Inside Orchestrator Jonathan Tunick's Project to Make Sondheim's Scores Sound Bigger | Playbill

Special Features Inside Orchestrator Jonathan Tunick's Project to Make Sondheim's Scores Sound Bigger

A re-orchestrated version of A Little Night Music will premiere at Lincoln Center. Tunick says Sweeney Todd is next.

Jonathan Tunick Heather Gershonowitz

Are big orchestras officially back? The recent starry Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd, Camelot, and Parade have eschewed what has become the Broadway norm. Orchestras are growing again, harkening back to the golden age of Broadway. Sure, they cost more, but they’ve also proved themselves to be a selling point.

“Producers seem to have rediscovered that the orchestra actually has a great deal to offer for the theatre,” says EGOT-winning orchestrator Jonathan Tunick.

And arguably, few other living orchestrators have more closely watched the changing face of Broadway pits over the decades. He began working when orchestras were big, and has more recently penned smaller versions of his past work when they started to shrink. And now, in an interesting development, he’s actually making one of his past orchestrations larger. Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music will get a series of concert performances at Lincoln Center June 27–29, this time around with an orchestra of symphonic proportions—53 players, to be exact! There’s a starry cast, too, including opera star Susan Graham, Cynthia Erivo, Marsha Mason, Shuler Hensley, Ruthie Ann Miles, and more. Tickets are currently on sale at

But more on that later.

He is a Tony winner for his 26-piece (29 if you count the onstage string trio) orchestration of Maury Yeston’s 1997 musical Titanic (soon to be revived via New York City Center Encores! with Tunick’s full orchestration intact). But Tunick made a name for himself early in his career, on 1968’s Promises, Promises. By today's standards, you probably wouldn't call it particularly revolutionary. At the time, Tunick’s ability to bring composer Burt Bacharach’s iconic studio sound to a Broadway theatre was a big deal—it was the first show to mix instruments individually with a sound board in the pit.

Tunick later cemented his status as one of Broadway’s top orchestrators by working on Sondheim’s landmark 1970 musical Company. He became the maestro’s go-to orchestrator, working on all the Hal Prince-directed musicals of the ’70s that would change the face of musical theatre: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, and Merrily We Roll Along. Those all featured large orchestras in their original productions.

Lonny Price, James Weissenbach Ann Morrison, George Furth, Ron Field, Jonathan Tunick, Stephen Sondheim, and Harold Prince in rehearsal for Merrily We Roll Along

Then when those shows were revived a decade or two later, Tunick was brought back—to reduce his earlier work. A 1993 London revival of Sweeney Todd got a new orchestration for nine players. A 1995 Broadway Company had just eight. 

A lot of Broadway orchestrators adapt to these reductions by using tricks to help smaller ensembles sound like larger ones, primarily via keyboard augmentation. A full string section might be 10 to 20 people. In a lot of newer, smaller orchestrations, it’s a single pianist with a string patch on their synthesizer.

But Tunick never went that route. “The attempts to make just a few players competitive with a full orchestra are futile,” he says. “It’s a much better idea to accept what you’ve got.”

Nowhere is that more present than in Tunick’s work on Sondheim’s Into the Woods. With a pit of 15 musicians, the original production had a fairly large orchestration by today’s standards. At the time though, it felt tiny. Tunick dealt with the smaller numbers by using a string section of six—two violins, two violas, a cello, and a bass. Rather than sounding rinky dink, Tunick makes the small group an asset to help create the musical’s fairy-tale world. Epic, large string sections are great. But listen to Into the Woods’ intimate string ensemble in the introduction to Little Red Riding Hood’s “I Know Things Now.” Instantly, you feel like you’re outside of grandmother’s quaint cottage in a 19th-century German forest.

And you don't have to take my word for it when it comes to Tunick's skill at working small. His smaller version of Merrily We Roll Along—the original pit featured 20 players, versus the current revival's 13—is nominated for a 2024 Tony Award.

But what does Tunick do when he’s working in the opposite direction?

This not-so-little Night Music is actually Tunick’s own brainchild. “I had the thought for a long time that there were musicals appropriate for concert performance, and opera house performance. And that they should have appropriate orchestrations that make full use of an opera or symphony orchestra,” he explains.

Glynis Johns in the original Broadway production of A Little Night Music

Based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, A Little Night Music is a romantic comedy about three sets of seemingly mismatched lovers, each feeling restless in their current relationship. Something seems to be in the air when all are invited to a palatial country estate for a weekend holiday. The sun goes down, and the long, dreamy, and amorous summer night smiles for each as they, almost unwittingly, find their best match. Sondheim’s Tony-winning score is probably best known for its melancholy ode to the cruel irony of love, “Send in the Clowns,” which became an unlikely radio hit after the show premiered on Broadway in 1973. Theatre fans will also recognize such Sondheim favorites as “Every Day a Little Death,” “A Weekend in the Country,” and “The Miller’s Son.”

Tunick says Sondheim’s original directive for the orchestration was that he wanted it to sound like wafting perfume. “That suggested to me that it had an erotic and somewhat mysterious character, which to me meant I needed a good size string complement.” Listen to the sumptuous strings in “Night Waltz,” or the celeste in the opening of “Liaisons” to hear Tunick give Sondheim what he wanted.

Night Music’s original orchestration was never exactly sparse, calling for 25 players. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t further heights to reach. The expanded reorchestration project came about after Sondheim’s death in 2021. But the legendary composer-lyricist had seen—and heard—Tunick do similar work during his lifetime, adapting the scores of Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd for larger ensembles for the film adaptations.

The main difference, Tunick says, between large Broadway orchestras and symphonic ones is in the woodwinds. In a symphony orchestra, there tends to be two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. On Broadway, pits economize by almost always having woodwind players double. An orchestration might call for three woodwind players, each playing as many as four or five instruments each throughout the evening.

Tunick says that means Broadway orchestrators have to cheat. “If you are approaching a passage where you’d really like to have two oboes and two bassoons to play a series of chords, you have to bring the clarinets in to play, disguising themselves,” he says. And when the orchestra is really small, things can get even more whacky—with woodwind players on saxophones often filling out brass sections, too.

Now, scoring for a full symphonic group—Tunick says it changes everything. “Instead of approaching almost every passage from the point of view of ‘I can’t do that, what can I do instead,’ I get to attack it with ‘I’ve got that. I can do that.’”

Jonathan Tunick with Stephen Sondheim in 2012, at a CD signing for the Encores! cast album of Merrily We Roll Along

As for how that impacts what you hear as an audience member, it can be a little difficult to put into words. Think of what you can do with a box of eight crayons versus a box of 64. Both drawings might be of the same thing—they might even be striking similar—but the latter gives you opportunity to refine and add detail that’s just not possible with the smaller set.

Tunick says it’s all about proportions. “When a solo flute is 100 percent of the orchestra, it’s very different than when that same solo flute playing the same notes is only 1/50th of the orchestra,” he explains. Put differently, the impact of a solo flute in a gigantic orchestra is greater than the same in a smaller group, because the contrast between the moments where the full ensemble is playing is far more stark.

Similar work happens with string sections, which are often responsible for the greatest increase in physical people versus a smaller Broadway orchestra, even without necessarily changing much of the material they're playing. A larger group of strings just sounds different than a smaller one. “Twenty violins playing softly are softer than one, and much more succulent,” as Tunick puts it. Night Music's original Broadway pit had a string section of 11. The upcoming concert will feature 30.

Having just recently heard a rehearsal for the upcoming concerts, Tunick says his standouts with the symphonic ensemble are Madame Armfeldt’s dreamy “Liaisons” and Carl Magnus’ pompous and stately “In Praise of Women,” particularly the latter’s full string section playing the polonaise-style military licks.

But, Tunick reveals, one of the greatest strengths of the new orchestration is, ironically, its expanded brass section. The Night Music score is not very brass heavy. Tunick was focused on achieving that feeling of mystery and eroticism Sondheim had asked for, and brass doesn’t fit in much there.

Though that doesn’t mean that a full brass section can’t have an impact when they are called for. “There ain’t much there, but what there is is choice,” Tunick says, paraphrasing Spencer Tracy’s famous line about Katharine Hepburn (who was, ironically, Sondheim's NYC neighbor for a time).

A particular favorite for Tunick is the climactic, instrumental reprise of “Send in the Clowns,” which features the entire orchestra playing the soaring melody as the story reaches its romantic and emotional finale—Tunick says Sondheim used to refer to it as the Max Steiner moment, referencing the Oscar-winning composer of Gone With the Wind and Casablanca. With Tunick’s new, expanded orchestration, the moment becomes a perfect example of when more really becomes more.

But then, Night Music isn’t Sondheim’s only score with symphonic possibilities. Tunick says the original idea for these big re-orchestrations always involved at least two of his musicals. The other? “Sweeney Todd, of course!” Tunick exclaims. Already a favorite on symphonic concert stages and opera houses, the musical thriller is a natural pick to get an orchestral expansion. And even though we just had the show back on Broadway with Tunick’s full, original orchestration in the pit, apparently there might be more coming.

Asked if we can soon expect a similar symphonic concert for Sweeney, Tunick quotes Into the Woods’ witch: “Possible. Very, very possible.”

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