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Elliot Lawrence, award-winning conductor, dies at 96
A pianist by training, Lawrence was a leader from a young age, forming a youth ensemble, the Band Busters, at age 12. In his 20s, he started Elliot Lawrence and His Orchestra, which was voted the most promising new big band in Billboard’s college polls in 1947 and 1948.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Elliot Lawrence, who after leading a big band in the 1940s and ’50s won a Tony Award for his conducting on Broadway and spent nearly a half-century in charge of the orchestra that plays on the Tonys’ annual broadcast, died July 2 in the New York City borough of Manhattan. He was 96.

His son Jamie confirmed the death, at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

A pianist by training, Lawrence was a leader from a young age, forming a youth ensemble, the Band Busters, at age 12. In his 20s, he started Elliot Lawrence and His Orchestra, which was voted the most promising new big band in Billboard’s college polls in 1947 and 1948.

His later work as conductor of the Tony Awards orchestra — a job he got because of his success on Broadway and in television — earned him two Emmy Awards.

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

The big-band era was waning after World War II, but Lawrence’s orchestra found success playing colleges, proms and concerts. In 1949 alone, it traveled 65,000 miles.

The band’s members variously included saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, who wrote some of its arrangements, and trumpeter Red Rodney. It performed at the Paramount Theater in Manhattan and at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles.

“He knew how to rehearse, and he had great ears,” Joe Soldo, who played saxophone for Lawrence’s band from 1949 to 1951, said by phone. “He had instrumentation, like a separate oboe and a French horn. He brought classical input to his arrangements.”

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

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

He occasionally reassembled the band 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 then he had begun to find work in television. In 1959, he conducted a 42-piece orchestra that TV host Ed Sullivan took to the Soviet Union.

While there, one of the many performers on the trip, choreographer Gower Champion, asked Lawrence to be the musical director of “Bye Bye Birdie,” which Champion was directing and which was to open on Broadway the next year.

Lawrence was conducting the “Bye Bye Birdie” orchestra — on his way to a Tony nomination — when composer Frank Loesser hired him for the same job on his new musical, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” which opened in October 1961.

Their collaboration proved fruitful. Lawrence won a Tony, one of seven that the show received, including best musical and best actor (Robert Morse).

Elliot Lawrence Broza was born Feb. 14, 1925, in Philadelphia. His father, Stan Lee Broza, was a founder and executive of the local radio station WCAU. He and Elliot’s mother, Esther (Malis) Broza, produced the long-running variety show “The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour” on radio and later on television.

Elliot began taking piano lessons at age 3. In 1930 he contracted polio, which impacted his fingers and neck, but he recovered and began playing again, and at 10 he was accompanying his mother when she sang tunes from the Great American Songbook at parties in their home.

He went on to perform with the Band Busters on his parents’ “Children’s Hour.” At 16, he entered the University of Pennsylvania on a music scholarship and became student director of the marching band, writing, he recalled, jazz arrangements for the school’s fight songs when the football team faced Army in a sold-out game at Franklin Field in Philadelphia.

After graduating in 1944 with a bachelor’s degree in music, he took over WCAU’s house band, which played live on the air. He formed his big band a year later. Around that time, he changed his surname to Lawrence and made Broza his middle name.

In 1949, as a veteran bandleader of 24, he was focused on the music as well as the business of overseeing a touring group of 17 members, including two singers, that was grossing $300,000 a year but losing money nevertheless because of salaries, transportation, uniforms, booking-agency fees and other costs.

“You can see it isn’t a way to get rich quick,” Lawrence told The Kansas City Star, adding, “My father is my business manager. I don’t have to worry about my money being stolen.”

The big-band work yielded to conducting on Broadway, where, after “How to Succeed,” he was the musical director of eight more shows, including “1776,” which opened in 1969. By then, he was a year into his run as conductor of the Tony Awards orchestra, a gig that would last until 2013.

In addition to the Emmys he won for his work on the Tonys, Lawrence also won Emmys for his musical direction of the TV specials “’S Wonderful, ’S Marvelous, ’S Gershwin” (1972), a tribute to George and Ira Gershwin, and “Night of 100 Stars” (1982), an all-star variety show celebrating the centennial of The Actors Fund of America.

His TV credits include writing music for soap operas such as “The Edge of Night,” for which he won two Daytime Emmys, and two "ABC Afterschool Special" programs, which earned him two more Daytime Emmys.

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

“Paddy Chayefsky came into the edit room and said, ‘I don’t want to hear music,’” Jamie Lawrence said, referring to the film’s screenwriter. “He only wanted dialogue.”

“My dad,” he added, “was very proud of that score.”

In addition to Jamie, 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 broadcast, recalled Lawrence as a gentlemanly leader of the orchestra until he was nearly 90.

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

Kirschner added: “Think of doing that when you’re 88.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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