You don’t seem to get it

A hue and cry was heard throughout the land, and the powers-that-be responded, making the clamored-for change.  Good news, indeed.

But a very small part of that relatable righteous hue was an incidental insult to a couple of musical theatre writers, and, coming from another musical theatre writer, it needs to be addressed. 

But first, the victory: An organization of modest size presents, annually, Drama Desk awards to theatre people.  For decades, there’s been a prize for best orchestrations, but, this year, they decided not to give the award.  Which led to a lot of outrage, from past recipients, from composers, from orchestrators.  Happily, they reversed themselves, and, after a few days, announced nominees.

Over the past year, I taught myself to orchestrate.  The December production of The Christmas Bride in Portland required a new orchestration.  Previously, I’d orchestrated my Popsicle Palace, but the premiere run, in Glendale, California, used it on a pre-recorded accompaniment track: a somewhat different task.  In becoming a composer who also orchestrates, I joined a very exclusive club.  Most composers haven’t learned this specialized craft.  I can think of only one Broadway composer who regularly orchestrated his own work, Kurt Weill, and he came out of the serious classical training tradition in Germany at the beginning of the century.  Leonard Bernstein could orchestrate; Andrew Lloyd Webber has received credit for orchestrating some of his works; Jason Robert Brown has served in both capacities.

Brown devoted a blog post to the Drama Desk’s egregious omission, and said a lot of nice things about orchestrators.  But one passage gave me pause:

I doubt that most non-musicians are aware of the extent to which the music directors and orchestrators shape the scores of shows. In the case of Bonnie and Clyde and Once, for example, the composers of those shows cannot (to the best of my knowledge) read or notate music. They do not have the language to communicate with an orchestra how to play their songs. They don’t have any vocabulary about building a cohesive musical universe on stage. There is a vast reservoir of technical and theatrical information that the music staff brings to bear on the songs those composers write in order to make a “score” out of them.

This may not have been his intention, but it certainly sounds, here, as if Brown is maintaining that, among his other duties, the orchestrator has something to do with the process of putting the non-notating composer’s notes on a page.  This is absolutely not something any orchestrator is supposed to be doing, and it certainly has no bearing on whether his work deserves a award.  In the two sentences beginning with “They” Brown tells outright lies, which certainly doesn’t bolster his argument, and insults the many non-notating composers who’ve managed to create wonderful scores for the theatre.

Boy, it’s a pain in the neck to keep typing “non-notating composer” so, I hope it’s OK if I call such people naifs.  In choosing a term from the art world, I’m not making a value judgment – as you’ll see, this gets to be a big issue.  A scribe, for our purposes, is one who notates music for a naif, who cannot.  I’ll also delineate arrangers and orchestrators.

Some of my favorite Broadway shows, and, I’ll bet, some of your favorite Broadway shows, were written by naifs.  Like the Beatles?  They were naifs.  From Irving Berlin to Willian Finn, naifs abound. My father’s favorite Broadway show, Take Me Along, was written by Bob Merrill on a toy xylophone. I kid you not. Merrill’s method was to figure out the notes he wanted on a child’s xylophone, which had letters (A-G#) on the keys. He’d write down the letters of the notes and hand it off to a scribe who turned it into either a lead sheet or a full piano score, I know not which. The next part of the process is to arrange the piece, and you don’t have to know how to notate to formulate good ideas about arrangements. Arrangers deal with the structure of the score. Once the score has been arranged, it’s handed off to the orchestrator, who decides which instruments will play the various notes in the score. Complicating this whole thing is that people’s roles often overlap. Composers arrange, or maybe the scribe can do it, and a lot of orchestrators know a great deal about arranging. But orchestration, and any award given for it, has to do with the craft of getting various sonic colors out of a musical ensemble, whether it’s orchestra-sized or not.

The top dog in the hierarchy is always the composer. If she doesn’t like what she hears – and she’ll likely hear everything at every stage of development – she can send the other members of the music staff back to the drawing board. Typically, when a naif is in a rock band, there’s a truly collaborative effort to develop a sound, which is why Brown’s statements about what naifs can’t do are so ridiculous.

They do not have the language to communicate with an orchestra how to play their songs. They don’t have any vocabulary about building a cohesive musical universe on stage.

One gets a sense that he’s jealous of Frank Wildhorn (who, many years ago, wrote such pop hits as Where Do Broken Hearts Go?) and the Oscar-winning (for Best Song) creators of the very well-received new Broadway musical, Once, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Or perhaps he’s mad that he had to study to learn the rudiments of music and the skill of orchestration, while naifs succeed sans education.

There’s a whole lot of things you probably ought to know in order to create a musical. But you don’t have to know the whole lot in order to become very successful. And that’s a wonderful thing about this business of musicals. It’s something we all should celebrate. Just like we should celebrate the fine work of this season’s orchestrators.

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