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Elliot Lawrence, Award-Winning Conductor, Dies at 96

Elliot Lawrence, Award-Winning Conductor, Dies at 96
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Elliot Lawrence, Award-Winning Conductor, Dies at 96

Elliot Lawrence, Award-Winning Conductor, Dies at 96

Elliot Lawrence, who after leading a big band in the 1940s and 1950s won a Tony Award for conducting on Broadway and has spent nearly half a century leading the orchestra that performs on the annual show of the Tonys, died July 2 in Manhattan. He was 96 years old.

His son Jamie confirmed the death at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

A pianist by training, Mr. Lawrence was a leader from an early age, forming a youth ensemble, the Band Busters, at the age of 12. In his twenties, he founded Elliot Lawrence and His Orchestra, which was voted the most promising new big band in the Billboard University polls in 1947 and 1948.

His later work as the conductor of the Tony Awards Orchestra – a job he got due to his success on Broadway and television – earned him two Emmy Awards.

“He was the happiest in front of an orchestra,” said Jamie Lawrence, who is also a musician and conductor.

The big band era waned after World War II, but Mr. Lawrence’s orchestra found success playing at colleges, proms, and concerts. In 1949 alone, he covered 65,000 miles.

Band members included saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, who wrote some of his arrangements, and trumpeter Red Rodney. He has performed at the Paramount Theater in Manhattan and the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles.

“He knew how to rehearse and he had big ears,” said Joe Soldo, who played saxophone for Mr. Lawrence’s band from 1949 to 1951. “He had instrumentation, like a separate oboe and a French horn,” said over the phone. . He made a classic contribution to his arrangements.

But Mr. Lawrence decided to stop touring in 1954 after a trombone player in his band, Ollie Wilson, gave him bad news about some of the other musicians.

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“He came over to me one night on the road and said, ‘El, I’m sorry to tell you this, but of the 16 guys in the group, 14 were junkies.’ Only Ollie and I were clean, ”Lawrence recalls in a 2009 interview with his alma mater’s alumni magazine, the University of Pennsylvania.

He occasionally brought the group together in various configurations to record albums, including “Elliot Lawrence Plays Gerry Mulligan Arrangements” (1955), “Swinging at the Steel Pier” (1956) and “Jazz Goes Broadway” (1957).

By this time he had started to find work in television. In 1959 he conducted a 42-piece orchestra which TV host Ed Sullivan took to the Soviet Union.

While there, one of the many artists on the trip, choreographer Gower Champion, asked Mr. Lawrence to be the musical director of “Bye Bye Birdie”, which Mr. Champion was conducting and which was to open at Broadway the following year.

Mr. Lawrence was conducting the “Bye Bye Birdie” orchestra – en route to a Tony nomination – when composer Frank Loesser hired him for the same job on his new musical, “How to be successful in business without really trying.” which opened in October 1961.

Their collaboration proved fruitful. Mr. Lawrence won a Tony, one of seven the series received, including Best Musical and Best Actor (Robert Morse).

Elliot Lawrence Broza was born February 14, 1925 in Philadelphia. His father, Stan Lee Broza, was one of the founders and directors of the local radio station WCAU. He and Elliot’s mother, Esther (Malis) Broza, produced the longtime variety show “The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour” on radio and later on television.

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Elliot started taking piano lessons at the age of 3. In 1930 he contracted polio, which affected his fingers and neck, but recovered and started playing again. At age 10, he accompanied his mother when she sang tunes from the Great American Songbook at parties at their house.

He then performed with the Band Busters on his parents’ “Kid Time”. At 16, he entered the University of Pennsylvania on a music scholarship and became student principal of the marching band, writing, he recalls, jazz arrangements for the school’s fight songs when the team footballer faced the Army in a sold-out game at Franklin Field in Philadelphia. .

After graduating with a Bachelor of Music in 1944, Mr. Lawrence took over WCAU’s house band, which performed live on the airwaves. He formed his big band a year later. Around this time, he changed his last name to Lawrence and made Broza his middle name.

In 1949, as a 24-year-old veteran conductor, he focused on music as well as supervising a 17-member touring group, including two singers, who were making $ 300,000 a year but losing nonetheless. money because of wages, transportation, uniforms, booking agency fees and other charges.

“You can see that’s not a get-rich-quick way,” Lawrence told the Kansas City Star, adding, “My dad is my business manager. I don’t have to worry about my money being stolen.

Big band work gave way to conducting on Broadway, where, after “How to Succeed”, he served as the musical director of eight other shows, including “1776”, which opened in 1969. At that point, he was a year into his run as the conductor of the Tony Awards Orchestra, a concert that would last until 2013.

In addition to the Emmys he won for his work on the Tonys, Mr. Lawrence has also won Emmys for his musical direction of the television specials “‘S Wonderful,’ S Marvelous, ‘S Gershwin”, a tribute to George and Ira Gershwin in 1972, and “Night of 100 Stars” (1982), a featured variety show celebrating the centennial of the Actors’ Fund of America.

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His television credits include writing music for soap operas like “The Edge of Night”, for which he won two Daytime Emmys and two ABC Afterschool Specials, which earned him two more Daytime Emmys.

He also wrote the music for the opening sequence of “The French Connection” (1971) and “Network” (1976). But most of his “Network” score was cut, Jamie Lawrence said.

“Paddy Chayefsky walked into the editing room and said, ‘I don’t want to hear any music,'” Mr. Lawrence said, referring to the film’s screenwriter. “He only wanted dialogue.

“My father,” he added, “was very proud of this score.”

Besides his son Jamie, Mr. Lawrence is survived by his daughters, Alexandra and Mia Lawrence; another son, Danny; and five grandchildren. His wife, Amy (Bunim) Lawrence, died in 2017.

Ricky Kirschner, executive producer of the Tonys show, recalled that Mr. Lawrence was a gentleman conductor until he was 90 years old.

“Think about it,” he said over the phone. “It’s a three hour show, with 15 performances, and you have to arrange and rehearse the music for every possible winner. And when they say who’s the winner, you have to be quick enough to act while the director is in your ear, telling you to cut off after 20 or 30 seconds.

He added: “Consider doing this when you are 88.”

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