‘A Quick 5′ With Jonathan Tunick

Jonathan Tunick‘s orchestrations have been heard on Broadway, in films, on numerous recordings and on TV. He is probably best known for his association with Stephen Sondheim – which started with Company in 1971. Since then he has scored pretty much all of Sondheim’s musicals with the exception of Assassins and Sunday in The Park with George. I can’t imagine listening to Sweeney Todd or Pacific Overtures or any other Sondheim musical without Jonathan’s orchestrations.

Jonathan Tuncik

Some of Jonathan’s other Broadway credits include Promises Promises, A Chorus Line, The Story of My Life, Alice in Wonderland, Baby, Nine and the list just keeps going. He was the first recipient of the Tony Award for Best Orchestrations for his work on Titanic: the Musical. Recording credits include work with Bernadette Peters, Judy Collins, Kiri Te Kanawa, Neil Diamond, Renee Fleming and Bryn Terfel. Film credits include Endless Love, Reds and Stavisky. As a composer his work has been heard on PBS for Alice in Wonderland – a show he had conducted on Broadway the year before. I am in awe of Jonathan Tunick.  It’s an honor to do a column with this genius.

Jonathan Tunick and Stephen Sondheim.

When you were growing up did you have any idea that you would be doing what you do now?

Listening as a child to recordings such as Tubby The Tuba and Peter and the Wolf inspired in me a passion for musical instruments that has dominated my life. Having discovered that instruments and orchestras could portray characters and tell stories, I became obsessed with them; I wanted to see, hear and play in them, conduct them, and write for them.

Who were your mentors when you were starting out on Broadway?

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In my early twenties, inspired by his orchestrations for Bye Bye Birdie, I wrote to Robert “Red” Ginzler, asking to meet him. This led to an informal apprenticeship that lasted a year or so, until his untimely death. I consider him the greatest of all theatrical orchestrators. The great Robert Russell Bennett was also very kind to me, offering advice, allowing me from time to time to assist him, and recommending me for my first assignment as orchestrator of a full musical.

What do you remember about your first meeting with Stephen Sondheim?

Having engaged me to orchestrate Company, Sondheim invited me to dinner to get acquainted. As a result of my declining a third scotch, he claims to this day that I don’t drink.

Promises, Promises had a revolutionary sound when it opened on Broadway in the 60s. How much freedom did you have with that score since Burt Bacharach use to do his own arrangements?

Burt is a consummate musician and was able to guide me in the elements of his very personal style, particularly with reference to the rhythm section, about which he knows more than anyone.

I saw you conduct Alice in Wonderland on Broadway for which you also did the orchestration. Which do you prefer doing more – orchestrating a score or both conducting and orchestrating a score?

Jonathan Tunick holding his Tony Award for Best Orchestrations for 'Titanic the Musical' at the 1997 Tony Awards.

Composing and arranging is lonely and sedentary work, so I enjoy conducting for the sheer visceral joy of making music with my body, and interacting with others.
Listen to Jonathan Tunick talk about his orchestrations for the current Broadway production of Follies on NPR.

Watch and listen to Jonathan’s wonderful orchestration for “Someone in the Tree” from Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures.

Here is a list of some of Jonathan Tunick’s work.

About Elliot Lanes

Elliot Lanes has been a professional stage manager/sound designer/board op for over 20 years. After relocating to Washington, DC from the New York City area and marrying the girl of his dreams Jennifer Perry, he has been privileged to work on productions at Theatre J, Synetic, Prince George's Community College and Studio Theater to name a few. He has contributed designs for many shows in the last three Capital Fringe Festivals, two of which garnered critical raves. He is also the creator of MD Theatre Guide's highly successful 'A Quick 5' column.