William David Brohn, MSU alumnus and award-winning orchestrator, died May 11 at the age of 84.
Brohn was best known for his work on Broadway shows such as "Wicked," "Miss Saigon" and "Mary Poppins." After graduating from MSU in 1955, Brohn went on to earn his Masters in Composition from the New England Conservatory of Music. From there, he became a leading orchestrator in the music and theater industries, even winning a Tony Award for Best Orchestrations in 1998 for his work on "Ragtime."
As an MSU graduate, Brohn often returned to MSU as a visiting professor and member of the College of Music’s National Leadership Council. In 1996, he was awarded a honorary doctorate in fine arts from MSU, and was the Grand Marshall of the 2015 MSU Homecoming Parade.
Brohn was born in Flint, Michigan on March 30, 1933. According to James Forger, the Dean of the College of Music and Brohn’s close friend, his passion for music began there.
“A young man from Flint who maybe his family thought that he should go into the automotive industry but he had a passion for music," Forger said. "And he had a music teacher who said, 'What do you really want to do?' And he said, 'I want a life in music,' and she encouraged him to do that.”
Forger described Brohn as a dedicated educator who encouraged students to follow their dreams, no matter what they are.
"I think that (Brohn) was always supportive of having the college come up with new programs that were practical and could assist students in developing multiple skill-sets in the arts to make a life in music," Forger said. "So he was very encouraging that we would establish what we call our running start program, or career readiness, and I think that’s a legacy to where his focus was. It was student-centered, how can you support students? How can you support them not with where you think they should go, but with where they want to go."
Forger described Brohn as a “household name in the music industry,” which is arguably why even those who didn’t know him personally honored him following his passing.
“It’s easy to talk about Bill Brohn,” Forger said.
London-based music director Jordan Li-Smith, who has worked on his own production of "Ragtime," recalled looking up to Brohn as an aspiring musician.
“The soundtrack that everyone was listening to was 'Wicked.' And, if you were as musically inclined as myself, you would have a look in the CD sleeve, and you would find that William David Brohn did the orchestrations of that … and you’ll start looking things up," Li-Smith said. "You see the other shows that he’s done, the big ones like 'Miss Saigon,' 'The Secret Garden.' What he could do, he’s a genius, he really is a genius and he brought to Broadway his trademark sound.”
Li-Smith gathered green garments and tinsel from the costume closet at his latest show, “The Grand Hotel,” and “greenified” the pit in honor of his favorite orchestrator’s work on "Wicked."
“We thought it’d be a fun way of remembering him, if we just wear some green clothing, stick some green tinsel around the pit, just to make it a little bit brighter on a hard day,” Li-Smith said.
Christopher Jahnke, who has orchestrated shows such as “Legally Blonde” and the new “Les Miserables,” was Brohn’s apprentice for over 18 years. Before they met, Brohn was his idol and the two became close friends throughout the years of Brohn’s mentorship.
“I never dreamed I’d ever get to meet him or shake his hand," Jahnke said. "I would have been happy just meeting him and shaking his hand, telling him how much I enjoyed his work."
As for actually working side-by-side with Brohn, Jahnke said he was stern due to the nature of the job.
"When it came to the work, he was very strict and meticulous, and that’s how you have to be when you’re an orchestrator, there’s very little room for error," Jahnke said. "I think he took me on as an assistant and apprentice because I was sort of the same personality when it came to it.”
Similar to his work with students at MSU, Brohn encouraged Jahnke to pursue his musical talent in unconventional ways by doing so in his own work.
“He always took risks and created a very very unique sound for every project that he had ever orchestrated," Jahnke said. "For example, if you listen to 'Miss Saigon' or you listen to 'Crazy for You' or you listen to 'The Secret Garden,' you couldn’t find three more contrasting pieces, and you would never believe that the same orchestrator orchestrated all three. He doesn’t just find a language he uses all the time and then repeats it, he creates an entirely new and unique sound for everything he’s ever written … I’ve taken that on as well, for myself through his mentorship.”
As for how he'll remember his mentor, Jahnke said he will always use the same pencil Brohn used.
“I still handwrite my scores, I don’t use a computer program," Jahnke said. "When I started working for him, he would always come down hard on me for the handwriting … I know it sounds funny but it’s true, I will always use 0.9 mm 2B lead. That’s the lead I’ve been using for 20 years.”
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