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What Musical Family Has The Oscars On Lock? Hello, Newmans.

Louis Armstrong and Barbra Streisand have a laugh on the set of <em>Hello, Dolly!</em> The 1969 musical comedy won an Oscar for its score, co-composed by Lionel Newman.
Hulton Archive
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Louis Armstrong and Barbra Streisand have a laugh on the set of Hello, Dolly! The 1969 musical comedy won an Oscar for its score, co-composed by Lionel Newman.

This story was inspired by a question at an insanely hard Oscars trivia night in Los Angeles last year: Which family has the most Oscar nominations?

At the time, I had no idea, but the extremely smart people I was playing with knew immediately. Alfred, Lionel, Emil, Thomas, David and Randy Newman have more than 80 nominations between them for music direction, scoring, song, composition and score. They're part of a musical dynasty that began almost a century ago.

Born in 1901, Alfred Newman was a child piano prodigy, who supported his family by playing on the vaudeville circuit before becoming a Broadway conductor at age 17. Movie music was still an innovative technology when Newman arrived in California in 1930, only a few years after the release of the very first film with a score. He set to work adapting the era's musicals to the screen, including the still classic Whoopee!, starring Eddie Cantor, and Reaching For the Moon, with Douglas Fairbanks.

Even today, you can hear Alfred Newman's work at the beginning of every movie from 20th Century Fox. He wrote the classic pre-credits fanfare you can probably sing in your sleep.

Edmund Stone says that when Alfred Newman ran the studio's music division, he was a prolific composer whose lush, expressive music was intended to heighten the film's acting and dialogue. (Stone knows a thing or two about movie music; he hosts a radio show about it called The Score.)

"Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, How to Marry A Millionaire, The Song of Bernadette, How Green Was My Valley, and on and on," Stone marvels. "Hundreds of films that he either composed or conducted."

Alfred Newman would also win nine out of his 36 Oscar nominations, and bring his two younger brothers into the business. One of them, Emil Newman, similarly composed, conducted and scored hundreds of movies. His one nomination was for 1941's Sun Valley Serenade, featuring the Glen Miller Orchestra. And other brother Lionel worked with Alfred at Fox for nearly half a century, where he racked up 11 Oscar nominations, including a win in 1970 for Hello, Dolly! (You can watch his very charming acceptance speech on YouTube.)

But that same year, Alfred Newman died of complications from emphysema. His son Thomas was only a teenager who, up until that point, had been mostly been interested in baseball. Thomas Newman told NPR in 2004 that music became a passion after his father's death.

"It was a reconciling," he said.

Thomas Newman received his 13th Oscar nomination this year for his score for Bridge of Spies. He also wrote music for Skyfall, The Help, Erin Brockovich and The Shawshank Redemption. And his older brother David Newman has composed music for nearly 100 movies, including The War of The Roses and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. (He was nominated once, for scoring the 1997 animated film Anastasia. His father Alfred scored a live action version of the same story in 1956.)

Their cousin Randy Newman, whose pop songs have brought him success far beyond Hollywood, has 20 Oscar nominations and two wins. He was asked by Terry Gross on WHYY's Fresh Air whether being a Newman affected how he writes music.

"It probably did," he responded, adding that he learned from his uncles that music needs to feel in the right place. As an example, he mentioned a song from his first album.

"The song 'Cowboy' — I didn't use a piano, because it's an indoor instrument," he explained. "It used to be in movies, you paid attention to stuff like that. I didn't like it when I heard a piano outside. It took me inside."

So, is there a Newman family sound? Edmund Stone considered the question, and the overwhelming diversity of the Newman scores.

"I don't think so," he said. "Could you hear Alfred Newman in Wall-E, composed by Tom? Could you hear Lionel's music in Galaxy Quest, composed by David? Could you hear any of the Newmans in Finding Nemo?" (One assumes you could probably find Thomas, who composed it.)

While I've only discussed the six Newman family members who've been nominated for and won Oscars, numerous other Newmans — including the third generation — are also accomplished musicians, composers and working in the film music industry.

"You could probably say the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree," Stone observes. Or in the case of the Newmans, the orchard.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.