Musical Orchestrators of Broadway’s Golden Era: Another Op’nin’, Another Show

Ph.D. • April 2021Commentary • April 6, 2021

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Musicals as we know them first began in the mid-1800s in New York City. Musicals’ scores have all been impacted by numerous orchestrators and their work helping create the glorious music in stage musicals.

What constitutes the golden era of Broadway musicals? The earliest date given is usually 1920, although some use 1943 with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! as the beginning date. 1959 as the end of the golden era has been cited, the year of the final collaboration between Rodgers and Hammerstein: The Sound of Music. Others use 1964 and Fiddler on the Roof as the end of the golden era. Despite the differences in delineating the start and end of the golden era, most will agree that the musicals accomplished by twelve key orchestrators are worthy of consideration.

The orchestrators and their assistants or ghost orchestrators came up with the sound of Broadway musicals by legendary musicians such as George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Bock and Harnick, Jerry Herman and many others. Orchestrators contributed by deciding what instruments should play at what time, selecting melody versus unique arrangements for certain instruments and by giving a certain sound that would match the era, theme or locale of each musical.

In his book The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators & Orchestrations, Suskin (2009) provides a comprehensive treatment of Broadway musical orchestrators and orchestrations. The majority of Broadway musical scores were done by more than one orchestrator. Suskin (2009, pp. 24-116) identifies twelve main orchestrators who did a large portion of Broadway musical scores beginning in 1920. The orchestrators contributed to overtures, entr’actes, underscores, vocal song arrangements, scene changes, the finale ultimo and exit music.

Suskin (2009) provides a comprehensive overview of how Broadway musical orchestrations were accomplished during much of the twentieth century. His A to Z guide of musicals provides details about orchestrators and orchestrations (Suskin 2009, pp. 314-583).

While many musicals were orchestrated by a principal orchestrator with one or more assistants or ghost orchestrators, Suskin (2009) reports that based on careful research, only 14 golden era musicals were orchestrated by a single person. For example, Suskin maintains that The Sound of Music was done solely by Robert Russell Bennett. Maestro Bennett made an influential splash from 1920 to 1975 and worked on some of Broadway’s most popular musicals as indicated in Table 1. Bennett orchestrated more than 300 Broadway musical scores of differing genres including musicals, symphonies, concertos, sonatas and operas. His musical arrangements for the 1955 film version of Oklahoma! earned him an Academy Award.

Learning Scenarios

Instrumental music students can benefit from analyzing the work of Broadway musical orchestrators and their creations. Various curricular approaches such as differentiation, habits of mind, multiple intelligences and learning styles can add flavor to lessons and assignments. Students can have input on which orchestrator or musicals they analyze and the way they present their findings (differentiation). The 16 habits of mind can be used to analyze the orchestrators’ work while the multiple intelligences, especially musical intelligence, can help shed light on the orchestrators’ musical work. Learning styles, especially VARK (Visual, Aural, Reading/Writing, Kinesthetic), can enable students to focus on orchestrators’ tasks.

Expose students to the following learning scenarios in order for them to gain a deep understanding of musicals’ orchestrations. This includes online assignments using the internet and YouTube.

Cast Albums – Students analyze one or more cast albums of a golden era musical by one or more orchestrators. They can describe the orchestrations of one or more songs on each album.

Full Published Vocal Scores – Students analyze the written score of one or more musicals considering time signatures, keys, lyrics, musical styles and any signature styles of a specific orchestrator.

Main Broadway Musical Orchestrators – Students explore the musicals of a specific orchestrator from Table 1 alone or with others.

Max Dreyfus and Chappell Music – Students explore the career of Max Dreyfus and his role within the Chappell Music Group. Which orchestrators in particular participated in Chappell and what were the logistics for providing the orchestrations for golden era Broadway musicals?
Research Students read books, articles, musical scores and the Internet to learn about the golden era Broadway musicals , especially the orchestrators. Suskin (2009) is an ideal resource.

Playing – Students learn to play one song from a golden era musical alone or with others. What do students notice about the orchestrations on cast recordings?

Analysis – Students analyze the music found in a complete golden era musical score. What components make up the score? What comprises overtures? What other features are common across scores?


The sound of Broadway musicals was accomplished by twelve orchestrators plus an array of assistants and ghost orchestrators. Instrumental music students can benefit from learning about these musicians and their twentieth century musicals.

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