“Ev’rythin’s up to date in Kansas City.
They’ve gone about as fur as they c’n go!”
—Lyrics to “Kansas City”
Robert Bennett is one of the most prolific composers in Broadway history. He orchestrated the musical scores for more than three hundred Broadway shows, while arranging and conducting and learning to play practically every instrument in the orchestra. Broadway is his claim to fame, but he worked on several Hollywood film scores as well. His amazing amount of success in several genres puts him in the history books as one of the more successful composers and musicians of all time.
THE EARLY YEARS
Robert Russell Bennett was born on June 15, 1894, in Kansas City but spent a few of his early years on a farm just south of the city. The family moved to the farm when he was just a child with hopes that the fresh air would cure his polio. While in the country, he was home schooled, with music taking up a large portion of his education.
He showed an amazing aptitude in music early in life. At the age of three, he performed parts of a Beethoven sonata he heard his mother play on the piano. In fact, both of his parents were musicians, with his mother a piano teacher and his father a performer with the Kansas City Philharmonic. He was so well versed in every instrument that if any member of his father’s local band was absent, the younger Bennett could step in and play. When he was in his mid-twenties, Bennett moved to New York City to see if he could make it in the Big Apple.
RISE TO FAME
Bennett began working in New York soon after he arrived, primarily side jobs as a musician and copyist. World War I set him back for a few years, but it also turned out to be a stepping-stone for him. In the army, his duties included scoring musical arrangements and conducting the army bands. It kept him away from the Broadway musical scene for a while, but it did give him experience working with large bands on a tight budget.
After the war, Bennett returned to New York with greater skill and more experience. He got married and moved to Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship to study with famous composers. Four years later, he was back in New York, and he put his new skills to the test. He won a symphonic contest, which boosted his confidence, fattened his wallet, and drove him to succeed as a composer on Broadway.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
Over Bennett’s next three decades on Broadway, he scored more then three hundred arrangements for the stage, including Show Boat, Annie Get Your Gun, Kansas City, Oklahoma, and The Sound of Music. Practically everywhere you went between 1930 and 1960, you were sure to hear his arrangements. He racked up numerous honors and even had twenty-two different shows appearing on stage at the same time.
Bennett used his success on the East Coast to open doors in Hollywood during the late 1930s. He again had the magic touch to turn ordinary films—The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Swingtime—into masterpieces.
Bennett died in 1981 and left behind one of the biggest musical pedigrees in history. He rarely had to make adjustments to his arrangements, despite the fact that he churned them out at astonishing speeds. Few people outside the inner circle of music recognize his contribution to popular culture, but he was truly a musical giant that few will ever match.
*Bennett won an Oscar in 1955 for his work on Oklahoma!
*He won a Special Tony Award in 1957 for his immense body of work on Broadway.
*His first “official” appearance as a conductor was at the age of eleven.