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  • Steven Suskin: The Sound of Broadway MusicSome jobs in the theatre are defined most by whether you don't notice the work from the audience: acting (well, arguably) and lighting design, as two prime examples. Not so the occupation of orchestrator: His job is to ensure that you will notice the music to the fullest extent of the composer's vision. Sure, that sometimes means that he has to cede credit to the person or people who actually wrote the tunes and lyrics, but when has piano accompaniment ever seriously compared to a full-orchestra blowout?

    That's the problem most orchestrators face: No one understands what they do, how they do it, or even who is doing it. Steven Suskin's new book, The Sound of Broadway Music (Oxford, 664pp.), will forever change that for lovers of musical theatre. This is probably the most valuable theatre book ever written about a subject you never considered precious. Suskin, a tireless congregator of in-depth information on enthusiast subjects (his books include Opening Nights on Broadway, two collections of decades of reviews from all major critics; Show Tunes, an exhaustive encyclopedia of stage music; and Second Act Trouble, a journalistic examination of famous flops), and a vital contributor to Variety and Playbill On-Line, dives headfirst into the who, why, when, how, and most importantly what of the men who transform raw notes into the specific sounds theatregoers just can't get out of their hands.

    He describes, in as-intense-as-possible detail, the professional and (when possible) personal histories of the 12 most important orchestrators of the Broadway musical's Golden Age: (Robert) Russell Bennett, Ralph Burns, Robert "Red" Ginzler, Hershy Kay, Irwin "Irv" Kostal, Philip J. Lang, Sid Ramin, Ted Royal, Eddie Sauter, Hans Spialek, Don Walker, and Larry Wilcox. If you don't know their names, or except in a few cases (most likely the first two) you can't pin down the shows they worked on, you're excused. But you'll never have that trouble again after reading this book. Browsing the two-page list of shows Bennett worked on, for example, is an eye-popping education in one of the theatre's most underappreciated transformative forces. The energy with which Suskin describes Burns as the "only one of the Broadway regulars [who] sits in with American music legends" and then proves it is enough to make you immediately want to replay cast recordings of Chicago, Funny Girl, and Sweet Charity.

    In any case, you shouldn't stray far from your CD rack or your iTunes window while reading the book. Suskin brings a musician's ear and experience to his explanations of what various types of instrumentation mean, how individual instruments are chosen, and what the overall effect is, but the easiest way to absorb what he's saying is to hear it. After you learn how the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic Carousel had two major orchestrators, play the original cast recording and compare Bennett's orchestrations of two key numbers with later recordings that use exclusively Walker's—there's no better way to understand the nuance and necessity of the orchestrator's art.

    In an attempt to present every facet, Suskin doesn't avoid gossip or twice-spun stories—for many of these people and shows, very little concrete public information has survived. That scuttlebutt is always most interesting when Suskin uses it to show how these men shaped their industry. You learn, for example, how Walker's monetary demands forever changed the orchestration business; why so many consider Lang (who worked on shows as popular and prestigious as Annie, Camelot, and Hello, Dolly!) at best a generic talent; and why the single most-charted show was the seemingly innocuous Annie Get Your Gun (with a total of 79 surviving orchestrations for 21 musical numbers—roughly twice the usual average). Suskin also has transcribed interviews he conducted (and reprinted those written by others, in some cases autobiographically) with his subjects and other Broadway professionals who worked with them to provide crucial context.

    Suskin also provides a solid general education on even lesser-sung musical jobs: He explains, for example, what makes an orchestrator different from an arranger, and what copyists, dance arrangers, vocal arrangers, and musical directors and music supervisors were likewise instrumental in creating the sound of Broadway during its musical heyday. A full chapter is devoted to explaining the complex relationship between composer and orchestrator, following the path of a tune from its creators' fingertips at the piano to its performance in the theater with a full orchestra and even as part of the overture. It's a technical rundown, yes, but a fascinating one that has never (to my knowledge, at least) appeared anywhere else in as comprehensive a form.

    As much as there is here for every musical lover to enjoy, this is ultimately a text (that could, and probably should, be used in college theatre programs), and that means the writing tends to be cooler and stiffer than you might get if, say, Ethan Mordden had tackled the subject. This isn't a problem per se, but the style does reject some of Suskin's personal asides—most notably a fascinating, if utterly incongruous, rundown of what it was like to sit in the pit during a performance of Sweeney Todd at the Kennedy Center in 2002—and doesn't always make the book a page turner. Even diehards will probably find their attention waning after the first 150 pages or so; the pacing and construction are seldom scintillating, and discourage casual reading.

    Even so, this book is ultimately irreplaceable, particularly because of its "What's the Score?" chapter. In this section, which consumes over half the book, Suskin lists hundreds of Broadway musicals and astonishingly detailed dissections of its primary orchestrators, what ghosts might have worked without official credit, and who scored what under what circumstances. It's here that The Sound of Broadway Music becomes a gripping page-turner, as each new show yields more secrets and revelations that expand on the fabric of the musical theatre you were sure you already understood. You might be shocked to discover that your favorite songs weren't scored by who you assumed—wait, Lang really did "Dance Ten, Looks Three" and Walker orchestrated that much of Kiss Me, Kate?—or you might merely be amused by some of the anecdotes that pepper the pages (Burns's instructions to the trumpeter for "All That Jazz": "growl plunger solo, give it all hot; quasi Cootie Williams). Or you might uncover bits of sad backstory about unexpected and underapprecited titles. (Things did not go well for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.)

    Ultimately, Suskin music shows you sides of these songs you've never before known, and will change the way you perceive shows of the past, present, and future. That's the only unfortunate side effect of The Sound of Broadway: Except in the rarest cases, current orchestrators no longer have as many instruments and colors as did their trailblazing forbears. The richness of Bennett, the brass of Burns, the roiling steam of Ramin and Kostal don't exist in a comparable way in today's theatre. Producers (and undereducated audiences) might not be able to discern the difference between 12 pieces and 30 in any way except ledger ink, but anyone who opens an ear—and Suskin's book—will be as aware of what we're in danger of losing as of the rich beauty we should all be glad the Broadway musical ever had at all.

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