Podcast Episode 59 Transcript – Michael Starobin

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Ken: Hey, everybody. Ken Davenport here. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective podcast. I’m super excited about today’s guest because he does something that I actually do not know a lot about so I’m going to learn along with you, which has been one of my favorite parts of doing these podcasts. I want you to welcome to the podcast multiple Tony award-winning orchestrator, Michael Starobin. Welcome, Michael!

Michael: Thank you, thank you.

Ken: Michael has orchestrated some of my favorite, and I’m sure some of your favorite, scores, from Sunday in the Park with George, to Falsettos, which I second acted like 27 times, as I told James Lapine recently, to Once on This Island, Next to Normal and so on. He’s worked in movies, he’s a composer, I mean the guy does it all, musically. You can read all about the cool stuff he’s done on his website, Starobin.com, which we’ll put as a link in the blog. So, Michael, as I said, I know very little about what an orchestrator does so, in your words, what do you do?

Michael: Have fun! That’s the easiest explanation. Most composers for the theatre write for the piano. Some write for the guitar but most of them write for the piano or guitar. Some are educated musicians who write out full piano parts, some are not and just play or sing into a tape recorder. As a side note, the lack of notation ability in no way indicates less talent or less ability, it’s just a different approach to how you express your music. My job is to take it from that conception for the piano and end up with an orchestra – or, in more recent years, with a small band – and all the things that have to happen to the musical on the way to get there. One of the things that happens, which people often confuse with orchestration, is arranging. Arranging is basically a subset of composing – it’s where you manipulate the materials of the music without assigning instruments, so that can be anything – it can be extending themes to make dance arrangements, it can be adding vocal lines to the vocal melody to have vocal arrangements. Those are usually other people than the orchestrator but that piano part doesn’t necessarily fit for woodwinds or for brass, it’s a piano texture, and so it’s my job to stay true to the spirit that the composer expressed in his piano part and turn it into something that works orchestrally. Now, if my band is very small, which it is more often nowadays, sometimes I’ll leave that piano part as he wrote it and add other things to it, but if I’m doing something that’s a large 18 piece band, I’ll go away from that piano part and come up with textures and materials that express what the piano part expressed. So it’s not as simple as putting instruments onto what he wrote, there’s a great deal of orchestral arranging to turn the material into what will fit the instruments. Now, along the way, while I’m doing that, my artistry is not just to accomplish that, but to assist him at expressing the story. It’s my opinion that every designer in the theatre is a co-playwright, that we all work to express the story that the author  first and then the director and everyone underneath is trying to put on the stage, so we’re trying to portray what the characters are doing, what the story is doing and add elements through our work and our design that expand and enrich the story and that, to me, is what is most exciting in theatre music, as opposed to orchestration for film or something else, is that helping to tell the story. Not directly – not Mickey Mouse like I would in animation, and I’ve worked in animation, but in an indirect way, in an emotional way, and that’s, to me, the definition of orchestration in not so few words.

Ken: There are a very small number of people who do this at the top of their game – how did you fall into this very specific niche?

Michael: Purely accidentally. I did not grow up with my parents taking me to the theatre – I believe I got taken to maybe one musical, which was Martha Wray in Hello, Dolly. Two musicals – and Pippin. Those were the two musicals I was taken to as a kid. There was an album of My Fair Lady and Man of La Mancha in the house, my father was a classical music lover so I was taken to the opera, I was taken to concerts, so I fell in love with musical theatre not through listening to albums but through doing it. I was listening to pop music of my era, of the ’60s and the ’70s, and I fell in love with the theatre by working on shows in high school and college and so it was always something I did, I never thought I’d go into it as a career, I wasn’t even looking to be a musical director but I fell into that and my first show in New York I hooked up with a young, unknown composer at the time named William Finn and started working with him and they needed someone to orchestrate so, okay, I did some orchestration when I wrote a symphony in college and I just did it because someone had to do it at the time.

Ken: Tell me about the process itself – when do you come on? When is the orchestrator hired? When do you start work and how does that process begin?

Michael: It’s a really pressured job because my work can’t start until rehearsals start – and that’s rehearsals for the production – because keys have to be set, routining has to be set, you can’t orchestrate before you’re approaching production so the period of time for orchestration is anywhere from, well it used to be eight weeks when people gave productions two months to rehearse, that disappeared, now it’s turned into six or even four weeks to orchestrate the show. You can’t start ahead of time. I cheat and I do because now we orchestrate digitally in Finale with digital notation so it’s a little easier to make changes and shift keys and things, but you really can’t start until the last minute, unlike a set designer who’s designing a year out, or a costume designer, we’re really at the last moment. Hopefully I come on the production in time to catch readings and workshops because I have to work at home at a desk, I can’t see the show, and I happen to live out in the suburbs and it’s really hard to do a show without seeing it and one of the things that’s made it possible for me to live in the suburbs is having videos of the production that can be sent to me so I can hear the voices. It’s really important that you’re orchestrating for the voices that are portraying the characters, that you’re seeing the staging, you’re hearing how the songs are being sung – another reason you can’t start until production starts. So a workshop ahead of time also gives me a great view and feel of the show and lets me have time for the show to percolate in my mind for a few months so that when I have to spit it all out very quickly there’s been some thinking going on.

Ken: You mentioned Finale, the music notation software program – I would imagine that orchestrating, because of technology, has changed a lot in the last couple of decades – talk to me about how, when you first started orchestrating, what were you doing compared to now.

Michael: My first Broadway show, Sunday in the Park, I wrote that on onion skins in pencil. They had a process called browning that involved ammonia where they would take the onion skins to print the scores and then everything had to be hand copied from that. It was laborious for me because I had horrible penmanship so to make my notation clear I had to labor with great difficulty and it slowed me down as an orchestrator, so in 2005, for the Broadway production of Assassins, I, for the first time, notated a show in Finale. It was a complete liberation for me because I wasn’t fighting my bad penmanship, I was able to move quickly, move my ideas quickly, change my ideas quickly – the idea of erasing this lead and making a mess on my score made me go “Oh, maybe I’ll just try it,” now you think “That’s a bad idea,” and you wipe it out in a second so, for me, digital notation has been a completely wonderful thing that made me not only faster but, I think, better as an orchestrator.

Ken: How long does it take you to do a song?

Michael: It depends on the song. The first song in a show may take me two or three weeks, starting ahead of time, because first I don’t want to do it, I resist work, as a lot of creative people do, they don’t want to start the project, that’s one reason I’ll start ahead of time, and then I have to learn my band. I know what I’ve picked but I need to see how the band relates to this show, to this song, and then I have to understand how I’m going to use it and then it starts rolling faster and faster.

Ken: You talk about picking the band, which is obviously the instrumentation you’re going to use, which is like a painter’s color wheel, if you will.

Michael: Right.

Ken: Do you have to know every single instrument on the planet? Do you know everything that’s out there?

Michael: I know all about the standard instruments, yes. I play quite a few instruments badly. I was a bass player, a rock and roll bass player, I played some phonic percussion, never played drums. I’m a pianist, that’s my main instrument. I play a little guitar, I’ve played flute, I’ve played tuba, studied viola. It’s not essential to play these things but what’s essential is to know how they work and to write for the players so they are comfortable. if you write something that’s not endemic – I believe that’s the right word – to the instrument, the player will say “I can do it, I can do it!” but you will hear struggling playing in and it won’t be as pretty as when you write something that plays naturally for the instrument that he can grab well. So you not only need to know how the instruments work, you need to know how to write for them so that the players can shine. It’s the same thing as writing lines that fit the person you cast – you cast a different person, suddenly this song doesn’t work as well, these lines don’t play as well. You need to shape the part to who you have, the same thing goes when I write a line for an oboe – it’s going to be different to a line for a flute. These are my characters. You’re asking me do I know my characters? I know them really well, I know their emotional values, how they can apply to certain things. The orchestra is my cast that I really know well and use, including on the synthesizer – I pick my own sounds, I don’t let anyone pick them for me. I use programmers because, after many years, I got tired of crawling on the floor, doing my own programming, fixing it in the pit, but I can’t imagine someone else picking what a sound would be within my orchestration so I pick my own sounds there as well. Some of them are characters for me, like a clarinet. There are sounds on the synthesizer that I can plug in and have as much familiarity with.

Ken: You said you play a lot of instruments “badly,” I’m sure you play them quite well.

Michael: Trust me, I don’t, but alright.

Ken: Do you think that’s common with all orchestrators, that many of them play multiple instruments? Is that one of the prerequisites?

Michael: They’ve played. I think we all have different instrumental abilities but we all have come out of performing. Most of us has developed as music directors which, when anyone asks me, “How do I become an orchestrator?” The first thing I always say is, “become a music director first, even if you don’t have that huge a career,” because you need to know what the needs of the production are, how it works, the singer needs a cue here, the set’s moving here so the music needs to be louder. You need to know all those things that you’re not going to learn sitting at home at a desk, you’re going to learn watching a director struggle, watching an actor struggle. There’s so much to be learned in the process of putting a musical together that orchestrators that haven’t music directed, I don’t think, learn. Almost everybody I know who’s orchestrating now in the theatre worked as a music director at one point. Interestingly enough – you mentioned a small group of orchestrators – we all know each other and we’re all friends because, despite the fact that we compete for the small set of jobs, we then turn to each other and say “Can you help me out and chart for this? Because I don’t have enough time to finish it.” That’s an old tradition in the theatre and we’ve all helped each other out and done charts for each other on shows, it’s constant.

Ken: Really?

Michael: Oh yeah.

Ken: Is there a chart of yours in a show where you’re not credited as the orchestrator?

Michael: I don’t know if I’m credited or not, but Beauty and the Beast, I did The Wolf Hunt. You know, who cares about The Wolf Hunt? But that’s mine. I will happily credit – I did Guys and Dolls in 1992 and I will happily credit the fantastic chart for Havana that Danny Troob did and so sometimes we walk away with the credits of our friends and we try to explain it, but that happens, we help each other out. Danny and I have helped each other out a lot with Alan Menken’s material in the underscores in all of the Disney movies – there’s not enough time to get it all done. He would give me a reel of underscore when I did some of those films, I gave him one. It’s just not possible and if you turn to your peers the work will be as good as your own and it’s much better to feel safe than to bring someone in who won’t be as good and you may feel more secure but you’re actually now stuck with work that’s not as good under your name, so it’s a wonderful tradition.

Ken: You are a composer as well and you have been in the trenches on the development of some amazing pieces of theatre. You’ve been on some shows that didn’t work as well.

Michael: Many, many.

Ken: Legs Diamond was a show you were on, right?

Michael: Those are the best stories.

Ken: Right. How tempting is it when you’re orchestrating these things to be like “Uh, you know what? He should really write this like this. He should do it this way.” Do you have that collaboration with the composers? Have you thought about this here?

Michael: Never to an extent on an unsuccessful show that I think any fixes will make any difference. When a show is doomed it’s much bigger issues than what an orchestrator is doing. However, I absolutely talk to the composers and say, “Don’t you think the ending should be this? Can I go and do this? Would this be more dramatic if I tried this?” Absolutely, and most of them are open to ideas, and if not they’ll say, “Yeah, but try what I did first.” There’s a great give and take with that. I’m not sure I have more to say about that.

Ken: Do you have any good stories from Legs Diamond or any flops?

Michael: Here, I’ll tell you – since this is a show for producers, I’ll give you my two rules that producers break all of the time that cause flops. One, never hire a director who’s never done a musical before. I’ve seen this rule broken, and Legs Diamond was one of those shows. This rule is broken over and over and it’s always a disaster. Sometimes the director will surround themselves with people who know what they’re doing – it doesn’t matter. Forget the artistic conception, the physical marshaling of a production for Broadway and keeping it moving forward and organized, you have to have done it and helped somebody do it before you know how to do it yourself. It just can’t happen, and half of the flops I’ve worked on, that’s what’s happened, including the original Carrie.

Ken: I forgot you did that!

Michael: Yeah, that was Terry Hands who ran the RSC and had never done a musical before. The other rule that’s constantly broken is don’t go into production until you’re ready – and that sounds so simple but I’ve seen so many productions where the book problems are not solved and it’s like “We’ll solve it in rehearsals for this production now,” and it’s like “No, the set is planned and the set boxes you in to the structure of the show because you’ve built this big mechanical set that moves you around, now you need to throw out the second act and half these characters and really change it if you’re going to fix it and you can’t because you’ve boxed yourself in with the production and there’s no money to throw it out and do it again,” so that’s a mistake I’ve seen numerous times too.

Ken: I am now trying to think if I still have my bootleg cassette copy of Carrie where I listened to those orchestrations over and over. Oh man, I love some of that stuff. I’m going to ask you one of my James Lipton questions. It’s the Smithsonian question – I want you to imagine that the Smithsonian calls you and says, “Michael, we’ve got room in the institute for one of your orchestrations, one of your many.” How many songs have you orchestrated in your career? A thousand?

Michael: I don’t count.

Ken: We’ve got to count them up – we’ll try to get that for you guys later. But which song would be your favorite that you would want preserved?

Michael: Which song? That’s so hard to answer.

Ken: I know, we ask the hard questions.

Michael: It’s like asking me to pick a child.

Ken: I know.

Michael: Sunday in the Park is really great but Sunday in the Park feels like a different person, I was 27 when I did that show and I look back at it and it’s the foolishness of a 27 year old that didn’t know what he was doing that makes that orchestration good. I couldn’t write that same orchestration now – I could write something great but it wouldn’t be what that crazy 27 year old who had no idea that he was actually stepping into someone like Jonathan Tunick’s shoes and that he had this opportunity that anyone would kill for. I had no idea. James Lapine had gotten me this opportunity and I did it. It might be one of the songs from that and from that everyone wants it to be the Act One finale but I’d probably say “Move On” because that’s a great song, but part of me doesn’t want to do that because I hate listening to work I’ve already done, I hate repeating work I’ve already done. I’m at that age now where shows I’ve worked on are being revived – there’s talk of Falsettos being done and I hope I get to do it and I hope I get to do it with a band that’s bigger than the teeny-tiny band that did it last time! But I just want to do something different because I believe there’s no point in repeating it. The moment musical theatre becomes strictly revivals it turns into the opera world, it turns into a world of classics and what I love about the musical theatre is that, as a commercial medium, it’s a battle between artistry and business and that’s the healthiest battle. It’s like you’ve got to sell tickets but you want to do something that has artistic merit and the business keeps the artistic merit honest, it keeps it from turning into the intellectual snobbery I find in certain operas, but on the other hand it keeps the business from turning into just a theme park. I find that so exciting, so when you say preserve a song forever I don’t want anything preserved forever, I want new material always. that’s what I find exciting and that’s also where I feel blessed in my career, is that I’ve been associated with a number of composers who are always writing new shows and doing new material – I couldn’t imagine having a better life than doing what I’m doing.

Ken: From what James Lapine told us all it sounded like you were working overtime on Sunday in the Park with George since the score came so late.

Michael: He was probably talking about “Children and Art” and “Lesson #8.” The songs came in on a Friday, we put them in for the weekend and I had that weekend to orchestrate the two songs and have them copied on the day off on Monday, played for the first time on Tuesday, Craig showed up something like Wednesday. But what was so interesting was that second act had been playing without those songs and what’s even more interesting to me was the workshop at Playwrights Horizons where the second act didn’t really exist and we were doing the first act and “Color and Light” at the beginning of the first act was there but “Finishing the Hat” wasn’t and you kept looking at the show going “Who is this guy? He’s so mean to her, who care about him?” And then this song came in and it was “Finishing the Hat” and you saw Mandy’s eyes, “Oh my God, this character!” And you saw everyone go “This is what the show’s about!” It was that element that was so missing and it was the most excitement moment to watch him in that afternoon rehearsal before we did that evening’s performance run it over and over with Paul Ford, over and over again, just grabbing onto the song. That, to me, is one of the most exciting moments in theatre, to see a new piece of writing come in and see a play just blossom before your eyes. Sunday in the Park, for me, worked before “Lesson #8” and “Children and Art” came in. The second act needed them but the show worked, but until “Finishing the Hat” came in that day… that was quite a moment.

Ken: You’ve made a couple of mentions of the Falsettos teeny-tiny band and I think it took you all of 27 words to say something about band size.

Michael: Well this is a producer’s podcast, so what can I say?

Ken: Sunday in the Park, how many instruments did it have?

Michael: Eleven.

Ken: That’s small.

Michael: Very small.

Ken: The biggest thing you had back then?

Michael: I think it did a 25 for Legs Diamond or Rags I think may have been 18 or 19. I’ve been in that size but not since back then.

Ken: And what are your thoughts on the color wheel that you get to work with today as opposed to yesterday? Obviously you have keyboards now.

Michael: That has nothing to do with it. This is a false assumption people make, that because we have MIDI, the tool of synthesizers and MIDI, bands can be smaller. No, we do not use, or I don’t use, string samples – I don’t use samples of live instruments. Let me go back earlier – what you get when you do that is a false sense of music that doesn’t sound live. Here’s an earlier problem – our ears have changed. Someone like Stephen Sondheim grew up hearing musical theatre with live instruments and an open put. You and I are of a younger generation – we didn’t grow up hearing that first, we grew up first hearing albums, CDs, we grew up on recorded music. We are now a full generation of people that grew up on recorded music so we expect sound to have that immediacy of the recorded world. That’s not theatrical – what’s theatrical is live and so there has to be a balance in theatre sound of getting the live instruments and live sound without getting it so present and in my face that I lose the performance context. It’s the whole idea that when sound designers design voices they try to trick you into thinking that the voice comes from the stage – they use delays on their speakers so that the voice reaches you first from the stage and then is supported by the speaker with a delay, so I have the image of it coming from there. We need to make an orchestra sound as if it’s being performed. The more I use MIDI, the more it sounds like it’s being recorded, it’s not live, I take away from the theatrical experience and turn it into a recorded experience. So, to me, the emphasis of numbers comes out of the larger issue of making theatre music feel live and performed and, to do that, the more acoustic instruments, the more inaccuracy of eight players not being precisely together as a computer would put them together, but in the live way live musicians play, which makes live textures, live things that change every night so that everyone on stage is having to act to that slight difference every night, and be on edge because everything’s slightly different because it’s live, that’s what’ makes it theatrical. And so to me the problem is that when you ask me to use MIDI for things you’re taking away the liveness of theatre. I want a band that’s able to make more than just a rhythm section, that has voices that can respond to the stage. If I have just a rhythm section, I’m supporting the singers but I’m not getting in there with them as I can with a trumpet, a cello and things. When the bands get small I can’t do that much. I know the economics are not going to allow me to have 25 anymore. I don’t think it’s because musicians are being paid too much, I think it’s because sets cost more and there’s other problems, so I’m not going to fight to have 25 again and I’m not going to blame anybody for it getting smaller but I just feel that producers need to understand that when you make an orchestra too small you take away that interplay that can happen dramatically between orchestration and the character on stage and that’s what’s lost. It’s hard to pin that down and say “You’re losing this when you make me cut the guitar,” but there’s a real thing that’s lost for each of those players that gets cut back to make budget work. It’s really hard for me to quantify it for you in some other manner.

Ken: Orchestrations, as we’ve talked about, have changed, or the orchestration process has changed a lot, over the last 20 years – where do you see it 20 years from now? What will a Broadway band look like in 20 years?

Michael: That’s hard to say because music in shows is going to change – I mean Hamilton is a first example of that. I think musicals can have any style of music and I don’t think musicals are limited to any style of music – what they are limited to is lyrics that are theatrical and tell the story and many of the pop composers who have come into the business have fallen flat, not because their musical is wrong for the theatre but their lyrics remain pop lyrics and didn’t become theatrical lyrics. So where the music is headed, I really couldn’t guess, do you know what I mean? I think what Lin-Manuel and Alex Lacamoire did for that show is really exciting in that they mixed all sorts of samples that are played live, that are played to click, against string quartet playing live and vocal samples and treatments of voices. They used a lot of contemporary recording techniques but they found a way to not take away the theatricality of it. I think that indicates a real great future to manipulating sound in the theatre and the borders between sound and music disappearing. I hope that live players won’t disappear with that. I don’t think the whole idea of MIDI-fied orchestras is going to happen but I do think the styles of music will change and orchestras will be wanted less often because we’re doing different kinds of music. If you look in the past ten years, starting with the first Spring Awakening, suddenly the new band for Broadway became rock and roll rhythm section and strings, where the main Broadway band for years was woodwind doublers because we were doing jazz-oriented scores and old fashioned swing scores. Suddenly it became rock and roll and it was like “Oh, strings work much better in a rock group because they can be rhythmic in a way with their bowing that woodwinds can’t,” and there was a big shift there and I copied that same orchestration for Next to Normal, reduced with less strings, and found it wonderful and have used it a number of times since then. So that’s a change that’s occurred recently. I don’t know that jazz and old fashioned song writing will disappear but I’m not sure there’s anyone that’s really successfully doing it for the theatre at present, you know, writing in the old fashioned Broadway style score. I know a lot of shows that try to be old fashioned and fall down. There’s nothing wrong with being old fashioned, they’re just not good in the process. So I’m not sure we’re going to go back to the old bands and the old days, we probably shouldn’t.

Ken: Okay, my last question, which is my Genie Question – I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin shows up at your door and says, “Michael, I want to thank you for your contributions to the theatre by granting you one wish – I will allow you to change one thing about Broadway.” What’s the one thing that drives you so nuts, makes you so angry, could keep you up at night about what’s happening right now on Broadway that you would want that genie to change with the snap of his finger or a wave of his genie wand?

Michael: You asked Lapine this and I can’t believe I didn’t think of an answer.

Ken: You cheated – you listened, you knew the question was coming and you still didn’t have an answer!

Michael: I should have gone and thought about it.

Ken: They’re better when they come off the cuff.

Michael: I wish there was a way for a show to be a moderate success. I wish there were a way for authors to develop a career of doing a series of shows and learning to write shows and then having your big hit. it doesn’t seem to happen, it seems you have one hit or, if you don’t have that hit, you’re out, you’re gone, and there doesn’t seem to be room in the business for a moderate success because I would like to see more new shows being done. revivals are okay and I’ve made a nice living from a couple of revivals but new shows are so much more exciting, so much more interesting and I think that’s one of the things that stops them from occurring, that a producer can’t do a new show with a new set of authors and keep it open for six months to a year without losing his shirt if he hasn’t got the huge review or the reviews have said “Nice, but there problems.” There should be a way for that to last a little while.

Ken: I’ve asked the genie for that many times. I’ve said many prayers about that, actually.

Michael: And he never gives it to you!

Ken: Not yet, dang it! Michael, I want to thank you so much for doing this and for your contributions for the theatre and your incredible passion about the music – I got chills four or five times during this podcast based on what you said about new musicals and being in that room, so thank you so much for that. Thank you, all of you, for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast to make sure you get every episode in your inbox. Next up – Tino Gagliardi, the president of Local 802, is going to be with us. How timely, talking about band size. I wonder what he’s going to think about the reduction of band sizes on Broadway. So tune in, you don’t want to miss that one, it’s going to be a good one. Thanks so much, everybody!

Ken: Don’t forget, when you’re looking for group tickets, visit BroadwayGeniusGroups.com. Mention the podcast and you’ll save $100.

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.