While theater enthusiasts can cite chapter and verse about any musical written by Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman or Stephen Schwartz, few outsiders will recognize such names as Jonathan Tunick, Phil Lang and William David Brohn.
Those men spent years working in relative obscurity, and yet their tireless efforts are largely responsible for giving the music of Sondheim, Herman and Schwartz their characteristic sounds. Who are those talented craftsmen? They’re orchestrators.
Often given little more than a melody and the corresponding harmonies that support it, the orchestrator transforms a basic tune into a chart that will be played by as many as two dozen professional musicians.
Another member of that talented group of unsung musical heroes is Larry Blank, a gifted musician who has orchestrated the Broadway productions of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Catch Me If You Can” and “A Christmas Story.”
Because orchestrators are given the responsibility of creating arrangements that will cast great tunes in the best possible light, it should come as no surprise that they’re equally at home in front of an orchestra.
Blank will be the featured conductor for the Oklahoma City Philharmonic’s upcoming pops concert pair, a celebration of music from the Broadway stage and film. Joining him will be guest vocalists Ron Raines, Lisa Vroman and Christina Saffran.
These concerts will not only feature some of Broadway’s most popular show tunes, but the kind of musical wizardry that a master orchestrator can accomplish. Spotlighted will be Blank’s arrangements of “I, Don Quixote” from “Man of La Mancha,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from “Oklahoma!” and a Disney medley he created for the BBC.
Tricks of the trade
A New York native who attended the prestigious High School of the Performing Arts, Blank learned his craft by working side by side with some of Broadway’s most talented orchestrators, among them, Irwin Kostal (“West Side Story”), Lang (“Hello, Dolly”) and Ralph Burns (“Pippin”).
“Those guys took me under their wings, and I learned about all sorts of little devices and tricks that are used in orchestration,” Blank said recently by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I once complained to Kostal that when trumpets put in their cup mutes, they play sharp.
“He told me if you start a number with them already in cup mutes, it will be in tune. Kostal also said that woodwinds define the harmony, so you should write them high enough so people can hear them. Those are things you have to be aware of in this business.”
Blank’s Broadway career began not as an orchestrator but as a conductor. His first show was “Goodtime, Charley,” a 1975 musical about the 15th-century French King Charles VII and his association with Joan of Arc.
“That musical opened some doors for me,” Blank said of “Goodtime, Charley.” “Larry Grossman (who composed the score) took a liking to me and gave me the musical ‘Snoopy’ to orchestrate.”
During the next 15 years, Blank continued to pursue his dream of becoming a Broadway conductor. He served as music director for “They’re Playing Our Song,” “Sugar Babies,” “Copperfield” and “Teddy & Alice.”
Ultimately urged by Kostal to relocate to Southern California, Blank continued to hone his craft working in television (“In the Heat of the Night,” “Father Dowling Mysteries”) and film (“All Dogs Go to Heaven 2,” “City Slickers 2,” “Ordinary People”).
Blank’s multifaceted career clearly proves the notion that establishing strong relationships with industry professionals can lead to countless opportunities. Don Pippin, one of Herman’s favorite conductors, recommended Blank for work on “A Chorus Line” and “They’re Playing Our Song” in New York, and “Stairway to the Stars” in London.
Through Michael Feinstein, Blank met London-based theatrical producer Kim Poster, who invited him to re-orchestrate a 2007 West End revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” and a 2009 revival of “Carousel.”
Perhaps Blank’s most durable partnership is that with composer and lyricist Marc Shaiman. Blank has worked on Shaiman’s films “South Park,” “Forget Paris,” “Stuart Saves His Family” and the Broadway musical “Catch Me If You Can.”
To date, Blank has earned three Tony nominations, for his orchestrations of “The Drowsy Chaperone” (2006), “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” (2009) and “Catch Me If You Can” (2011).
Blank was also an uncredited orchestrator on Mel Brooks’ 2001 musical “The Producers.” Doug Besterman took home the Tony Award for that show, but Blank was the first person the winner thanked during his acceptance speech.
Oklahoma City program
For the Oklahoma City Philharmonic’s “March Madness” concerts, Blank also has programmed popular hits from “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Gigi,” “Flora, the Red Menace” and “Les Miserables.”
And while the musicians of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic will benefit firsthand from Blank’s work as an orchestrator and conductor, it’s the audience that ultimately will reap the rewards of such a distinguished partnership.
“One of the things that I like to do with Broadway concerts is to make sure the audience is really entertained,” Blank said. “You have to give them an opportunity to hear the singers and listen to the orchestra perform. Without that, there’s no future for any of us.”
Oklahoma City Philharmonic’s ‘March Madness’
•What: Pops pair featuring conductor Larry Blank and vocalists Ron Raines, Lisa Vroman and Christina Saffran.
•When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
•Where: Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N Walker.
•Information: 842-5387 or www.okcphilharmonic.org.