Martin Erskine is an orchestrator, pianist, conductor and composer. You probably have heard his work without even knowing it. His orchestrations have been heard on such Disney films as Enchanted, Geppetto, Annie, and Cinderella with Whitney Houston. Stage credits include Pageant, Damn Yankees and Children of Eden. He has worked with the likes of Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz and the man who created the sound of Forever Plaid, our dearly departed genius James Raitt. He has won three Emmys for his work on the PBS series The Wonder Pets. As I have said in the past, orchestration is an art form that a lot of folks don’t appreciate. The next time you sit down with your kids to watch something like Cinderella or any Disney film pay attention to the way the music sounds. It did not just materialize like that. People like Martin Erskine are true artists.
Were you interested in music as a kid?
I have been involuntarily interested in and obsessed with music ever since I can remember. There is actually a family home movie of me sitting next to my prized Christmas present in 1967 or 1968: a cardboard-bodied 33rpm (AND 45RPM!!!) portable record player. I am sucking on a lollipop rocking intensely back and forth staring at and listening to the spinning original cast album of “South Pacific.” I can still taste that grape candy whenever I hear “Happy Talk.” Well, grape candy and the severe tongue-lashing I got from Miss Mildred, our music teacher in nursery school. When I insisted to her that she was teaching us the aforementioned song incorrectly, demonstrating the Polynesian accent that Juanita Hall used AND THAT SHE HAD NOT, Miss Mildred became quite indignant at my insolence and sat me in the corner. Like I said, interested and obsessed.
What was your first professional job both as a musician and orchestrator?
As a musician: The Courtney Webber School of Dance as a pianist for tap classes when I was 12. As orchestrator, the first time I professionally put pen to paper was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella in 1997. Until then I had been known for realistic sounding midi renderings. These would be handed off to someone seasoned like Danny Troob to transcribe and polish for the actual orchestral sessions. Since I withdrew from college after one semester, resisting a music career at the time, I learned everything I know on the street. As well as from the James Raitt’s , the Danny Troob’s and the Doug Besterman’s I was fortunate enough to work with.
You had a long association with the very talented arranger James Raitt? What are of your fondest memories of him and what did you learn from working with him?
The laughter, the intensity, the smell of stale and constant cigarette smoke, and the way he swept into the room with a resounding “Hey youuuuuu.” From him I learned how to love unconditionally any musical subject I am handling; especially the most kitschy of styles. If you had bongos slapping away 16th notes and cup-muted trumpets going “waaaa-doo, waaaaaaaa-doooo” throughout your arrangement, the audience had better be fondly remembering the era that sound comes from. Not laughing at it. “It’s one thing to look at a lava lamp.” He would say, “It’s another thing entirely to look at someone LOOKING at a lava lamp!”
Of the three mediums theatre, film or TV, which do you like working in the most?
I can answer better if I put all three in order of preference:
1. Movies. Because when I say, “I need 75 musicians” they say “OK”
2. TV. Because when I say, “I need 42 musicians”, they say “OK”
3. Theatre. Because when I say, “I need 5 musicians,” they say “Great! 3 it is!”
If there was one musical of the 1940s or 50s, that if you had a chance to work on today for a new production, what would it be?
Guys and Dolls, if only to preserve and polish where needed the original work, which for the past few decades has been treated as if it needs to be improved.