Professor Bill Elliott Wins Tony Award for Hit Broadway Musical

By 
Kimberly Ashton
July 17, 2015
Christopher Wheeldon (left), the director of an American in Paris, with Bill Elliott, who won a Tony for the show's orchestrations.
Bill Elliott and his daughter, Kate, at the Tony Awards.
A scene from 'An American in Paris,' courtesy of the production

One of the keys to success in today’s music industry, Bill Elliott tells his students, is to stay adaptable and open: acquire fundamental skills and be ready to use them in unforeseen ways when the opportunities arise.

For Elliott, a professor in Berklee’s Contemporary Writing and Production Department, this flexibility has allowed him to shift from keyboardist to songwriter to Hollywood composer and Broadway orchestrator. It’s earned him Grammy, Tony, and Emmy nominations, and, in June, a Tony Award.

Elliott, who started working in the theater five years ago, was honored for his orchestrations for the Broadway hit An American in Paris, a musical written by George and Ira Gershwin that director Christopher Wheeldon reimagined for the stage in 2014, with Rob Fisher as its musical arranger.

Elliott shares the Best Orchestrations award with An American in Paris’ two other orchestrators, Don Sebesky and Christopher Austin, but said he felt like he was accepting it on behalf of the show’s entire music department.

Winning the Tony and going on stage, he says, was “an out-of-body-experience.” “I feel like I was just lucky to be on this ride,” he says. “They swept us backstage and I walked past the Tony orchestra, and I know half the players there, so they were waving and cheering for me.”

Building His Theater Chops

Elliott first came to the production in March 2015, four months after it opened in Paris. Wheeldon needed someone to change the music for the Broadway production. Elliott was the show’s third orchestrator and worked on nearly half the music of the final production. “I felt like I was hired to put the ‘American’ in An American in Paris,” he says.

He prepared for the job the way he used to arrange and compose for television and film, by studying the videos.

“I pick up on what the actors are doing, what the movement is, what the dramatic purpose of it is. So it’s more than just taking the notes and assigning them to an instrument. My work as an orchestrator is about bringing the emotions to life that are there and that are trying to be there,” he says.

But unlike songs for television or albums, which are finalized when recorded, music in the theater continues to evolve as the show changes, especially during the month or so of previews that typically run before a Broadway show officially premieres. Throughout the preview process, the show’s crew is watching the audience to see which bits work and which don’t, and adjusting the performance accordingly.

“So we’re rewriting, the orchestrations are changing, and it’s partly because the dance numbers might change,” Elliott says.

It’s this opportunity to make his work better that Elliott loves about the theater, which he says is now his favorite genre to write for, but one that he scarcely imagined being a part of half a decade ago, despite the turns his career had taken over the years. 

Elliott moved to Los Angeles after high school and first worked as a pianist and keyboardist (playing in Bonnie Raitt’s band) and later as a composer, arranger, and orchestrator for film and television. In 2004, he came to Berklee and also began arranging for the Boston Pops and New York Pops, while also working on other projects.

In 2008, he worked with the singer Michael Feinstein to produce the album The Sinatra Project. The record made an impression on Tita Cahn, who is the widow of Sammy Cahn, one of Frank Sinatra’s songwriters. Tita Cahn was producing a theater production of Robin and the 7 Hoods at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego in 2010 and asked Elliott to orchestrate it. Through that show, he met contacts that led him to other theater gigs.

“I have continued to reinvent myself as a musician,” he says. “I have a career in the theater that I never imagined as recently as five or six years ago … I feel lucky, but I also feel like I have found new ways to apply the skills that I had developed in the past.”

Elliott just finished another Gershwin musical, Damsel in Distress, in England, and is lined up to orchestrate a new musical called Bandstand in New Jersey this fall.