Tony winner Jonathan Tunick, currently represented on Broadway with his orchestrations for the Tony-nominated revival of Sweeney Todd, was Stephen Sondheim’s orchestrator of choice, arranging nearly all of his musicals. And, we do mean nearly all: Tunick's credits include the original Broadway productions of Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Passion, and Merrily We Roll Along. He also penned the orchestrations for the recent, acclaimed Off-Broadway revival of Merrily, which begins previews on Broadway this fall.
The New York native, who has orchestrated over 50 Broadway productions—including the original stagings of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Chorus Line and the Tony-winning Nine—won his Tony in 1997 for Best Orchestrations for Maury Yeston's Tony-winning score for Titanic. It was the first Tony to ever be given in that category.
Tunick, who was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2009, is also one of the few artists who has achieved EGOT status, with an Emmy in 1982 for Night of 100 Stars (Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction), a Grammy in 1988 for No One Is Alone (Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocals), and an Oscar in 1978 for A Little Night Music (Best Music, Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Best Adaptation Score).
In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Tunick shares how two phone calls changed his professional life and how he's never worked a day job in his career.
What made you decide to become an orchestrator?
As school children, we heard records such as Peter and the Wolf and Tubby the Tuba that showed me that musical instruments could portray characters and tell stories. This idea grew into an obsession that has dominated my life.
Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
Bye Bye Birdie, which caught my attention as the first really hip musical, and introduced me to the work of Red Ginzler.
Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn’t.
Although I was a performed composer at 19 (Take Five) and orchestrated my first Broadway show (From A to Z) at 21, my 20s were a steady stream of false starts and disappointments. Nevertheless, I was very stubborn and persisted.
How did you get your first job in the theatre?
I spent the summers of 1959 and ’60 at Tamiment, a resort in the Poconos that provided entertainment for its guests in the form of an original musical revue each week. There was a resident staff of performers, writers, composers, designers, director, choreographer, an orchestra and…an arranger. I was still working on my masters at Juilliard, and Tamiment was the link between being a student and a professional musician—my first experience as a paid arranger.
I was paying my way through Juilliard by playing clarinet and saxophone or piano in bands. A trumpet player friend told me he’d gotten a job for the summer playing at Tamiment, and thus inspired, I called the musical director, Milton Greene (who was later the conductor of Fiddler), to inquire about the possibility of a job in the band for myself.
“What I really need,” he said, "is an arranger. The arranger that I’ve had for the last few years isn’t coming back.”
“Well,” I said, “I don’t have any experience—or credits—but I am a composition major at Juilliard, and I can do arranging.”
He was over a barrel; he couldn’t find anyone. And so, not without trepidation, he gave me the job. Once at Tamiment I immersed myself in musicals and theatre orchestration. We did a show a week for 10 weeks, the last a full musical, as opposed to a revue. Milton was a bit of a martinet—a real stickler and methodical, but he knew his trade, and gave me a good deal of advice and guidance that’s held true to this day.
It was at Tamiment that I learned many of the basics of working in the theatre, and made some of my first contacts that led to work in the time to come. Some of these were Dorothy Loudon, Mary Rodgers, Fred Ebb, Gary Geld, Woody Allen, and Michael Cohen—who, in addition to being a fine composer, ran the music department at Grey Advertising for many years and often called me in to provide music for TV commercials.
What do you consider your big break?
It would have to be the call, seemingly out of nowhere, offering me Burt Bacharach’s Promises, Promises—the show that first really put me on the map.
What is the most memorable day job you ever had?
I am proud to say that I’ve been able to support myself solely by music, even at the beginning. I have never had a day job or collected unemployment.
Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
Robert Russell Bennett, the Grand Old Man of theatre orchestrators—a great musician and a great man. Red Ginzler, who I consider the greatest theatre orchestrator of all time.
Tell me about a job/opportunity you really wanted but didn’t get.
I really would have liked to do 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; I had worked with Bernstein on Mass and found him endlessly inspiring. Also, I really would have liked to have put in some time on the road with Woody Herman’s band.
What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
Don’t turn up your nose at a job that doesn’t pay enough, or for which someone else will snag the credit. As long as you think the gig will bring you some profit in the form of experience, a promising connection, or some musical or professional growth that will help your progress. In the early stages of your career, you will be exploited. It’s all right to let this happen as long as you’re compensated in other ways.
What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
Being right is not an effective defense.
Your work is so associated with the music of Stephen Sondheim. Can you share what that means to you and/or something that Sondheim said to you over the years that was particularly meaningful?
While planning the score for Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim quipped to me, “Since the plot runs backwards in time, maybe we should put the overture at the end of the show, rather than at the beginning.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “And the overture should end with a timpani roll.” [Editor’s Note: This humorous plan didn’t happen, though Sondheim did place ‘reprise’ versions of songs before fuller arrangements of the same tunes later in the evening.]
What is your proudest achievement as an orchestrator?
I’m still here.