Wally Harper

Composer/arranger best known for his work with Barbara Cook
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The Independent Online

The multi-talented musician Wally Harper was an arranger, music director, conductor and composer who worked on some of Broadway's biggest hits, including Company (1970), Irene (1973) and A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (1980), but he is probably best known for his partnership with the singer Barbara Cook, which started exactly 30 years ago.

Wally Harper, arranger, director and composer: born Akron, Ohio 8 September 1941; died New York 8 October 2004.

The multi-talented musician Wally Harper was an arranger, music director, conductor and composer who worked on some of Broadway's biggest hits, including Company (1970), Irene (1973) and A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (1980), but he is probably best known for his partnership with the singer Barbara Cook, which started exactly 30 years ago.

Last month audiences in London saw him accompanying Cook at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in their show Barbara Cook's Broadway, and could appreciate, as ever, the wonderful rapport between the singer and her accompanist.

When Cook, who had been playing ingénues on Broadway for over a decade, launched her solo career in New York in 1974, it was Harper who was her accompanist and arranger. A night-club engagement at the intimate Brothers and Sisters club led to Cook's début on the concert stage with a legendary performance at Carnegie Hall, captured by CBS Records, which proved she could command such a venue, and started a successful career for the two of them in clubs, theatres and concert halls worldwide.

Critics noted that the success was due not only to Cook's glorious voice, but the astute arrangements and direction of Harper. The New York Times critic John C. Wilson, reviewing the Carnegie Hall concert, reported,

"The Man I Love", which offers opportunities for a bravura performance, was, under the direction of Wally Harper, kept simple, clear and direct, but with the excitement of a possibly stronger projection bubbling underneath.

Harper was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1941. His mother was a music teacher, and he developed an interest in music, and a love of the piano, as a small child. By the time he was 12 he was playing in church and for other functions. After graduating from the New England Conservatory and the Juilliard School of Music, he auditioned for the Broadway arranger Buster Davis, who hired him to work on the vocal arrangements for Half a Sixpence (1965), starring Tommy Steele.

Among his many other credits were Stephen Sondheim's Company (as well as dance arrangements, he conceived the vamp for the song "Another Hundred People"), Jerry Herman's The Grand Tour (1979, musical director), Nine (1982, musical director), My One and Only (1983, dance arrangements) and Grand Hotel (1989, musical supervisor). Maury Yeston, composer of Nine and Grand Hotel, said, "Wally was one of the most skilled musicians I've known, and I learned so much from him."

Harper was also an occasional composer, and for the 1973 revival of Irene, starring Debbie Reynolds, he composed her opening number, "The World Must Be Bigger Than an Avenue" (lyrics by Jack Lloyd) plus a dance number, "The Riviera Rage". He was both musical director and writer of vocal and dance arrangements for the British musical that triumphed on Broadway, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, written by Dick Vosburgh and Frank Lazarus.

Lazarus said,

Wally was the kind of musician who understood your intentions immediately and you knew you were in safe hands. And what hands! I loved the way he played my songs. He added the occasional figuration, particularly in the vamp or the bass, to give them that extra bounce, and I copy him every time I play them. Above all, he had an instinctive sense of drama, and it is no accident that his talents flowered in the theatre, in musicals or in the Barbara Cook concerts.

When Harper teamed up with Cook in the early Seventies, the soprano, who had played leading roles in such shows as Candide, The Music Man and She Loves Me, had recently returned to the stage after dropping out of show business for several years. Cook said,

During the summer of 1973 I was touring with three other people in a concert based on the life and music of George Gershwin, and Wally came to see the show several times in different places. [The singer] Nancy Dussault, also in the cast, told me he was by far the best accompanist around.

Harper had long admired Cook's talent, and worked with her on the act they performed at Brothers and Sisters, where Herbert Breslin (Luciano Pavarotti's long-time manager) went to see them at the urging of his associate, Merle Hubbard. "He was impressed," said Cook, "and set up that first Carnegie Hall concert and got us a recording contract with CBS." Harper was to remain her musical director, accompanist and good friend for the rest of his life.

Among Harper's other achievements were the scores for the revue Sensations, performed off-Broadway, and a romantic musical, Say Yes!, set at the World's Fair of 1939-40 and staged at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 2001. As a symphony conductor, he worked with many orchestras around the world including the London Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic and the Melbourne Symphony, and he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a concert performance of The King and I, starring Cook. He performed at the White House for four administrations and had been a guest lecturer for the Juilliard School, and the Broadway Musical Theatre Project with Tel Aviv University. At the time of his death, his latest musical, based on the life of Josephine Baker, was being considered for a London production.

The albums he made with Cook remain the most palpable and enduring testament to his skills. The theme tune for the Carnegie Hall concert, "Sing a Song With Me", was written by Harper with Paul Zakrzewski. He wrote the title tune for Cook's show and album It's Better With a Band, for which he also wrote (with lyricist David Zippel), "The Ingenue", a piece of comic material tailored especially for Cook and poking wry fun at her earlier career.

The Disney Album (1988) contains some of his most felicitous arrangements. Flutes, piccolos and tubas punctuate some of the more playful numbers, and for that perky predecessor of "I Whistle a Happy Tune", "Give a Little Whistle", he has the music and the vocalist start tentatively, then, to signify acquired confidence, the tempo increases with jubilant brio. The yearning "Some Day My Prince Will Come" is underscored by a quietly intense vamp, while "When I See An Elephant Fly" has the inspired touch of three Barbara Cooks, singing in Forties close-harmony. Perhaps the most audacious track on the record is a breathless version of "I'm Late", which lasts just 36 seconds.

On a later album, Close as Pages in a Book (1993), a tribute to lyricist Dorothy Fields, the singer can be heard on two tracks accompanied by Harper's piano alone. One of the songs, Romberg and Fields's "April Snow", a lovely but sometimes lugubrious ballad, is handled by Harper as a delicate minuet that suits the tune perfectly. Other albums he made with Cook include Barbara Cook: Live from London and Mostly Sondheim.

When I asked Barbara Cook to describe Harper's talent, she replied,

The other night I was speaking with a conductor who said Wally was a musician's musician, a genius even. And then he said, "He made the piano sing." I thought that was a really good way to put it. His phrasing could be achingly beautiful. I think a lot of the work

we did together is extraordinary. He always felt "the rules" were not for him, which could be a problem in life, but gave him free rein when he was putting an arrangement together.

Frank Lazarus recalls Harper as a man who

smoked endlessly and had a dry and iconoclastic wit, and you laughed when you were with him. I have a wonderful memory of us all gathered together in Wally's penthouse, with its double-sided view of Manhattan, listening to the final tape of the cast album of A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine.

Barbara Cook said,

He was a great friend. If you were in trouble he would be there for you in an instant. He enriched the lives of many, many people as a friend, and his work did the same for untold thousands.

Tom Vallance