My Top 5 Past Orchestrators – Philip J. Lang

No. 5 – Philip J. Lang

P.Lang (C.1980)

I could argue that this is the man who really got me into musical theatre. As the go to orchestrator for composer Jerry Herman (Hello Dolly, Mame), it was his orchestration of the Overture to ‘Mack and Mabel’ that really excited me. I was 10 years old at the time and my mother had the vinyl of OBC (Original Broadway Cast) recording of the show, she played it to keep me entertained. As soon as it started I was hooked, especially the section at 2.55 (Brings a smile to my face every time). It’s boldness and punchy brass makes the whole piece jump out of the speakers and grab me at the heart strings. Lang was good at that and I still love hearing it today!

Born in 1911 Bronx, NY, he noticed at Ithaca College, Rochester NY that “When we played , we were not good unless somebody bought music for us to play” and thus began his quest to be an orchestrator.
Finishing his three-year army service in 1945 he got his first big break – ‘Annie Get Your Gun’. In those days orchestrators were contracted with music publishers where they would be assigned a show by the lead orchestrator. One floor would be dedicated to arranging/orchestrating and another to composers. It wasn’t uncommon to have Jerome Kern in one room and George Gershwin in another.

Lang’s orchestration for this show was revolutionary in the sense that he got rid of the vocal line that was up until now traditionally doubled in the pit by a couple of instruments to boost the melody (No mics in those days). Yet, this was a show being produced by Rogers and Hammerstein with the formidable Ethel Merman as the star vehicle. So when it came to the first orchestra reading of show two weeks prior to opening night, the whole place descended into chaos, they wanted to hear the melody. From that point every available orchestrator in New York was called in to replace Lang’s work, yet they still had difficulty. Lang’s arrangement of the song ‘Anything You Can Do’ was the only one to survive the axe. In the end there were 79 arrangements for 21 songs!

Naturally he didn’t get many shows after this and for a few years he was assisting orchestrators on one show a year anonymously. Then in 1956 he was paired with Russell Bennett (Godfather of theatre orchestration) to orchestrate ‘My Fair Lady’. This show was a massive a success and catapulted Lang as well as Julie Andrews into new-found fame. Lang mentions that “The Milkman was leaving notes on my doorstep asking for house seats”. Although Lang only orchestrated a few songs in the show (‘Get Me To the Church, ‘On the Street Where You Live’ ), Bennett was impressed by his work and gave him full Co-Orchestrator credit.

Lang worked with Bennett again this time for Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot” (1960), starring again Julie Andrews and Hollywood star, Richard Burton. This time it was Lang who orchestrated two thirds of the show and contains some of his finest orchestration. Some of my favourite examples are “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”, “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “Then You May Take Me to the Fair”. With Lang noticing the increasing popularity of rock and roll, and pop, he drops in an electric guitar in the pit to give that ‘modern’ edge. Works nicely/

Unfortunately, Lang received much criticism from fellow orchestrators, labelling him “generic” with most saying his work wasn’t adventurous enough. Though as mentioned previously, Jerry Herman liked Lang’s typical all guns blazing Broadway style and subsequently hired him for his first show “Hello Dolly” which became a huge hit and still is. Another Herman show that Lang orchestrated was ‘Mame’ starring Angela Lansbury as the mischievous Aunty Mame. Lang’s orchestrations are terrific in this show, they’re glitzy, fizzy and sound lush and textured, so of his very best I say. See some examples below the Overture and the title song Mame. Both fantastic.

He also received criticism from the worst people you want to get slated from, the pit musicians. They complained some of the passages were unplayable, written in the wrong register, written with sound in mind and not practicality for the players. The well-respected past MD Elliot Lawrence, now MD of the Tony Awards said “With Phil, the players would say they were worn out by the time they got through the night…nothing was completely right on the instrument. I hated to conduct his scores”

The below example from “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” (Hello Dolly) demonstrates the difficulty of his orchestration, notably the sax and brass lines at 4.00 and a couple before that

Saying all this, his orchestrations sound fabulous and energetic. They may be generic sometimes and middle of the road to play, but at the end of the day they are fun and exciting to listen to. Who is the orchestrator serving the audience, the composer, or the musicians?! Difficult question.
Lang went onto to have continued success with Jerry Herman and in his later years orchestrated odd numbers here and there including “Dance Ten, Looks Three” from ‘A Chorus Line’ 

I would recommend listening to Mack and Mabel, Hello Dolly and Mame OBC recordings. They are so much fun.

Thank you for reading!

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