Interviews with American Theatre Creatives: Larry Hochman (Arranger/Orchestrator)

In this second excerpt from a forthcoming book on Musical Theatre, I was entirely thrilled to interview one of the best arrangers in the business.  I have a number of heroes in this field, one of whom is the consumate musician, Larry Hochman.

This interview, which is really Part I of II, took place over several hours in a restaurant down on ‘Resturant Row’ in Manhattan earlier this year.  Dissecting and transcribing this interview reminded me of the many pearls of wisdom Larry provided over a couple of hours of intense conversation.  READ IT SLOWLY  – or read it more than once – to gain the maximum benefit from what Larry imparts.  You won’t regeret it.

LARRY HOCHMAN (Arranger / Orchestrator)

Larry_Hochman_Arranger Larry has a TONY award and a DRAMA DESK award for Best Orchestrations for The Book of Mormon.  His 4 other TONY nominations were for The Scottsboro Boys (2010, also Drama Desk nomination), Monty Python’s Spamalot (2005, also Drama Desk nomination), Fiddler on the Roof (2004) and A Class Act (2001).  Orchestrations for Broadway include The Addams Family, The Scottsboro Boys, Fiddler on the Roof (additional orchestrations for the 2004 Revival), Jane Eyre, A Class Act, The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm and Late Nite Comic, and additional orchestrations for Hugh Jackman – Back on Broadway, Shrek, and The Little Mermaid.  Orchestrations for 18 films include Marvin Hamlisch’s The Informant!, Disney’s Lady and the Tramp II, Once Upon a Mattress, and Dead of Winter


KP:  As an orchestrator, if you were only able to provide one piece of information to aspiring composers/songwriters, what would be the most pertinent advice you believe they should receive?

LH:  Well, if the end result, I assume, is going to be played by an orchestra, I don’t feel that you have to crowd every measure with lots and lots of notes, and trust more in the sustain of the orchestra.

I may be paraphrasing Jonathan Tunick on that, so I’ll credit him, but I found that to be rightAlso, on the piano – and this is just the picky harmonic aspect – beware notes that die out, so when you write the music down, the notes are sustained for as long as they are meant to sound for.   Make sure that the note lengths are what you want, and not rubbing with some other lines that you have written, because it will only have to be adjusted later with the instruments we have to work with.  I find that I have to be much more careful about that and, often, I have to make some adjustments in the texture.  I am perfectly happy to do that, but just know that if you don’t make them, the adjustments will probably be done by your orchestrator.


KP: So, to paraphrase, if you you’re writing a piano/vocal chart, be very clear about durations of notes? 

L.H. Yeah, I mean, if you have a chord on the right hand that last 8 beats against a voicing in the left hand, the right hand is probably going to have died out long before the 8 beats is up.  But the question is, do you really want all those notes sustained upstairs for the whole 8 beats?  We deliberate endlessly to make sure we have the right solution in this scenario, and we’re often guessing.

Actually, something else comes to mind and that is: GIVE your orchestrator an idea of where you think the boundaries are.  Andrew Lippa is great at this.  He’ll say to me, “In this first verse, I think it should be pretty much what’s on the page and then once we get here, I can hear other textures.”  And he’ll say to me, “You know I want these chords” and I’ll still know that can mean that I can add to them, or adjust them, contrapuntally if I need to.

But, if you are writing something that you know is more of a skeleton, then don’t worry about putting in all of the notes.  Let it be known, in plain English, that you know that it is a skeleton; that you’re not married to the base line, and therefore if you are leaving it sparse, you are inviting the input of an arranger.  It’s perfectly valid, but I spend a lot of my time hoping that the liberty that I’m taking is okay, and if I am taking enough liberty.

As an example, one time, Maury Yeston had a piece that was very well written out, but I got to a point where there was just a couple of notes in the left hand that I couldn’t determine what they were part of.  And then, there were a couple of quarter notes that I couldn’t tell whether they were part of a melody.  So, I called him up and he said, “No, that’s just Maury keeping time there!”  It’s not that he shouldn’t have written it that way, but he was very helpful by telling me that he just wanted some rhythm there, but the “D” and “G” notes were not melodically important notes.


KP:  Do you prefer to be given a skeleton or do you prefer to be given something that is almost comparable to 6-line film sketch?

L.H. Well, if I’m given a very detailed sketch, it is certainly easier and if everything is really worked out, it’s fine, but, in fact, I often like the easy way out.  When I have a melody line and some chords, and a ‘feel’ and then follows blank bars, often I get terrified that I won’t come up with something interesting enough or, you know, end up sounding like doing a formula orchestration or something rudimentary, so I’ll try to find something there.

In a way, when there is less written and it’s more open for me to execute, it’s a lot harder.   And yet once I’ve done it, it might be what I’m most proud of.

Sometimes I look back and I think, “Oh you know, that time that I added those lines, I was very happy about it”, but I might have been anxiety-ridden as I was actually doing it.

There was a time writing A Class Act, I realised, when I got to the 4th verse, that it wasn’t the accompaniment that they wanted. It was simply that they were reprinting the first verse in the same key, because that’s what Ed Kleban wrote (and he wrote a shorter song) so I totally rewrote the right hand and then I took out most of the left hand and just put in some accents.  The song is better for it.  It was in the final – maybe next to the last and the last chorus of that song – where it changes totally.  That wasn’t given to me, and it looked so easy at first I thought, “Oh!  I could just do what I did before,” but you always feel like the song is going to a new place and you have to take it somewhere, so I have to change something.

So, to summarise, if it’s given to me, great, and if I have to find it, well…  I’d rather be lazy and have the 6-line sketch.  That’s my real answer.


KP:  So as an orchestrator, where does your responsibility stop?

L.H.  Something that I would never change is the vocal line.  Occasionally, if I’m given something that has quarrelsome harmonies that haven’t been rehearsed yet, or that I think are not the ideal, or that have some sort of a collision with the accompaniment, I might voice that but that’s very rare.  And with that, I might discuss it as well with the vocal arranger about changing a note or two, but most of the time, I don’t tamper with vocal parts at all.  If the harmonies are not worked out well, I may tamper with the skeleton but, umm, it’s not my job to improve the melody!

I mean ultimately, I have to make a part for every instrument that’s going to be playing and, sometimes, I get a clear direction to work from in order to get to my end-point and, sometimes, I get a much less than clear sketch and, sometimes, I get a very sub-standard sketch that I really have to fix up –  and I will fix up a bad accompaniment!  I will take notes if something really just doesn’t work, but I won’t change the length and I won’t change the intention if I feel I understand what’s going on dramatically.  I’ll try to enhance but I won’t try to undo anything.


KP:  I think there is a real dearth of information for songwriters, who don’t really know where their contribution necessarily starts and stops, and so, they either end up over-scoring; thinking they need to do some of your work. Or the opposite occurs; where that they provide a sketch that has hardly any bones at all.  So, what is a good synergy of relationship between songwriter and orchestrator? 

L.H.  You are absolutely right that the songwriter can go in either direction: too far and not give enough, or give too much.

Michael John LaChiusa is an example of someone who gives a lot of detail and, for the most part, it works great, but you still have to check because sometimes it is very pianistic and that’s where my job starts.  I don’t expect the composer to give me the actual parts that the orchestra would play.

I guess there is something about the weight of the accompaniment that I end up deciding, and often it’s abouthow heavy or how light something is or how busy or how empty and that I don’t need every note.

If the chord and structure is clear, I don’t need every detail of the accompaniment, but if it gets as thin as something like a single line on top and a base note here and there – and you really mean it to be full – then put in slashes and chord symbols and make sure it’s clear that you are leaving it to me ‘cos I won’t read your mind!

 In fact, I once asked a composer who had a line in the right hand and a line in the left hand – and it was dramatic moment – that I could score exactly what he wrote (and there wouldn’t have been anything wrong with that) but I really thought it would end up sounding like a Bach Invention, and I really didn’t think he wanted that.  And he said, “No, you’re right I don’t want that”.  So I found the chords that still supported what he wrote, but it was different than what I was originally given.

I wasn’t trying, you know, to take it off the deep-end and I wasn’t trying to be radical.  I was trying to connect with where I thought the music was going.  Sometimes it is not easy.  That was Jane Eyre in fact.

Good questions!


KP:  Do you think there is such a thing as a Theatre Sound?

L.H. Yeah I do.  I definitely do.  There is also a theatre rhythm.  Sometimes I’ll hear a recording of someone doing a song – that might even be from a show – and you can take your time with the performance, but when you’re in front of a [theatre] audience, you want to get on with the story.

What I mean is this: if it’s a ballad in a tempo that Frank Sinatra might have done, directors will want to speed the scene up, but the singer still has to wait for the orchestra.  So, both have to push a little bit.  But I think there are certain ways in which the orchestra in musical theatre propels the drama that doesn’t happen the same way in pop songs.

With pop songs, you can get to a hook and it will be totally laid back in a nice ‘slow two’ – let’s say, a Barry Manilow style ballad – but if you’re in the theatre, it will sit there without the energy, without the forward momentum.  So, I think in terms of pace and also in terms of the kind of accompaniments that lend themselves to the excitement that lead the song somewhere.  You’ve got to get on with it.  In fact, one of the successful aspects I see in Book of Mormon is that there is not a moment where there is not something that surprises you, or doesn’t take you somewhere else.  You don’t get a chance to breathe and look at your watch and wonder, you know, how much time has gone by? It’s always ahead of you and it’s always bringing you to the next surprise and adventure.


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