AMERICAN THEATER | Bruce Pomahac: attention to detail and good stories

Bruce Pomahac.

Bruce Pomahac came into my office with something to show me. As Music Director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization – a position that, frankly, was created around him and his unique talents – he was restoring South Pacific. An accomplished musician, he had found an error in Bar 97 of the Overture: the melody of “A Wonderful Guy” was wrong. After reviewing all of the existing musical material in our archives as well as the sheet music that Richard Rodgers donated to the Library of Congress, he discovered that the error existed as early as Robert Russell Bennett’s original score. Should we fix it?

This attention to detail was only part of what made Bruce Pomahac an invaluable member of staff. We were lucky to have him under our roof, but there was hardly anyone connected with the New York musical theater scene who didn’t know him, love him, and trust his judgment. Following Bruce’s death on April 30 at the age of 73, former senior vice president of Jujamcyn, Jack Viertel, said Bruce “knew more, had better taste and a more sincere love for comedies.” musical than almost anyone I’ve ever met”.

Bruce was at an orchestra rehearsal and heard a false note that none of us noticed. He had killer ears. He saved the day at the Lincoln Center Theater when an academic “critical edition” of the score of my lovely lady proved unusable. He provided invaluable insight, often remarking that “sometimes you just have to let the music do what the music does”, and was also good company: smart, funny, passionate.

I first met him through a classmate to whom he had been an inspiration. We have become friends. He was there at every important moment in my family’s life, from our wedding to the birth of our two daughters, and he managed to create a unique relationship with each of us. I enjoyed watching members of the Rodgers and Hammerstein families come to love and respect him.

He was one of our silent weapons at R&H. People tend to think of licensing houses as acting like police – and indeed, sometimes we have to. But Bruce wanted to solve problems. When the Bard College/Daniel Fish production of Oklahoma! started, they wanted a bluegrass orchestration. As we did in situations like that, we insisted that they first take a song and orchestrate it the way they wanted. It was not good. So Bruce sat down with the musical team and walked them through how to get their bluegrass feel while sticking to the essence of Rodgers’ score.

Growing up in South Milwaukee, Bruce began his love of musicals in high school. He was naturally gifted; after his death, I found an album among his papers with local newspaper articles describing him as a young musical prodigy. He never saw it that way; he just saw something he could do and loved. He studied every show put on by the school and learned what made each one work. He became an arranger and musical director for a group called the Brothers and Sisters, a kind of non-religious Up With People. They were often called upon to perform in “industrials”, original musical productions created for companies with products to sell and sales forces to inspire. In their heyday, industrialists offered good ways for creators of musicals to practice their craft. Bruce has conceived, written, arranged, orchestrated and conducted numerous works over the years. (One of his for the Ford Motor Company made his way into the wonderful movie Baths on Broadway.)

His secret, he told me, was finding the right stories, which were never the ones the company’s management thought were right. He and I were producing a low-paid but high-class “industrialist” for the advertising department of The New York Times, who had gone through the rigors of a comprehensive management consultation by the notoriously tough McKinsey & Company, and was in shock. McKinsey had a history of controversial consultancies that left companies on their knees, and the previous year McKinsey was known to have mishandled Sears Roebuck. So for the Time show, Bruce wrote a song in which a secretary confesses that she had secretly fallen in love with her man McKinsey. One lyric: “If he kissed me once right behind my ears, if he made me feel like I haven’t felt in years, if he did to me what he did to Sears!” Bruce was good.

Indeed, his first dream was to write musicals. He worked with Joshua Logan on a finn blueberry adaptation, but it went no further than a summer production in Louisiana. Working at Rodgers and Hammerstein has proven to be the right job for the right person at the right time. There’s no better legacy than the recording we made of allegrothat he produced, impeccably.

We decided to leave this error in the South Pacific opening, by the way. We thought Rodgers and Bennett had their reasons. Why guess two geniuses?

Ted Chapin is a producer, performer, presenter and former president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.

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