WHAT SHOULD DRAMATISTS KNOW ABOUT WORKING WITH ORCHESTRATORS?

KAREN MULTER - COMPOSER NOV/DEC 2018 THE DRAMATIST - THE MUSICAL THEATRE ISSUE

An orchestrator is one of your most valuable collaborators when defining the artistic soundscape of a new musical. Many are gifted composers in their own right, supreme musicians who will likely have their own musical ideas to bring to the table, and may have an even better understanding of the nuances of an ensemble sound. With this in mind, I think it’s important to lay out a framework for your collaboration. How much input will the composer have as it pertains to orchestrations? Will you be working closely side by side, or does the orchestrator prefer to step away and do their work in solitude? The best will listen closely, try to execute your vision, ask questions, and revise. And in ideal circumstances, you develop a shorthand for how you communicate and work together.

“Remember that shimmery thing that we-“

“Scene two?”

“Yeah, with the-“

“Bell tree?” 

“That’s it.”

We’ve been fortunate to have had just such a longstanding personal and professional relationship with a very gifted orchestrator and arranger in Chicago, Paul Langford. As a frequent collaborator, he’s provided everything from fully digitized orchestrations for demos, to charts for live musicians, to full orchestrations for symphonic work. And through all this, he’s graciously expanded my own orchestrating ambitions through his  mentorship.

For my part, I don’t believe a composer necessarily has to be well-versed in orchestration themselves. In fact, orchestrating is a wholly separate and uniquely trained craft that many musical theatre composers have never been exposed to. However, they should still school themselves as to basic instrumentation. Meaning, have an understanding of the different sound palettes created by various strings, percussion, winds, and brass. That knowledge base fosters a common language that helps you communicate more effectively with your orchestrator.

One more thing; Deadline, budget, and overall tone- this is the orchestrating trifecta. When your orchestrator asks, “What’s the feel of the show?”, they’re looking for cues that lead them to specific instrumentation choices. The answer to that question will also impact budget and deadline. Is it bluegrass? You’ll need at least three guitars in your pit for an authentic sound. The show’s in Paris? Decide whether a live accordion can be handled by a second synthesized keyboard player instead. Your orchestrator’s expertise here is paramount. With trust and mutual respect for each other’s talents, the composer/orchestrator relationship can be a fulfilling and seamless partnership.