Posted by Hannah Miller
This week’s theatre artist is the late and luminous Broadway orchestrator ROBERT RUSSELL BENNETT, who won a posthumous Tony Award last Sunday, which was the 114th anniversary of his birth. Bennett was born on June 15, 1894, and survived a sickly childhood to live to the ripe old age of 87. His posthumous Tony Award recognized his incomparable contributions to many of the greatest musicals of the 20th Century, including the current Tony-winner for Best Revival, South Pacific.
His Word of the Week is from the lyric of one of the South Pacific songs he so memorably arranged. The song is A Wonderful Guy, and the Word of the Week is BROMIDIC.
If he knew prior to his birth that he wanted to be an orchestrator, then Bennett picked the right parents. His dad was a violinist with the Kansas City Symphony, and also an accomplished trumpeter. His mom was a piano teacher. As a toddler, Bennett contracted polio. His parents filled his hours with music. At the age of 3, he surprised everyone by picking out on the piano the tune to a Beethoven sonata that his mother had recently played. At the age of 4, Bennett and his family moved to a farm south of Kansas City because the doctor suggested that the rural environment would benefit his recovery.
While living on the farm, his father started a band and engaged his son as a sub whenever one of the other musicians was unable to play. Through these gigs and rigorous home schooling, Bennett learned to play pretty much any instrument he could get his hands on. When he was 15, the family moved back to Kansas City where Bennett found work as second violinist with the Symphony. He also played piano for silent movies, and various instruments with the pit orchestras of live theatres. When he turned 22, he collected all his savings and moved to New York with a total of $200 in his pocket.
Once in Manhattan, Bennett earned his keep playing in dance halls and restaurants. He also landed a job as a copyist with the music publishing house of G. Schirmer. At the start of WWI, he volunteered for the Army. Due to a crippled foot (the last vestiges of his childhood polio), he was not sent overseas. He was assigned to Camp Funston, Kansas, and named director of the 70th Infantry Band. When the war ended, Bennett returned to New York.
In 1919, he was hired to provide music lessons at one of NYC’s prestigious finishing schools. He applied for work in Tin Pan Alley, the center of New York’s world-famous music publishing business. He was given the chance to audition at T. B. Harms, the firm that sat at the top of the Tin Pan Alley heap. The orchestration he created during his “audition” was for Cole Porter’s An Old Fashioned Garden. It wound up becoming the biggest pop music hit of 1919.
As might be expected, Bennett won the job of orchestrator at T. B. Harms. That same year, he married Louise Merrill, the daughter of the prominent society woman who was the headmistress of the finishing school where he worked. Bennett and his wife had one daughter, Jean, born in 1920.
Early in his career at T. B. Harms, Bennett was asked to orchestrate not just single songs, but entire musical theatre scores. Over the subsequent 45 years, he would work with almost every major Broadway composer of his lifetime, contributing to over 300 shows.
His credits included orchestrations for Rose Marie (Rudolph Friml – composer, 1924), No No Nanette (Vincent Youmans, 1925), Show Boat (Jerome Kern, 1927), Of Thee I Sing and Porgy and Bess (George Gershwin, 1931 and 1935), Anything Goes (Cole Porter, 1934), Annie Get Your Gun (Irving Berlin, 1936), Lady in the Dark (Kurt Weill, 1941), Oklahoma and Carousel (Richard Rodgers, 1943 and 1945), Finian’s Rainbow (Burton Lane, 1947), Kiss Me Kate (Cole Porter, 1948), South Pacific and The King and I (Richard Rodgers, 1949 and 1951), My Fair Lady (Fritz Loewe, 1956), Bells are Ringing (Jule Styne, 1956), Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music (Richard Rodgers, 1958 and 1959), Camelot (Fritz Loewe, 1960), and On a Clear Day … (Burton Lane, 1965).
About Bennett, Richard Rodgers wrote, “I give him [the credit] without undue modesty, for making my music sound better than it was.”
In South Pacific, Bennett orchestrated Richard Rodgers’ beautiful score, capturing the exotic harmonies of the Pacific islands and the corn-fed American exuberance of the young men and women stationed there with the U. S. Navy during World War II. The brilliant lyrics were by Oscar Hammerstein II.
In A Wonderful Guy, Ensign Nellie Forbush, a Navy nurse, sings about her unabashed love for the expatriate French planter Emile de Becque. The photo to the right shows Kelli O'Hara singing A Wonderful Guy in the current Broadway revival.
"I'm as trite and as gay as a daisy in May,
A cliché coming true!
I'm BROMIDIC and bright as a moon-happy night,
Pouring light on the dew!"
BROMIDIC seems to have firmly entered the language by 1913, at least that’s when the word BROMIDE first appeared in Webster dictionaries. In the war era of South Pacific, BROMIDE was readily recognized to have three related but different definitions:
1. any of the salts of hydrobromic acid, used as a sedative; or
2. a person who is conventional and commonplace in his habits of thought and conversation; or
3. a conventional or trite saying, a boring cliché.
The root syllable brom means dullness of mind. Based on the above three definitions, BROMIDIC would mean:
1. like a medicine that causes dullness of mind, or
2. like a person who has a certain dullness of mind, or
3. like a saying that prompts dullness of mind in the listener.
In his 1906 book, Are You a BROMIDE?, the author, art critic and social commentator Gelett Burgess wrote, “The BROMIDE conforms to everything sanctioned by the majority, and may be depended upon to be trite, banal, and arbitrary.”
Nellie Forbush, when she refuses to marry Emile de Becque because he is older and “foreign,” certainly fits Burgess’s definition of BROMIDIC.
Robert Russell Bennett, never BROMIDIC in the least, lived a full life, continuing to orchestrate and compose until his death. He was commissioned to write several symphonic pieces for our nation’s bicentennial in 1976. He died of cancer in 1981. The great choral director Robert Shaw wrote, “And it is just as certainly because of his kindness, honesty, humor, and wisdom that our hearts are warmed to see Robert Russell Bennett without peer in his field.”
--Posted by Hannah Miller