Wicked, Miss Saigon, and Ragtime Orchestrator William David Brohn Dead at 84

Obituaries   Wicked, Miss Saigon, and Ragtime Orchestrator William David Brohn Dead at 84 He helped imagine how Oz, Vietnam, and turn-of-the-century New York should sound.
William David Brohn
William David Brohn

William David Brohn, who painted with sound as a Tony-winning orchestrator and arranger of Broadway musicals, has died at age 84.

Brohn, who worked as “Bill Brohn” and “William D. Brohn” early in his career, chose the musical instruments that helped tell the stories of a remarkably diverse series of musicals from 1975 to 2012.

He was entrusted with making the classic sounds of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Lerner & Loewe, and the Gershwins contemporary in, respectively, the 2002 revival of Oklahoma!, the 1994 revival of Show Boat, the 1980 revival of Brigadoon, and the 1992 musical Crazy for You.

But he also was chosen to envision all-new orchestral universes for new musicals including Boublil & Schönberg’s pop opera Miss Saigon (being heard on Broadway again this season), Ahrens & Flaherty’s early 20th century New York in Ragtime (Tony Award for Best Orchestrations), Lucy Simon’s magical whimsy in The Secret Garden, John Kander’s detective-story tribute Curtains, the Sherman Brothers’ Edwardian England via Disney in Mary Poppins, and perhaps Brohn’s greatest creation, the world of Oz in Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked.

In that show he makes his impact felt immediately in the opening chords, combining trumpets and violins to create a soaring effect, suddenly offset by the dark, threatening grumble of the lower brass. Throughout the show Brohn was called upon to create the sounds of magic, of transformations, of tragedy, triumph, even of flying, all of which needed to be expressed with the instruments of the 23-piece orchestra, with help from synthesizers (programmed by Andy Barrett).

In an interview for Decca Broadway, Brohn cited “I’m Not That Girl” as one of his favorite passages in the piece. He said it’s “a good example of a pop number; its heart, root, and basis is the rhythm section—particularly guitars. The song is a very melancholy look at why Elphaba is not going to have the boy she loves (or so she thinks). That number is absolutely one of my favorites. It has all the yearning—which is illustrated through all those muted stings and harp and a sampled dulcimer (played by one of the keyboards) and the acoustic guitars and fretless bass that can do those slides that sound like sighing (so expressive!).”

When producers needed someone to make dozens of diverse shows sound like their classic selves, yet all be part of the same whole, they hired Brohn to arrange Jerome Robbins Broadway (1989), because he could do it all.

The Ragtime songwriting team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens told Playbill, “Bill Brohn was the dean of musical theater orchestrators, and we were very fortunate to have worked with him on our Lincoln Center Theatre productions of A Man of No Importance, Dessa Rose, and on Broadway’s Ragtime, for which he won the Tony Award. We also collaborated with him on several concert pieces for the Boston Pops, NY Pops and Hollywood Bowl orchestras. Bill was a scholar of music, but also a consummate musical dramatist, and in his glorious orchestrations you can hear the voices of the characters, their emotions and their histories, all being spoken by the instruments as surely as by the actors themselves. We will miss his friendship, his guidance, his rib-cracking bear hugs, his sense of fun and his love of life.”

Hamilton orchestrator Alex Lacamoire, who reported Brohn’s death, tweeted this tribute to the artist: “RIP to the masterful Bill Brohn, who completely changed the way I view orchestrations. I’m indebted to you and your gifts. Thank you, sir.”

Original Miss Saigon star Lea Salonga, whose voice Brohn built his orchestrations around, tweeted: “RIP, Bill Brohn. For your orchestrations, the twinkle in your eye, the snuggest hugs. You are most definitely missed.”

Brohn was born in Flint, Michigan, and educated at Michigan State University and the New England Conservatory of Music. His first Broadway project was the revue Rodgers & Hart in 1975. His last was The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in 2012.

In the book The Alchemy of Theatre about collaboration in theatre, Brohn wrote "the orchestrator is merely a facilitator; he’s there to help the composer to say what he wants. That’s not far removed from the role of a translator of languages. It’s just converting the notes as given by the composer into a different medium (e.g. from piano into orchestra). Any new musical filament such as harmony or rhythm or counterpoint (independent ancillary lines that help glorify the Goddess Melody) are the work of an arranger.”

He understood his place in the theatrical pecking order and was comfortable with it. “How could the orchestrator possibly imagine he could do the composer’s job? ... Easily. Exhibit A: All arrangers (this includes orchestrators, who are usually arrangers to boot) are closet composers. Their training and disposition makes them composers but the job they are trying to deliver must emphatically put them in that closet with the door firmly shut. Exhibit B: I give you Old Man Ego. Everyone has it—without it there would be no creative thought—the job is to subsume it to the collaborative process. So if I fancy myself a composer of musicals, I’d better get cracking and get my own show on somewhere else and see what it’s like wearing those shoes. Not here—I am the composer’s handmaiden. I put her work in orchestral garb and then step quietly away. Not that I exactly hate the odd rave or a proffered Tony Award.”