An Interview with Tony-nominated orchestrator and conductor Larry Blank

'I like the emotions; I like the theatrics. It's the drama of the music that appeals to me.'

12 November 2009

Larry Blank

Friday Night is Music Night is the longest-running live radio programme in the world, and this week's edition promises to be as exciting as ever. The BBC Concert Orchestra will accompany West End stalwarts Ruthie Henshall and Sally Ann Triplett in a special gala concert to celebrate the centenary of Johnny Mercer, one of the greatest lyricists in the history of American song.

The conductor for the evening is one of the finest and most respected in the business. Larry Blank has several decades of experience in Broadway theatre and film, and is no stranger to the concert stage either. He led the original productions of They're Playing Our Song and Sugar Babies on Broadway and The Phantom of the Opera in L.A., as well as Sweeney Todd for the 2002 Sondheim festival at Washington's Kennedy Center. He's also a world-renowned arranger and orchestrator, with credits including The Drowsy Chaperone and White Christmas, as well as the scores for Jerry Herman's last two musicals – Miss Spectacular and Mrs Santa Claus. He's worked with Barbra Streisand, Michael Crawford, Betty Buckley and Barry Manilow, and was Michael Feinstein's regular collaborator for many years. London audiences recently enjoyed his orchestrations of Fiddler on the Roof and Carousel, while amongst his recent projects is the first complete recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein's third musical, Allegro.

An orchestrator of the old school in the best sense – he met Robert Russell Bennett, knew Phil Lang and was mentored by the great Irwin Kostal – Blank is a charming, articulate and generous person, and there's plenty to talk about when we meet in between rehearsals for the Mercer concert.

I begin by asking why he chose to devote his life to the Broadway repertoire in particular. 'I grew up in the suburbs of New York city,' he explains, 'and my parents went to the theatre once or twice a month. They went to see all the big shows. My mother played the piano very well – she trained as a classical pianist as a child and won a bunch of awards – so we had a piano, and she always played. We had lots of records, too – mostly things like Camelot, which was seminal to people of my generation. It's a great score, and of course it had Richard Burton before he became famous.

'In those days, the popular music in the States was theatre music. You turned on the radio, and it was somebody singing "Hey There" or "Some Enchanted Evening" – it was after the big band era, in the '50s and '60s. So that's what I was listening to. I tried to listen to a lot of music, and I enjoyed lots of it.  

'But in terms of Broadway, I like the emotions; I like the theatrics. When I do a concert and talk to the audience, I joke: "Theatre music – every number a finale!" And they really are. I was lucky because I grew up around theatre people – I remember hanging around Broadway stage doors, and meeting Steve Sondheim when I was 16.

'It's the drama of the music that appeals to me. I also really like listening to opera – not going to it, but listening to it. When I went to opera in those days, the productions were mostly stodgy. And for a kid in New York, opera was expensive whereas Broadway was not. But the music is great, and I like both styles. I did a lot of work with Marilyn Horne, and I've done things with Rod Gilfry. I also played the piano on Julia Migenes' Broadway album, which she made at the height of her fame here.'

At a conference in 2009 with Jonathan TunickThe BBC's concert is unusual, in that very few concerts are devoted to the work of a lyricist rather than a composer. What makes Mercer so special? 'Johnny Mercer was from the South,' Blank explains. 'I never met him, but he was around a lot, and I saw the show Foxy that he did in 1964. He worked with everybody – the big songwriters of his lyrics are people like Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael. So many of his songs were just very accessible.

'Also, he was a great performer. It's easy to forget that he founded Capitol Records, so all those great records by Nat King Cole and Sinatra came through him. Another thing is that he had a great feeling for songs that had a jazz feel – "That Old Black Magic" or "Come Rain or Come Shine" – and he had a real sense of style.'

Blank has written a special overture for the concert, and having heard him do this kind of thing before, I ask him how he goes about constructing an arrangement like this.  'What's happened over the last few years is that the BBC has almost made me the "Overture King",' jokes Blank. 'I became very friendly with the producers of Radio 2, and they do so much American music that they regularly ask me to work on these things. With my theatrical background, overtures are kind of easy.

'With this Johnny Mercer one, I called up Michael Feinstein. He's a great friend, and an expert on the American songbook. I said to him, "If you were writing an overture for Johnny Mercer, what songs would you include?" And he replied, "OK, let's make this easy. The most famous songs for which he wrote the music and the words are 'Something's Gotta Give' and 'Dream'. So they've got to be in there." He's also famous for "Come Rain or Come Shine", "Hooray for Hollywood" and "Moon River" – lots of big, big songs. "Moon River" is a seminal song, and the other one that always sticks in my mind is "Blues in the Night".

'So at this point, I have to decide what kind of fanfare I want to start the overture with, and I chose to use the tune to "My mama done told me" from the start of "Blues in the Night". I then had an idea which the BBC wouldn't let me do. I wanted our session singers – the Capitol Voices – to sing the titles of the songs from the overture. And they just said "No!" The reason being, that we're going to do the songs in the show anyway, so why sing them in the overture? But my attitude is that we're honouring a lyricist, so we should say the words. I went through this same discussion when I did a Don Black overture – I sat there thinking "This sounds more like a tribute to John Barry or Andrew Lloyd Webber!" So what I do when writing these overtures is to stress in the music the parts where the famous lyrics appear – I make sure you know "Moon River" – it's right in your face. But I will say that the producer relented slightly, and when we go into "Moor River" the singers are on it. It's absolutely thrilling when they come in, because it's so unexpected.'

And the choice of songs for the concert? 'The singers didn't actually ask for anything, though they certainly could have. The producer and I sat down and decided what we had to include, and then we found out what was in the BBC library so that we didn't have to spend a lot of money on new arrangements. It's quite tricky to find things that are appropriately arranged and have the right style and quality for today – and then we have to match them up to the artists and find the right keys. We got John Coleman, who's a very fine arranger here, and Roy Moore, to do some new ones.

'There's no "non-hit" songs in there, but he wrote three Broadway shows and one West End show that aren't necessarily well-known, and we are playing the overture to L'il Abner. What was great when we rehearsed it was that the BBC Concert Orchestra's leader, Cynthia Fleming, turned to me and said "It's amazing not to know one tune in that overture!" She didn't mean it in a bad way – she meant that it's a great overture in the traditional Broadway sense, written by Philip Lang, but none of it's well-known. And I pointed out to the orchestra that the show opened the same year as My Fair Lady, Bells Are Ringing, Candide and The Most Happy Fella, but nobody remembers Li'l Abner even though it was a tremendous success.'

Blank has an excellent relationship with the orchestra, honed over many years: 'The two producers there, Jodie Keane and Anthony Cherry, took a liking to me, and I have a very loving relationship with the orchestra. They're happy when I'm there and I'm happy to be with them, and we get along very well because my talents cross over between popular and classical music, so they feel I'm very competent with them. We're working on organising more stuff for the future.'

Larry Blank at a BBC Concert Orchestra Disney concert at London's Lyceum Theatre in 2008, with artists including (L to R) Josh Groban, Kerry Ellis, Tituss Burgess and Maria FriedmanOne of Blank's most proud achievements is the complete recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro that came out last year. It features a mixture of opera singers such as Nathan Gunn and Broadway stalwarts like Audra McDonald, and even features a cameo appearance from Stephen Sondheim. Blank explains how it all came about: 'We were recording White Christmas in London, by choice. I love the musicians here, and since it was not a show that opened on Broadway, we had no obligation to use American musicians. It was actually no less expensive to record here, and whatever we gained by doing it here was made up by air fares, hotel and bar bills. But I love the London musicians and I have a great rapport with them. Although I wasn't conducting this particular recording, I worked on the movie Chicago, and we used the same studio and many of the same musicians. It was a very happy experience.

'So I was sitting in the studio with Ted Chapin, who's the C.E.O. of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, and he said to me that it's been his dream to record Allegro in its entirety for the R&H people, and specifically for Mary Rodgers [Richard Rodgers' daughter]. He asked if I could suggest a place where it could be recorded fairly cheaply as an experiment. I had done some work in Bratislava in Slovakia, which is only about an hour's drive from Vienna. Their musicians are extremely well qualified, and they have a radio orchestra. They were going to be relatively cheap to use, and the musicians would just sit for hours and play, so I suggested it to Ted. Therefore, he and I and Bruce Pomahac, who's the music director for R&H, went to Bratislava with a stack of music for Allegro, another show of theirs, and some music by Adam Guettel, who's the grandson of Richard Rodgers, and we decided to see if we could get it all done.

'Allegro was the priority, and we were going to do it cover to cover using the original orchestration. We had a slightly larger string section, with fifty-five musicians, and the percussion was divided up, but we didn't rewrite anything. The only changes were the style of the drums, and perhaps the basses. It was traditional with a lot of the older shows to play the bass with the bow, and I changed it to pizzicato because it's just too lugubrious. The drums were changed because in those days it could sound like a school band marching rather than a theatre piece.

'The orchestrations were intact, and we recorded them without the benefit of a click track. When you record in this situation there's no isolation, so you're in a big sound stage, very much as if you were recording symphonic works. And not only had we not rehearsed with the singers, we also hadn't chosen them yet! Bruce was the music director, because of his position with R&H, and I was the conductor. He was sitting in the recording booth, and I couldn't even see him because it was on a different floor. Also, of course, the musicians in Bratislava don't speak English, but the leader of the orchestra spoke enough to translate my desires, and I had to show everything else with my hands. I had a great rapport with them, though: my relatives all came from Russia originally, and the minute I told the orchestra that I was of Russian heritage the leader shouted "Ruské! Ruské!" and they were all very kind to me.

'In my head, I heard all the pauses, and having worked with so many singers I knew when they were going to need the air. When I got to a fermata, I would give it a little extra room. I have a reputation for having very good "time" – a good sense of rhythm and tempo. In fact, one of the reviews accused me of being too metronomic! But what was my alternative in that situation? It was amusing, though, because we had no click track, and I'm well known for not beating time!

'I wasn't involved with adding the singers, and I was very proud because Bruce and all the cast said that it was so easy to do, it felt like they were being accompanied. All the tempi felt right, and they could feel where to take the breath. I don't think the result sounds like it was tracked.'

With good sales and excellent reviews, is there any chance of more coming from the same stable? 'I was bugging them all to do Pipe Dream or something like that. But there's no interest on their part because there's no income for the R&H Organization for that show. Allegro has always been shown interest, and some rentals over the years, but not Pipe Dream. And Pipe Dream has never been updated – the orchestral parts are literally out of the pit from 1955. There is talk about getting a definitive recording of Carousel, but I don't know if it will happen. I'm flattered that they would think of doing it though, and I'm flattered that because I did Allegro they would probably ask me to conduct it. I love the original Carousel, and I conducted John Raitt in the "Soliloquy" many times. Eventually, I orchestrated it for the West End, so I really hope it happens.'

Another of Blank's recent successes is his lavish orchestration of Irving Berlin's White Christmas, which will play Broadway again this year, as well as cities throughout America and The Lowry in Salford in the UK. What was the relationship between the original movie orchestrations and Blank's new ones? 'If you listen to the film arrangements,' he replies, 'hardly any of them have influenced what I've done. One of the few is "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me": the original arrangement was so great that I couldn't not use it, so I adapted it. The show was originally done by Paul Blake at the St Louis Muny – an outdoor theatre with 12,000 seats that operates every summer. They've done lots of musicals, and they always had a big orchestra – maybe 50 or so, and now it's 25-30, which is a large orchestra these days. So Paul came to me and said "I have access to the Paramount catalogue, and I want to do White Christmas as a musical". He adapted the story for the stage, took the songs from the film and added a few more. Bruce Pomahac was hired as the dance arranger, and I was the orchestrator. I was given free rein to do what I wanted.

Larry Blank at a BBC Concert Orchestra Disney concert at London's Lyceum Theatre in 2008, with artists including (L to R) Josh Groban, Kerry Ellis, Tituss Burgess and Maria Friedman'I decided I was going to follow in the tradition of Ralph Burns when he did No, No, Nanette with a feel of the big MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox musicals. I lean towards the opulence of the MGM musicals; I just wanted to make it sound like a big, old-fashioned film musical. Bruce and I came up with the overture, and I wrote it as a big theatre overture, which sounded wonderful at the Muny. The Berlin daughters and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization (who handle the Berlin catalogue) came to the dress rehearsal, which was in broad daylight in the sweltering heat. They played the overture just for a sound check, and Ted Chapin came running up the aisle to me, and said: "Based on the overture alone, the show is going to into production next year." And that's what happened, so I was very pleased and proud.

'The dance music from "Blue Skies" I actually farmed out to an arranger, Peter Myers, who's from Manchester originally. He was a trombonist in West End musicals, but he's been living in America since 1964 and was one of my teachers. The reason I asked him to arrange that one is that he was a top television arranger in the States, working a lot with Peter Matz (who did lots of Barbra Streisand's arrangements). I had done so many arrangements of "Blue Skies" over the years that I was afraid that I would repeat myself. It turns out to be one of the great highlights of the score.'

For his work on White Christmas, Blank was nominated for a Tony award, but didn't win on the night. Nor did he win for his previous nomination, The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006. But when I ask him whether he's upset about that, Blank is typically pragmatic. 'If you think about it, most of the people voting on the Tonys aren't music people, and a lot of them don't even know what orchestrators do. The Tony voters are across the States. Generally, they go down the ballots and if the big musical that year is Billy Elliot, they're going to choose Billy Elliot. So I went to the theatre fully expecting not to win. And when it was a tie, and Next to Normal won, I wasn't surprised. Michael Starobin, who was sitting directly in front of me, turned around and said "This is really wrong!" The reason being, Next to Normal only has a four-piece orchestra.

'However, I was more disturbed on The Drowsy Chaperone when I lost to Sweeney Todd, because although a lot of people disagree with me, I do not consider that to be an orchestration. It's just a reduction, necessitated by the needs of the production. It bothered me because Jonathan Tunick didn't get appropriate credit. As far as me not getting it goes, I didn't really expect to get it either time. And with White Christmas, having got nominated when the show had already closed (because it was on over the holidays), I expected to run third in the race even though I was very proud of the orchestration.'

Mention of The Drowsy Chaperone leads me to ask about Blank's outstanding work on that score. He explains how he comes to have a concept for his orchestrations: 'My teacher was Irwin Kostal. I was lucky to have lots of mentors, but he was like a surrogate father to me. He really took me under his wing, and taught me everything I know. I wish he'd taught me everything he knew, too!' he jokes.

Larry Blank rehearsing with John Barrowman'Aside from telling me many stories and giving me information, he said that when he and Sid Ramin were doing shows together, they would try to come up with a hook to make it interesting. The reason there are no violas on West Side Story, for instance, is that the house musicians were so terrible that the orchestrators didn't want them in the pit. So there's extra celli, with two of them playing whole notes and the other playing the busy stuff. Then when they came to do A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, they decided to use all violas and no violins.

'So whenever I approach a job, I always look for a hook to get in there to make it look interesting. With Drowsy, the producer, Kevin McCollum, sent me the music to Drowsy when it was a fringe musical in Toronto, and asked me what kind of band I wanted to use. I listened to it, and decided I was going to score points with both the producer and myself by using only 14 to 16 musicians. It wasn't really a '20s score – it was someone's impression of the '20s. It sounded a bit like The Boy Friend but a little more clever and of our time. Casey Nicholaw, the show's choreographer, likes a lot of sound in the dance music, so I knew I had to accommodate that, too.

'In things like The Boy Friend, everything's written in three-part harmony – three reeds, three strings, three brass. Four-part harmony is more the '30s in style. So I started with that, but with all the reed doubles that I would need to get the right colours, one of the reed players would inevitably be putting his horn down, so my trio becomes a duet. Therefore, I needed four reeds – that was the first thing that came into my mind. So I had four players with lots of interesting doublings: bassoon, E-flat contrabass clarinet, bass clarinet, clarinet and flute, on the fourth reed. Each reed was equally ridiculous. That was the first step.

'Then, I knew I couldn't get away with two trumpets and a trombone, because it would sound too much like a Noel Coward revue, so I went with three trumpets, two trombones, and a baritone sax. That made four reeds and five brass, plus piano, bass and drums, percussion, guitar and an extra keyboard for the fifteenth, assistant conductor's chair. The dance arranger asked why I didn't put a violin in it, but I said that the single violin would only mean something when it was playing a solo and would be buried the rest of the time. Therefore, I decided against it. I also thought it would make the orchestra sound small, whereas I think one of the joys of Drowsy is that the orchestra sounds full.'

The orchestrator's big work this year has been the new musical version of Catch Me If You Can, which played in Seattle this summer for its tryout period. The score is by Marc Shaiman, and Blank is very proud of his work on it. 'It's going to Broadway next year – it's just had a short postponement because the director and choreographer are busy with Love Never Dies. The tryout was very successful – the show's very good, and it will come in.' So is this his chance for a Tony? 'It depends on the timing. I think if it had come to Broadway this year, I'd have had a chance because the competition has been very slim, but next year there are lots of great things coming up. The Addams Family is coming, which Larry Hochman has done, and he's a very fine orchestrator and a good friend. I'd like to see him finally get a Tony. We'll all get one if we live long enough! Danny Troob deserves one too, just for being a really good orchestrator – he's done a lot of good work, but nobody's keen to give anything to a Disney show!'

Blank has always been a theatre person, and was drawn to Broadway from his early teens: 'I was a kid, going to the theatre, and I was at the High School for the Performing Arts as a drama student. But before that, I used to hang out at stage doors and get autographs – I was quite an anorak in that sense! I just got interested in it, and I met Don Pippin, who took me under his wing. Eventually, after I'd done work for other people, he employed me.'

The person who had the biggest impact on him, though, was Irwin Kostal, the orchestrator of numerous Broadway shows as well as the movies of The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. What made him so special?
'His greatest work is on things like Fiorello!, Forum and Tenderloin. Tenderloin is an amazing orchestration. That overture with the trumpet solo is all him: nobody gave him a sketch and said "Orchestrate this" – he did it all. That's pretty impressive.

Larry Blank with Stephen Sondheim in 1999'One time when we were talking together, I had an idea for something, he said "That's what's going to make you wealthy – the orchestration itself is easy." So for instance, my Johnny Mercer overture is what it's supposed to be in a broad sense, but the routine of the thing where my gift is, so that it doesn't just sound like a disjointed medley. I really try to glue it together. And that came from Kostal. He used to say, "If you're going to come up with a figure, try to use one of the composer's so that he thinks he wrote it!" His mind was outstanding.'

A personal career highlight was conducting Sweeney Todd as part of a massive festival of Sondheim shows in Washington DC in 2002. 'It was great,' he says, 'and Steve and I got on really well. I loved Sweeney Todd when I saw the original – it was totally brilliant. It was on when I was conducting They're Playing Our Song. Much later, Reprise! in L.A. were planning to do Sweeney Todd with Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski. Peter Matz was their music director, and he was a wonderful guy. He's one of the great arrangers, and did lots of Barbra Streisand's arrangements. He called me up and asked if I'd be interested in doing it, and I loved it. We had a wonderful orchestra, and Christine was amazing. Steve was around, and he and I had known each other slightly since I was a kid.

'So when they came to do the show again at the Kennedy Center, they asked Paul Gemignani to do it. When he turned it down, Steve recommended me, and after that it was easy. I absolutely loved it, and it was the best job I ever had.'

Sondheim sat in the pit for one of the performances, at Blank's advice. That particular happening is described by Steven Suskin in a new book called The Sound of Broadway Music, because Suskin also sat in the pit for that performance. Did Blank feel nervous about having Sondheim sitting in front of him? 'It was my idea – I said to him, why don't you come and sit in the pit? But he said that he'd done it once before and hated it because you don't hear the show right – the orchestra and singers sound like they're not together. But in the end, he decided to sit by the piano for this performance. Because I don't conduct for a living any more, it didn't really faze me to have Sondheim sitting in the pit. He knew I was doing the show and he liked me. Later, I did an arrangement of "What More Do I Need?" for his 75th birthday and he loved it.'

Another major collaboration is with Jerry Herman, whose scores Mrs Santa Claus (a TV movie with Angela Lansbury) and Miss Spectacular Blank orchestrated. He speaks warmly of the composer: 'Jerry – like most composers I've worked with – has great ears. He knows exactly what he's written, and if there's a wrong note he hears it. He came into a session of Miss Spectacular and said "Bar 45 – what key are we in?" I told him, and he said, "Third beat - on the upbeat the French horn should have a D natural, not an E flat." 

'He does not want me to change his harmonies – if I tried to do a Nelson Riddle job on a Jerry Herman tune, he would go crazy. I think my talent as an orchestrator has been that I can pretty much keep the harmonies and get around it. My favourite contribution to anything I did with him was on "The Best Christmas of All" from Mrs Santa Claus. He played it with just a conventional "oom-pah" accompaniment, so I came up with a figure to illustrate the reindeer running through the sky, and orchestrated it. At the recording session he had no idea what to expect, and when he heard the figure he jokingly said "If you play it in every bar I'll kill you!" So of course I did! And after she'd recorded it, Angela Lansbury turned round to me and said "How can I help but sound magnificent with that?" I was really proud of that chart, and Jerry is glad to have that kind of collaboration.'

Blank is also a composer in his own right, with an off-Broadway show, Christy, to his name. Why didn't he do more? 'I never wanted to be a songwriter,' he answers. 'Christy has a few nice tunes in it. I was music director on the show, but the composer took a dislike to me, and the lyricist decided to fire him and hire me to do a new score for his lyrics. I wrote it in about five days. Larry Grossman, who's a friend, helped me with it harmonically. But I had no real interest. I did a few TV movies and films, but it's dirt work – it pays a lot of money but it's slave labour. It's not collaborative enough. It's not like the golden age of film scoring.'

What plans does he have for the future? 'I have Catch coming up next season, and Marc Shaiman's a very talented guy. He has amazing ears – he can hear everything. At the moment, I'm working on A Christmas Story in Kansas. I'm also doing Wanda's World with a composer named Beth Falcone, who just won the Kleban Award. It's about a girl with a strawberry birthmark on her face and how she relates to other people. It's a very good score. Next year, I'm supposed to be doing A Bard Day's Night directed by Adrian Noble. It's been written by two guys from Liverpool in the style of The Beatles. That's plenty to be going on with!'

By Dominic McHugh

Larry Blank conducts Friday Night is Music Night on BBC Radio 2 on Friday 13 November.

Photos: Larry Blank; Larry Blank with Jonathan Tunick in 2009 at a conference (photo credit: Jeff Malet); Larry Blank at a BBC Concert Orchestra Disney concert at London's Lyceum Theatre in 2008, with artists including (L to R) Josh Groban, Kerry Ellis, Tituss Burgess and Maria Friedman (credit: Dan Wooller); conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra in 2007; conducting the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra; rehearsing with John Barrowman; in a meeting with Stephen Sondheim during rehearsals for Sweeney Todd in 1999.


CarouselRelated articles:

Review: Larry Blank's orchestration of Carousel at the Savoy Theatre
Review: The BBC Concert Orchestra performs Mercer's The Good Companions
Review John Wilson conducts My Fair Lady with Anthony Andrews
Review Oklahoma! at the Chichester Festival 2009


Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum