Elliot Lawrence, Award-Winning Conductor, Dies at 96

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 on July 2 in Manhattan. He was 96.

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

A pianist by training, Mr. Lawrence was a leader from a young age, forming one 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, who is also a musician and conductor.

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

The band’s members variously included the saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, who wrote some of its arrangements, and the 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 the television host Ed Sullivan took to the Soviet Union.

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

Mr. Lawrence was conducting the “Bye Bye Birdie” orchestra — on his way to a Tony nomination — when the 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.

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

Elliot Lawrence Broza was born on 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 affected 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, Mr. Lawrence 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,” Mr. 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, Mr. Lawrence also won Emmys for his musical direction of the television specials “’S Wonderful, ’S Marvelous, ’S Gershwin,” a tribute to George and Ira Gershwin in 1972, and “Night of 100 Stars” (1982), an all-star variety show celebrating the centennial of the Actors’ Fund of America.

His television credits include writing music for soap operas like “The Edge of Night,” for which he won two Daytime Emmys, and two ABC Afterschool Specials, which earned him two more Daytime Emmys.

He 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,’” Mr. 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 his son Jamie, Mr. 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, the executive producer of the Tonys broadcast, recalled Mr. 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”

He added, “Think of doing that when you’re 88.”

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