Friday, October 16, 2015

Kiss Me, Kate: The Orchestra

Two nights before the first ever public performance of Kiss Me, Kate, the company had a complete run-through of the show, including songs and dances, but without costumes, scenery or the orchestra. The music was played by a rehearsal pianist.

 The show’s producers had several notables observing from the darkened auditorium, in order to get their reactions. Eminent playwright and director Moss Hart thought it was a disaster. So did eminent choreographer Agnes de Mille. So did others.  The cast knew nothing of this, but nevertheless some also had their doubts about the show.

 The first performances were in Philadelphia, a tryout before Broadway. From the first night, the show was a major hit with critics and audiences. After being held over for three weeks in Philadelphia, the same response was repeated on Broadway: immediate success, and eventually one of the longest running shows in Broadway history to that point.

 What was the difference? Writes Cole Porter biographer William McBrien, quoting the female lead of the show, “Pat Morison recalled that only in Philadelphia, when the cast heard the orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett for the first time, did they realize what a brilliant show Kate was.”

Robert Russell Bennett
 “We’re going to fill up that pit in the Van Duzer Theatre with players,” said Paul Cummings, Kiss Me Kate musical co-director for the HSU production, and its orchestra conductor. “We’re using the original full Broadway orchestration. The show was revised in 1999 and it’s difficult to know just what changes were made. But by and large I think we’re dealing with the 1948 orchestration by Robert Russell Bennett.”

 “Bennett did most of the major Broadway orchestrations from 1945 to 1965. He was the go-to guy, an absolutely brilliant orchestrator.”

 “ Bennett often doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his creative contribution because he’s listed as an arranger or orchestrator. But a Broadway orchestrator was more than a guy who transcribed notes to instruments—he actually did some composing. In fact he is responsible more than anyone else for the sounds that live in our memory from many famous Broadway shows in that 20 year period, including Kiss Me, Kate.”

 “It’s very difficult music. There are many uptempo dance numbers with the notes just flying across the page. There’s lots of great lyricism in this score, lots of great tunes. The ballads are beautiful, lovely vehicles for the lead singers.”

 Twenty community and HSU student players will be in the pit, but the range of instruments will be even greater than that number. “Not only is the music freakishly difficult, many will be playing it on five or six different instruments. So as soon as you’ve finished 25 measures on tenor sax, you switch to an English horn, then to an oboe, and then to a soprano saxophone.”

“So it’s very challenging, but we’re happy to be doing the original orchestration. Often these shows are watered down to a combo or a few synthesizers and a drum machine. If you go to a New York show now you’re likely to see four or five instruments in the pit, two of which are synthesizers, one a drum machine and maybe a bass and guitar. You’re not likely to see any woodwind or brass instruments.”

 “That probably is an economic issue more than anything, but in a university setting we do try to do things as the original calls for. It’s especially rewarding to be doing Bennett’s original orchestration because it’s great writing. It fits the instruments, and players can tell.”

 “So nobody whines or complains, or says why am I switching to oboe when this could have been done on clarinet. The music fits the instrument it is written for. That’s true in his own compositions as well. He has total command of what each instrument is capable of. That’s the genius of Robert Russell Bennett.”

No comments: