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Mark Shenton’s top 10 orchestrators and musical directors

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When you watch a musical, a big part of the aural experience is the work done on the sound of it. That’s not just the notes that a composer puts on the page, but also the work of an army of musicians. These may, in fact, be more qualified than the composer – some of whom, like Irving Berlin to Lionel Bart, famously couldn’t read or write music, and have had others transcribe their melodies for them. Those musicians range from orchestrators (who allocate the notes to different instruments and provide much of the musical texture of a score) to musical supervisors (who oversee the hiring of the orchestra or pit band, and watch over the musical implementation of their work) and musical directors (responsible for the night-to-night conducting of a show).

It is inevitably not a full list, but goes part of the way towards honouring the contributions they and many others make to what you hear every night in the West End. It has long been the beef of music departments that they are routinely overlooked in awards ceremonies, from the Tonys to the Oliviers, among the creative teams (set design, costumes and lighting) whose contributions are rewarded.

My top 5 US orchestrators/MDs are:

1. Jonathan Tunick

Tunick’s Broadway career stretches back 57 years – he’s now the grandfather of Broadway orchestrators in the great tradition of Russell Bennett, Ralph Burns and Don Walker. Probably his greatest contribution is his long service with Stephen Sondheim, adding much to what we now know as the Sondheim sound, with shows such as the original productions of Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods and Passion. He also orchestrated the original production of A Chorus Line, and the lushly melodic Maury Yeston scores for Nine and Titanic. According to the New York Post’s Michael Riedel, the famously hotheaded (and infamously disgraced) impresario Garth Drabinsky recently yelled at Tunick in a rehearsal: “Why am I paying you all this money?” to which he replied: “Because I’m one of the greatest orchestrators in the history of Broadway,” before walking out.

2. William David Brohn

This season Miss Saigon returns to Broadway, and a huge part of what gives Claude-Michel Schonberg’s score its sweeping sense of drama are the orchestrations of William David Brohn. He has also done stunning work on the Disney/Mackintosh stage version of Mary Poppins, and his contribution is an essential part of what makes Stephen Schwartz’s score for Wicked fly so high.

3. Michael Starobin

Michael Starobin has also had an important role in Sondheim’s later musicals, orchestrating the gorgeous Sunday in the Park With George, as well as Assassins. He also did Ahrens and Flaherty’s joyful first Broadway score for Once on This Island, the beautifully textured William Finn score for Falsettos, and the modern masterpiece Next to Normal.

4. Paul Gemignani

No musical director is more recognisable leading a Broadway pit band than Paul Gemignani, a veteran whose credits stretch back to the early 1970s. He was the go-to MD for new Sondheim musicals from Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd to Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, Passion and Assassins. But he’s available to hire for numerous other projects, including most recently the revival of She Loves Me at Studio 54.

5. Danny Troob

Troob is Disney’s go-to man for its stage musicals, doing the honours for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and the stage version of Newsies (a live film version of which is being screened on February 19) and The Little Mermaid. Other Broadway credits include Footloose and Shrek.

And my top 5 UK orchestrators/MDs are:

1. Martin Lowe

Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Lowe is one of the most prolific musical supervisors and directors now working in British theatre, lending his talents to projects as various as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the West End-bound Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour for the National Theatre of Scotland, War Horse, the original Broadway production of Once (for which he won the Tony for his orchestrations), Jerry Springer – the Opera and the film version of Mamma Mia!

2. Mike Dixon

Dixon is one of the nicest men in musical theatre, bar none, with credits from We Will Rock You (which he oversees globally) to Mrs Henderson Presents.

3. Gareth Valentine

The UK equivalent of Gemignani, is always in demand in the pit and as musical supervisor. Recent credits include Guys and Dolls (Chichester and West End), City of Angels (Donmar Warehouse) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre).

4. Nick Finlow

Currently musical director and supervisor of Dreamgirls, Finlow is also UK musical supervisor for The Book of Mormon and associate for Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia!

5. Sarah Travis

Travis won a Tony Award for her orchestrations for the 2005 production of Sweeney Todd that originated at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre, and is an expert at making smaller shows sound big.

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