Performing classic Broadway musicals with a full orchestra returns them to their original symphonic splendor. Because of the decreasing size of pits and budgets, many first-rate theater companies now use scaled-down instrumental forces when producing musicals. Clever reductions exist, but something is lost. The harp part is covered by the pianist, four sax lines are boiled down to one, and the string section is decimated. In the worst scenario, everyone is replaced by a synthesizer. What is lost is not just color and richness but also counterpoint—the back and forth among instruments that is a hallmark of masterful orchestral writing.
When Boston Landmarks Orchestra and Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (CSC) decided to revive Rodgers & Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse, this summer, we looked forward to what we had done in 2013 with Kiss Me, Kate: playing the full charts. The performance comes next Wednesday at 7pm at DCR’s Hatch Memorial Shell.
Boys was orchestrated by Hans Spialek (1894-1983), one of the so-called Twelve Major Orchestrators of the Golden Age. His work, inventive and detailed, is steeped in ’30s swing and big band, while rooted in classical style. It would be perfect for BLmO. The problem was, I was told when I applied for our license, the Spialek parts were in such poor condition that they could not be played. We would have to accept the reduced version.
Christopher Wilkins and I took this as a challenge. The musicologist in us was eager to find out exactly how the materials were in bad condition, and moreover we were motivated to help preserve and restore this chapter of American musical history. The optimist in us viewed the pronouncement of “simply not possible” as a dare. Wilkins and I worked with a band of fellow optimists, including CSC director Steven Maler, adviser and Broadway specialist Matthew Peter Donoghue, the most helpful team at Rodgers & Hammerstein (Ted Chapin, Michelle Yaroshko, Wayne Blood), Roger Grodsky of the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and skilled copyist David Kempers. It is because of their work that we will hear the Spialek orchestrations on August 31. They are incomparable.
The tale takes interesting turns.
From Vienna to Manhattan via Siberia
Our quest to restore the original 1938 orchestration of The Boys from Syracuse began, improbably enough, in Vienna with Gustav Mahler and Enrico Caruso.
Spialek was born in Vienna in 1894. As a boy soprano, he sang at the Imperial Opera under the baton of Mahler, and once appeared in La Bohème in a performance starring Caruso. In his teens, Spialek worked as a movie house pianist by night, attending classes by day at the Conservatory. His musical career was interrupted by World War I. Spialek was captured by the Russian Army and sent to a prison camp in Siberia. Undeterred, he formed and led an orchestra of 28 prisoners. When the Revolution broke out, Spialek and his fellows were set free—but he was left stranded in Siberia. In a saga worthy of Hollywood, he worked his way back across Europe on foot, playing piano recitals in town concert halls and movie houses in exchange for food.
Spialek made it back to Vienna by 1921 and began a moderately successful career as a composer. He quipped that one of his pieces won a competition not because of its quality but because of his neat handwriting. In 1923 Spialek and his new bride emigrated to New York City, and soon he was working in movie houses and theaters once again. By chance, Spialek met the legendary Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981), who would become the leading orchestrator of Golden Age musicals (Kiss Me, Kate; Annie Get Your Gun; Oklahoma!; My Fair Lady; Show Boat; and The Sound of Music are some of his credits). Bennett arranged for Spialek to work as a copyist at T.B. Harms, which was one of several publishers who controlled the musical stages of New York in the manner of a (usually) benevolent mob syndicate. Spialek had made it into the club.
He worked his way up through the ranks. Soon he was sought after as an orchestrator in his own right, and in 1936 received the plum assignment of orchestrating Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes, followed immediately by Pal Joey. In the late ’30s, Spialek was Richard Rodgers’s orchestrator of choice, and in 1938 was hired to orchestrate The Boys from Syracuse.
Boys opened at the Alvin Theater on November 23 1938 after tryouts in New Haven and Boston (at each city’s respective Shubert Theater). It played for 235 performances, a decent run during the Depression. But in 1939 Richard Rodgers and Hans Spialek had a falling-out, and by 1943 the team of Rodgers and Hart had also broken up (followed by Hart’s untimely death). Although several of the songs from Boys have become standards, the show fell out of favor, in part because its vaudeville aesthetic had been supplanted by the realistic drama of Oklahoma! and Carousel. Perhaps because there was no rental market for regional and amateur productions, the handwritten parts of Boys were never engraved. Luckily, they were saved (the musical materials from quite a few Broadway shows have been lost or discarded).
When The Boys from Syracuse was eventually revived on Broadway, in 1963, Spialek’s big-band orchestration was abandoned in favor of a perhaps more modern-sounding, smaller arrangement. It is this version that has since been available for rental from Rodgers & Hammerstein, but Broadway enthusiasts have long known that the more interesting 1938 version existed in the publisher’s vault.
In 1983, librettist George Abbott and conductor John Mauceri planned a Broadway revival. As Steven Suskin writes in his book The Sound of Broadway Music:
Everyone assumed that Spialek was long gone, but an old-timer at Rodgers’s office mentioned the he had seen “old Hans” at Russell Bennett’s funeral…. Someone had the bright idea of calling 411, and there was Hans on West 86th street, The bright and alert octogenarian left a message that Mauceri could “call him any day, from two in the afternoon till two in the morning.
The planned revival of Boys never happened. The producer had lost a small fortune on a different adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, and was not eager to sink any more money into a musical based on the same story. Abbott, Mauceri, and Spialek instead revived On Your Toes for a 500-performance run.
Spialek died soon after, in November of 1983. Interest in his orchestrations had been revived, but The Boys from Syracuse materials sat unused in the archives of Rodgers & Hammerstein.
In 1997, Encores!, under the baton on Rob Fisher, performed the 1938 Boys, apparently using the handwritten parts. This was the first professional performance of the original orchestration since 1938. The Boston Landmarks Orchestra / Commonwealth Shakespeare performance on August 31 will mark the second.
Encores! also made a wonderful recording of Boys, which is still the only commercially available document of Spialek’s 1938 orchestration. There has been a performance by students at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, led by Roger Grodsky, who assisted us in our quest. Remarkably, a high school on Long Island also has apparently performed from the challenging manuscript parts!
Finally Seeing the Parts
Last April Christopher Wilkins and I made a pilgrimage to the offices of Rodgers & Hammerstein in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Awaiting us there, in a suite adorned with fascinating memorabilia of Broadway’s glory days, were the handwritten musical parts from the 1938 production of The Boys from Syracuse. These were facsimiles of what was played in the pit of the Alvin Theater for those 235 performances. Later we had rare access to a full score, or partitur.
It is not entirely accurate to describe the condition of the materials as poor. All pages are present and legible, and Spialek’s handwriting (the partitur and some of the parts are in his hand) is indeed neat. But simply copying the parts and giving them to a professional orchestra in 2016 would have presented challenges. Instead of designations such as Reed I, Reed II and Reed III those parts are labeled with the first names of the intended musicians: Dale, Dante, and Pepper. These talented players played a variety of winds, and some numbers call for switching from flute to tenor sax in just two or three beats. Violins divide (sometimes illogically) into A, B, C, and D rather than I and II. Key signatures and clefs were often left out in the haste. Sometimes there is no music at all on the page, just verbal instructions (“Play the end of the first page again, then the last part of the third page”).
One imagines Rodgers, Hart, Spialek, and a team of copyists in a smoke-filled hotel room in Boston or New Haven quickly rewriting songs after tryouts. There would hardly have been time for the ink to dry before the next performance. The cello part is, touchingly, signed and dated by its first player:
- Rosanoff, Nov 23 1938 – Jun 10 1939
Wilkins and I left New York with a car full of photocopies of these precious parts and renewed optimism. Thanks to the speedy, accurate, and beautiful work of copyist David Kempers, we now have a full score and set of parts engraved and laid out to 2016 standards. More than anyone else, Kempers has made our performance of Spialek’s work possible. He has as well helped preserve an important musical treasure.
There is a final footnote to this saga. Wilkins and I spent much of the spring and summer learning about Hans Spialek, and tracking down those handwritten parts. We were also preparing for all of our concerts, including the July 20th Pictures at an Exhibition, which we presented in partnership with the Gardner Museum. Among the people we worked closely with was Kathy Sharpless, the Gardner’s marketing and communications director. Backstage after the concert, we all were chatting. Sharpless remarked how much she was looking forward to attending The Boys from Syracuse, as her grandfather had orchestrated the score.
The performance is this Wednesday at 7pm (rain date is September 1st, and if raining that day the concert will be moved to Symphony Hall).
With degrees from Harvard, the Ed school, and BU (MM vocal performance), tenor Rishi is a veteran recitalist and also arts administrator, currently with BLmO.