May 14, 2013

One of the most interesting lists in the announcement of this year’s Tony Award nominees is the nominations for Best Orchestrations. The range is as wide as the types of shows involved.

There’s the classic Broadway musical sound given fresh feeling in Danny Troob’s delightful if occasionally disappointing charts for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score for the show that is at one and the same time a revival and a Broadway debut – Cinderella.

How different that is from the up-to-the-moment sound of a contemporary Broadway musical that Stephen Oremus delivers for Cindy Lauper’s score for Kinky Boots!

Then there is Chris Nightingale’s set of charts for the British import, Matilda, which essentially duplicate the sprightly English musical feel, especially in the numbers featuring the children in the title character’s elementary school class.

Finally, there is the ear-filling sound (at times played at an ear-splitting volume level) of the ersatz Motown sound in Motown: The Musical as performed by 18 players following Ethan Popp and Bryan Crook’s charts that attempt to duplicate a well known sound while abbreviating some 57 songs within two and a half hours of flash and dazzle.

– – – Cinderella – – –

Troob’s work on Cinderella (officially called Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella in another example of corporate branding gone to excess) is notable for the freshness of the sound of the 20 players in the pit at the Broadway Theatre.

The score is predominantly the score that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote for a television presentation in 1957 when it was watched by an audience estimated to have exceeded 100 million, at a time when the population of the country was less than 200 million. 

Songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog have been added to fill the evening a bit more, and the lyrics have been augmented (nicely, in my opinion) by the author of this new stage adaptation, Douglas Carter Beane.

Troob, who won a Drama Desk Award for orchestrating Big River in 1985 and has been nominated four times for the Tony, could have simply replicated the original sound of the television orchestra which had charts by Broadway’s legendary Robert Russell Bennett. Or he could have tried for an entirely new feeling which might have worked with the new elements of Beane’s book. But he wisely went for a blend that is reminiscent of Bennett’s Broadway sound, but has a fresher, cleaner and lighter feel to it.

Most of the time this works well. The overture and entr’acte are house-filling with the magic feel of classic Broadway and the dance music (particularly the fully danced “The Pursuit”) is delightful. Unfortunately, there is a skimpiness evident in “The Waltz for a Ball” where it appears the amplification takes the place of true lushness. However, all together, the show and its sound are superb.

– – – Kinky Boots  – – –

If you think Cinderella recalls the sound of classics like The King and I or My Fair Lady, you will find that Stephen Oremus’ sound for Cyndi Lauper’s Broadway debut score for Kinky Boots is the latest entry in the modern show music sound that filled theaters and got audiences rocking in shows like Hairspray, The Full Monty and, to an extent, Memphis

This blend of big-theater sound with multiple keyboards and more wind instruments than strings blasts its way into excitement, but manages enough variety to avoid any sense of sameness. I couldn’t count the players in the pit at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre because there are so many baffles to isolate sounds for the microphones, but the Playbill lists 13 players.

Oremus is a more recent arrival on the Great White Way than Troob, with credits for Avenue Q, Wicked, All Shook Up, High Fidelity, 9 to 5 and his Tony Award for The Book of Mormon.  Here his credit is Music Supervisor and Arranger as well as Orchestrator, which gives him the responsibility and credit for the feel of Lauper’s inaugural score.

– – – Matilda  – – –

 The oh-so-Broadway sound of both Cinderella and Kinky Boots is in contrast to the often humorous touches that Chris Nightingale provides for Tim Minchin’s score for the English transfer of a stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book Matilda. The Royal Shakespeare Company produced it to great financial and critical approval in London and that seems to have been matched here on this side of “the pond.”

Not everything Nightingale has turned his talents to has hit this big. His credits include the recent quick-closing Ghost: The Musical, the massive production of The Lord of the Rings that managed a transfer from Toronto to London where it hung on for a year but couldn’t approach a profit, as well as the A. R. Rahman musical Bombay Dreams and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind. All of these have one thing in common – intelligent orchestrations that fit the overall character of the show they serve. Each has a distinctly different sound.

With Matilda, Nightingale gives a semi-music hall bounce to a score that puts a premium on youthful high energy. Minchin’s music has a driving momentum to it while his lyrics need to be understandable even when sung by a chorus of young children … never an easy thing to handle. With the help of Simon Baker’s clear sound design, the words do manage to come across even when the lyrics themselves are  perhaps too clever to be absorbed in a single listen in a theater.

His charts are filled with filigree to highlight the chipperness of songs such “When I Grow Up” and then, when the music turns quietly sentimental (as in “This Little Girl”), it shifts to a bit lusher sound. Nightingale uses the orchestra to underline each blast of over-the-top evil of Bertie Carvel’s performance as the reprehensible “Miss Trunchbull,” but in the theater, the orchestration that struck me most impressively was his driving piano-led chart for “Quiet” which grows and grows from a simple riff to a full blast only to be replaced by well placed silence supported by soft underscoring.

The 14 member orchestra takes part in the curtain call on stage. Their playing is good enough to earn them such recognition, but the real reason for their appearance is to let the audience know that there actually was a live orchestra at the performance for which they paid as much as  $147 a seat (unless they spent more by buying “premium” seats or purchasing through a broker for this often sold out hit.) During the show there’s no visual sign of them as they play off stage.

 – – – Motown  – – –

The final nomination in the category went to the team of Music Supervisor/Arranger Ethan Popp and Co-Orchestrator Bryan Crook for Motown: The Musical. They share a credit for television’s Smash, but on Broadway, Crook only lists playing woodwinds in the orchestra of The Book of Mormon while Popp has the orchestrations of Rock of Ages to his credit. Together they faced a mighty challenge when trying to craft orchestrations for Barry Gordy’s mess of a musical tribute to his own career as a producer of hits by Diana Ross (and the Supremes,) Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and a long, long list of others.

Therein lies the problem for the orchestrator/arranger – so many hits by so many stars. There are 57 songs in this production: more than the three other nominees combined.  Only three are original songs, the other 54 are Motown hits from the decade between 1960′s “Shop Around” and “Bye Bye Baby” and the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There.” Therefore, the audience, who came to hear the Motown sound, already know what the vast majority of those hits sounded like. Cutting them down to even a medley would jar many ears. However, if you delivered them all uncut from their original, the show would run nearly three hours without even any dialogue.

Popp and Crook had the additional problem that some of the songs were put to dramatic uses in the show that were not in line with the tone of their hit versions. The most egregious example of this is the conversion of the hit “War (What is it Good For?)” from an anti-Vietnam protest song into a song about a contract dispute.

Their charts are head and shoulders better than the book for this musical. Perhaps that is why you will find their work nominated for a Tony, but not the show or its book.

These four shows benefited from some sparkling work by the nominees. Only Matilda is yet available on CD and then it is the London cast recording. Apparently, we aren’t going to get a Broadway cast recording of this score. The other three, however, have had their Broadway casts recorded and the albums will be out later this month or early next month.

This year’s Tony Awards will be presented Sunday, June 9.    

Tony Awards: The four Broadway shows nominated for Best Orchestrations