'South Pacific' orchestrator earns lifetime honor

With “South Pacific” clocking the season’s second-highest number of nominations, it’s fitting that the late orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett will be honored with a special Tony Award for his historic contribution to American musical theater.

The downsizing trend in Broadway orchestras makes it a rare thrill for theatergoers to experience Bennett’s 60-year-old arrangements as they are being performed in the smash revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic at the Vivian Beaumont. The full-sized 30-piece orchestra receives a nightly ovation as the musicians are spectacularly revealed during the overture in a feat of theatrical legerdemain.

Bennett is considered “the president of the orchestrators” by his peers, with two hundred-plus Broadway credits that include Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” and “Music in the Air” (both of which are slated for New York performances using Bennett’s original charts); George and Ira Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy” and “Of Thee I Sing”; Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” and “Kiss Me, Kate”; Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music”; Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun”; and Lerner & Loewe’s “My Fair Lady.”

Bennett’s first Broadway credit was for incidental music in a 1921 production of “Macbeth” starring Lionel Barrymore. In addition to “South Pacific,” his orchestrations were heard last weekend in a New York Philharmonic concert staging of Lerner & Loewe’s “Camelot.”

Bennett died in 1981, and the orchestration Tony wasn’t instated until 1997. He was personally on hand to receive a special Tony Award in 1957 for his body of work, as well as an Oscar in 1955 and an Emmy in 1965.

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