As the end of the summer of 2017 looms on the horizon, so does the balance of work on my first full scale, publicly produced theatrical orchestration. What an incredible experience it’s been, easily the most challenging and delightful project I’ve undertaken in my still nascent orchestration career, calling on skills I haven’t utilized to this extent, or at all. The circumstances of both its advent and the results are worth recounting.
A week after this past presidential election, which left me in a severely traumatized state wondering how I and the majority of America were going to find our way through the horror that loomed, providence came to rescue my sanity in the form of the Edmonton Opera in Alberta, Canada. They needed help making some minor orchestration adjustments to one of their upcoming pieces. I was so relieved to have the distraction from the increasingly appalling news cycle that I nearly offered to pay them for the job, rather than the opposite.
As that project neared completion, they broached another with me. Gilbert and Sullivan’s beloved 1878 operetta HMS Pinafore was slated for their upcoming season, but they wanted to give it a fresh spin by recasting it in a 1920’s jazz idiom. The setting would be transferred to a glamorous cruise ship of the period, and the story line tailored accordingly. Would I be interested in giving Sullivan’s score a new, swinging, full orchestration?
Just to put the project in context, let’s review my situation when it was offered to me:
- I’ve had minimal jazz arranging experience, and none with this particular genre.
- My acquaintance with G&S is equally minimal. Outside of Mikado, I know almost none of the canon, and only vestigially the more famous numbers from Pinafore.
- I’ve never yet undertaken a more than one-act show.
- I’ve never single-handedly undertaken a theatrical orchestration for a newly created work involving more than 8 players. (My reductions of existing works don’t fall in this category).
- I’m still working a full time corporate day job five days a week. Meaning I would be undertaking this score at night and on weekends.
So of course my response was, absolutely! Because you never know whether you can do something till you try.
This is not the first attempt at jazzing a G&S work. The Hot Mikado remains very well known, and Pinafore itself has had a few refittings. In 1943 the legendary Broadway orchestrator Don Walker attempted a version titled Memphis Bound with himself as both composer and orchestrator. It incorporates elements from a few other G&S shows and starred the equally legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson leading an all African-American cast. It died a quick death and almost none of the music survives, that I can find.
In 1955, Perry Como had a half hour big band version created for his television show, viewable on youtube. The aesthetic behind this is the late swing, big band era. I have yet to watch the whole thing, as I didn’t want to unintentionally find myself influenced by it.
So as far as I can tell, this is the first Pinafore to use a 1920’s jazz aesthetic.
The first step was to make sure everyone at the opera understood the scope of the project from a musical perspective. Giving a jazz flavor to such a Victorian score wasn’t simply a matter of adding a few saxes and a drum kit to the pit. Aside from the extensive new instrumental dressing, parts of the score would have to be reharmonized, and almost the entire rhythmic structure, including the vocal lines, rewritten. At any rate, a substantial undertaking.
I’m now going to bring up the traditionally unspoken issue of fees, solely to point out the eventual happy result. With the realization that they faced the unanticipated cost of producing almost entirely new vocal scores and orchestral parts, the amount Edmonton could ultimately afford for an orchestration fee would only permit me to do somewhere between one half to two thirds of the existing score, not taking into account expansions that might (and did) arise.
Rather than view this as a hindrance, I embraced this limitation and proposed doing the show deliberately as a hybrid: one half traditional, one half jazzed. This might provide an interesting dramaturgical highlight of the piece’s commentary on class and elitism: the older, gentrified characters retaining their traditional music, and the music of the younger, “lower” characters recolored in jazz, with the whole cast migrating entirely to jazz for a rousing finale.
This proposal was enthusiastically received by the rest of the creative team. A salutary reminder that what can seem like a limitation may actually result in something better! Also to not underestimate the dramaturgical abilities of an orchestrator.
The one unforeseen challenge for me of this hybrid proposal was one of the more unique orchestral complements I’ve worked with so far. To accommodate the jazz side, a rhythm section would be needed: drums, piano, banjo, as well as saxes for period color. The traditional side of the score would require the retention of a full string body, and a trio of upper woodwinds that won’t be doubling. The brass would bridge the two worlds. Ultimately an orchestra of 30 players was defined: considerably larger and richer than the standard dectet that constituted a jazz ensemble of the period. The result is essentially a Golden Era Broadway orchestra and sound, and that is largely how I’ve treated it.
Another fascinating aspect to this project has been its Carrollian work flow. When creating a new musical — which is effectively what’s happening with this project — the typical process would be having the lyricist and composer and book writer come up with the base material, which is then routined and expanded in terms of staging, often to the extent of full workshops with actors and instrumentalists. In the case of major projects, particularly Broadway-bound, those workshops can be multiples across many years. While the orchestrator may be kept abreast or involved in the ongoing process, he or she doesn’t begin proper work until relatively late in the game, at a point when the music and general staging have largely been finalized. This allows the orchestrator to base his or her coloristic and gestural choices off of these elements.
In contrast, this Pinafore necessitated a reversal of that process. Needing sufficient time to extract orchestral material and create the new vocal scores to allow the performers to learn them, the request was for me to fully orchestrate and do vocal arrangements for the designated portions of the score as the very first step, using my own judgement and imagination to make any additions, expansions, condensings, coloristic and gestural choices, with the understanding that the direction and revised libretto would be based off my work. In effect, to stage these numbers in my head on my own, so that my score could reflect the action I imagined. This situation was both empowering and intimidating. Most orchestrators, myself included, prefer to have some kind of staging or character definition to inspire their choices, since orchestration should ultimately reflect the character or stage action. Being given almost carte blanche brought me occasionally to a halt, a situation happily resolved as director Rob Herriott began to share his thoughts for this or that number and we bounced ideas off each other.
So that’s been my summer of 2017, spent largely as a shut in. Accomplishing this hefty undertaking while keeping up my full time corporate day job has meant sacrificing almost any social life for the last three months, a situation I’m very much looking forward to making up for once while I’m on my annual summer trip to Nantucket. As well as devoting my energies again to my own concert works.
But what a trip! Immersing myself in the musical vernacular of the period, living with the period’s great recording artists – Fletcher Henderson, King Oliver, Satch, Irving Aranson, Paul Whiteman, Jean Goldkette, and even better the living keepers of the flame, principally Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks. Sitting in this summer on their weekly gigs at the Cafe Iguana in New York’s theater district has been the most amazing, intoxicating and invaluable learning experience and has made all the difference to this score, while Vince himself has been unfailingly generous with his advice. If you’re in New York and are at loose ends on a Monday or Tuesday, I can’t recommend this superb group enough.