Bruce Coughlin is currently the orchestrator for Elmer Gantry at Signature Theatre which begins performances on October 7th. Elmer Gantry is not the first time Bruce has worked at Signature Theatre. He co-orchestrated Giant with Larry Hochman and also scored A Second Chance and Sycamore Trees.Bruce’s resume is as varied as anyone’s you’ll ever see. His orchestrations have been heard on Broadway in such shows as 9 to 5 the Musical, Scandalous, The King and I, The Sound of Music Annie Get Your Gun, Grey Gardens and Urinetown. the last two gave Bruce two Tony Award nominations. Off-Broadway credits include Floyd Collins for which he won an Obie Award, The Burnt Part Boys, Little Fish, My Life with Albertine and A Second Chance. A few of Bruce’s regional credits include Children of Eden and Applause at Paper Mill Playhouse, The Return of Martin Guerre at Goodman Theatre and Princesses at 5th Avenue Theatre. He has worked with some of the biggest names in music such as Dolly Parton and has charts on many recordings with such singers as Audra McDonald, Mandy Patinkin and Darius de Haas. Film work includes Fantasia 2000 and the song “Miss Baltimore Crabs” for the movie of Hairspray. As if this weren’t enough, Bruce’s work has been heard in the opera world as well with The Grapes of Wrath, Casino Paradise, SEND (who are you? i love you) and others. Bruce won the 2005 Tony Award for Best Orchestration with Ted Sperling for his work on The Light in the Piazza. As you can see, Bruce’s credits have something for everyone ranging from traditional Broadway fare to stuff that is not necessarily the norm. This is what makes for a good orchestrator and why Bruce Coughlin is constantly and deservedly working all the time.
How did you get interested in music?
Well I started in music at a very young age. I think I started playing piano at age 4. My mom played piano and sang when she was younger. I actually never heard her sing so I’m taking her word on that! But she did play piano all the time and I guess I started playing because of that. We moved to a new state when I was 9 and they didn’t have enough money to continue with piano lessons, so I picked up guitar instead. So those are my two main instruments: keyboards and guitar.
With a show like Elmer Gantry that has been around for a while do you start with a clean slate or do you look at existing charts from other productions to get an idea of what was done before?
You know, I saw the La Jolla production ages ago and really loved it. I had nothing to do with it at the time and I can’t even remember why I was in La Jolla but I do remember seeing it. I thought it was a great show and actually was surprised when it didn’t move straight to Broadway. In general with revivals (I’ll put this into that category since it had a full production before) there are two approaches: try to sound like the original but with the smaller band sizes on Broadway today OR look at it like a totally new production. When I started orchestrating on Broadway I did mostly revivals: The King and I, The Sound of Music, Once Upon A Mattress, Annie Get Your Gun (with Bernadette Peters). Before that I had done a lot of new shows off-Broadway and regionally (Floyd Collins, Bill Finn’s Romance In Hard Times, a bunch of new musicals at the Goodman in Chicago). But on Broadway I started out doing revivals.
The first revival was The King and I, and in that case the mandate (from the producers and musical director) was to sound as much like the original but with a much smaller band. The original probably had close to 30 players and we had at most 24. And in those days it was popular to have a cut list. So you’d start a run with a band that was bigger than the union minimum dictated for that theater BUT when ticket sales got sluggish you could cut down to a smaller band. So it had to sound great with 24 and it had to sound great with 20. It’s kind of a pain to write like that and thankfully no one asks for that anymore, probably because the house minimums have been lowered. In any case the task on that show was to sound like the original, plus maybe 10% new material (scene changes, etc).
The second revival was The Sound of Music and the mandate started out the same. But as I looked at the old scores I realized that it wasn’t going to work to just reduce the original. First of all those orchestrations weren’t nearly as interesting as The King and I. They were much more basic — meat and potatoes. The strings doubled the melody all night. And the french horns played offbeats all night, no melodies or countermelodies. It was very basic. And we had a string quartet for a string section. Now with 30 strings those orchestrations sound great, but with 4…. not so much. So in that case I decided to approach it in the style of the period but as a new show. So some of the orchestrations are quite different. And the horns had way more to do!
Annie Get Your Gun was approached completely as a new show. I tried to stay in the period style, but I approached it as if it were a fresh new show. And that’s what the producers and musical director wanted from me. All the dance music was new. John McDaniel had done new arrangements of the well-known songs. People that grew up with the original were outraged that I changed the orchestrations. Other people didn’t even notice they were new because they didn’t really know the old ones. But it sounded great and won a Grammy because of it, so….
All of that is a long-winded way of saying: it depends. And the instructions for the approach you take usually come from the director, musical director and/or producers.
In the case of Elmer Gantry there really wasn’t much to go on from the past. A few recordings of a few songs from La Jolla. There were recordings from later productions but they weren’t helpful because they used a tiny band, essentially a rhythm section. No scores existed. And quite frankly Mel Marvin, the composer didn’t really want an imitation of past productions. I think he hired me because he wanted a new take on things.
You have a long history of orchestrating for composers that don’t necessarily write for a mainstream audience. Ricky Ian Gordon is one example of this. Do you prefer orchestrating non- traditional music for the theatre over mainstream material?
I started out as a composer, and it just didn’t suit my personality. I didn’t like writing things and then having no performances for them. And then having to shop them around. I like immediate gratification. So when I fell into orchestrating it was perfect: I come into a show at the last second (meaning when there’s the final, big, full production). I have a deadline. We have an orchestra. I hear the music right away and move on to a new show. So what I’m saying is I LOVE variety in my work. I’ve always thought, rightfully or wrongfully, that that was my strength as an orchestrator. I like doing pop one month, classical the next month, country the next month, small band the next month, symphony orchestra the next. And most importantly difficult music doesn’t phase me. I enjoy the challenge. Some orchestrators don’t like to work with music that’s too difficult, they prefer more straight-ahead style. That’s fine, I respect that. It’s faster to orchestrate. But I like straight-ahead AND I like complicated. It’s all fun for me. I never have a bad time orchestrating! So no, I don’t really prefer anything over anything. I just really enjoy a challenge and I like variety. I also — unlike many people — like art. There’s all kinds of art in my life. In my apartment, everywhere. So if something is non-commercial, that’s fine too. I just like writing music. But I do both.
You were the musical director/orchestrator for a show called Is There Life after High School. You have very rarely musical directed a show since and are now an orchestrator exclusively. If the chance presented itself, would you consider musical directing another show?
Ok well… true confessions: the reason I stopped being a musical director was because I was bad at it. I enjoyed the cast rehearsals. I really liked band rehearsals. I liked conducting the show for about 2 weeks and then my mind would wander. I would get really bored. And then I would come in one night and be tired. And the next night be very energetic. And I was never 100% confident that my tempos were consistent from night to night. So I made the decision early on to abandon that in favor of orchestrating, something I can do at home alone. But it is that show (Is There Life After High School) that got me into orchestrating!
With orchestras for shows getting smaller and smaller, what do you think is the secret to making seven pieces sound like 25?
I can’t tell you my secret or everyone will take my job! Haha…. seriously: seven will never sound like 25. You can make seven sound bigger than 7, but it’ll never sound like 25. Unfortunately people are starting to forget what 25 sounds like so it’s hard for them to make that comparison anymore. That said, you CAN make a small group sound as big as possible. There must be a trick to it because not that many are able to do that, though I’m not sure I can articulate what the techniques is. A lot of it for me has to do with internal resonances which is hard to explain. And sometimes it’s about putting in the orchestration what you can’t hear in the basic music alone. In other words the music might say certain things just in the way it’s written. And that will always be there no matter what you do with the orchestration.
So, for example, a certain score might say “lush” no matter what you do with it. So if you have seven instruments you might NOT want to go for lush since the score naturally does that anyway. You might want the orchestration to add something else: edge or a contemporary sound. Or you might want to go for cool and play against the romance. It’s hard to explain. I’ve heard plenty of orchestrations that somehow made 20 sound like 12. You can never be sure in cases like that if it’s an orchestration problem or a sound problem, since the two are so very basically connected. But Larry Hochman and I were talking about that recently. He’s very good at it, too (making a small group sound bigger). And these days it’s why the ones who work all the time do: you have to use every trick in the book to make things sound bigger. In some cases it involves the creative use of synth. But not always. Ultimately I just try to make every show sound the way I’d like it to sound if I had written the score. That’s all you can really do: write the music you hear in your brain. You can’t fake it with rules and recipes.
On a final note: I will say that the downside to smaller bands is that you now rely on the sound department in a huge way. Things don’t balance out naturally anymore. And we rely on sound to fix that. Sometimes it’s just a matter of them boosting 3 strings so they balance out with the 6 wind instruments. But it can be more complicated than that when you have complex synth programming. I’m sure all of us has been in a high school production (say, Hello Dolly!) where the band essentially played the Broadway orchestrations rented from MTI, and it sounded fantastic — even with their meager high school playing skills. But now — what high school is going to do the synth programming for a show that originally had 200 patch changes, most of them splits (for example: bassoon in the LH, strings in the RH followed by a patch with tuba in the LH and celesta in the RH)?? Answer: no one. So then the shows never sounds the way they did originally because they just don’t have the programming — or the sound dept required to make naturally unbalanced groups sound balanced. It’s kind of a big loss.