My Top 5 Past Orchestrators – Irwin Kostal

No.3 – Irwin Kostal 


This is the man that led me to discover the great craft of orchestration. When I was listening/watching the likes of Mary Poppins, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when I was younger, his name always popped up in the credits or on the back of soundtracks as “Music Supervisor” or “Music Supervisor and Conductor”. Being an inquisitive 12 year old, I thought, who is this bloke? A quick google later and one thing led to another, discovering that he has made a solid gold stamp of contribution to orchestration throughout the last century to both musical theatre and the silver screen.

Born in 1911 in Chicago, Kostal had a keen eye for learning, burying his head in music books from the local library and sadly suffering the consequences of being beaten by neighbourhood youths when they saw him with the books, subsequently destroying them. When the bill came in for the ‘lost’ books he was beaten by his father too.
Undeterred,  Kostal was still obsessed with music and the piano, begging his father to buy one, he finally did when Kostal was 11. Although it was broken, it was enough for him and after three basic lessons, he was on his own.

Graduating from high school in 1929, he took whatever musical jobs were going in the depression years and spent countless hours studying orchestral scores at the public library in Chicago. The hours of studying paid off in 1934 when he hit the road as on “off cuff” arranger for the Bobby Meeker Orchestra. Writing two arrangements a week, he would do so without writing a full score, only parts.
Over the next few years he found steady work with radio and nightclubs, but the Musicians Union bizarrely declared that Kostal was doing too much work and ordered him to give up nightclubs or radio. With this large cut in income, he hedged his bets, flipped a coin and headed east to NYC in 1946. There he met the orchestrator, Don Walker, who promised to give him a shot at orchestrating.

During this period, he assisted on hit musicals, churning out key arrangements for shows such as: The Pajama Game (Hernando’s Hideaway and Hey There) and The Music Man (Shipoopi). He was also busy working on TV shows (The good old days when they employed live orchestras on TV full time) and was making $7000 a week for orchestrating Your Show of Shows, Kostal mentions however, “For the first show I orchestrated 700 pages in one week. Monday to Friday I had not gone to bed, catnapping once in a while” (Nutter!)

Now we get to the good stuff!
In the Spring of 1957, Leonard Bernstein invited his childhood friend Sid Ramin, an already well established jazz orchestrator on Broadway, to orchestrate his new musical West Side Story. Sid was worried of endangering his relationship with Bernstein if the music became a little too classical, as this was more than the usual flaring jazz hands, kick line, over-sung type of show. Sid dictated to Bernstein that he would only orchestrate the show if he agreed to Kostal working with him. He did agree. Sid came back to Kostal – “How do you feel about it?” “Lets do it!” Kostal immediately replied.  And thus began the creation of what is still considered the finest orchestration of any Broadway show, unmatchable to this very day.

Although Ramin and Kostal worked jointly on many numbers in this show e.g. Ramin would do the strings and Kostal the woodwind, Ramin was a slower writer than Kostal, with Kostal writing considerably more. Apparently in some cases, Sid would sing instrument lines and Irwin would transcribe and expand. Yet, Kostal was the sole orchestrator for the numbers “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love”, “Maria”, “One Hand, One Heart”, “Tonight (Balcony Scene)” and my favourite, “Quintet”. All of these are outstanding pieces of craftsmanship, demonstrating his superior knowledge in writing for all instruments especially: Brass, Strings and Percussion. Having conducted this show with an exceptional orchestra and studied the full score, it is a true delight to hear it live and witness the detail in the score. It really is a joy to behold! It included revolutionary writing for guitar (Still one of the hardest guitar parts on Broadway) and for reed players, with the re-introduction of players required to play double reed instruments as well as single. E.g. Alto Sax, Clarinet, Flute, Oboe and Cor Anglais.

(Love the harsh brass throughout and the sympathetic strings towards the end)

(My favourite number in WSS. You can feel the tension rising and rising through out this piece. I still smile with delight every time I hear it! )

(Some of the best string writing)

Kostal also did the opening Blues Section of “Dance at the Gym”. Demonstrates his great talent for big band writing too.

The orchestration process in West Side was different to other shows. Bernstein would hold “Pre-orchestration meetings” at his house to discuss what he would like. Irwin and Sid would then go away, work 12 hours and come back the next day for a “Post-orchestration meeting” which would turn into a pre-orchestration meeting for the next song. Bernstein would either take out a red pencil and say “Why did you guys do that?!” or say “Hey guys, not bad!” Although Bernstein gave himself the credit for the orchestration, he actually never physically wrote a note on the full score and only gave official credit to Kostal and Ramin in the early 1990’s with the credit “Orchestrations by Leonard Bernstein with Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal”

Below is a rare tv clip of Kostal talking about his role as an orchestrator alongside legendary composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim and Host, Earl Wrightson. The clip is worth watching from the very start with Kostal conducting re-arranged numbers from West Side Story and Sondheim discussing his work on West Side as well as his other musicals. A piece of history.

(The video was posted on Youtube by renowned conductor, composer and orchestrator, Larry Blank, who was mentored by Irwin Kostal. Thank you to Larry for sharing this fantastic clip)

In the 1960, hot off the success of the stage show, Sid and Irwin were transported to LA to orchestrate the film version, this time with an orchestra increased by 200%, with the studio United Artists effectively giving them free reign. This resulted in having 6 saxophones, eight trumpets, five pianos and five xylophones. Although Bernstein would later recall the film orchestrations as “overbearing”, it earned Kostal and Ramin their first Oscar.

Ramin and Kostal Oscars

(Sid Ramin (L) and Irwin Kostal (R) with their Oscars for West Side Story, 1961)

From here on in, Kostal’s career took a different direction.
The Walt Disney Company were preparing for their first live action film, Mary Poppins in 1963, with songs by the companies in house composers, Richard and Robert Sherman.
Kostal recounts ” The Sherman Brothers decided they wanted somebody (orchestrator) who was active in the Broadway Theatre. With this is mind, they listened to shows from the past 5 years. One of their favourite albums turned out to be Fiorello and when they noticed my name on other recordings too, they campaigned actively on my behalf.” He got the job.

See why he did…

(Overture to Fiorello! Trademark Kostal)

“After my first session with Dick and Bob, they warned me, “Don’t tell Walt you won an Academy Award for West Side. He hated it!”

One of the stand out numbers from this film is definitely “Step in Time”. Although cut short in the film, the Sherman Brothers were amazed with his arrangement  and were sad to see most of it cut. The full version was restored and you can hear it below. Irwin received his second Academy Award nomination, missing out to André Previn for My Fair Lady.

(A lot going on! I can only imagine his score paper was virtually black)


(Rehearsing! Back L-R: Bob Sherman, Irwin Kostal, Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews. Front: Dick Sherman)

One success led to another with Kostal, moving on to supervise, orchestrate and conduct The Sound of Music in 1965. The composer Richard Rogers actually tried to gain sole composer credit for Kostal’s grand crescendo leading up to the title song in the beginning of the film and other sections. However, Iwrin managed to negotiate a percentage of the soundtrack album sales, which turned out to be worth its weight in gold!

The soundtrack is littered with great iconic tracks and great orchestrations, so it is hard to single out one specific number. I would recommend listening to the whole album. It still remains one of the greatest selling soundtrack albums of all time. I particularly like “I Have Confidence” which has lyrics by Rodgers as well the music, due to Hammersteins death. This film secured Kostal’s second Academy Award.

Irwin Kostal(Irwin Kostal with Julie Andrews on the podium rehearsing a song from The Sound of Music with the Fox Studio Orchestra)

(A real nice triumphant ending added by Kostal) 

1968 saw Kostal reunite with the Sherman Brothers for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, again conducting, supervising and orchestrating. Although the movie was a commercial success, several critics panned the films underscore which Kostal had mostly done, and also the films horrifically long running time for a family film…two and a half hours! However, every song in the film was a hit in its own right and remains personally some of my favourite musical songs. Irwin did a great job, especially working with a British studio orchestra where at one point, he utilised every available flute player in London for the recording of “Toot Sweets” and several high class percussionists for “Me Ol’ Bamboo”. The latter song showing off his ability to write ridiculous xylophone parts! “Lovely Lonely Man” also demonstrates his exceptional string writing, scored only for strings, celeste, harp and a single french horn.

(Sounds great fun to play and to dance too) 


(Sally Ann Howes – One of the richest voices I’ve ever listened to)

During this British phase of Kostal’s career he also arrived in the UK earlier to orchestrate, supervise and conduct Half a Sixpence (1967). Unfortunately the film was considered a huge flop at the time, even when directed by veteran movie musical veteran George Sidney (Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, Pal Joey, Show Boat) and was one of the last nails in the coffin film musicals , though Hello Dolly (1969)  is generally considered to be the last of the movie musicals of that generation. Yet as ever, Kostal’s orchestrations and arrangements are outstanding, especially Flash, Bang, Wallop which has echoes of the outlandishness of Step In Time from Mary Poppins, plus This is My World, which he actually co-wrote with the original score composer David Heneker. He also co-wrote the Regatta Cup Boat Racing Song which features in the film and as far as I’m aware, these are the only two official song writing credits he has had in film. Must have been a serial experience to orchestrate your own music!

(This is My World – Sung by Tommy Steel. Music and lyrics by David Heneker and Irwin Kostal)


(Flash, Bang, Wallop – Very much reminds me of Step In Time. Typical Kostal orchestration with brassy trombone glissandos, fluttering woodwinds and bold percussion!)


(Now here is a real treat for everyone. In this behind the scenes footage, Kostal discusses with Heneker the dance arrangements for the show piece number, Flash, Bang, Wallop! along with now legendary choreographer Dame Gillian Lynne. It’s also absolutely fascinating to see him work with Tommy Steel in finding his vocal range for the song and just watch him orchestrate by ear and conduct the studio orchestra! Always looks like he’s having terrific fun. Can’t believe this hasn’t been seen before)


For the next decade or so, Irwin dabbled in out of film and Broadway, orchestrating Bed Knobs and Broom Sticks and Pete’s Dragon for Disney and Lerner and Lowe’s stage adaptation of Gigi, all containing some excellent orchestration and yet sadly the films and stage productions were flops. Kostal died of a heart attack in 1994, but was later named a “Disney Legend” for his contribution to music.

In all, he was one of the few orchestrators who were both at ease writing for intimate pits of Broadway and the large studio orchestras of Hollywood. With both, he was always able to add he is own flare and wit into any song or dance number. I would say at least 90% of songs in Chitty have a heavy handed trombone gliss, and the thing is, it works, every time. I owe much of what I have come to learn and love about orchestration from this man and I am grateful I discovered him on a back of old VHS (Under 15?…ask your parents what that is). He has firmly cemented his place in history as one the finest orchestrators of the last century. Plus, he is a spit of the Old Man from Pixar’s Up. Legend!


Thanks again for reading, much appreciated!

Over and out,

Jack 🙂

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One Response to My Top 5 Past Orchestrators – Irwin Kostal

  1. Pingback: My Top 5 Past Orchestrators – Robert “Red” Ginzler | Behind the Stave: The Back Room World of Orchestration

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