Orchestrating a New Musical: Setup

This post is the first part of a new series that I will be starting on this blog called Orchestrating a New Musical.  We’ll begin today with the Setup, and continue on in the future with the various parts of the Process itself, and finish up with all of the details surrounding Distribution and Logistics.

What Is Orchestration?

I believe it is prudent to define what exactly Orchestrating a New Musical means before we dive in.  For some this may seem obvious.  After all, orchestration is a pretty clear cut craft.  But for others this may be more murky water, so hang tight.

Orchestrating a New Musical refers to the process of taking the score of a new musical and expanding and corroborating and arranging it to be played by an entire orchestra or band.  Orchestrating is most often done by a separate specialist, the orchestrator, rather than the composer, and I will be writing from the perspective of an orchestrator that was not the composer of the music.  This is usually done because the composer of a new musical is already knees-deep in the process of writing and editing the show as rehearsals go on, and does not have the time to orchestrate his own material.  The craft is also rather different from composing, so from an artistic perspective it often makes sense as well.

The orchestrator has to be a chameleon; he or she may be required to orchestrate a rock song followed by a 1920’s big-band jazz piece.  Throughout this series of articles, I hope that this is the one thing that all aspiring orchestrators can learn: versatility and expertise in craft are the most important tools of any orchestrator.

First Analysis

When you (the orchestrator) first get hired to orchestrate a new musical, what happens?  Well, hopefully you’re quickly introduced to the composer and lyricist, and then you go from there.

I find that the most helpful thing to do first is to comb through the score on your own, without the input of the composer and/or lyricist.  Simply read through it, perhaps play the piano part (if there is one).  Get to know the style and tone of the show.  Then, after you have made your own impressions, work with the composer and lyricist to get to the musical heart of the show.  They may have a very clear vision for the show, and present you with a complete instrumentation and suggestions for each song.  Or they may be completely clueless, preferring instead for you to do all of the heavy lifting.  Both of these situations are fine.

If the writers are pushy, and have pre-conceived ideas about what their show should sound like, listen to them, but always filter their demands through your experience and expertise.  If they don’t know what they want, that’s your cue to step up and make suggestions.  Always remember to work with the writers, not against them.

Instrumentation and Setup

The input from the writers feeds directly into the decision of instrumentation, the next step in preparing to orchestrate.  Instrumentation is the art of selecting which instruments will be present in the pit band of a new musical.

Oftentimes instrumentation is chosen out of necessity.  At the amateur and even semi-professional level, instrumentation is based off of what players will be available for the production.  If the team can only put together a pianist, guitarist, drummer, and oboist, that’s your orchestra.

Similarly, if you want a 100-piece romantic orchestra, and the producer can only pay for a 20-piece orchestra (a sight I’d love to see), you can only have 20 players.  Essentially, resources, even more than artistic choices, dictate the instrumentation of the orchestra.

There are a variety of different instrumentations that all work, and the choice really depends on the show and the style of the show.  For a rock-pop musical, one might want to put together a tight, groovin’ band that consists solely of:

  • Piano / Conductor
  • Acoustic / Electric Guitar
  • Electric Bass
  • Drum Kit
  • Keyboard 2

That’s a pretty small pit, but with the right players, that can be all you need.  After all, that’s more or less the instrumentation of most modern pop-rock bands.  Or, if a musical is looking to evoke the huge, roaring swing bands of the 30s, the orchestra might look more like this:

  • Piano
  • Acoustic Bass
  • Hollow-Bodied Electric Guitar
  • Drum Kit
  • Alto Sax / Tenor Sax / Flute / Piccolo
  • Alto Sax / Clarinet / Oboe
  • Tenor Sax / Bari Sax / Clarinet / Bass Clarinet
  • Trumpet 1
  • Trumpet 2
  • Trombone 1
  • Trombone 2

Both of these bands can sound incredible and create beautiful music.  But obviously they won’t create the same music.  Together with the writers, instrumentation is the first task of any orchestrator working on any show.

Once you’ve nailed down the orchestration after talking to the writers and producer, as well as consulting with your own musical choices, the next step is to set everything up so that you’re ready for writing.  I do everything electronically, but others find using the good old fashioned paper and pencil to be more therapeutic.  Regardless, creating a template is the next step.  Make sure that the show title, composer, lyricist, and orchestrator, instrument names and abbreviations, copyright, and other relevant markings are in their and on every page.

After instrumentation has been chosen and your template has been created you’re all set to go!  We’ll go over the first step of the process next time when we revisit Orchestrating a New Musical.

Next month we’ll be taking a look at casting in the community theatre and semi-professional scene.  I wrote an article a few months back about casting in educational theatre, and I feel it’s high time to return to the topic and climb up the ladder a little bit.  Until then, I wish you luck with your new orchestrations!