Some of the biggest changes to take place on Broadway in the 20th century involved orchestration, or the choices about how many and which instruments would be used in the musical theater pit orchestra. Prior to the early 1900s, composers would write down each note themselves to be reproduced by a copyist. As composers began to churn out more material at a higher speed to keep up with demand and changing technology, the role of orchestrator became essential to the production of new Broadway shows like Kiss Me, Kate!, The Sound of Music, and other “Golden Age” shows. Max Dreyfus, who later became the president of Chappell & Co, Inc. (a company that produces one of two standard editions of G&S libretti and materials), was one of the first “orchestrators.” Most Broadway shows today have an orchestrator separate from the composer who makes artistic choices about the instrumental color they would like to hear on a particular line, writes incidental music, and generally brings the score to life.
Robert Russell Bennett, orchestrator of the 1949 production of Kiss Me, Kate!, was the hot orchestrational commodity of the time. Employed by Chappell & Co., Inc., he worked on many shows written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, etc. with other Chappell & Co. collaborators. You may be wondering why this matters. What makes Sullivan’s orchestration of his operettas different from Bennett’s orchestration of Kiss Me, Kate!? Two big things.
First, Kiss Me, Kate! and other shows of this era and style used a piano in performance. This isn’t unheard of in opera, especially for recitatives, but by and large the use of a piano as part of the orchestra pit is a musical theater phenomenon incited by shrinking pits and shrinking budgets–a piano can cover far more lines than, say, a trombone, and you only have to pay one person.
The biggest change in Broadway orchestration was also a response to cuts in pit size and budget–reed doubling. Reed or woodwind doubling refers to the now-common practice of requiring a musician to play more than one, and sometimes up to seven or eight different instruments in the same performance. Like the use of piano, it was not a completely novel development, but was taken to the extreme.
The impetus for woodwind doublers came from the invention of the saxophone and jazz bands that required saxophonists to double on clarinet. Before the 1920s, Broadway merely required the standard orchestral doublings (e.g., flute and piccolo, oboe and English horn), but composers and orchestrators started asking for extensive doubling to obtain a wide variety of orchestral colors without costing the producers too much money or writing for an orchestra that wouldn’t fit in a Broadway pit.
A prime example can be found in the orchestrations of the version of Kiss Me, Kate! that HRG&SP intended to perform this semester. We licensed the 1999 revival orchestrations of the show, which were done by Don Sebesky and called for the following woodwind players:
Reed 1: Piccolo, Flute, Clarinet, Soprano & Alto Saxophone
Reed 2: Flute II, Clarinet I & Alto Saxophone
Reed 3: Flute III (or Oboe), Oboe, English Horn, Clarinet II, Soprano Saxophone (or Clarinet) & Tenor Saxophone
Reed 4: Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Bassoon & Baritone Saxophone
Despite the logistical challenges of getting one musician to play all of those instruments well, doubling on Broadway has led to a wider variety of sounds in each production. Orchestrators in the 1920s and 30s demonstrated their ability to think outside of the box, and in a time when arts industries struggle to make a profit, doubling has ensured that shows keep the timbral palette interesting.
However, the increased prevalence of doubling does raise questions about the importance of music and musicians on Broadway. Sir Arther Sullivan wasn’t worried about the number of musicians in his pit–he used around 30 musicians for each show. The average Broadway orchestra is nowhere near that number, and they wouldn’t fit in the pit if they were. My question for you all is: when budget cuts need to be made in the musical theater industry, should the music be the aspect that gets cut?
For more information check out:
https://www.local802afm.org/allegro/articles/the-evolution-of-doubling/Suskin, Steven. The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations. 2009.
3 thoughts on “Orchestration: Who Does It And Why Does It Matter?”
A very interesting topic, reflecting the group’s choice to do a musical rather than one of the Savoy repertory. I can’t speak to the technics of instrument playing, doubling, etc. But I was struck by your statement that today’s Broadway shows couldn’t fit a pit orchestra of 30 players, matching Sullivan’s usual ensemble, even if they could afford the payroll. The phrase “nowhere near that number” suggests that 30 players is *way* outside the capacity of a Broadway theater’s pit.
But on looking into it via a mild web search, I seem to be seeing numbers for traditional Broadway orchestras in the ‘golden years’ (i.e. before budgeting demanded far smaller ensembles) at roughly 25 players. Most Broadway houses were built in the 1910s and 20s, and their pits were scaled for an appropriate show band for that period, not for more recent money-saving combinations.
Shows today won’t put 25 players in their pits, for a number of reasons. But they could if they wanted to.
Thanks for your response! There wasn’t space to get into this in the scope of one of our blog posts, but I was actually thinking of modern shows that are keyboard/electric instrument heavy. A Broadway pit could fit 25 strings/woodwind/brass players, but that’s not the standard orchestration today, and the more large instruments (keys, percussion) or extra equipment (amplifiers, monitors, doubling) you add, the fewer people you can fit! –MLR
Savor the brevity ~ sent from my iPhone