Downsizing, and then downsizing some more. For decades, that was the name of the game where Broadway pit orchestras were concerned. The rise of synthesizers and other electronics around the turn of the 21st century accelerated the trend exponentially.

Well, forget all that for a moment. From June 27 to 29, Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall will resound with Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music as you’ve never heard it before. Instead of a 27-piece ensemble, like the one that introduced the score on Broadway in 1973, there will be the 53-piece Orchestra of St. Luke’s premiering an all-new arrangement by Stephen Sondheim’s lifelong orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, who also doubles as conductor for the occasion. While the numbers still fall far short of those you’ll hear many nights at the neighboring Metropolitan Opera House (think 70 players or so for Verdi, up to 100 or more for big Wagner), such an ensemble would absolutely suffice for Handel, Gluck, and Mozart. We recently called on the master himself for greater insight into the unsung craft of the Broadway orchestrator.

Matthew Gurewitsch: People forget that, until 2003, collective-bargaining agreements required producers of Broadway musicals to employ a minimum of 24 to 26 orchestra musicians, numbers that seem generous beyond belief today. But I’m guessing that “minimum” was also the de facto maximum. True?

Tunick at home in New York.

Jonathan Tunick: I made that quip years ago, and now it keeps getting thrown back at me. Twenty-five players were standard on Broadway, except for the Winter Garden, the Broadway, and the St. James, which were larger and allowed 26, and a few “penalty houses,” such as the Broadhurst, which settled for 22 or 23. A powerful composer such as Richard Rodgers, especially when he was his own producer, could demand a few more players, but this was rare; and the extra players, who were hired on a temporary basis, were usually let go once the reviews and awards were in. Carousel apparently carried an orchestra of over 30. I find this hard to believe, but several authorities, including Don Walker himself, who did the orchestrations, insist that it is true.

M.G.: Sometimes, I’m told, original cast albums have beefed-up orchestrations, just for the recording studio. Has that ever happened with your Sondheims?

J.T.: All cast albums doubled the number of strings, as we did for the albums of Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, and Passion. After that the record producers would no longer allow it. The additional players read from extra copies of the same parts as the original section, simply enlarging the numbers of players, but playing the same parts. It was also customary to hire a standby trumpet player, as recording the entire score in one day was quite taxing, and a relief player was desirable.

M.G.: Now you’re doubling the orchestra for A Little Night Music. Are you looking for more sound? More colors? Other qualities I can’t even think of?

J.T.: The idea was to create an orchestration suitable for use in opera houses and symphony concerts, adjusting to their larger venue and making use of the increased musical resources that their larger and more complete orchestras provide. Here the arranger-orchestrator does not have to rely so much on the hard-to-learn sleight of hand and other trickery that is necessary with the smaller theater orchestra but is free to make use of not only the sheer size but greater expressive capability of a complete orchestra.

M.G.: People are forever trying to define how musicals differ from operas. Is orchestration a meaningful factor?

J.T.: No. There is little practical difference between opera and musicals. Opera uses more classical and extended forms, a more highly developed vocal technique, and makes less rigorous demands on story line and character development, whereas musicals make more use of short and popular forms, with music that may be lightweight, even trivial, and vocally less demanding. In short: in opera, there’s more music, less theater, and in musicals, more theater, less music.

M.G.: Stephen Sondheim called you the greatest orchestrator in the history of the theater, specifying that what made you so was your sense of theater. How might that manifest itself?

J.T.: I have an innate knack for the theater, which I have done nothing to deserve. Its a gift, and I am grateful for it.

M.G.: Orchestrating isn’t just re-distributing notes roughed out at the piano, right? Isn’t there a lot of composing going on there, too? With a gun to your head, how would you define your job?

J.T.: Better just shoot me.

A Little Night Music will go on at Lincoln Center, in New York, from June 27 to 29

Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii