answered as follows:

Too little credit? Yes, but may I call attention to a category of show contributors rather than to any one figure? I speak of the musicians who create the sound of Broadway. These are the more or less unknown men and women who take the work of a show’s songwriter(s), usually written at a keyboard, and flesh it out instrumentally (and sometimes even compositionally) to arrive at the way we hear it in the theater.

Among orchestrators I’d single out for starters Hans Spialek, Don Walker, and Jonathan Tunick; among arrangers, Genevieve Pitot and, above all, Trude Rittmann. Leonard Bernstein once referred to such musicians admiringly as the “subcomposers who turn a series of songs into a unified score.”

He's completely on-target in the assertion that orchestrators and arrangers are wildly underappreciated. It's easy to give the composer all of the credit for the way a show sounds, but listen to different versions of the same song to realize how untrue this is. Jonathan Tunick's huge orchestral arrangement for the original cast of Sweeney Todd gives a powerfully different impression from Sarah Travis' lean chamber version in the 2005 revival. The different sounds are one aspect of powerfully different experiences. (The contrast of Tunick's gorgeously varied orchestrations for the original production of Nine with the painfully generic ones by Doug Besterman for the misbegotten film version are a more unpleasant example of the same principle.)

I find Stempel's phrasing a little awkward and unclear (which doesn't bode well for the book itself), and would certainly add many names to his list, but it's a wonderful thing that he's helping orchestrators and arrangers get the attention they so richly deserve.

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