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The Quest for the Historical Broadway Sound

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The following is a guest post from Agnieszka Zagozdzon, who has been researching American Musical Theater collections in the Performing Arts Reading Room nearly every day for the past six months! We asked Agnes to share more about her project and experience at the Library of Congress in this blog post.


A box of music manuscripts from the Richard Rodgers Collection and Agnieszka’s famous scarf at her favorite desk, B 21.

Every researcher in the Performing Arts Reading Room has his or her favorite place at one of the desks. Mine is B 21, because it’s pretty much in the middle of the room and I have a good view at everything that’s going on around me. You can tell from afar – by the jacket and the thick scarf that I wear indoors – that I’m not American; I’m German and even though four months have passed, I’m still not accustomed to the American passion for air conditioning.

I came here because I’m currently writing my doctoral dissertation on the topic of the American Broadway Musical; more specifically, I’m here to examine the different styles in the orchestration of musicals written between 1930 and 1960. There are hardly any books about Broadway orchestration – and none in German – but even if you happen to find one, there are mostly only very broad and superfluous descriptions in it, such as, “Orchestrator A favored a rather classical style with a large string section, whereas orchestrator B was known for his authentic swing sound, using no strings at all.” However, I want to know exactly how these orchestrators worked – what their styles and characteristics were – and that’s why I decided to come to Washington D.C. to the Library of Congress. Nowhere else in the world do you have such a huge collection of orchestrated original scores for musicals. Furthermore, the access for all researchers is open, no matter where they are from!

Lucky for me, all of the librarians and music specialists here are extremely helpful and very, very patient whenever I need something from their vast archives – be it a list of contents of a certain collection or boxes filled with scores. Not to mention: where else could you be working on the original scores of The Sound of Music while Julie Andrews herself walks right past you!

So I sit there every day at desk B 21 and go meticulously through the scores, page by page, and analyze them: how did the orchestrator use the first violins? Are there any saxophones? And if so: what do they play? Apart from that, all sort of additional, interesting and sometimes funny information can be found in these materials – notes from the songwriter to the singer (like e.g. in one of the piano vocal scores from My Fair Lady: “Rex – call Julie immediately.”) or remarks regarding a certain performance style (two of the scores from The Pajama Game are supposed to be played in a “tempo di beer garden” – I really have to investigate this one when I’m back in Germany, in detail).

There is a lot to do and many, many scores to examine – and as always: there’s not enough time. Still, I haven’t given up the hope that one of the librarians might accidently leave some kind of a “master key” lying around somewhere – and then I could also spend the Sundays at the Library and continue my work or just roam through all the archives! But first I would switch off the air conditioning.

Comments (5)

  1. Wonderful post! Thanks. The thought of Julie Andrews wandering by….well, what a great place to do research!

  2. What a wonderful project, Agnes. If you have the time, you may wish to come to the Houghton Library, at Harvard, which houses the Johnny Green Collections:
    As you can see from the finding aids, the collections provide an amazing array of orchestrations for many Broadway shows. But you may have quite enough to work with there at B 21 🙂 good luck!

  3. when I walk down Broadway, I think of while recycling a few music pieces. Gershwin, New York…. Frank Sinatra, new York, New York… even The Towering Inferno with Paul Neuman and Steve McQueen….even Perry Mason, Raymond Burr…. The Wiz Home each version and Ease on down the road,, plus the original… N.Y.P.D. with Jack Webb as the producer in black and white… The different types of media, the live versus types of recordings a clear grasp of the groups of musical instruments even now which encompass the altitude and depth of Broadway’s artificial reinforced concrete and steel structures.

  4. Interesting post, Agnes. Although I am not a musician, often I have worked very closely with them on numerous Broadway productions – including a few revivals – since the 1980s. To supplement the great collections at the LOC, I cannot imagine doing a project about the Broadway musical without visiting, exploring, or reaching out to some of the resources available in New York City.

    For example, The New York Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center (at Lincoln Center); or

    The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization (established in 1944) – an e-mail link to their President, Ted Chapin, is on their website; or

    Local 802 AFM (Associated Musicians of Greater New York). Local 802 represents the musicians who perform the scores heard by Broadway audiences present and past. Local 802 also represents “librarians” on Broadway musical productions who are key (especially during orchestra rehearsals and preview performances), to ensuring that each player has the most current part for his or her chair. From time to time, I encounter one of the “old-timers” who were around and possibly performed – during its original Broadway run – one of the scores you are researching. Seymour “Red” Press is one legend who comes to mind; or

    Historic Broadway theaters themselves, several built during the 1920s. As each so-called “musical house” may slightly differ from others, so can its orchestra pit, both in size and shape. Production styles change over the years, and it is not uncommon for modern Broadway orchestra pits to be covered – at least partially; but in recent Broadway revivals such as Porgy and Bess, and West Side Story, large orchestras played rich orchestrations in open, good size pits, where classic musicals preceded them.

    Good luck.

  5. I think it’s obvious to pleope who know me (either through the internet or RL) are going to guess that I’ll be moved by a song like I Believe. But the amazing thing about it is how it can really apply to any religion (and it’s true for the show, as well.) Or it can shed light on how a believer feels to the non-believer. I think you’re absolutely right that knowledge of the religion isn’t essential by any means. It just makes certain jokes resonate more, but won’t take away from any enjoyment without that.I hope the original cast stays through the first full year (and not just so I can see them again) but whomever comes in to replace is going to be excellent, I’m sure. They’ve already shown how clever the casting department is, you know?<3 (And I'm glad I got to see it with such fine company, as well.)

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