Dallas — Stepping in to work with some of the best-known standards in American music for an iconic movie-turned-stage-production is no small feat. It takes someone with a keen ear, a creative mind, and a love of the classics—along with the willingness to dig their hands in and put their own mark on the work. When it came to finding the right person to tackle the Broadway orchestrations for Tony Award-winning musical An American in Paris, there was one man more than ready to take on the job.
Bill Elliott’s résumé is diverse, spanning all corners of composition, arrangement, and performance. He has been a part of the Contemporary Writing and Production department at Berklee College for the last 13 years, orchestrated for several films, television shows, productions, and groups, worked with artists like Steve Nicks, Donna Summer, and Smokey Robinson, and fronted the Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra since 1993.
We sat down with Elliott to talk about the challenges of such a project, how he approaches his work, and of course all about Gershwin ahead of the show’s run with the Dallas Summer Musicals from Jan. 31 through Feb. 12, followed by a week at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Feb. 14-19.
TheaterJones: Tell us how you got involved with An American in Paris.
Bill Elliott: I was brought in first to work on about half of the songs for the Broadway version. It is my favorite movie ever, so when I heard about it coming here, I wanted to be a part of it. There was a production in Paris first, orchestrated by Christopher Austin. The most surprising part of the show is that it is not at all a reproduction of the movie. The story is richer and deeper, and some of the songs are different. It still features the beautiful ballets, though, three total in the show. Director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is the magician behind the reimagining, and it is so beautiful and gorgeous.
The ballets had a wonderful feel to them, but overall the songs didn’t have the American jazz flavor they wanted. So I did some rewriting of the ballets, primarily to make them a little more playable and friendly, as well as changing the style a little bit. For the tour version, my job was to rewrite the orchestrations so they would sound the same as with all 19 Broadway players.
The idea was to reduce the number of players so that they could travel with a self-contained orchestra of 13 instead of picking up local players in most locations. That enables them to put on the same show everywhere they go. That was a wonderful process, and I’m very proud of that, because I feel like the 13-player version for the tour every bit lives up to the Broadway sound—and maybe even improves it a little because I had my hands on all of it, as opposed to just half.
What’s your favorite thing about the music?
It’s glorious Gershwin music, and the thing music supervisor Rob Fisher did so beautifully was to take it and restructure it for piano, reorganizing it in different ways as was done in Hollywood when they made the movie in 1951. I’ve been fortunate to work on lots of Gershwin shows—five or six in recent years—and the more I work with it the more I love it.
Because Wheeldon and Austin are both British, I feel like I had a kind of the American sensibility. You’ll hear echoes of my swing music in some of the orchestrations here and there. I brought the American flavor to the show that wasn’t there in the first version.
How did you approach working on the music?
Well, the first thing I did when I started working on the show was the song “I Got Rhythm,” which appears early in act one. I’d previously arranged it for several other productions and movies like Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, and a million other people have already done it, too. So one thing I thought about for that song, as well as the rest, was what I could do to make it feel special, and like it really belongs in this show. It is hard to say exactly what it is, but I feel like we captured something that works. I felt like for me, it’s the moment when the audience falls in love with the show. Dramatically, there are some great things that happen during the number, and it’s a wonderful song. But when you see and hear it in the show, it feels genuine. I love watching the audience see that.
One way that my Broadway orchestration is similar to my swing work is that I am very influenced by the older styles of orchestration and arranging—in MGM’s musicals from the ‘40s and ‘50s in particular. There were several popular arrangers and orchestrators back then, but the star was Conrad Salinger. I used elements of his style in a number of the songs in the show. Because the show is set in 1945, I felt like I wanted my orchestrations to have that old-fashioned element to them while also not being limited by the styles from back then. I have a sort of old-fashioned sensibility when it’s called for.
What was your biggest challenge with this project?
I would have to say the amount of time on Broadway. They have to do shows very quickly, and the way I came into it, I only had two and a half or three weeks to do nearly half of the show. That’s the job—the challenge of being an orchestrator is that the window of time is very short once you find out what has to be done, and that’s true of most Broadway shows.
One of the things I enjoyed about the tour version was that I had a very relaxed schedule. I worked on it all summer and was able to go into detail and think about it more, reflect on what we did on Broadway. In orchestration, you want to think about things, and be able to work on your second and third idea rather than charging ahead with your first one.
What do you hear most often about the show?
People are amazed at how much sound we get out of a small orchestra. I’m fortunate that one of the things I do now is write for the Boston Pops, and my friends there, including the conductor, came to see the show in Boston. They were amazed by it, and kept saying, “How did you do that? You’re a magician!” I can take some of the credit for that, but it’s also that the music itself has so much life and color and energy, that’s a big part of it.
So, we have to know…what was it like to win a Tony Award?
It was kind of a Cinderella experience, to be honest. It was the second time I was at the Tonys, as I was previously nominated for Nice Work If You Can Get It. Winning was sort of an out-of-body experience. I ran up there and we made our speeches, then they whisked us backstage and it was all kind of a blur. Carrying a Tony around on Tony night is a great icebreaker!
It was nice that the show and our work was recognized. It reminded me of the Scarecrow getting a diploma in The Wizard of Oz. When you get a Tony, people might start thinking that you know what you’re doing.