Flying Through Life With Michael


Volume CV, No. 9September, 2005

Larry Blank

I was very sad to hear about Michael Gibson’s passing. I was good friends with Michael when I still lived in New York. And I’m proud to say that I was responsible for getting him hired on “Onward Victoria,” for which I was the music director.

That show and a big plug from Ralph Burns got Michael the job on “Woman Of The Year” and began his relationship with John Kander (which continued to his death).

Michael and I also shared a love of flying. He was a licensed pilot when we first met, and I later got my license, too. Michael came out to Los Angeles to visit in the late 80’s and we went tooling about the California sky in my Piper Comanche.

Since I had my rating as a flight instructor, I was able to log our flights together in his log book as “flight instruction,” which made us both laugh. Talk about “lazy circles in the sky”! We flew all over central California, Santa Maria and Santa Barbara.

We had many fun times in New York. Our paths crossed all the time but because I lived on the West Coast and he on the East, and because I switched from being a full-time conductor to be a composer and orchestrator, we kind of lost regular communication.

We did meet up again in 1987 when I went back to New York to conduct “Teddy And Alice.” Michael was one of the many “ghost” orchestrators on that show. (The main orchestrator was the late Jim Tyler.)

Michael and Jim did several shows together, credited and not credited, including “Over Here,” “Barnum,” “King Of Hearts” and many, many more that I don’t remember. I know Michael also did lots of stuff for Joel Grey when I was conducting for him.

I remember, too, that Michael worked on “El Bravo,” an Off Broadway show directed and choreographed by Pat Birch. (Does anyone remember THAT one?)

I tried to get Michael onto “They’re Playing Our Song,” for which I was the music director. Marvin Hamlisch was using a bunch of orchestrators and Pat Birch and I both recommended Michael. Marvin had other ideas and it didn’t work out. (It was no reflection on Michael at all, but Marvin and Carole Bayer Sager had another agenda and Ralph Burns did most of it.)

Michael was fantastic at writing beefy brass and percussion stuff. Very solid and loved by dancers. Chita Rivera almost always had a bunch of Michael’s arrangements in her book.

John Kander loved Michael’s work and Michael was his main guy for everything since “Woman Of The Year.” He did such great work on “The Rink,” “Kiss Of The Spider Woman,” and “Steel Pier.”

For some reason or another — and likely Michael’s schedule — Doug Besterman and I ended up as the orchestrators for the film “Chicago” along with Martin Erskine and Michael Starobin. When I mentioned this to Michael later on, all he said was, “You guys did a great job. I was very impressed.”

I wish Michael had been on that too so we could have collaborated and resumed our friendship!

Michael had a way of getting along with everyone and was very well liked by all. He was also a diligent worker. And very helpful to me when I got started writing. He told me many times, “Sit down and do it, because no one else will. You have to put in the hours.”

He did some fabulous work on “Anything Goes,” and some ghosting on the last Broadway “Guys and Dolls.” We both did some work for Jason Robert Brown for a State Farm industrial film.

He also was very generous and let me crash in his apartment on 79th Street before he met his wife Ellen and moved off to New Jersey in the 70’s and early 80’s.

Since I moved to California, we exchanged an occasional e-mail and a phone call. We were both friends with the late Wally Harper. Michael did the fabulous orchestrations for “My One and Only,” and I ended up playing second piano for conductor Jack Lee here in Los Angeles.

There is a very long list of orchestrations by Michael Gibson and they are all worth listening to and hearing his rock-solid ideas and execution. Many are uncredited and I wish I had paid more attention when it was happening.

Last summer, my phone rang and I heard the voice of Michael. I had heard he was ill, but he was keeping it very quiet and was doing everything he could to remain healthy for his wife Ellen and son Andrew. We had never discussed his illness. Even then he was very much Michael: upbeat and straightforward.

He said, “Larry, I’m orchestrating a show for Andrew Lippa up in San Jose and since you live in California, would you mind covering the orchestra rehearsal for me? I’m having some chemo and I don’t think it’ll be a good day for me to fly cross country.”

That was really the first time I heard anything directly about his being ill. He was so upbeat that I didn’t even ask what was wrong. He didn’t want to tell me and I didn’t ask.

Of course, I said yes. He told me he would pay me, and I said, “Don’t be silly. It’s a nice drive for me and a break from my duties at home in L.A. If they put me up and pay my gas and you buy me a drink when I see you next, we’re even.”

So I drove up to San Jose up the California coast. I showed up at orchestra rehearsals and had a great time with Annie Kaye and Doug Houston (the copyists), Andrew Lippa (the composer) and Joel Fram (the conductor) as well as many of the musicians I knew from the San Francisco area. I enjoyed listening to Michael’s sparkling and imaginative arrangements of Andrew’s music and happy too to do a favor for Michael for his many kindnesses to me in the past. Andrew asked me to make a few quick fixes in Michael’s absence and just be another set of ears. A very pleasurable experience.

When I returned home the next day, I found a huge crate of California wines waiting at my door. I wrote a long e-mail to Michael telling him how great his stuff sounded and a profuse thanks for the unnecessary but appreciated gift of California wines.

Here is part of my e-mail and his response, which was so typical:

ME: “Hi Michael. Very, very sweet of you to send wine. My favorites. . .red and white!”

MICHAEL: “What—no rosé?”

We will all miss him very much. He had a special talent and was a very special and classy guy.

Larry Blank is a member of Local 802.