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Rob Halliday: As Bill Brohn showed, orchestrators perform a special kind of magic

Miss Saigon, Prince Edward Theatre The recent West End production of Miss Saigon, one of the musicals orchestrated by Bill Brohn. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Perhaps stage wizardry only seems like magic if you can’t figure out how it’s done. And to some, theatrical lighting may feel like magic. To me, though, there are really only two theatrical ‘dark arts’.

One is pyrotechnics: how do you know that the firework you’re making will look like you want it to, and how do you make it explode in time with the music?

The other is orchestration. The tunes in a show are the ones the composer wrote, of course. But what you actually hear is the result of a very special collaboration between the composer and the person who then moulds the tune across an orchestra, choosing which sounds, which combination of sounds, best emphasise each and every moment, best help support the singers, and best help tell the story.

One of the best of these magicians was the late Bill Brohn. Somehow, I’d missed the news of his death – it was a shock to me when his name appeared in the memorial section of this year’s Olivier Awards.

Like many of the most talented people, Bill was a completely unassuming gentleman. I was lucky enough to get to watch him at work on shows including Miss Saigon, My Fair Lady, the second Martin Guerre (if you want to understand an orchestrator’s contribution, compare the two recorded versions of that show) and Mary Poppins.

One of the privileges of being involved in big productions in any capacity is getting to see how many different talents it takes to pull a show together. Brohn was always happy to talk but – again, like so many of the most talented people – didn’t necessarily want or know how to describe how he actually did what he did.

It just happened. A tune meeting a story, meeting the story’s time period, intersecting with a library of sounds in his head… It all combined to create the sound of the show. We musical lovers can probably whistle or hum the tunes, but the sound we hear in our head is the tune brought to life by the orchestra, and so by the orchestrator.

A particular talent of Bill’s, it seems to me, was that his mental library went far beyond the traditional, familiar range of orchestral sounds, exemplified by the epic percussion section that was an integral part of Miss Saigon.

He also seemed to have a particular fondness for the piano: I remember two grand pianos squeezed into the pit for the original Mary Poppins. The instrument was also the defining sound of his remarkable work on Ragtime. It’s rare that an orchestration takes its own bow, but on the last, bonus track of the original Ragtime cast recording, a vocal-free montage of the show’s music, it gets to do exactly that.

Sadly, you’ve just missed a lovely tribute to Brohn’s talent: the Royal Academy of Music’s production of Sweet Smell of Success using his original orchestrations, in the academy’s beautiful new theatre. A 19-piece orchestra at full tilt supporting wonderful singers in an auditorium seating just 300. Now that is quite a treat.

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