This is an article I wrote for the Sondheim Review that was published in their Summer 2004 issue (Vol.11, #1)
Assassins was produced off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in early 1991. I worked on that production , but not as an orchestrator. Assassins was done in circumstances similar to the development of Sunday in the Park with George. Both shows were produced in a 150-seat house. Both were performed without orchestration; Paul Gemignani conducted from a percussion setup; Paul Ford played piano; and I played synthesizer. The difference was that Sunday was done as a workshop and never opened to the press; Assassins opened as a finished production.
Despite the lack of a Broadway transfer for Assassins (and the breakout of the first Gulf War), BMG committed to a cast recording. Orchestrations were prepared for that CD. This was a very unusual situation: Most shows are orchestrated for the stage, and the orchestra may be slightly supplemented for the cast recording. In that case, we were given a chance to use a larger orchestra and to design the orchestrations specifically for recording.
This situation was particularly beneficial to Assassins. The show is not a “book musical” (though it has a wonderful and original book by John Weidman). It is really a revue in structure, with the various presidential assassins interacting or telling their stories. Towards the end, the show coalesces into a unified whole as all the assassins speak/sing in a single angry voice.
As a result, the score does not function in the traditional manner of moving a plot forward or showing character development. Instead, it is a series of set pieces, telling individual stories and articulating some of the darker themes of American history. Like many revue scores, the songs are in a variety of styles: folk ballads, marches, Copland-esque hoedowns, and even a contemporary pop ballad. This eclecticism captures the range of American music in a manner reminiscent of the music of Charles Ives.
The challenge for the orchestrator of Assassins is to capture the variety of styles. The larger orchestra in the studio was an asset. A larger brass section was available for the Sousa strains in “How I Saved Roosevelt.” A full string section was useful for “Unworthy of Your Love.” Various bluegrass instruments (harmonica, banjo, country fiddle) were used for “The Ballad of Booth”. Such an orchestration might not work in a theater, but it provided the recording with a gamut of textures to suggest the scope of American history that runs through the play.
Personally, I do not think cast CDs should make you feel like you’re in the theater. They should be a presentation of the score, and the songs should be adapted to being an aural experience, rather than a theatrical experience. It is up to the listener to infer the show from the score, using the same kind of imagination early radio listeners used to create a theater of the imagination.
The challenge of re-orchestrating the revival of Assassins — to adapt this aural experience into a theatrical one — is in the opposite direction than is usual with a cast CD. The revival has an orchestra of 13, not 35, and there is a huge difference between live theater mixing and CD post-production mixing. There were also differences in production and cast. In particular, some songs were interpreted differently from the original production and the earlier cast recording.
And the process also involved moving away from the presentation of the songs as aural experiences that stand on their own, and into songs that make room for staging and physical presence (including the set). The tension between musical values and theatrical values, which are not always in agreement, had to be balanced.
(It should be noted that an eight-piece reduction of the CD orchestrations was prepared for stock and amateur rentals. This reduction was also used for the London premiere at the Donmar Warehouse. I have always felt that eight was too small a number for the score of Assassins, and I don’t think that reduction is very successful).
All things being possible, would Assassins work in a theater with a 35-piece band? I don’t think so. I think the musical values of the score would overcome the theatrical element. Volume issues aside, I think the textures of a full orchestra would give an epic size to this gathering of nine of American history’s darkest characters. And there is a certain intimacy to their physical gathering on the stage. Of course, it’s a moot point: The economics of Broadway would never allow a band of 35. The Roundabout Theatre committed to 13 players, which was actually quite generous for the house where the show is being produced. (Studio 54, a theater originally built as an opera house, has also been an infamous nightclub.)
When a Broadway orchestra drops below 22 or 23, an orchestrator must first question the use of a string section. The smallest practical string section is seven or eight, which is not possible in a band of 13. The next possibility is a chamber sound, using a string quartet or quintet. This is appropriate for a score where a lighter, more refined quality is desired. (The quartet was appropriate in Sunday, though the more impassioned moments, “Move On” and the finale always asked for a full section sound.) Such a refined chamber sound isn’t right for the Americana styles in Assassins.
The next consideration is the possibility of a solo string player (violin or cello). I seriously considered using a solo violin because of the bluegrass fiddling in “The Ballad of Booth.” But the economy of orchestrating rarely allows you to use a player who is only applicable for one or two numbers. So I decided to orchestrate Assassins without any strings at all except for a double bass. There is some use of synthesizers to replace a few strings lines, particularly in “Unworthy of Your Love” in which the ersatz quality of the synthesis is true to the pop ballad genre. But in general, the warmth and “orchestral-ness” of a string section was sacrificed for this stage version. (It should be noted that strings are often the best orchestral section for doing counterpoints and vocal doublings that don’t get in the way of lyrics.)
After the choice of no strings, the rest of the band easily fell into place:
Woodwinds (4): Woodwinds are the workhorse of Broadway textures. Broadway woodwind players all double on many instruments, which allows for variety. Each chair concentrates on one instrument (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon) with all playing clarinets and saxes. Piccolos and a harmonica were added to certain chairs.
Brass (4): The traditional big Broadway sound requires three trumpets with two or three trombones. But this score is not looking for the traditional musical comedy sound. And economics remove the possibility of three trumpets. So after choosing two trumpets, I opted for a French horn (useful in its alternate identity as a woodwind) and a trombone (doubling on euphonium, to add to the period brass band textures).
Rhythm (5): I like to use two keyboards. This allows the main accompaniment texture to change with no pause: One keyboard hands off the ‘rhythm’ part to the other with no break. The player not playing the main accompaniment is free to play orchestral textures and fills. For Assassins, I found many places to use orchestral percussion in the synths (bass drum, tymps, glock, gongs, piatti, xylophone) which freed the drummer to keep time.
A guitar was vital because of the emphasis on American folk and pop styles required banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar and electric guitar. An acoustic bass was more appropriate than electric because of the period material.
A drummer is, of course, essential. Space limitations didn’t allow a lot of additional percussion for the player. On Sunday, Paul Gemignani taught me how effective an orchestral bass drum can be in a theater, and I made sure to include one in the instrumentation. A field drum (a lower pitched, military version of the snare drum) was effective in “The Ballad of Booth.” While synth percussion was used on the keyboards, certain effects like rolls on the bass drum or tympani are much more effective on the live instrument.
Having had a slow autumn, I decided I would try something new on Assassins — scoring directly into computer notation software (Finale) and not paper and pencil. This was possible on Assassins as the production’s plan was to stay true to the score as originally written and make a minimum of changes for the production. (Luckily, the plan was carried out.) This allowed me to start scoring before the cast rehearsals, which orchestrators never do. I knew that the keys would not be changing drastically, and I started scoring in November 2003.
I found that notating at a computer used a different part of my brain. Having an ear more attuned to color than pitch, I often score at a piano, making notations upon the piano-vocal score. I then take that to a table where I write my full score, often going back to the piano to check or adjust my ideas. At the computer, my ideas went from the keyboard directly into the score, saving a step. Not using the “graphics” portion of my brain to “draw” notes changed the process — for the better, I think.
I was three-quarters through my orchestration when I went to the “pit meeting” at Studio 54with Paul Gemignani, set designer Robert Brill and sound designer Dan Schrier. While the theater was built as an opera house and has a wonderful natural acoustic, its orchestra pit was filled with cement long ago. (I’m told that the Roundabout Theatre hopes to excavate it sometime in the future. I hope it’s true. Studio 54 has the potential to be one of the better musical theatre houses on Broadway.)
If you have seen Robert Brill’s wonderful set, you know that it fills the whole stage, at one point revealing the brick wall at the back of the theater. Therefore we discovered it was not going to be possible to put the band at the back of the stage. This can be an excellent solution when a pit is not available: The sound is behind the singers: The cast doesn’t require audio monitors, only video monitors to see the conductor behind them.
Paul then made the daring suggestion of splitting the band in half and putting it in the two boxes on either side of the stage. This is a dangerous thing to try — the players cannot hear each other for purposes on intonation and ensemble — and watching a conductor in a video monitor is not the same as seeing his movements in your peripheral vision, which allows you to keep looking at the music on the stand. But Paul had successfully done a split band for the Candide revival in 1974. Lacking any other solutions, we went ahead with the plan.
On audience left, with Paul, we put the core of the rhythm section (keyboard 1, bass, drums) and the four brass players. It is essential to have the rhythm with the conductor, as he needs to have instant communication with them in case an actor jumps ahead or enters on the wrong beat from a vamp. On the audience right side, we put keyboard 2, guitar and the four woodwinds. Separating the woodwinds from the brass and drums enabled Dan Schreier to get a better isolation on the woodwinds sound. The down side of this is that the guitarist and keyboard 2 were isolated from the rest of the rhythm section. But audio monitoring was supplied so the players could hear each other, and small video monitors (the size of an index card) were attached directly onto the players’ music stands, allowing them to see the conductor without having to look up at a distant video monitor (usually mounted on the front of the mezzanine).
I wish I could say that I used the antiphonal positioning of the band as part of my orchestration. The truth is that I was mostly finished by the time we decided on the band placement. Still, the positioning provides a great clarity to my work, with fills between the brass and the woodwinds answering each other across the space, and the keyboard textures also being spread out.
We positioned the trumpets so they faced forward, away from the audience and toward the conductor. This was a great help in balancing the band. But I asked them to turn away from their music and play directly at the audience at the climax of the show. Suddenly having two trumpets playing in your face turned out to be just the dramatic choice needed at that moment.
I cannot stress how important the musicianship of Paul and his 13 players, and Dan’s sound monitoring were in making the split orchestra work. I have always enjoyed working with sound designers who are also musicians. In fact, Dan is also a wonderful composer and played oboe in the orchestra for my very first New York orchestrations. For Assassins, he was not only sensitive to having the lyrics audible — a sound designer’s most important job in a musical — he also understood what I was trying achieve in each number. His use of reverb on the flugelhorn in “Unworthy of Your Love” helped to put the number right into the ’70s style Stephen was working in. Dan’s notes about what needed to be adjusted in the orchestrations were precise and helpful.
In the musical theatre so much is written about the collaboration between writers and directors, but there is another collaboration that takes place within the music team between composer, music director, orchestrator and sound designer. When the right people are in hand, all aiding and abetting each other, not only are the results extraordinary, but the experience itself can be magical. Assassins was certainly that type of experience.
Authors and composers often take a year or two to prepare their show. Orchestrators are given anywhere from four to eight weeks. We have the same creative drive as the authors, but none of the time to consider and rethink. How fortunate for me to be able to re-examine the score of Assassins with the maturity of 13 years more experience. If this orchestration is successful, it is because I had the leisure to spend two or three months making my choices on material I was already intimate with from its previous incarnations. I doubt that the opportunity of having so much time to orchestrate will come my way again.
I’m often amazed by some of the foolish and youthful choices I made in Sunday, and how those same choices make it something special: It’s an orchestration I couldn’t write now, because I “know better.” But instead of causing me to look back ruefully at the excitement of youthful experiences, Assassins has taught me that age does not exclude the possibility of growth. That is the greatest lesson my work in the theater, particularly with Stephen, has taught me.