The New Signature Theatre/Ford’s Theatre Production features new orchestrations
Nearly fifty years ago, to the sound of a pit orchestra of 25, Jerry Herman’s musical Hello, Dolly! opened what turned out to be a record breaking seven year run on Broadway in the St. James Theatre with its more than 1,700 seats.
Next weekend, the same show will have its official opening as a joint production of Signature Theatre and Ford’s Theatre at the historic Ford’s on 10th Street with about a thousand fewer seats. The pit orchestra here will number eight.
While it may well have the same script and the same songs, it will, however, have an entirely different feel as director Eric Schaeffer attempts what he calls “a full re-examination and re-discovery.” He says it isn’t just “revisiting it mathematically, but from a storytelling aspect, separating it from the iconographic memory of the original.” He adds that “the refreshing thing is that the show works. It doesn’t seem like it is 48 years old – it’s so fresh, so real. And it fits so perfectly on Ford’s stage.”
Rather than simply have a smaller orchestra play essentially the same orchestrations by dropping all the string parts and scaling down the brass, Schaeffer brought in orchestrator Kim Scharnberg to write entirely new charts.
Scharnberg is a Connecticut-based arranger/orchestrator who has become an Associate Artist at Ford’s after handling the orchestrations for many of the theater’s annual Galas and the charts for Ford’s production of 1776. With this background, he has an intimate knowledge of the acoustics of Ford’s Theatre.
“1776, while it is a very different show with a very different sound, presented something of the same challenge as Hello, Dolly!” Scharnberg says. “Both are big Broadway musicals that have to have that special sound.”
Schaeffer says that it has been a thrill as well as a challenge to revisit the venerable Hello, Dolly! for the smaller venue. Part of the challenge has been to make sure that all the elements in the production are “of a piece,” that is that everything seems to fit with everything else. “We’re condensing it. Sixteen actors. An ensemble of just six instead of the 32 that the original had on Broadway.”
He says it is important that “the sound of the orchestra feels part of that world … We’re not just reducing it – it would have too many holes. There’s a style that all the parts need to have to make it all our own. We’re not just doing a small, scaled down version because we can’t afford to do it big.”
From the very first moment, the production is going to feel unique. “We won’t be doing a big Broadway dim-the-lights/strike up the brassy overture. Eric is working on an opening that is quieter, altogether different, and it looks as if it is going to work beautifully.”
Schaeffer went back to the original story, the original script for the feel of the opening he’s devised. “The story begins at 9:00 a.m. in the train depot in Yonkers – so we start with a clock striking nine times and then we use ‘Call on Dolly’ to introduce the characters in the ensemble. We hope the audience will hear those nine chimes and see the dimly lit station come into view and they will sit up and listen, saying ‘Oh, this isn’t the same old show done small – it isn’t what I was expecting. I better pay attention here, something is happening.’”
Scharnberg and Schaeffer are well aware that the original Broadway cast recording with its big/bold/brassy sounding orchestra playing charts by the legendary Philip J. Lang has occupied an honored place in the collections of musical theater fans for generations and that the sound the audience hears in Ford’s will have to compete with that memory.
”Rather than just stripping away things you can’t afford, my reductions have to be unique,” says Scharnberg. His new orchestrations are for a woodwind player who alternates on flute, clarinet, alto sax and piccolo, a trumpeter who doubles on flugelhorn, a trombonist with both a tenor and a bass trombone, one violinist, a percussionist and acoustic bass player, as well as a pianist and a keyboard player.
He points to the use of a keyboard in addition to a piano as a key to being able to give the orchestra heft saying “The writing I do for a second keyboard gives it more power and presence. I’m also using a violin. It will have to do some of the work of the four string lines in the original, but it will still be just one violin.”
Scharnberg’s charts ask a lot of the eight players, but he says that is the way of this production. “Eric’s approach is to ask a lot of his actors. They all sing and dance their heart out. I wanted to ask the same of the orchestra: Fewer people doing so much more.”
“Music Director James Moore takes the same approach to the vocal work of the actors,” Schaeffer adds. “Jim Moore has done with the voices – the vocal instruments – what Kim has done with the musicians’ instruments. It is all of a sound, and that’s great.”
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Scharnberg said that even though the size and acoustics of Ford’s dictated the use of players who can play different instruments at differing points, he wanted to make sure he honored the work of the original orchestrator. “I decided to stay with the core of the original. The piano, bass and drums are exactly the same as the original. Those charts were just so great!”
He should know. As a young man, he played the trombone in the pit for one of Carol Channing’s tours when he was working his way through the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. His new orchestrations for the songs she sang when he was in the pit are in a higher key, however, “because Carol Channing sang it so low.” His new charts are intended to fit nicely with the vocal talents of the new Dolly, Nancy Opel.
Scharnberg isn’t the only one dipping back into his past for connections to this classic musical. Schaeffer first came to know Hello, Dolly! when he was a teenager. He played “Barnaby Tucker” in his tenth grade high school musical.