Talking to legendary orchestrator Jonathan Tunick becomes a quick lesson in how much has changed on Broadway during his career. A favorite of composer Stephen Sondheim, Tunick orchestrated the original productions of Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd. He also orchestrated A Chorus Line and, more recently, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. He received his tenth Tony nomination for his work on the latter, which opens tonight at the Ahmanson Theatre.
“The way this came about,” he says, “is that a colleague of mine had been hired to do the show and backed out of it because he got a Broadway show. This was just going to be six pieces at the Hartford Stage. Steven Lutvak called me and asked if I’d take it on, and I did.”
Lutvak is the composer of the music for Gentleman’s Guide and cowrote the lyrics with Robert L. Freedman. While Tunick did not win a Tony Award for his work on the show, it was named the Best Musical of 2014. (Don’t feel too bad for Tunick—he is an EGOT winner, aka someone who’s landed an Emmy, a Grammy, and Oscar and a Tony. He joins the ranks of Marvin Hamlisch, Mel Brooks, Rita Moreno, and Whoopi Goldberg.)
“I wouldn’t say I was surprised,” Tunick says of the show’s critical acclaim. “I was delighted. What makes a show succeed is a little beyond my expertise. I’ve seen shows that I thought were very worthy go down and others run for years with me scratching my head wondering why.”
Based on the novel that inspired the film Kind Hearts and Coronets, the A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder tells the story of Monty Navarro, who desperately wants to inherit the family fortune. Unfortunately, he’s eighth in line for the goods—if he wants to get his hands on the money, he has to get those hands a little dirty.
Though Gentleman’s Guide shares the theme of bloodlust with Sweeney Todd, the two are quite different. “In every case in A Gentleman’s Guide, each death is played for laughs, and we don’t really believe it.” Tunick says. “With each killing in Sweeney, you recoil in horror. It’s a classic Shakespearean tragedy with some laughs written in.”
Sondheim has said that Tunick “orchestrates for a purposes” and carries a true “sense of theatre.” Tunick is demure. “He’s described me as having a nose to the theatre, which, by the way, I’ve done nothing to deserve,” Tunick says. “But he’s absolutely right. You can smell it. You can smell a good theatrical effect. You realize I’m speaking in metaphor. You have an innate sense for it or not.”
You might think that a man as celebrated for his work as Tunick is would get to pick and choose his projects, but the state of Broadway musicals reveals a very different equation. “We are offered shows, and we’re lucky to get them,” he says. “We’re open for business—all of us. We’re in a tough, competitive, struggling business, and we’re glad to get work.”
In that sense, he’s anxious to see what the future will bring for theater in America. “I wonder if it is just a growing lack of interest in the audience,” he muses. “There are fewer people who are interested in seeing handmade things. Theatre is a handmade thing. Does that mean that the theatre as a major industry is in its waning days? Might be.”
Regardless of theater’s future, Tunick, who will be 78 next month, acknowledges there’s no place he’d rather be. “I work because I love to work,” he says. “My friends who are doctors and lawyers and stockbrokers retire because they’d rather do something else. I’ve been doing what I like to do all along. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to make a living doing what I love to do, and I have no desire to do anything else.”