“A Man of Notes”
By Donald H. Sanborn III
For most Broadway musicals, the “composer” creates only the songs, usually providing vocal lines with piano accompaniment. Other musicians, including an orchestrator, prepare the score for performance. The orchestrator adjusts a composition “to fit…whatever orchestral combination has been selected,” Broadway orchestrator Don Walker writes in his autobiography. In the 1940s, Webster’s Dictionary came out with a second meaning for orchestrate: “to arrange or combine so as to achieve a maximum effect.” “Then the floodgates opened and all kinds of people began to call themselves ‘orchestrators,” Walker quips. “So now I am trying to find another professional name to call myself, but it’s late.” During Broadway’s mid-century “Golden Age,” Walker orchestrated music—and theatrical institutions.
Walker (1907-1989) was born in Lambertville, New Jersey, to Thomas and Blanche (nee Basford) Walker. When not on the road during tryouts for a new musical, he spent most of his life across the Delaware, in New Hope, Pennsylvania—on an Aquetong Road farm that Walker dubbed Harmony Hill.
During his years as an accounting student at the Wharton School, Walker played tenor saxophone in his band, the Don Walker Interfraternity Five. Over a Christmas vacation, he noticed some of the titles in his father’s sheet music catalogue, including “The Waters of Minnetonka” and “From the Land of the Sky Blue Water.” Walker writes: “I thought…I’m going to try to write an orchestration for a full dance band, and I’ve got a title for it! I’ll call it ‘An Indian Rhapsody!’”
Soon he was arranging music for Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, an ensemble that produced recordings for Victor at a time when the RCA studio was in Camden, New Jersey. His earliest theatrical work entailed the orchestrations for two of the University of Pennsylvania’s Mask & Wig shows: Ruff-neck and Out of the Blues. In the early 1930s, he orchestrated radio shows for George M. Cohan and Sigmund Romberg. Walker also orchestrated May Wine, a 1935 operetta Romberg wrote with Oscar Hammerstein, as well as the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.
Walker married Audrey Langrill Simpson of Moore Park, Toronto, in 1931. They had two children: Ann (who married Yanek Liebgold), and David E. Walker. An honorary board member of the New Hope Historical Society, Ann Liebgold outlived her parents and brother; Audrey died in 2003, and David in 2012.
In 2013 Ann Liebgold published Men of Notes, her father’s memoir of his career from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, through Dorrance Publishing. In the foreword, Walker hastens to state that his wife suggested the book’s title. “Tell them about those wonderful and otherwise characters you had to work with,” she advised him.
“I remember, growing up, he was often not at home; he was out on the road with shows,” Ann Liebgold recalls. “When he did come home, we would always do something special: a trip to Virginia, or something like that. You couldn’t talk to him if he was working. He did work at home, sometimes, if he was on a show and he felt he’d been away for too long. He would bring a copyist with him, so that he could keep up with the pages that needed to be copied.” Eventually, Liebgold worked as a music copyist at Chelsea Music Services, which her father founded with copyist Mathilde Pincus.
THE BUCKS COUNTY PLAYHOUSE
In 1938, Walker was instrumental in the founding of the Bucks County Playhouse, in New Hope. “During the course of a fairly large party, a group gathered in one corner and kicked around the idea of a straw-hat theatre,” Walker remembers in his introduction for The Difference Began With the Footlights, Gilda Morigi’s history of the Playhouse. Walker and his theatrical colleagues partnered with the Hope Mill Association, a group of “public-spirited people” who had bought the mill. The Playhouse was constructed on the site of the New Hope Mills. Built in 1790, the gristmill gave the town of New Hope its name. The Playhouse was going to be named the New Hope Theatre; Walker’s recollection was that his wife Audrey suggested calling it the Bucks County Playhouse.
Asked about her memories of the theater’s inception, Ann Liebgold replies, “You have to remember, the year that was going on I was six years old. I just remember lying in the trellis that was covered with wisteria, and hearing all these people talk below, while my brother and I played Robin Hood! I remember all the work it took to get it built. As a kid growing up, my mother took us to the theater. When I was sixteen, I became an usher.”
The Bucks County Playhouse opened on July 1, 1939. Its inaugural production was Springtime for Henry; the star was Edward Everett Horton, who had a supporting role in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film Top Hat. “There was an interesting article at the time, ‘Ground is Broken in New Hope for a New Experimental Theater,’” notes Alexander Fraser, the Playhouse’s current Producing Director. “The founding mission of the Playhouse was to give young new playwrights a chance to spread their wings.”
Fraser continues, “Of course, it quickly became famous for star-driven summer stock productions. In some cases they were new plays, and some were beloved chestnuts. I think originally [the productions] just were plays, but I know that Kitty Carlisle, for instance, did a production of Lady in the Dark, which her husband [Moss Hart] wrote, at the Playhouse. That was probably in the late 1940s. So musicals were added as time went on.”
Of Walker’s involvement, Fraser says, “He was very active in the operations, and served on the board of directors. In 1949, he was involved in the building of the Playhouse Inn, which is now being recreated just next door to the Playhouse.” In addition to his administrative role Walker also wrote for the theater, composing and scoring The Bucks County Revue and Mistress of the Inn.
MUSIC THEATRE INTERNATIONAL
In 1952, Walker co-founded Music Theatre International with composer Frank Loesser, for whom he orchestrated The Most Happy Fella. Originally called Music Theatre Incorporated, the company was conceived when Walker noticed that many scores held by Tams-Witmark, another licensing house, were incomplete.
In The Sound of Broadway Music: a Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations, Steven Suskin notes that Walker initially suggested the idea of a new licensing house to Richard Rodgers, for whom he updated the orchestrations of Pal Joey, On Your Toes, and Babes in Arms. Rodgers co-founded what would become the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization—but without Walker. Frank Loesser, however, had a catalogue of shows ready for licensing, including Guys and Dolls, so he partnered with Walker.
“By 1957, Loesser—who preferred to personally control his several businesses—bought out Walker,” Suskin writes. It was Loesser who changed the name of the company to Music Theatre International. Asked whether her father regretted selling his share, Ann Liebgold replies, “I don’t think so. I never heard a word about that.”
A MAN OF NOTES
Walker’s Broadway career spanned six decades. He contributed orchestrations for By Jupiter by Rodgers & Hart, and Carousel by Rodgers & Hammerstein. Other shows he worked on include Damn Yankees, The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, and Cabaret. Walker continued working until 1981, orchestrating early scores by Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Stephen Schwartz.
In addition to his orchestration work, Walker was a composer in his own right. He wrote Memphis Bound, a swing version of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta HMS Pinafore, as well as Courtin’ Time.
Steven Suskin writes, “This seems as good a time as any to talk about Walker’s crusty demeanor…many Broadway people were in awe of Walker’s reputation and thrilled to have him. But to others, he was forbidding.” Suskin quotes producer and director Harold Prince: “He was a grim presence, but he was so good. He would walk down that aisle for the orchestra call, and you’d say, ‘Oh, God, I hope it’s better than he thinks it is.’”
“People didn’t understand what a reserved person he was,” counters Ann Liebgold. “[My father] was a quiet man. He would stand and listen. He was really quite a shy person, except when it came to his music.”
When Walker wasn’t working, he hybridized gladiolas. He was the president of the North American Gladiolas Association, and a judge for the All-America Gladiolus Selections. “He hybridized to make different colors, strength, or different varieties,” Liebgold remembers. “When he was here, he was very much occupied with the hybridizing. He’d have two flowers blooming, and he was always trying to make a blue one. It’s a long procedure to develop a flower from pollen!”
Many of the shows on which Walker worked are still performed today, either in Broadway revivals or in regional and amateur productions. Revivals often commission new orchestrations, just as Walker was hired to update the arrangements for early Rodgers & Hart shows such as Pal Joey. However, Walker’s work can be heard on the original cast recordings.
Music Theatre International’s catalogue includes shows with orchestrations by Walker, including Damn Yankees and Fiddler on the Roof. It also includes more recent musicals such as Les Miserables, If/Then, and the theatrical adaptations of Disney films such as Beauty and the Beast.
“The fact that our company was created by artists—specifically musical theatre artists—who had the exceptional strength in both sides of the brain to be business people as well as creatives has played a significant part in how MTI operates today,” says Drew Cohen, the current president, in a statement. “It continues to be our privilege to represent them and their work and to present our customers with the highest quality materials possible, a tradition started by Don Walker himself over sixty years ago.”
THE BUCKS COUNTY PLAYHOUSE TODAY
Alexander Fraser says the Bucks County Playhouse’s current mission is “to serve the community, first and foremost, certainly as a nonprofit. We have an active education program; we’re thrilled to continue the Student Theater Festival, which is now in its 49th year, and brings kids from all over the region to perform and receive professional adjudication, and to participate in masterclasses in dance, voice, and acting. We’ve recently added an evening performance that parents can attend, called Best of Fest. That’s in the spring. We also do a summer program for high school students where they produce a musical they appear in, and learn what goes on backstage. And we have an internship for kids in college, who are learning skills in theater production.”
The Playhouse also has a program to encourage the development of new musicals. “We are also proud of our new musical development program, the Oscar Hammerstein Festival, which honors Hammerstein’s mentorship of Stephen Sondheim and brings young writers to New Hope to hone their skills,” Fraser continues. “This year’s Festival, which includes a benefit concert honoring Shirley Jones and hosted by Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, will be held on April 22 and 23.
The summer season begins in May with the world premiere of Clue, based on the popular film; and continues with Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story which runs May 27 to June 17; and Guys and Dolls.”