The Sound of Broadway Music: 
A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations

February 26, 2013

Before I launched Theater Shelf, my reviews appeared on the website Potomac Stages. One of my favorites of all the books I reviewed for that outlet was Steven Suskin’s The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations. Wanting to spread the word of this fascinating and invaluable book to my newer readership, I pulled my 2009 review and provide it here with just a bit of updating.

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In The Sound of Broadway Music, Steven Suskin covers with clarity, devotion to detail, and a delightfully personal voice the work of those unsung (but not unplayed) heroes of the American musical theater – the orchestrators. They are the ones who make the music composed by geniuses and giants in so many different modes and modulations sound as glorious as possible within the four walls of a theater when played by as many musicians as the production’s budget allows.

Suskin does an absolutely masterful job of covering a fascinating but obscure, often arcane and frequently technical subject in a manner that makes it not only understandable but thoroughly fascinating to novice and expert alike, requiring only that the reader bring an interest in and appreciation of that indefinable but potent genre – show music.

The book covers the work of the most important orchestrators of the golden age of the American Musical – basically those determining the actual notes the musicians play in the pit of shows from Oklahoma! to Fiddler on the Roof. The process is described along with brief biographical sketches of each of these often unknown masters of pitch, tone, color and tempo. The discussion is filled with a seemingly never ending flow of fascinating anecdotes and illustrative examples.

In addition, a 269-page compendium of information on all 717 shows the major orchestrators handled, plus briefer entries on 142 other shows, turns this volume into a valuable reference work as well as a history and appreciation of a neglected art.

Suskin is a theater historian, well known to those of us who are addicted to reference books about this art form. He is the author of the intriguing collections of quotes from the opening night reviews of Broadway musicals, Opening Night on Broadway,  which covers 1943 to1964, and More Opening Nights on Broadway, that moves on to 1981. He has a volume on “Big Musical Bombs” called Second Act Trouble and a handsome coffee table type book on show posters titled A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Art, as well as other reference and authoritative volumes on the world of the American musical.

Here he tells the tale of the charts and the chartmakers over the “Golden Age,” and carries the story forward for those who worked on through the beginnings of the age of amplification in which we now find ourselves. Given the thoroughness and intelligence with which Suskin has covered his topic, true theater fans can only hope that there may be a Volume II of his effort – perhaps The Electronic Sound of Broadway Music?

The book not only clearly explains all facets of the art of theater music orchestration, it includes short biographical sketches of the twelve principal orchestrators of the period, placing their careers in perspective and shedding light on their working relationships with each other and with the composers and other colleagues whose world they influenced and shared.

These include the legendary Robert Russell Bennett (from Show Boat to The Sound of Music!), the big band master Ralph Burns (Chicago, Funny Girl), the style-spanning Philip J. Lang (Hello, Dolly!, My Fair Lady), the incredibly productive Don Walker (Anyone Can Whistle to Zorba), and the early innovator Hans Spialek whose 1936 charts for On Your Toes so impressed the Broadway world when the show was revived in 1983 that they sparked the revival in interest in the entire subject of the sound of Broadway music. Indeed, the dozen page bio of Spialek is a gem on its own.

There is an extra treat in the book that deserves its own accolades – ten pages that will be of extra interest to Potomac Region readers who treasure the memory of that glorious summer when the Kennedy Center staged its Sondheim Celebration with full productions of six of Sondheim’s musicals in rotating repertory.

For the opening night of that celebration’s production of Sweeney Todd, Suskin was invited to witness the show not from an orchestra seat but from a seat in the orchestra! Sitting between the trumpets and the trombones (and with his back against the timpani) Suskin witnessed the performance from a privileged perspective. He shares that experience in a first person narrative that may not be as thrilling as attending in person, but it takes us places we’ve not been before.

The Sound of Broadway Music - A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations
by Steven Suskin
664 Pages with full index, show listing and chronology
Oxford University Press, 2009
ISBN 0199790841
List price $34.95