a theatre, film & pop culture review
Only a category since 1997, Best Orchestrations is a bit of a sticky wicket, much like Sound Design. On the simplest level, an orchestrator chooses the number of musicians, the number of instruments, and which musician/instrument plays which notes. But often, they do much more, even to the point of composing chunks of the actual score (for examples, read this Times article). But if you’re not a musician, how do you analyze such a role?
It’s one thing if previous productions/orchestrations exist to compare those above to, but that’s not so with Fela! and Memphis. Whenever contemplating orchestrations, my go-to example is Parade (“of course it is,” you say): the original Broadway production utilized a large orchestra to create a full, rich sound, while the London premiere incorporated only about eight musicians, emitting a sparer, more intimate sound. Which of the two was best? Neither. They both perfectly fit what their productions called for.
That being said, I’ve kept in mind Robert Kaplowitz’s advice regarding Sound Design, because I think much of it applies to orchestrations (from the audience perspective at any rate), and so built my list from there: which show’s use of musicians/instruments (dis)engaged me, purposefully or not, with the show’s particular aesthetic.
This category in a no-brainer in my opinion — though some dance aficionados may be shocked by placement of Tharp. Fela! simply doesn’t. stop. moving. The show is movement, and the cohesion of that movement to music through fiery performances. As you can see in the clip above, even as the titular revolutionary and pop star speaks directly to the crowd in long monologue-form (and, by the way, also teaches the audience a dance move at one point), fiercely regal dancers encircle him and flood the aisles of the house, whipping their hips and thrusting their pelvises to the mesmerizing West African movement. This is a show meant to be experienced, and Bill T. Jones’s invigorating choreography that exquisitely demonstrates the spirit and the culture of a nation will send you off into the streets dancing and eager for more.
Out of the four nominees, only one is not a heavy dance show, and so with Promises, Promises, Rob Ashford, a glorious choreographer, had his work cut out for him. As always, Ashford rose to the occasion, proving once again that perfectly conceived and executed choreography can elevate any musical, no matter how depressingly dreary it is otherwise. Remember Cry Baby? If you do, it’s only because of Ashford’s cleverly choreographed jailbird sequences. Promises, Promises, the trite corporate comedy musical (How to Succeed did it better seven years prior), had only two things to offer in its 2010 revival: Katie Finneran’s scene-stealing comic genius and Ashford’s too-few, but marvelously ’60s-styled dance sequences, the best of which occurred in the show’s opening as secretary’s and businessmen revolve around the office in fluid movements of swiveling chairs and beautiful lines. Thankfully, Ashford will get a crack at a better show next spring when, you guessed it, he directs/choreographs How to Succeed (see my post about the revival here).
Lynne Page’s work on La Cage aux Folles is delightfully cheeky and purposefully impressive. Do you want to see an entire line of men in mile-high heels and mini-skirts do the splits? Again? And again? And again? And with such fierce energy that you’re sure something is going to tear, someone is going to wobble of the stage in dire pain? YES, you do! But its Page’s humor and sense of play that really wins, as the Cagelles tease and taunt with their high kicks and catty upstaging. While the rest of the show and cast is truly endearing, you keep wishing you could just head back to Saint Tropez, and drink and dance, dance, dance! the night away with the girls.
Twyla Tharp is hugely significant icon in the dance world, and Old Blue Eyes himself requested her specifically to put choreography to his music. Why anyone felt the two should be combined into a nearly three-hour long book-less show is entirely beyond comprehension. But combine they did, and they formed Come Fly Away, a frustratingly monotonous “musical” following four couples looking for love in a New York City nightclub, featuring Sinatra’s own vocals. While no one will dispute the crooner’s appeal, all the songs have the same basic form, style, and tempo, which means that Tharp built a show of two-dozen nearly indecipherable, and almost all unexciting, silky-smooth, swinging-sexy dance numbers. Built from the thinnest of conceits, Tharp constantly repeated herself, failing to innovate, invigorate, or inspire.