Interview – Larry Blank
BK: Welcome, Larry Blank, to our Unseemly Interview (or your Unseemly Interview, when you think about it). We are happy to have you here, and we wish to know every single thing that has ever happened to you ever. All right, that may be a bit daunting. You’ve done many, many things, Larry Blank – you’ve been a composer, you’ve been a conductor, you’ve been an arranger, you’ve worked on hit and flop Broadway shows, you’ve worked with legendary stars. But, I get ahead of myself (I hate when that happens) – let’s start at the very beginning, Larry Blank, which is, after all, a very good place to start. Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
LB: Well it seems that I’ve reinvented myself every few years. Well at least that’s what it seems like from your questions. I think that’s by necessity rather than by my own invention. The business. . . show biz… music biz. . . Bway biz. . . has changed so much since my interest began. Anyway, I was born in Brooklyn but we moved to Queens in the mid- fifties. NY at that time was not what it is today. Large areas of Queens were still undeveloped with lots of farmland and golf courses. Bayside, where I grew up from age four or so, was a big golf course. It was the Clearview golf course, which was just the Queens side of the Throgs Neck Bridge , which wasn’t there when we moved in.
In fact, we were the only house on this very large area which was most of the golf course. This is all directly across the street from Bayside High School . I have an older brother and sister. My mother played piano, my father, who ran a chemical business, played mandolin. There was always some Broadway music on the piano. Stuff like South Pacific and other R & H vocal selections. I was always interested in the vocal selections of MAGDALENA that was on the the piano. I still wonder why it was there and where it came from.
Someone must’ve delivered it as a gift because it had a nice cover. My mom still doesn’t know what I’m talking about. Much later, I gave it as a gift to John Raitt, who starred in the show and didn’t have it.
I ended up too, supervising a recording of the show, much later.
BK: Larry Blank – when did you first get interested in music, what was it that spurred that interest, and when did you discover the glories of musical comedy?
LB: I went to summer camp in Connecticut where we did musicals. The MD/pianist for WEST SIDE STORY was Steven Margoshes who ended up following me as conductor for THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG – he orchestrated many shows as well. I played Action in West Side Story at age 10, and also played a minor role in FIORELLO, which, in fact, got me really interested in Broadway. In October 1961, my parents treated me and my brother to tickets for FIORELLO on Broadway, about two weeks before it closed. I was hooked!!!
I should mention, too, that my parents had the cast recording of CAMELOT which I listened to endlessly.
I loved Richard Burton’s voice and the orchestrations which seemed so focused to me, even at that time.
BK: Now, there you are, Larry Blank, a teenager in New York City . First of all, tell us how the city was back then, what was the state of Broadway, did you love going to see shows? And then, tell us about the high school you went to and what your focus there was. You also met a wonderful music director when you were an early teen – Mr. Don Pippin. Tell us a bit about that, too.
LB: I went to see everything I could. . . and by the time I was twelve I was taking the subway to Manhattan by myself and seeing everything I could afford on my allowance.. This was 1964. The first show I saw on my own was FOXY at the old Ziegfeld Theatre. Bert Lahr and Larry Blyden. I had seen HOW TO SUCCEED, CARNIVAL, I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE, and now I was on my own schedule, and would beg, borrow and steal whatever money I could to see shows. Remember, too, that balcony seats and standing room were only about $3.25.
Orchestra seats were $6.25 for a matinee. So, by the end of 1964, I was a regular at Broadway theatres, seeing GOLDEN BOY, BAJOUR, JENNIE, 110 IN THE SHADE – you name it, I saw it.
I can actually remember seeing ANYONE CAN WHISTLE at a Thursday matinee on April 2, 1964 because of some holiday or other; they changed the Wednesday matinee to Thursday. CAFE CROWN was another musical that opened that month. I started noticing the orchestras, the conductors, and just paying attention to all the details that made up a show.
I was studying piano and guitar at the time, and playing a lot of show music. Used to drive my siblings crazy. I would never play melodies. . . just the accompaniment. They never knew what song I was playing. I would be very upset when the melody was in the accompaniment.
Anyway, because of playing roles in summer camp, I was interested in acting and ultimately was accepted at the High School Of The Performing Arts as a drama student. That would be the fall of 1966, I think. Yup!
So think about what was happening on Broadway before then. 1964-65. It was a great time on Broadway. Many shows.
Fiddler, Hello Dolly. I remember going to the second performance of CABARET at the Broadhurst in 1966.
I saw everything, musicals and plays.
At the same time, I was playing piano pretty well. Friends would ask me to play auditions for them.
A lot of the kids at the HSFTPA were auditioning for stuff. Some were already in the business having played some parts on Broadway as kids. I still see the film UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE with Sandy Dennis on TV, and a lot of my schoolmates were in that. No one you would know, but there they are.
Well, I became disenchanted with acting. Didn’t like the whole thing. The method, the rehearsals, the seriousness of it all. So, music became more and more interesting to me. I slowly drifted in that direction. I don’t remember exactly how, but I ended up as a stagehand/rehearsal pianist for UNDER THE GASLIGHT at Equity Library Theatre and then REDHEAD and then an off-Broadway show called THE HAPPY HYPOCRITE. Then, I ended up filling in on props for THE MEMORANDUM at the Public Theatre with Raul Julia, Olympia Dukakis and Mari Gorman. Thank God none of them remember me. I was a sixteen-year-old kid who screwed up all the props and they were scolding me all the time. At the same time, I remember being backstage and one of the actors, Bob Ronan, asked me to read the music for a Sondheim tune, I DO LIKE YOU, cut from FORUM, to accompany an actress friend. Her name was Penny Fuller. She wouldn’t remember this, as I was a sixteen-year-old pimply faced kid who worked props and I was playing the piano for her for five minutes. But I remember it clearly. I have never worked with her, but was introduced recently by Tony Roberts and Larry Guittard at Joe Allen. . . and somehow forgot to mention this.
Somewhere in this period, I met Don Pippin, before he was conducting Mame. I knew who he was from all the Broadway shows I had seen. Don took an interest in my career and in fact, is directly responsible for many of my jobs along the way, and he is godfather to my children. Our friendship developed from the time I was thirteen years old. So, I actually met him before I went into high school. Some years later he caused Michael Bennett and Marvin Hamlisch to hire me for the International company of A CHORUS LINE as well as the original Broadway run of THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG. He was also instrumental (forgive the pun) in getting my orchestration career happening. Still throws lots of work and new connections my way. Don has been a big supporter to lots of new talent. Many of his assistants went on to have their own careers on Broadway as composers and conductors.
BK: Love Don Pippin! Now, I know at a very early age (sixteen to be exact) you started playing rehearsal piano, and from there that led to playing for acts, revues, and that led to off-Broadway and touring companies and then on to Broadway. And all from the age of sixteen. We simply must know everything about this – how did it happen, what acts, revues, and shows did you play at such a young age? Were you an emancipated teen? How did it all work?
LB: Time has erased things I dont’ want to remember, but I mentioned playing piano at ELT. Somewhere along the way, I became the staff pianist at ELT and did several shows there as rehearsal pianist.
I also played for a lot of auditions. Angelo Del Rossi hired me for tons of auditions for Papermill Playhouse at that time. Mostly because I was CHEAP. . . inexpensive, and I was pretty good. I remember fumbling lots of auditions, too, because I wasn’t all that facile. Remember, that the other pianists kicking around at that time were Marvin Hamlisch, Barry Manilow, John Berkman, Wally Harper, Woody Kessler, Artie Wagner, David Shire, Peter Howard, Marvin Laird. All wonderful pianists and I’m leaving out the others. . . I was way down at the bottom of the piano player food chain. I will say, however, that I was one helluva sight reader, and had great rhythm and I was dark, tall and I’m told a rather cute lad. I was also very naive and a lot of people were willing to give my career a boost.
I do remember being called into auditions for 1776 and many, many summer stock shows.
I was kicking around a lot doing odd jobs and auditions for various people who would phone.
I also did some low-budget dinner theater in the south as MD for Little Mary Sunshine and The Fantasticks, and some shows at Gateway Playhouse in Bellport Long Island.
So here I was at seventeen or so, and I had a lot of credits and experience. Peter Howard recommended me to John Kenley, and I ended up as assistant conductor for THE MOST HAPPY FELLA
with Howard Keel and Karen Morrow, and THE GREAT WALTZ with Wrightson and Hunt, and Sally Ann Howes. Peter then wrote a letter to Rudi Bennett who was conducting MAN OF LA MANCHA at Papermill right after it closed on Broadway. Rudi hired me as rehearsal pianist. Told me I didn’t know how to play, taught me, and became my conducting mentor. He taught me great stuff about theatre conducting and the biz. Rudi was unknown but had been assistant on many Broadway shows, including HIGH SPIRITS and LA MANCHA and SAIL AWAY, as well as many, many shows in stock. His last job was as assistant to Don Pippin on LA CAGE. . . which was at my instigation. We remained close until his death this last year. I should also mention that I was mentored by Leslie Harnley. I was hired as rehearsal pianist for OF THEE I SING at ELT in 1968 and he was the MD. He was my piano teacher and also a mentor for my serious musical training until his death in 1980. He saw me become successful on Broadway.
BK: So, when did you first get the hope that you might conduct on Broadway? As you’ve mentioned, you had several mentors some of whom I know and adore, among them Don Pippin, the great Jack Lee, and Peter Howard. Why did they take you under their collective wings?
LB: Actually Don had asked me at age sixteen to be a gofer on a tribute to Princess Margaret that he was going to MD for Josh Logan. Peter was doing arrangements and/or dance music. That’s how I met Peter.
Much later, in 1971, I was playing rehearsal piano for a tour of APPLAUSE. It was a bus-and-truck tour with Patrice Munsel directed by Ron Field. APPLAUSE was a giant hit at the time and I guess it was a big deal. Pia Zadora, who wasn’t yet the Pia Zadora we know, was doing the Bonnie Franklin part. The conductor had some issues with the music, and the only way to get through this was to ignore him.
At the “gypsy” run-through, which everyone attended, Stanley Lebowsky, Jack Lee, Don Jennings and several other Broadway regulars came over to the piano to introduce themselves and thank me for not following the conductor, who, shall we say, was making “lazy circles in the sky”. This run- through did more for my career than anything else I had done at the time. I think, too, Bill Cox was there. Bill was a regular conductor for Music Fairs. They, at that time, were very active in producing tours, Broadway shows and lots and lots of summer stock for the chain of summer “tents” around the east coast. Places like Westbury Music Fair, Valley Forge , Painters Mill, Shady Grove, Storrowton and others. It was a big deal at the time and quite a bit of employment. Bill hired me as his assistant for PROMISES, PROMISES with Frank Gorshin, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN with Barbara Eden and NO, NO, NANETTE with Ruby Keeler, Cyril Ritchard and Don Ameche the following year.
That was quite a bit of work. Long tours. I also replaced him on these tours when he had to run to another show. Bill was quite nice to me. As ambitious as I was, he would let me conduct almost all of the matinees and he would go to the piano. If I had relatives coming, he would hand the baton to me.
I remember that my parents showed up at Westbury Music Fair to see NO, NO, NANETTE. At the same performance, Burt Shevelove, Cyma Rubin, and Buster Davis appeared to see Ruby. Bill insisted that I conduct the performance since my parents were there.
A very nice fellow and now teaching students at AMDA everything they know. Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t possibly learn everything he knows, which is formidable. I was now hooked on a career for Broadway.
Many jobs came and went, and finally Paul Gemignani, whom I had met along the way when he was a drummer for Hal Hastings, asked me if I’d like to replace Danny Troob as assistant conductor for the tour of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, which was in Chicago . Jean Simmons was the star of that one. So, I went to Chicago and was doing my first really major show as assistant conductor for a Hal Prince/Steve Sondheim musical. Dick Parrinello, the MD, had me conduct an occasional matinee and I was getting a lot of experience. It was good experience to be conducting a show that wasn’t dependent on a drummer.
In fact, because Dick had to go off and prepare a new orchestra for the summer tour, I conducted the closing of the tour in Boston.
BK: I believe at the ripe young age of 22 you took over the conducting of a Broadway musical, hence your debut as a Broadway conductor. This show starred Mr. Joel Grey, and it is a show whose score I’m quite fond of. Tell us how that came about, how long you were with the show, what it was like to conduct a Broadway show with a big Broadway star, and any stories you might remember from the experience. Hold nothing back.
LB: Several months later, Arthur Rubinstein, whom I had assisted in stock on a revival of JUNO at Williamstown, asked if I’d like to replace him temporarily on GOODTIME CHARLEY with Joel Grey. In fact, Danny Troob was the dance arranger on this show, and that was the reason he’d left NIGHT MUSIC. So, it is indeed a very small world.
Arthur was leaving (temporarily) to work in the midwest on a show he had written. So, he announced that I was taking over and I did.
GOODTIME CHARLEY was a big deal – it was the spring of 1975. Joel Grey was a big star on Broadway and Ann Reinking was fresh out of PIPPIN and heavily involved with Bob Fosse. So, I took over the show, conducted it for two weeks; Arthur came back the last week and it closed.
However, I had a Broadway credit, established a relationship with Joel, which later led to my being his MD for a short while, and I haven’t seen Ann Reinking since. The orchestrations on Charley were by Jonathan Tunick and the orchestra consisted of Jonathan’s first call players. The creme de la creme of Broadway and the NY studios. They had ALL turned down A CHORUS LINE which was a low- paying off-Broadway show at the Public Theatre.
So, GOODTIME CHARLEY closed, and the musicians that did A CHORUS LINE stayed with that show until they retired from show biz. An aside: Paul Gemignani was the official music contractor for GOODTIME CHARLEY. It indeed has a very nice score.
About the same time as Goodtime Charley, I was asked to MD a small off-Broadway show, CHRISTY.
The composer was Al Frisch who wrote the song Two Different Worlds. The book writer/lyricist was Bernie Spiro, an ad man who wrote some musicals. I had a meeting with them, didn’t hit it off with Al, but hit it off with Bernie. Al refused me as MD. Bernie and Al split, and Bernie asked me to write the score to his existing lyrics. Naive as I was, I wrote the score, hired my friend Bob Billig to be MD, and the recording was made – it can still be found. I haven’t listened to it since 1975 and it is not likely I will again.
I never wanted to be a songwriter. There are far too many people better at it than I will ever be.
In the meantime though, Larry Grossman, who wrote the music for GOODTIME CHARLEY, was kind enough to help me a bit harmonically and make my songs that much better. I later was asked by Larry and Hal Hackady to be the original MD for their musical SNOOPY in San Francisco . That was in December 1975. Your friend, Randi Kallan, was indeed in the show and very good in it.
Where is she now Bruce? I heard she had become a lawyer. Say hi, and tell her that I think she was great!!!
BK: I’ve seen her a few times over the years. She was working in the Los Angeles DA’s office during the whole OJ trial. Didn’t Bernie Spiro write some kind of book?
LB: Yes. A couple of years ago my friend David Gursky found a book by Bernie Spiro. Bernie, late in life, discovered things about himself and wrote an expose of his life. He also discussed at length the story of my replacing Al Frisch on CHRISTY. I don’t recall exactly what Bernie said, but it was something like, “although Larry did a fine job replacing Al’s score, Larry Blank was no Al Frisch.”
I have thought about having tee shirts made with that emblazoned on the front and back.
Anyway, there are a few good songs and I’m glad I did it, despite the fact that I’m no Al Frisch!!!
The house music contractor on GOODTIME CHARLEY was Red Press, who now contracts the orchestras for everything Rob Fisher does. Red and his replacement in the pit, the late, great Harvey Estrin (one of the finest woodwind players ever in the NY studios and theatre pits) were two strong supporters who constantly recommended me as a conductor.
In fact, Red was the contractor for the recent Barbara Cook CD that I orchestrated for Wally Harper.
BK: What other shows did you take over and conduct after Goodtime Charley? And tell us about conducting the international company of A Chorus Line, that you mentioned earlier.
LB: In the band of Charley was Felix Giglio. Felix was orchestra contractor for David Merrick at the time.
One year later, when Eddie Strauss took a vacation from VERY GOOD EDDIE, Felix recommended me to
Eddie as a replacement, and I did the show for a week or two and became friendly with Charley Repole who starred in the show. Meanwhile, I was establishing a reputation as a Broadway conductor and a good replacement. I had a photographic memory and was a very quick study. I had a firm hand and was far too confident for my own good.
So between my conducting out at Westbury and taking over Broadway shows, my reputation was building in the NY area.
Shortly thereafter, I did a few things here and there that I don’t really remember. Things to pay the bills.
Eventually, Don Pippin convinced Michael Bennett that I should be MD for the International company of A CHORUS LINE. So, off I went – after turning Peter Howard down to be pianist for the original ANNIE! I was offered both jobs the same day, and chose ACL as MD. I did the show for a year. Made many friends that I still have from that job. I decided one year later that it was time to get back to NY and get a Broadway show of my own. So, I did just that, and found myself doing two workshops in NY.
LET’S DANCE with Michael Davis, Janie Sell, Carolyn Kirsch and Trish Garland, which was a very loose adaptation of the Cole Porter film LES GIRLS. Then the workshop of SARAVA for Mitch Leigh. We put the show up with most of the cast that arrived on Broadway with the exception of Tovah. We had Lonette McKee, who was lovely. Mitch didn’t like her and replaced her with Donna Cyrus who was also very good.
BK: All right, you were then tagged to be the music director of a brand new Broadway-bound musical comedy. Not just any musical comedy, but one written by Neil Simon, Marvin Hamlisch and Carol Bayer Sager. Of course I’m talking about the marvelous They’re Playing our Song. First of all, at what point did you, as the music director, become involved?
LB: Don Pippin, my mentor, and often my saviour, was offered THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG. He didn’t want to give up the security of A CHORUS LINE and told Marvin Hamlisch that I should do the show. I walked into Marvin’s apartment and he said, “if Don thinks you are the guy, then the show is yours,” and that started my career for real. I was able to turn Mitch down on the Broadway SARAVA. I became MD of a giant hit. Hard to believe, but THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG was a hit of the proportions of THE PRODUCERS when it opened. It was fresh-sounding, had a large orchestra (28), two funny stars, and a Neil Simon script, along with Marvin and Carole’s score.
BK: The show debuted in here in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theater. I’m always fascinated with new shows and how they come together. Tell us about the rehearsal process, how everyone worked with everyone else, what exactly your job entailed, and how much rewriting actually went on before you played your first performance.
LB: Out of town, there was quite a bit of conflict between Marvin and Neil. Marvin was a superstar and Neil was the muscle. Remember, Marvin had won all those awards, A CHORUS LINE was still fresh, and Marvin was scoring one film after another and appearing on every talk show. Neil was ready to throw out the score and make the whole show a straight play. Pat Birch was coming up with some clever ideas with the alter egos (the six character chorus) to make the musical numbers work. The show had some minor shuffling the first week out of town, mostly of some scenes. Neil combined two or three scenes into one, or at least combined the jokes into one scene. Pat Birch and I experimented with the routine of the title song until it finally settled into his song then her song, with a big finish and then a reprise which bookended the whole sequence. The show was a hit from the beginning. My only other similar experience was with THE PRODUCERS. At the first run-through out of town it was a sure fire hit. No one could really hurt either of these shows.
Marvin and Carol couldn’t come up with a good enough song for the recording studio scene. They started and ended with I STILL BELIEVE IN LOVE. Although a very nice song, it just wasn’t as good as it might have been. However, they experimented and it just wasn’t the right time. Perhaps a week later they might have.
Really doesn’t matter, does it? The show was still a huge hit. Bob Moore, the director was a wonderful man and ran a very tight ship and was hugely responsible for its success.
BK: Tell us about working with Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein, the latter not exactly known for his singing chops. How much do you, as the music director, have to coach them and guide them? Also, tell us how it was working with a close personal friend of ours who was, I believe, making her Broadway debut – Miss Debbie Gravitte (then Shapiro).
LB: I loved working with Robert and Lucie. Funny, I haven’t seen Robert since my last night with the show. I have worked with Lucie again on MY ONE AND ONLY and we are still in touch. They were/are both great. And the only reason I haven’t seen Robert is circumstance. Debbie (Shapiro) Gravitte was in the show and was just as terrific then as she is now, just a bit younger.
BK: Weren’t we all?
LB: Donna Murphy was the first replacement in the show and what a mighty talent she was, even then.
Lucie and I have birthdays two days apart – mine is July 15th and hers is July 17th. So, we were always buddies just on an astrological basis.
BK: Did you stay with the show all the way through its Broadway run?
LB: About a year after rehearsals had started, I became rather bored with the repetition and the subs in the pit and the subtle changes that happen to a show during a run. Mostly dragged out jokes and hurried tempi. So, when Rene Wiegert (the MD of EVITA) phoned and asked if I’d like to conduct the LA run of EVITA with Loni Ackerman, I jumped. My old friend, Paul Gemignani, was the supervisor and offered me the job officially. It was Rene that had suggested me. His very best friend was Rudi Bennett, my conducting mentor. Rudi, by the way, was in the pit of THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG, playing violin. He was an excellent violinist and covered the piano chair as well, when my assistant, Fran Liebergall conducted.
BK: Of course, now, They’re Playing our Song would have to have five readings and eight workshops, and the show that would have come out would probably not be as good. What do you think of this new-fangled way of doing things – all these endless readings and workshops in front of friends and theater-people (and now, frequently, people off the street)?
LB: I have big problems with this. Basically, no one has the cajones to put up money for untried stuff. So now, they go through all sorts of machinations to justify producing a show. I miss the Broadway of yesteryear, when ten to twelve musicals were produced every season. Some good, some not so good, and some right down the middle. At least it was a competition. Oh well, it’s not coming back . And when the musicians contract expires in ten years, after the last negotiation, we’ll have taped orchestras anyway, or taped synths – what’s the difference. But that’s a whole other interview!!!
BK: Then what?
LB: I went to California , got a taste of the good life. That means sun, sun, sun, hot sun, and doing the same thing on the West Coast that I did on the East Coast with much better weather. I was also getting into the studios occasionally and making new friends.
I ended up conducting a whole bunch of cues for the film ORDINARY PEOPLE when Marvin Hamlisch phoned from the studio. He was having some troubles with the director, Robert Redford. So, I lived a few blocks away from Warners and ended up conducting some stuff.
I didn’t mention that all this time I was studying orchestration on my own, and occasionally contributed something. I did a few measures here and there in THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG, and had done occasional fixes on the summer stock shows I did. The summer stock shows at that time usually had bands of fourteen or twelve – very rarely less.
These days it’s a lot less. Remember, too, that I was surrounded by the best – Jonathan Tunick, Ralph Burns (who befriended me during SONG), Dick Hazard, who was a great Hollywood writer, and Phil Lang, who I met along the way as well.
Well, I loved California – missed the energy of NY but not the weather. I was in the position to get work in LA as a composer/orchestrator for TV, but was in no way ready artistically or emotionally. So, I opted to go back to NY and do some more NEW shows to build my reputation on Broadway.
Rudi Bennett advised me to stay in California as he felt Broadway was a dead end for a young guy with my ambitions. However, back I went to do ONWARD VICTORIA. I read the script, knew it was going to be a bomb, and took it, to get back to NY. Terrible thing to say, but the script was awkward. But, they had the money. I greatly admired the talents of the composer, Keith Hermann. I have to admit that I said, like Mel Brooks, that I thought the show would close on page four. However, it brought me back. During rehearsals, Don Pippin was offered a show called COPPERFIELD. He turned it down and recommended me. I accepted knowing that ONWARD VICTORIA would close long before rehearsals began. It did! COPPERFIELD looked promising. Score by Kasha and Hirschhorn, directed and choreographed by Rob Iscove, and to be orchestrated by Irwin Kostal, who did WEST SIDE STORY and MARY POPPINS and won Academy Awards for WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSICS, and who was the orchestrator of the first show I ever saw, FIORELLO. Irv became my orchestration mentor and surrogate father. In the interim between/during rehearsals of COPPERFIELD, there were some queries on WOMAN OF THE YEAR.
Jack Lee was to do it, but had a heart attack during rehearsals. Don Pippin ended up doing it, but he was at Radio City as MD then and I didn’t know he was looking for a way out of there. At the same time, I was approached but was in rehearsal for COPPERFIELD. It turned out okay. COPPERFIELD flopped. I ended up next with COLETTE by Schmidt and Jones. The show starred Diana Rigg, who was fabulous. Larry Wilcox orchestrated. I ended up ghosting a bit because of the huge amount of music.
Show flopped out of town. Harry Rigby asked me to step into SUGAR BABIES on Broadway during Glen Roven’s vacation. I ended up conducting the tour as well as the cast album. Too bad, cause Glen should’ve done that. Politics and the record company made a mess of the whole thing. I ended up back in California conducting the West Coast LA CAGE due to Don Pippin and my new friendship with Jerry Herman through Don. Stayed and built a career there orchestrating, then went back to conduct TEDDY AND ALICE. Don was the music supervisor.
BK: All right, let’s do a catch-all and catch-up: Ready? You did Phantom of the Opera here in LA for two years – which Phantoms did you work with and was it different working with each of them? Tell us about working with the wonderful Jerry Herman on Mrs. Santa Claus.
LB: Did the show with Michael Crawford. In my opinion, the definitive Phantom. Did the show with Robert Guillaume, who sang very well. A lovely man and perhaps a bit miscast. Bob admitted to me that he was paving the way to break the color line for other Phantoms. If you recall, there was talk at that time of Sammy Davis Jr. doing it and he recorded Music of the Night. Finally, Davis Gaines. Davis has a lovely voice, a huge following and certainly is very impressive singing the role. However, for my money, it’s Crawford all the way. I ended up conducting many times for Michael and did his act for a long time – we traveled all over Australia , New Zealand and the UK . I have great respect for him.
I loved working on MRS. SANTA CLAUS. Don Pippin convinced Jerry Herman that I was ready to score a full musical. So I did. I ended up as music supervisor because of my Hollywood experience, and Don was MD. Don, Jerry and I did the underscore and Don left all the scoring to me. Of course we had David Krane doing the dance music which was a formidable job. The director was Terry Hughes, and Rob Marshall choregraphed. Angela Lansbury was a delight. Jerry trusted me completely and has given me all of his work since. Jerry knows his business and is very firm about what he wants. He’s also very generous in his praise. Jerry was responsible for my doing Barbara Cook’s Christmas album.
BK: All right, Larry Blank, let’s talk about the plethora of other things you’ve done: For example, tell us some of the legendary performers you’ve done arrangements and orchestrations for. I know you’ve worked with the best and we’d love to hear all about it. Leave no one out.
LB: Well, I’ve done many charity galas in the UK and in the States. Some for DAVID GEST, who, as we know, was beaten up by Liza Minnelli, according to him. However, I worked with a lot of stars because of him. I’ll only mention the musical ones:
Whitney Houston, Boyz 2 Men, Michael McDonald, Freyda Payne, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Petula Clark, Robert Goulet, Vikki Carr, Marine McCutcheon, Michael Bolton. Others: Michael Feinstein, Marilyn Horne, opera stars Rodney Gilfry and Deborah Voigt. Bette Midler, Chita , Rita,
Josh Groban, Joe Williams, Elaine Paige. A lot that I don’t remember because it was a variety program and I was a hired hand.
BK: Let’s talk about some of the films you’ve worked on. Tell us about working on these films, especially the South Park movie – you’ve worked with Mr. Marc Shaiman quite a bit.
LB: Well, I did two songs on the SOUTH PARK movie. UNCLE F#@KA and I WILL CHANGE; and a lot of stuff on a whole bunch of Marc Shaiman pictures. Usually the production numbers, and then some other stuff like the Main Title on CITY SLICKERS 2. I haven’t worked with Marc a lot lately as I have been doing other things, but he did ask me to help out on the Academy Awards. I unfortunately had to pass this year. It’s not often that I’m THAT busy, but the timing was bad.
BK: Now, here is a strange thing: You’ve worked on some incredibly big things uncredited. For example, you orchestrated no less than eight count them eight songs for Mel Brooks’ The Producers, and I believe you were acknowledged for your contribution at the Tony Awards that year. How does uncredited work come about, why do you agree to do it, and tell us about your work on the film of Chicago and Broadway’s Thoroughly Modern Millie.
LB: Well, I had met Doug Besterman through Ralph Burns. They were doing FOSSE in Toronto while I was there with a show called HOT SHOE SHUFFLE. Gordon Harrell was the supervisor and organized a dinner for us. When Doug got stuck during the writing of THE PRODUCERS, I was called in on the recommendation of several people, including Ralph and David Krane. I was flown to NY, introduced to the cast as one of the orchestrators and sat between Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman while the cast did a partial run thru for me. It is not unusual for a ghost to come in to do a few orchestrations. It is, however, rare that he is introduced to the cast. In addition, the amount of music handed to me was far more than I expected. I suspect that it was far more than Doug would’ve preferred to give out.
However, I was well-trained by my mentor, Irv Kostal. I was/am quite capable of turning out a lot of pages of orchestration in short order. Most of the time, it’s pretty good too!
Anyway, it was a formidable amount of music and I really concentrated on doing the job. I had about ten days to orchestrate a full third of the show. I have to admit, too, that I thought Doug would very reasonably sort out some credit for me in the program. It wasn’t in the forefront of my mind.
Somehow, Doug dropped the ball and I had no credit or royalty for the work I did, and because I didn’t foresee this as being a problem, I never dealt with it appropriately. Doug realized the problem, and although he didn’t step forward in a financial way, he did announce my name at the Tony’s and the Drama Desk Awards. Somewhere along the line, they managed to put my name in the Playbill (long after the Broadway opening) between the caterers and the Shoes By. My name was somehow left off the recording, the video of the making of the recording, and off the royalties. Highly inappropriate. However, how does one step back in time to correct someone else’s oversight?
Doug, David Krane, Rob Marshall asked me to do some work on the film of CHICAGO as well. All I can say is that I foolishly let it happen again.
As far as MILLIE, Doug called me in a panic to do some very minor work on MILLIE. A bunch of underscores and playoffs that I did in one day in Doug’s LA office. This was before the work on CHICAGO was completed, or at least before I knew of my credit snafu on the CHICAGO film. I didn’t even put my name on the arrangements of MILLIE, because I thought so little of the job in terms of my contribution. Needless to say, I don’t think it will be happening again.
BK: I always like to ask orchestrator/arranger types what they feel the definitions of these two very different things are. So, give us yours.
LB: Well, it is so rare in popular music – records, films, TV, theatre – that the orchestrator and the arranger are separate. All pop orchestration entails a large part of arranging. That is, composition, working out modulations, creating little bits and figures to make it all fit together. If Brahms were to hand me or another orchestrator a two-line piano part and say, “hey, make this work for an orchestra of 70,” how could there not be some “arranging” involved. John Williams, when he does a movie score, hands his orchestrators a twelve to twenty line sketch of what everybody is doing. Well, when you transfer John’s dots from the yellow paper to the green paper, you are ORCHESTRATING, not arranging. I hope that makes sense.
BK: You conducted Sweeney Todd at the Kennedy Center , with Brian Stokes Mitchell. Is it frightening to conduct a Sondheim show, especially one as complex as Sweeney. And how involved was Mr. Sondheim? Did he sit in rehearsals, just attend the show?
LB: Well BK, this is not a tough one. Firstly, since kicking around NY as a teenager, I had met Steve Sondheim before he was Steve Sondheim.
Not really, but he was the lyricist of WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY, and composer of FORUM and then WHISTLE. He was kind of looking around to make a big breakthrough. Not that all of those shows weren’t formidable successes and his work was brilliant, but he had not become the ICON Steve Sondheim who wrote COMPANY, FOLLIES, SWEENEY, PACIFIC OVERTURES, etc. etc. etc.
I might have been sixteen or so. I sat with him and Larry Kert at a party in 1968. I had also been assistant on the NIGHT MUSIC tour and had several successes on Broadway. I had also conducted the Reprise version of SWEENEY with Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski. I was asked to do the KC production after Paul Gemignani turned it down and Kay Cameron the MD of the whole KC event decided not to do it. Kay brought my name up to Steve, who approved straightaway. Since I had done the show with Christine it was a done deal. Steve was VERY active in all aspects of it, and was present for many rehearsals, all run-throughs and all the orchestra dresses and many performances. Very present in giving notes to the company. He flattered me, by even sitting in the pit for one performance.
He is a brilliant guy, but first and foremost, a man of the theatre. Very pragmatic and right down to business. We also bonded cause I was the only one around who could get his Apple IBOOK working properly. SWEENEY TODD was my favorite experience of all the things I ever conducted. It’s more in line with what I wanted to do as a conductor. It’s brilliantly written, brilliantly orchestrated and hard work – in a very good way.
I took the job, to remind everyone on the East Coast that I was still very active and capable as a conductor. I loved doing it.
BK: Now tell us a bit about your composing career.
LB: I tried for a while to do some film composing. I was fortunate to do some episodic TV – a few episodes of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and the TV film THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON for Paul Sorvino. There are too many people ahead of me and not as much work on TV. Besides, I love orchestrating/arranging/conducting, and I love theatre.
BK: And what are you, Larry Blank, doing right now? Tell us about your recent and current projects.
LB: Right now, I’ve just done two guest conducting jobs with the San Diego Symphony and the OKC Philharmonic with Rebecca Luker and George Dvorsky.
LB:I’m orchestrating/arranging a CD of Cole Porter tunes for John Barrowman in the UK .
Orchestrating a West End musical BEAUTIFUL AND DAMNED that opens at the Lyric on May 9.
I’m MD for Katie Couric’s Hollywood Hits Broadway: Some Enchanted Evening on April 24th on the QM2
in NY. MISS SPECTACULAR, Jerry Herman’s new show, is supposed to go into rehearsals for a Las Vegas opening. I’ll be orchestrating.
BK: Larry Blank, you have been a sparkling guest, and I thank you for taking part in our Unseemly Interview, and not only that, we salute you with our haineshisway.com beverage of choice – Diet Coke. Since you had a lot of wonderful mentors, I always like to ask: What advice do you have for anyone starting out looking for a career as either Broadway conductor or arranger and/or orchestrator and/or both?
LB: Well, I think the business is much changed and you have to diversify. I do feel however, that people have to go for it if they want it – and that’s my advice. GO FOR IT. There is a piece of the pie for everyone. Just smaller pieces these days.
Thanks Bruce for inviting me to participate.