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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SID RAMIN! By Peter Filichia

Sid Ramin’s birthday is apparently approaching – but when?

Depending on what you read, the orchestrator might be 100 on
January 22nd, as Wikipedia claims. Or is Ramin a mere ninety-five, as
says the website for Columbia University where many of Ramin’s
papers are stored?

There’s a third possibility which I’m most inclined to believe because
it comes from musical theater savant Steven Suskin. He’s the author
of many indispensable books, including THE SOUND OF BROADWAY
MUSIC, which concentrates on orchestrators.

(It’s given me much of the information on Ramin that I’ll cite here).

So if Suskin says that Sid Ramin was born on January 19, 1922, I’ll
trust him.

What we DO know for certain is that Ramin, although not one of
Broadway most prolific orchestrators, was one of its best.

Why else would Leonard Bernstein entrust him to orchestrate so
much of WEST SIDE STORY? No, Ramin didn’t do it all – Irwin Kostal
was on the payroll, too, and Bernstein served his own musical as
well. But Suskin reports that “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere” both in
song and ballet were Ramin, as was most of the searing “Prologue,”
the pulsating “Jet Song,” the evocative “Something’s Coming,” the
tension-filled “Rumble” and the oom-pah-pah’ing “Gee, Officer
Krupke.”

(As Snoopy croons in CHARLIE BROWN: “Not bad. Not bad at all.”)

When so many of us first listened to SAY, DARLING we automatically
assumed that we were hearing what audiences had encountered
during the show’s 1958-59 Broadway run. Not at all: SAY, DARLING was actually a backstage comedy that made space for a few snippets
of songs that were accompanied by a couple of pianos and a combo.

In those days when adults were buying albums and their children
could only afford 45s, Broadway musicals sold big-time. In between
RCA Victor’s success with JAMAICA and the soundtrack of DAMN
YANKEES
, someone with the label decided that money could be made
if Ramin (on the label’s staff, anyway) were to flesh out SAY,
DARLING
, fully orchestrate the numbers and create at least an album
that at least sounded like A Great Big Broadway Show.

SAY, DARLING’s composer Jule Styne was so impressed with Ramin’s
work that he enlisted him as one of the orchestrators on his next
show: GYPSY.

No, Ramin didn’t do as much as his mentor Robert “Red” Ginzler did
on the “musical fable.” Nevertheless, Ramin had the idea to start the
overture (often cited as Broadway’s best-ever) with the “I had a
dream” notes. He also suggested that following the majestic-
sounding opening that a slide-whistle come in. It showed that GYPSY
would also be a freewheeling show that wouldn’t neglect burlesque.

Ramin also asked for four trumpets rather than the usual two, which
is why the orchestra could bump it with trumpets more than other
shows of the day. He then ensured an amusing moment in “You
Gotta Get a Gimmick.” After Faith Dane’s Mazeppa sang “That’s how
burlesque was born,” trumpeter extraordinaire Dick Perry came in
with his silver-plated wah-wah mute and made a sound as dirty as an
off-off-Broadway bathroom.

Not that Ramin got his way on everything. Suskin reports that Styne
didn’t like the section of the overture that included the
“Caroline/Cow” melody. You’ve undoubtedly noticed that you’ve
never heard it, for the composer always rules in such situations. So,
as Suskin reports “a mere four-beat tympani roll took its place.”

GYPSY wasn’t the only 1959 original cast album on which Ramin is
represented; his expertise can also be heard on REDHEAD, although
he didn’t work on the show. Suskin suggests that Philip J. Lang did “Pick-Pocket Tango” for the production but for whatever reason, Ramin was asked to re-orchestrate it for the recording.

Ramin does get credit for it in REDHEAD’s liner notes, but perhaps
we don’t give enough credit to orchestrators. So let’s rectify that to at
least some degree here and praise some others who didn’t merely
pay attention to the music but took their cues from lyrics, too.

Note what Philip J. Lang did in I DO! I DO!’s “Nobody’s Perfect.” After
Michael said to Agnes “Now this, as you know, is a statement from
the bank,” Lang had his orchestra members play six quick notes at
full force – the most forcefully they’d play in the entire show, in fact
– to establish the grave importance of that financial institution. And
in HELLO, DOLLY’S “So Long, Dearie,” after our heroine warned
Horace “Don’t you come a-knockin’ on my door,” Lang followed that
by four knocks in tempo. 

Ted Royal obviously liked when a lyric was a bit ribald.
In HAPPY HUNTING’s “The Wedding of the Year,” one reporter
covering Grace Kelly’s wedding snarled that “Love is a four-letter
word.” Royal had the brass roar as if outraged, for in the mid ‘50s
even the mention of a four-letter word (without the actual profanity)
was considered at the very least naughty.

Then take “Take Back Your Mink” in GUYS AND DOLLS. After Miss
Adelaide catalogued the clothes that an admirer had bought her only
to see him try “to remove them all,” Royal had a muted trumpet play
two notes that managed to sound as if they were actually speaking
the phrase “Oh-oh!”

Many moves by orchestrators make us smile. After each jokey section
of 1776’s “But, Mr. Adams,” Eddie Sauter had the brass make a point
of sounding as if it were rollicking with laughter. In the opening
number of OLIVER! the title character and his fellow orphans
dreamed of being so full of “Food, Glorious Food” that they’d
welcome indigestion – so Eric Rogers had the orchestra let out a
sound that could pass for gas passing. And in MERRILY WE ROLL
ALONG
’s “Opening Doors,” ever-so-commercial producer Joe
Josephson demanded of Franklin Shepard and Charley Kringas to “Gimme a melody.” Jonathan Tunick then had his drummer hit the cymbals three fast times to suggest the banality of the request and the conventional sound that Josephson craved.

How does an orchestrator handle a line that’s blackly comic? In
INNER CITY, the woefully underrated 1971 gritty rock musical,
“Kindness” had a line that wasn’t in tune with the song’s title: “I took
out my little nightstick and knocked out all his teeth.” Orchestrator
Gordon Harrell ameliorated the situation by having a musician go up
and down a xylophone. Somehow that managed to humorously
suggest molars, incisors and bicuspids.

You just missed Sauter’s birthday (Dec. 2), but if you’d care to plan
ahead for the others, turn your calendar to April (Lang, 17; Tunick,
19), July (Ginzler, 20), September (Royal, 6; Harrell, 10; Rogers, 25)
and October (Kostal, 1). But for the moment, let’s prepare for the
natal day of Sid Ramin.

The funny thing is, though, that despite all the credit and others
(some of WILDCAT; all of “Slap That Bass” for CRAZY FOR YOU),
Ramin never learned how to play any musical instrument.

Mr. Ramin, there may still be time. Why not start tickling the ivories
as a metaphor for all the ways you’ve tickled us over the years?

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at
www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com .
He can be heard most weeks of the year on
www.broadwayradio.com .