Let's talk about…..Orchestrations. (A guest blog by Rob Meffe)

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a guest blogger and he’s my husband.  Put your hands together (on the 2 & 4) for…….Rob Meffe.

So Sharon and I went to see the Broadway musical Once this past Saturday afternoon (stay tuned for a “Let Me Tell You What I Liked About…Once” later this week from Sharon), and I was really impressed by the musicianship by the actors who all play instruments for the show. There was a scene from the show in a recording studio (SPOILER ALERT: they go to a recording studio.) and the lead musician asks another musician if they had the chance to look over the song and the other musician sheepishly replies that he listened to it on the bus ride over (it is implied that he didn’t) and immediately thereafter all of the musicians on stage rip into a fantastic arrangement of one of the tunes from the show without any sheet music or rehearsal.  It’s a standard conceit in musicals, whether it happens when you are watching a TV show like Smash or Glee, or even a great movie like A Star Is Born when all the musicians at that club on Sunset Boulevard magically know the parts for The Man That Got Away when Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) walks in, and it makes me chuckle because I know first hand how much work is involved to make an orchestra sound that good.

Surely no one really assumes that musicians can just make up an arrangement like that all on their own.

Or do they?

This past week I heard the disturbing news that the Drama Desk Awards (for financial reasons) is eliminating their annual award recognizing the Best Orchestrations for a Musical.  This was the only award singled out for elimination and one can only assume that in the eyes of the awards committee, it lacked the relevance of the other design awards such as Best Set Design, Best Lighting Design or Best Sound Design.  As a professional orchestrator, arranger and music director, I respectfully disagree with the Drama Desk awards committee, and for proof of relevance, I offer up this example: After the awards are said and done, and the show has a long run and finally closes, what is left of a musical?  Well, three things, really; the cast recording, the script and the score.  The cast recording preserves for all eternity the lyrics of a show, the melodies of a show, and yes, the orchestrations of a show.  When you want to produce your own production of the show, what do you rent?  The script, the score, and yes, the orchestrations of a show.  I don’t mean to diminish the amazing contributions of set designers, lighting designers, and sound designers, but if are arguing for relevance, you have to include orchestrations in that discussion.

Well, you may ask, a composer gets an award for the Best Score of a Musical, isn’t that the same thing?

And it is here that I think that people really do believe that (the fictional composer) Tom Levitt composes a song in his apartment and the next day the musicians on Smash suddenly know what parts to play without any rehearsal.  And it is here that I want to explain just what an orchestrator does, anyway….

Back in the olden days, like when Beethoven was writing music, composers spent a lot of time meticulously writing out his music for their symphonies, operas, and whatnot. These classically trained musicians understood every instrument in the symphony from the piccolo to the double bass and wrote out each musician’s part on huge sheets of manuscript paper.  Here’s a snapshot of Beethoven’s actual handwriting when he was writing his famous Symphony No. 5 in Cm (if you read music, you can make out the buh-buh-buh-bum….).  After completion of this full score (it’s called a full score or a conductor’s score because it has everyone’s part on it), an assistant (called a copyist) would (by hand) write out a separate book of music for each musician that only shows his or her part.  You put out all the parts on all the music stands with the full score on the conductor’s podium and voila, you are ready for the first rehearsal.  Even back in the 1800’s musicians didn’t play through a piece of music perfectly the first time through and if you have ever heard an orchestra play a difficult piece the first time through, you will know right away why they don’t show this process on Glee.  It’s long, it’s frustrating, and it’s time-consuming because you have a room full of incredibly meticulous people who want to get it exactly right.

Well, let me tell you that musicals are an entirely different ball game than La Boheme.

In a musical, the composer writes the melodies that you hear (the “tunes”).  Many times (but not always) they will write out a piano part that outlines the harmonic structure (that’s just fancy words for whatever is not being sung), and many times (again, not always), the composer will give a clue to what instruments he or she wants to accompany the melody.

That’s it, my friends. Really. Musical theater composers do not sit and pencil in all of the parts for the musicians to play (like Beethoven did in the example above).  Musical theater composers are often brilliant musical geniuses, but they hand off the job of writing out exactly what musicians play to…

an orchestrator.


Any number of reasons. Time, for one. It takes a long time to write out orchestra parts (even on a computer), and when you are under the gun putting a show together, you need to be cranking out melodies and then moving on to more changes in the show.  The orchestrator follows right behind, picking up all of these musical ideas and translating them into parts.

Another reason is training.  A lot of musical theater composers are amazingly creative musicians, but don’t necessarily know how to write for all of the instruments in the orchestra as much as someone who was trained to do so. Heck, there are actually a lot of musical theater composers that (be prepared to be shocked) don’t even read music!  Probably the most famous of them is Irving Berlin, who played piano by ear, and could only play in one key (he even had a special piano made for him where you can slide a lever and move the soundboard so the piano could sound in a different key even though he was only playing in the one he knew.  It’s a true story- the piano is in the Smithsonian).

I arranged a show for the country music star Larry Gatlin and the first day I met him he told me that (add Texas twang to next quote) “I’m not a lines and staves kind a guy, professor.” (He called me professor. I don’t know why) Larry would perfect his tunes singing and playing his guitar and when he felt like they were ready, he would record them as voice memos on his iPhone and send them to me.  I got the emails and wrote out what he was playing on staff paper so the actors could read his melodies and then I wrote out piano parts based on his guitar playing.

Here’s an example.  Listen to the original voice memo that Larry sent me here:

Ten Bears

And here is the first few bars of the piano and vocal transcription and arrangement:


Let’s take another example, and one that goes all the way to the orchestra parts.

Recently I participated in the music staff of a large multi-million dollar production of a revival of a Broadway musical. At some point it was decided that there should be Bows and Exit music for the show (this didn’t exist in the original production of the show).  So the composer was called and he had very creative and specific ideas of what he wanted.  To illustrate what he wanted, he had a meeting with the music director of the show and played what he wanted for a recording (yes, it was also a voice memo on an iPhone. Somewhere, Steve Jobs is smirking).  This recording was given to an assistant and he transcribed it so it looked like this:

This all may look like gibberish to you, but this music is written out for the piano.  There are four lines on this page (called “systems” by music copyists and other over-educated people who have different names for everything).

Then this file was sent off to the orchestrator who took all of the suggestions of orchestrations from the composer and wrote out all of the parts for the orchestra to play (creating a “full score” or “conductor’s score”) that looked like this:

This paper has only one line of music (or “system”).  Because there are 18 musicians, writing out each part takes up the whole page!

After their parts were copied out (by yet another person, the copyist), they rehearsed this piece of music at 6:30pm on the night of one of the first previews.  It was not perfect the first time, and some adjustments were made by the music director and it went in that night (played flawlessly for the audience, of course).

Many very famous composers have long associations with orchestrators; Richard Rodgers had Robert Russell Bennett, Stephen Sondheim has Jonathan Tunick and Andrew Lloyd Webber has David Cullen.  As you can see, the orchestrator is a vital and creative part of the collaborative process, and I have a recommendation for the Drama Desk Awards committee:

If you cannot relent and add back in the Drama Desk Award for Best Orchestrations, then include the orchestrators when you give out the award for Best Score of a Musical.  Spring for one more trophy.  You don’t even have to include his or her speech.  At least acknowledge the process.

And the next time you watch Glee or Smash or Once or even A Star is Born, you can chuckle quietly to yourself at the dramatic conceit used when a bunch of musicians just magically burst into song.  But hopefully you will never again take it for granted.

(Tomorrow a brand new SMASH Fact or fiction, and later this week a “Let me Tell You What I Liked About…”  ONCE.)







About Sharon Wheatley

I'm a mother, an actress and a writer. I'm glad you're here.
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11 Responses to Let's talk about…..Orchestrations. (A guest blog by Rob Meffe)

  1. Shawn says:

    "He called me professor. I don’t know why."

    Oh, Rob, we do. (And one of the reasons is that you didn't understand why he was calling you professor.)

  2. Abi Tyrrell says:

    1) Rob you're alive!
    2) great article – is there somewhere at Drama Desk Awards we can lend our protest?

  3. David Cleveland says:


  4. Andy Nowalk says:

    Rob. First of all, Gatlin was right. Professor works just fine for you, as this post demonstrates very clearly. Next, you need to offer online courses. After reading this I feel like I took a short elective in orchestration. I want to know more!

  5. Nicole says:

    Hi, I have never met you, I stumbled on this blog because my co-worker (we're both part-time receptionists) left it up on the computer screen. This being said! -as an amateur musician and actress, I found this post FAS-CIN-AT-ING. Four syllables of awesome. You both really should offer online courses. Informative and hilarious! Keep it up, guys.

  6. TLT says:

    Professor, I'm with Larry. You are awesome.

  7. Ruth says:

    This is a MUST READ, and deserves to be an article in some major arts related publication. I hope you consider shopping it around! Thanks Rob and Sharon!!

  8. Anne Marie says:

    Now I am feeling all highbrow because when I listen to show albums, I am often more caught up in the orchestrations than the melodies– and I have known for a long time that they were not the work of the composers. Some Enchanted Evening is one where the arrangement always gets me regardless of who is singing. Thank you Sharon for sharing your husband with us. (And I hope the Drama Desk people get over themselves and give credit where it is long overdue. )

  9. VampTilReady says:

    For a much more concise version of today's post, see Don Walker's ‘Who Says Arranger?’ in the Nov. 1950 issue of Theatre Arts–or even Russell Bennett's essays going back to the late 1930s.

  10. Jen DeRosa says:

    Great post, Rob! So many musicals are running through my head with memorable instrument parts (trumpet in Gypsy, oboe in Les Mis, etc) and it's making me want to google who made those choices! They certainly should not eliminate the award to the one of the most important people on the show. And good point about what's left after the show closes!

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