Lighting for the Ears

Jonathan Tunick ’58

Written for The Bardian (Bard College magazine), Spring 2023.

Embed from Getty Images

When Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street begins previews on Broadway in late February, it will be the first time since 1980 that the Stephen Sondheim musical will be revived there with its original orchestration by Jonathan Tunick ’58.

Tunick has spent his career transforming vocal and piano scores into fully realized orchestrations for woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings. Look in the credits of any musical or film and you’ll usually find an orchestrator listed somewhere after the composer. Tunick’s success in this often-unheralded art has made him the only Bardian to achieve the extremely rare EGOT quadfecta: winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award.

Born in New York City in 1938 and raised on the Upper West Side, Tunick was introduced to Bard as a 12-year-old at summer camp, where his cabin counselor was 19-year-old Bard music major Darius “Ted” Thieme ’51. With just a little prior experience on the clarinet, Tunick was inducted into a Dixieland jazz band alongside Thieme and his older friends. A few years later, still entranced by stories about Bard, Tunick applied and enrolled as a composition major.

“Bard was very small when I went there, only 300 students, and we all knew one another,” Tunick says. “It was a very cozy place.” He studied chamber music with Emil Hauser, founding violinist of the Budapest String Quartet, and took theory, harmony, and counterpoint with Clair Leonard, a student of the famed Parisian pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. But his most influential teacher was composer Paul Nordoff. “He taught that music should be well-built, like a sound building, but first and foremost it should be beautiful,” Tunick says. “This put him at odds with the established order of contemporary composers, academics, and critics, and his music was pretty much ignored by them.” Nordoff eventually moved to Europe, where he started a new career as a music therapist. Tunick turned to musical theater, which he found more congenial than the midcentury contemporary classical music world.

He had already composed for plays, dance concerts, and student musicals at Bard, collaborating on the last with Steven Vinaver ’58. “Steven was quite ambitious and managed to get a few of our songs placed in the revue Take Five,” Tunick recalls, “establishing me as a performed composer in New York at the age of 19—the first of a series of false starts.” After graduation, he went on to Juilliard for a master’s degree.

In 1968, Tunick orchestrated Burt Bacharach’s Promises, Promises, his first Broadway success. The following year, he was introduced to Sondheim, whom he knew as the lyricist of West Side Story and composer of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. They discussed a new project over a whisky-soaked lunch before going to Sondheim’s home to read through it. “I sat next to him on the piano bench as he played and sang through the score of Company, growling out the words an octave below pitch,” Tunick remembers. “Imagine the thrill of hearing these songs for the first time, right from the source.”

Sondheim created a new style of musical theater with freer structures and more complex harmonies than most popular songs. This offered Tunick an intriguing challenge. “When the piano accompaniment doesn’t follow well-recognized patterns, then the orchestrator can’t use the well-established orchestral patterns, so new ones have to be devised.” He rattles off some of the classical scoring techniques he has turned to: imitation, inversion, retrograde, onomatopoeia, and leitmotiv.

In addition to Company and Sweeney Todd, Tunick worked with Sondheim, who died in 2021, on FolliesA Little Night MusicPacific OverturesMerrily We Roll AlongInto the WoodsPassionPutting It Together, and The Frogs. “One of the reasons I think he’s the best orchestrator for the theater is he has a sense of drama, of what’s going on on the stage,” Sondheim said in a 2020 interview. “He isn’t just interested in the sounds. He is interested in enhancing the play.”

After meeting with the composer, Tunick would watch cast rehearsals, accompanied by piano, to get a sense of the show’s staging and direction as well as the range and timbre of the voices. He recalls once asking the lighting designer how a scene would be lit to help understand how to orchestrate it. Like lighting, the orchestra can create different degrees of warmth and cold, darkness and brightness. “It can also provide subtext,” Tunick explains. “It can hint at unspoken secrets, and can say things the characters don’t say, or don’t want to say, or don’t even know.”

An orchestrator’s work is never quite finished. New productions may require revisions, and Tunick has orchestrated Sweeney Todd a dozen times now, including the score for Tim Burton’s 2007 film and a large-scale version for symphony orchestras and opera houses. But part of the excitement for the Broadway revival is the return of his 26-instrument original. Tunick is serving as a consultant for the production, which will star Josh Groban. He also worked on Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson. And for the first time in years, he is focusing on his own compositions—he has published several choral works and his Serenade for Strings was recently performed and recorded.

“When I was a kid and didn’t know anything about music, I heard children’s records, like Peter and the Wolf and Tubby the Tuba, which gave me the notion that musical instruments could play characters and tell stories,” Tunick says. “This idea became an obsession which has dominated my life.”

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.