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Donald Pippin, conductor on Broadway and beyond, dies at 95

Donald Pippin conducted the recording of “La Cage aux Folles” cast album in 1983.JIM WILSON/NYT

Donald Pippin, a versatile conductor and composer who won a Tony Award in 1963 on his first try at being musical director for a Broadway show, “Oliver!,” and went on to work on some of the biggest musicals in Broadway history, including “Mame” and “A Chorus Line,” died June 9 in Nyack, New York. He was 95.

His former wife, Broadway performer Marie Santell, confirmed his death, at a hospital. She said chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may have been a factor.

Mr. Pippin had more than two dozen Broadway credits, mostly as music director — the person in charge of preparing the orchestra and often conducting it, interpreting the score, and coordinating with the director and choreographer — though he was also often credited with vocal arrangements. He was a favorite of composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, serving as music director not only for “Mame” (1966), for which Herman wrote the music and lyrics, but also for “Dear World” (1969), “Mack & Mabel” (1974), “La Cage aux Folles” (1983) and other Herman shows.

“La Cage” ran for more than four years, but it wasn’t Mr. Pippin’s biggest success. That was “A Chorus Line,” which opened on Broadway in 1975 with Mr. Pippin as music director and ran for some 15 years, a record at the time.

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Mr. Pippin talked his way into the music director job on “Oliver!,” the musical based on Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” with few credentials. He’d worked as assistant conductor on the 1960 show “Irma la Douce,” which was produced by David Merrick. When he heard that Merrick was bringing “Oliver!” to Broadway, he hounded his secretary for an appointment, although the two had never met, and told Merrick that he should hire him. Merrick did.

“You’d better be as good as you think you are,” Merrick told him, as Mr. Pippin recounted the moment in an interview with the Baylor School of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he went to high school.

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His self-confidence was not misplaced. The show ran for 774 performances, and Mr. Pippin won the Tony for best conductor and musical director. He was one of the last people to win that award, which was discontinued after 1964.

Mr. Pippin’s other Broadway credits as musical director or musical supervisor included “110 in the Shade” (1963), “Applause” (1970), “Woman of the Year” (1981) and another Herman show, “Jerry’s Girls” (1985).

Conductor Larry Blank, for whom Mr. Pippin was both friend and mentor, said in a phone interview that Mr. Pippin had a warm personality that was well suited to working with the varied figures in the theater, especially leading ladies like Angela Lansbury (“Mame”) and Lauren Bacall (“Woman of the Year”).

“He said to me once that he believed in ‘persuasive accompaniment,’ ” Blank said. “He would say it with a twinkle in his eye.”

Broadway was only one element of Mr. Pippin’s resume. He also wrote the score for several musicals, including “The Contrast” and “Fashion,” both staged in New York in the 1970s. In 1979 he was named music director of Radio City Music Hall, a post he held for years. In 1987 he shared an Emmy Award for outstanding achievement in music direction for “Broadway Sings: The Music of Jule Styne.”

He also appeared as guest conductor with orchestras all over the United States. One program he enjoyed presenting was a salute to his friend Herman, featuring songs from “La Cage,” “Mame” and other shows, with Broadway singers joining him. Critics agreed that his long working relationship with Herman enhanced those performances considerably.

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“Pippin and the orchestra exposed all of the music’s many subtle and complex orchestrations,” John Huxhold wrote in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch when Mr. Pippin presented the Herman program with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1997.

In 2020, when Broadway staged a tribute to Herman, who had died in December 2019, Blank, who led the orchestra for that show, said he made sure to ask Mr. Pippin to conduct one of the numbers, the title song from “Mame,” using Mr. Pippin’s original vocal arrangement. Mr. Pippin was 93.

Mr. Pippin was born Nov. 25, 1926, in Macon, Georgia, and grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. His father, Earl, worked at an A&P and later was a poultry wholesaler. His mother, Irene (Ligon) Pippin, started him on piano lessons when he was 6. At 8 he won a state piano competition, so when he was 9, since he had already won in the younger age group, the contest organizers put him in the division for 10- and 11-year-olds. He won that too.

When Mr. Pippin returned to Knoxville in 1996 to lead a program called “Donald Pippin’s Broadway Melody” with the Knoxville Symphony Pops Orchestra, a high point of the evening came when he paid tribute to Evelyn Miller, his first piano teacher, who was in the audience. In her honor, he played Edvard Grieg’s Waltz in A Minor, which she had taught him for that first piano competition.

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Miller had also come to a preview performance of “Oliver!” in New York in 1963, and Mr. Pippin invited her to a party afterward, where she met the cast members, including Bruce Prochnik, the British boy who played the title character. He autographed a photo for her, trying for something he thought sounded Southern. “To my Tennessee honey chile,” he wrote.

Mr. Pippin’s mother died when he was 10, and in 1938 he was sent to the Baylor School, then a military-style school for boys. The school let him bring his Steinway piano, which was installed in the chapel.

He graduated in 1944, then served in the Army Medical Corps in occupied Japan. He attended the University of Chattanooga before moving to New York in 1950 to study at the Juilliard School, paying his way by playing in piano bars and at churches.

He left Juilliard without graduating to enter the working world and took a job at ABC-TV writing for its musical productions. He found the job frustrating.

“The conductors were so inept that they’d just destroy the music by having the wrong tempos,” he told The Knoxville News-Sentinel in 1996.

That inspired him to learn conducting. He studied with Oscar Kosarin, who had worked on Broadway. Then came “Irma la Douce” and his breakthrough, “Oliver!”

He and Santell married in 1974. They eventually divorced but remained close. Mr. Pippin, who lived in Brewster, New York, leaves no immediate survivors.

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He especially enjoyed his years at Radio City Music Hall.

“Nothing’s more exciting than to come rising out of that orchestra pit on those hydraulic lifts and playing an overture at Radio City in front of 6,000 people,” he told The News-Sentinel.