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.
7 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]
I’m very glad to hear of this restoration of the original orchestrations for my favorite Rodgers and Hart show. I believe that Larry Moore worked on the restoration for Encores! but because of a computer crash, the work was lost. I’m not sure of all the details, or if the work was lost before or after the performances.
There are some errors in the article that I think should be mentioned.
On Your Toes was not followed immediately by Pal Joey. Pal Joey opened more than four-and-a-half years after On Your Toes. In between On Your Toes and Pal Joey, Spialek was the primary orchestrator on these Rodgers and Hart shows: Babes in Arms, I’d Rather Be Right, I Married an Angel, and Too Many Girls. He also orchestrated the music that Rodgers wrote for the 1939 ballet Ghost Town. In addition, he worked on three Cole Porter shows (You’ll Never Know, Du Barry Was a Lady, and Panama Hattie), and some other shows, too (including Dietz and Schwartz’s Beat the Devil and Noël Coward’s Set to Music).
In fact, in Steven Suskin’s The Sound of Broadway Music, on which the author seems to have leaned for much of his info, Spialek is quoted as saying that it was during work on Pal Joey that he inadvertently alienated Rodgers. So the falling out was in 1940, not 1939. Rodgers never again hired him as the primary orchestrator for any of his shows, although Spialek did go on to contribute orchestrations to some Rodgers shows as a secondary orchestrator.
The Boys From Syracuse was not revived on Broadway in 1963. It was revived Off-Broadway. Had it been revived on Broadway, the orchestrations surely would not have been Spialek’s, but they would have been for a larger group than the small group heard on the cast recording of the 1963 Off-Broadway production (and it may be that musicians were actually added for the recording). The orchestrations perhaps would have been more like the orchestrations heard on the original London cast recording, That production, which was based on the Off-Broadway production (same director, choreographer and set designers) followed the Off-Broadway production eight months later, playing in the Drury Lane. The Off-Broadway Theatre Four seated less than 300 people. The Drury Lane seats more than 2,000. An orchestration for a much larger group was created for the London production. Larry Wilcox orchestrated the Off-Broadway production. Ralph Burns orchestrated the London production.
One reason why The Boys From Syracuse did not have a longer run was the World’s Fair, or so it was said at the time, although the article is correct that its run was a decent one for the time period. Still, it had received such excellent reviews that it might well have lasted at least somewhat longer if not for the World’s Fair.
I often hear people speak of the “Twelve Major Orchestrators of the Golden Age.” :)
No, I don’t. Really, this gang of 12 was an invention of Steven Suskin’s. It’s a perfectly sensible group, but the article makes it sound like people speak of those 12 orchestrators as a group. I know a lot of musical-theatre lovers, and I’ve never heard or read anyone except the esteemed Mr. Suskin refer to such a group.
Comment by Alan Gomberg — August 27, 2016 at 3:21 pm
Yep. In 1997 I was hired by NY City Center and The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to clean up “The Boys from Syracuse: for a 1998 City Center Encores! production, which was recorded after the concerts. I cleaned up the orchestra parts, in some cases writing new parts, and the performances, recording, and later production conducted by Roger Grodsky for the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. During the process, which took me most of the summer and autumn of 1997, Wayne Blood created a new piano-vocal score which was used for the Encores! rehearsals. This new score contained vocal arrangements for “Falling in Love With love” and “Come with Me,” based on information I learned form the 1938 reviews at the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library. To my knowledge, few copies of this first draft of a new vocal score exist, but Mr. Rishi makes no comment in his article of working from that.
During the further work on preparing a new vocal score, everything was lost in a computer crash and nothing further was done to complete a score restoration. During my work, John Sheehan wrote an article for OPERA NEWS magazine about me and the work on the score. It was published in one of their 1998 issues.
Early this year, Matthew Donahue contacted me about this score. I told him the information I knew and that the show, for all intents and purposes, was in limbo. I never heard anything more from him, and I am happy to see this show completed.
Comment by Larry Moore — August 29, 2016 at 11:11 am
It is always good news to learn that the musical materials for the original version of a classic show have been cleaned up and engraved into scores and orchestral parts that make modern authentic performances possible. It would be a great shame if the work of masters like Hans Spialek and Robert Russell Bennett are forgotten in the eagerness of producers to “modernize” the sound of the score (and, of course, to save money in the process). The original sound is just as much a part of a show by Kern or Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter, Loesser, Loewe, or Bernstein as it is to an opera by Mozart, Verdi, or Wagner.
I’m glad, too, that Larry Moore has mentioned his part in the preparatory work for the 1998 Encores production and Roger Grodsky’s production in Cincinnati. Careful analysis of the original reviews, as well as communication with surviving participants and the actual paper sources that remain (however marked up and difficult to use) can cast a lot of light on these works, and it is good to have an experienced specialist in musical theater reconstruction like Moore doing serious and careful work on these significant works in the musical theater.
I hope the success of Kiss Me, Kate two years ago will be matched by The Boys from Syracuse thi s year, and that it will lead to still morre projects to recover our music-theater heritage.
Comment by Steven Ledbetter — August 29, 2016 at 1:27 pm
Beyond matters of scoring, the modern interpretation of our musical theater heritage also demands that we listen to records and films of early performances to get the style of singing and playing right.
A friend pointed me to the recent San Francisco Opera production of Showboat (on a handsome looking BluRay.)I hated the forced and pushy business of the production almost as much as I hate the miked crooning in various other revivals from Broadway’s golden age.
The 1936 James Whale movie Showboat is an important artifact as well as an artistic pinnacle- and it has to be what Kern wanted, since the composer, conductor and at least two of the singers reprised their 1927 Broadway roles[example here]. There’s a telling moment late in the show when Magnolia tells Kim not to oversell her song. That’s exactly what the SF production did.
No company seems to get the operetta style right anymore.
Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 29, 2016 at 2:48 pm
Any chance of a webcast?
Comment by perry41 — August 29, 2016 at 11:44 pm
I have only a general comment, not a review–followed by what must seem to most readers an odd over-all response to the occasion. I thought the singing, dancing, and production were very good, and the amplification not as bad as I had expected, but I found myself wishing that there had been no songs and no dances (and no intermission, impractical as that would have been)! ‘Comedy of Errors’ depends for its effect, as a play, on relentless speed, and on hilarious interactions that pile up on one another with crazy amplitude and without stop. When the play is turned into a musical, the constantly ‘interrupting’ songs and dances (the raison d’etre of musicals, as of course I well know) bring the ever-building hilarity to a halt over and over again, killing the heart of the comedy. At times, it becomes tedious. “Falling in love with love” is a terrific song, though. It was good to hear it sung well (with all the reprises).
Comment by Alan Levitan — September 10, 2016 at 9:06 am
I am not sure that all readers realize that faithful reader, veteran concert- and theatergoer, and serious amateur pianist Alan Levitan is also one of the more distinguished emeritus English professors in this area specializing in Shakespeare (and more) — indeed long ago having his own show on channel 2 on the subject.
Comment by David Moran — September 10, 2016 at 9:08 am
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