Obituary – Bill Brohn, American orchestrator and musical arranger

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 20.59.28By special arrangement – a tribute to the American orchestrator and musical arranger BILL BROHN (30 March 1933-11 May 2017).

William David Brohn (Bill Brohn), the doyen of musical arrangers and orchestrators of musical and dance shows on Broadway and in London’s West End for a period of more than 50 years, has died at the age of 84.

It could be said that he was partly responsible for the success of some of the most popular shows of the last half century, including Miss Saigon, Crazy for You, High Society, The Witches of Eastwick, Mary Poppins, Wicked, and revivals of Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, Oliver!, Porgy and Bess, My Fair Lady, Show Boat, Barnum, and Half a Sixpence. For his work on Ragtime Brohn won a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award too. In his time he also won Drama Desk Awards for The Secret Garden and Miss Saigon.

Brohn had the enviable knack of being able to work on practically any style of music and, apart from US and UK musicals, his CV also took in ballet music (which he conducted early in his career); orchestrations for popular solo artists such as Liza Minnelli; classical and operatic arrangements for the likes of Placido Domingo, Marilyn Horne, Renée Fleming and Frederica von Stade; solo arrangements for flautist James Galway and violinist Joshua Bell; and also for conductors including André Previn, John Williams and Keith Lockhart. Brohn also worked with high-profile American orchestras including the Boston Pops, the Cleveland and the Hollywood Bowl.

William David Brohn was born in Flint, Michigan and studied at Michigan State University from where, in 1996, he received an honorary Doctorate in Fine Art. He went on to study composition at the New England Conservatory and then Tanglewood and Salzburg.

He was also mentored by composer and arranger Robert Russell Bennett, himself a musical doyen in his time celebrated for orchestrations of music by Gershwin, Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern and Frederick Loewe etc.

Brohn’s early career was taken up by conducting ballet music for the Joffrey Ballet, American Theater Ballet, Twyla Tharp, Agnes de Mille and for the Royal Ballet when they toured the US.

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 21.13.29From the mid-1970s he began to work on musical theatre shows including Timbuktu, a revival of Brigadoon, Marilyn at the National Theatre, and the first Cameron Mackintosh production of Miss Saigon in 1989.

He then continued to work with Mackintosh on future shows including Carousel, Oliver!, Martin Guerre, Oklahoma!, The Witches of Eastwick, South Pacific, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins and Half a Sixpence etc.

Paying tribute to his friend, Mackintosh told WhatsOnStage: “Bill Brohn blew into my life 30 years ago when I was preparing Miss Saigon and we immediately become close friends and musical collaborators on many of my productions.

“His spirit was as extraordinary as his prodigious musical talents and his ability to use individual instruments as characters in a score elevated his orchestrations to the highest level of musical art. He was also one of the kindest and most humble human beings I’ve ever known.

“We will all miss him terribly as he has enriched the lives of everyone who has known him both on and off the stage. Half a Sixpence was the final score he orchestrated last year and it had all the unstoppable vigour, joy and invention of a 20 year old. His pen may have finally been put to rest, but his glorious orchestrations remain timeless and like his memory, will lift our spirits forever.”

Not only did Bill Brohn work almost exclusively for the theatre, but he also found time to orchestrate film scores such as Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible for audio recordings, David Newman’s score for the animated musical film of Anastasia, and three films by John Badham, Whose Life Is It Anyway?, War Games and Blue Thunder.

Without the historical continuity with the classic musical theatre composers of the past that Bill Brohn had, it is doubtful that there could be anybody to replace his very individual talents and experience.

However, he was given a tribute in 2009 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the form of a concert of his work on some of the great musicals of our time. It was conducted by Brohn’s own protégé Chris Jahnke, who already looks to be, if one were needed, the ideal replacement to further the talents of the great Bill Brohn.

Michael Darvell


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