Putting It Together
Carol Burnett and director Eric D. Schaeffer discuss the revised version of the revue in Los Angeles
News & Notes
Wise Guys gets another reading in N.Y.; there’s talk about a Night Music revival on Broadway; Grammer to be Sweeney
“Maria” and “Tony” are going to get married
Teri Ralston recalls Night Music and Company
A student group at Oxford finds Company relevant for their times
Two productions of Into the Woods at the Fringe
The story of one of Sondheim’s most interesting works
The lighting director recalls the challenge of putting it on in a pool
A concert version of The Frogs in London
The Sondheim Scrapbook
Michael Starobin talks about orchestrating Sunday in the Park with George and Assassins
Len Cariou recalls the creation of Sweeney Todd
Meryle Secrest writes about the perilous preview period for Passion
How a Sondheim fan became a Sondheim performer
Trotter focuses on Follies; Sondheim at the Mackintosh tribute
For Your Amusement
The solution to last issue’s Sondheim puzzle
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
Starobin talks about Sunday, Assassins
By Sean Patrick Flahaven
Michael Starobin’s work is heard in Broadway houses, movie theaters and, if you have a young child, probably your own home on a regular basis (among other Disney films, he orchestrated Hunchback of Notre Dame). Starobin is one of the most prominent orchestrators working on Broadway and in film today, but he is best known to readers of The Sondheim Review as the orchestrator of the two landmark musicals of Sondheim’s “latter” period, Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and Assassins (1990).
Starobin’s association with Sondheim came via director/librettist James Lapine. For many years, Starobin has been the exclusive arranger/orchestrator for composer/lyricist/bookwriter William Finn, author of the “Marvin Trilogy” musicals, two of which became Falsettos. Lapine directed and co-wrote the books for several of Finn’s shows.
“I got to know Lapine when he did March of the Falsettos,” Starobin said. “When Sondheim was starting in on Sunday, I think Jonathan [Tunick, Sondheim’s longtime orchestrator] had a conflict, and Stephen wanted to work with new people. Lapine really pushed for me, but I had to audition. I orchestrated four songs for Stephen, and he said, ‘Okay, we’ll try it.’ If I had any idea of the size of what I was getting into, I would have freaked out. My ignorance at that stage was a real blessing because I tried more things as an orchestrator than I had before. I stepped up to the challenge and swung the bat more wildly than an experienced orchestrator would have. I had some wild strikes, but because of the attempts, I did some things
that I don’t think I’ve done as well since.
“A lot of what I did in ‘Beautiful’ stayed in, though some of what I didn’t use was pretty wild. Stephen told me that I didn’t need to ‘help’ the songs, I needed to ‘support’ them–they didn’t need ‘help.’ So I learned to do that and at the same time be creative in my own way. Which is to say, Stephen is open to others’ creativity and input, as good theater collaborators are. Once I learned not to get in the way and to orchestrate the dramatic intent and the lyric as well as the musical style, then it became clear that I could be as creative as I wanted. Sunday was the show when I learned that lesson–an orchestrator’s musical impulses have to support the composer’s dramatic intent.”
Starobin grew up on Long Island and went to Bennington College. A musical he wrote in his senior year was brought to Finn’s attention.
“Billy climbed the five flights to my apartment and offered me $50 a week to music-direct and orchestrate his new musical. I said ‘$75,’ and he said, ‘You got it.’ That was In Trousers. Rehearsals started at 11 p.m. and went until 4 a.m., with Billy playing the lead, Mary Testa, Alison Fraser and Kate Pessek. It was a workshop–later Chip Zien took over Billy’s part.
“That’s how I learned to orchestrate. I was trained as a classical composer, but unlike most orchestrators, I wasn’t a jazz musician. I had never taken a course in orchestration. It was just something I picked up because someone needed to write the charts; luckily, I had an aptitude for it. It was more interesting to me than music directing, which is a great job, but there’s a lot of sitting around and waiting. With orchestration, you go home and do your work.
“Stephen has surrounded himself with two of the best musicians in the theater: Paul [Gemignani] and Jonathan [Tunick]. I only got to work with Jonathan once, but I’ve learned immense amounts from both of them. Paul’s instincts go unrecognized because most people think the music director just guides the performance, but there’s a lot more underneath: the underscoring, the pacing and dealing with the composer’s wishes during the rehearsals. It’s a job that has creative elements because you’re creating incidental music, shaping songs, changing arrangements before they go to the orchestrator, and then ‘driving the ship’ in performance. There’s no greater thrill than conducting a show.
“The thing I learned from Paul was that you don’t conduct songs, you conduct acts–shaping the entire arc of the show. I watched that happen during Sunday. A lot of music directors don’t get that.
“[Hearing my orchestrations for Sunday on Broadway] was a gas, but it was frustrating because it was a closed [orchestra] pit. Almost none of the sound gets out acoustically. You have to rely on the sound designer, who was great for that show, but it’s a general frustration for an orchestrator that you write for live instruments, but the sound comes out of speakers.
“In the original workshop, there was a trumpet player, Phil Granger, who stood offstage and played the fanfare at the end of the song ‘Sunday.’ I loved the trumpet doing it, but when we did the show for Broadway, I thought that there wasn’t enough to do the show with one trumpet. A French horn was more useful. The horn player on Broadway, Ron Sell, said that he could use a special B-flat horn and play it up an octave, which is what he did. So now I have a reputation for writing impossible horn parts because a lot of players don’t have that option. I liked the trumpet at the end of the first act because it cut through in a
blaze of light, so we used it on the recording. A lot of effects and decisions are completely results of expediency at the time.”
In his Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals, Stephen Banfield supposes that the eleven instruments in the pit match Seurat’s eleven colors. Starobin’s response: “I used eleven players because that’s how many they told me I could have at the Booth Theater with its tiny pit.”
As the Broadway production of Sunday neared and previews began, Sondheim was still writing songs for the second act. Starobin then had to orchestrate them as quickly as possible. “You’re always in manic mode. Orchestration is a job where you have four weeks to do six weeks of work. I was caught up by the end, though, waiting for Steve. ‘Children and Art’ and ‘Lesson #8’ went in three days before the critics came. So the songs were put in without orchestrations over the weekend, and I finished them in a few days.”
After Sunday, Starobin did three legendary flop shows on Broadway in a row: Rags, Carrie, and Legs Diamond. “I told my wife at the time that I didn’t think I’d ever work again. Luckily, no one cares if you orchestrate a flop.”
In 1985, Starobin was hired to music direct Lapine’s revival of Merrily We Roll Along at La Jolla Playhouse. It was this successful first revival that led to the revisions that Sondheim and Furth later made to the show. Then, because of his work on Sunday and Merrily, Starobin was asked to orchestrate Assassins.
“We tried to do the same thing in the pit with Assassins as we did with the workshop of Sunday, which was Paul Ford on piano, Paul Gemignani on percussion and me on synthesizer, filling things out a little. The difference was that Sunday at [off-Broadway’s] Playwrights Horizons was just a workshop of the first act and a bit of the second. There were no critics. We made the mistake with Assassins in having a fully designed off-Broadway show doing the same kind of improv orchestration, but we had critics. It should have been done as a presentation and kept the critics away until the transfer.
“Both Sunday and Assassins were similar in that the writing of them was a discovery of what the shows were about. That’s one of the things I love about being in on the development of a new musical–watching the writers discover what a show is and what direction it’s taking. I think, if anything, Sunday was a little shakier finding its feet. Assassins was more about how to musicalize all the assassins’ stories. Sunday was finding what the show, particularly the second act, was about. Some of the actors in the workshop of Sunday were surprised that the show wasn’t finished–they thought the workshop was a backers’ audition. In a good workshop, the writers are going in with questions of their own and experimenting. To me, it’s the most exciting process.”
As with his other orchestrators, Sondheim does not specify instrumentation. “Steve gives a fully composed piano sketch with all the harmonies and moving inner voices. He rarely indicates an instrument he wants, unless it has a specific, dramatic reason, like the horn in Sunday. The difficulty, as I’m sure Jonathan would agree, is that Steve often writes for pianistic figures that don’t always work directly for orchestral textures, so that involves some re-thinking.
“In recent years, he has also written a lot of gnarly dissonances, like a major chord with a suspension and the third together. A lot of that works great on piano, but when it comes to voicing it orchestrally, it’s hard to take it off the keyboard. In the last couple of shows, Jonathan and I have not been given large bands in the pit. Sunday was eleven players, Into the Woods was fifteen, Assassins we never got to except the recording, Passion was fifteen. I don’t think Stephen has had a show with a full Broadway band since Merrily. The integral problem in orchestrating his music now is the keyboard dissonance. I assign them to the keyboard or synthesizer, or sometimes I have to leave out notes.
“I actually find the translation of the composer’s specific notes only the beginning of the orchestration. To me, what’s more interesting is reading his dramatic intention and carrying it through with counterpoint. For instance, with ‘Move On,’ that wonderful piano score he wrote with moving harmonies became that predominantly eighth-note piano part. Finding that energy of exultation and inspiration that he’s expressing in the piano score and responding to it with my own lines that carry forward his intention . To me, that’s the magic–translating what the composer’s saying in your own voice.”
Starobin often eschews electronics while orchestrating. “I only use a sequencer if I’m working on a pop arrangement where the groove is important. I find inputting orchestrations in Finale [music notation software] too slow, and the monitors are always too small to see two full pages. I need to see the whole score spread out to judge the overall weight of orchestration. I can’t orchestrate with sampled pianos either, because the harmonies don’t ‘interact’ since they’re not being created by simultaneous vibrating strings, affecting each other. Instead, the sound comes from samples of 5 strings being played together. If I use acoustic piano, I can hear the instruments in my head better.
“The ears of theatergoers are somewhat sophisticated, and samplers just won’t do the job. String, brass and even piano samples are made with pop music in mind, and so subtle textures are impossible, like the Ravel and Herrmann influences that Steve and Jonathan used for Sweeney. Out in the hinterlands, though, they’re using sequenced music for the entire show, where someone starts the machine and everyone sings in tempo, which is inflexible. To me, that kills theater and the idea of live performance.”
When Assassins closed its scheduled brief run at Playwrights Horizons, Starobin initially feared that he would not get a chance to orchestrate the show beyond his synthesizer improvisations. “There was a desperate attempt to transfer Assassins, which fell through. BMG, which had been RCA, wanted to do a cast album anyway, and had to pay for orchestrations, since none had been done. Usually, the record company would pay a re-use fee for the orchestrations that had been used. It also meant that since we were only hiring players for a recording and not a long run, we could hire more of them. We used groups ranging from twenty-five to thirty-five pieces, depending on the song. The show would have been done with eight or nine pieces. The orchestrations that are licensed by Music Theater International are the reductions I did for the London production.
“When Stephen was at the sessions and heard the orchestrations, he said that I was like a little kid set loose in the toy store. He liked what I did, though, and didn’t make me take much out. I tend to be unrestrained in my enthusiasm in orchestrating. Whereas Jonathan might be seen as an Expressionist painter, adding the perfect, controlled touches, I might be seen either as a sculptor starting with a huge block and whittling it down or, as Jackson Pollack, just piling it on until it’s right. I respect both methods, and I think Jonathan does, too. It’s nice to see someone who does their job well, even if it’s not your way.
“The key is simplicity and economy of expression. Look at ‘Color and Light’–it’s a single note against George singing. I thought of all kinds of percussion stuff, like a different sound for each color. All of that looks great on the page but sounds awful. I learned a lot of the slight colorations of percussion from Gemignani.
“Stephen is fond of writing cells and motifs and developing them. Much of Assassins comes from ‘Hail to the Chief.’ As an orchestrator, I quote bits of other songs in the show. All of that is cute and clever, but it’s neither important nor harmful. It gives the score unification, but unification of intent and style is more important–the emotions captured in those motifs that he caught and brought out.”
Starobin said he used to be known as a “young orchestrator” and people would say: “If you want someone young and different, get Starobin!” Now, I’m in the middle. I’m not a classic dean like Jonathan and I’m not one of the fresh young faces like the Besterman brothers. What’s nice is that we all know each other and talk sometimes. I don’t think we’re as close as the old guys used to be, all in the same room. You can even see that in A Chorus Line: Marvin Hamlisch brought in a different orchestrator for almost each number. Now, we’re all supposed to be jacks-of-all-trades. That’s fun, but it would be good to be in a room with my peers, too.
“I stay active as a composer, but my living is as an orchestrator. The job is so much fun–you get your own opening night, which is the sitzprobe [the first time the actors sing with the orchestra]. It’s a very exciting time in the midst of a dreary tech period when you get to revitalize the production with a whole new world of sound. You get to hear your work, which many composers don’t get to do. You get to work with all the great composers and writers of the Broadway theater and all the great pit musicians. You don’t have to be at every rehearsal like a director or perform like a music director.
“I’ve found the shows that I’ve orchestrated best are the ones I’ve played in, like Sunday and Assassins, knowing the score as well as anyone in the production. Usually, you go to a reading, agree to do the show, go to rehearsal and wait to get new songs. When I get the song, I have to get it in my ears and hands first. As a rehearsal pianist for Sunday, it was a real challenge keeping up with Paul Ford, but it was in my hands.”
Starobin orchestrated four songs from Sondheim and William Goldman’s television musical Evening Primrose for Mandy Patinkin’s Dress Casual album. “I loved doing those. I overdid it on ‘If You Can Find Me I’m Here,’ which I’d like to redo someday, but the others turned out well. It was hard doing ‘I Remember’ because so many people know it from auditions and cabarets. I’m most proud of the ‘Take Me To The World’ chart.”
Starobin won a Drama Desk Award for his orchestrations for Sunday in 1984 and a Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Award for his orchestrations for In Trousers in 1985. He has been nominated for many other Drama Desk Awards for orchestration since 1985.
Starobin’s work is represented on nearly thirty recordings. He has worked with many major theater composers, including Stephen Schwartz, Alan Menken, Charles Strouse, Stephen Flaherty, David Shire and Michael John LaChiusa. He has orchestrated several recent Disney animated features and composed many documentary film scores.
His latest projects include orchestrations for the new Finn/Lapine musical, A New Brain, at Lincoln Center Theater and the stage adaptation of Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, with book and direction by Lapine, music by Menken and lyrics by Schwartz.
Sean Patrick Flahaven writes musicals in New York City and is the associate editor of The Sondheim Review