When you work as a professional freelance musician, one of the many occupational hazards you must face is playing in orchestra pits.
Most concerts are played in the relatively open space of a stage, and the orchestra is up above the audience. But in a pit, you’re in a very small confined space, and you’re way down below everything. In this windowless subterranean world, you are completely surrounded by barren walls, and all you can see of the theater above you is its ceiling—unless you are seated in the part of the pit that is directly underneath the stage itself, in which case you can’t see anything. There is very little in the way of aesthetics in a typical orchestra pit—usually, the walls are just unpainted plaster or concrete. Then there’s the dust. Gravity being what it is, all the dust, dirt, and desultory dramatic detritus of a theater tends to collect in its lowest point (i.e., the pit), and orchestra pits are rarely (if ever) cleaned, as doing so would require moving all the chairs and instruments out and then putting them all back in again. No one wants to do that, as it took forever to get everyone’s chair crammed in there just exactly “so,” so that everyone has enough room to play in the first place.
Playing in an orchestra pit is a unique study in sensory deprivation. Ballets are the worst in this regard, as they have no singing or dialogue. As you play The Nutcracker or Sleeping Beauty or Giselle, you know there is a show going on overhead, and you are very much a part of it, but you can’t see it. You can hear the pitter-patter of anorexic little feet thumping on the stage above you, and you can hear the crowd laughing or applauding in the same places night after night, but you have no idea what it is they’re laughing at or applauding for. You tell yourself that someday you’re going hire a substitute, buy a ticket to the show, and come see just what the heck is going on . . . but you never do.
During an intermission, people in the audience always stand around the edge of the pit and look down at the orchestra. Since they are “up there” and you are “down here,” there is a subtly implied class difference which makes any conversation with them feel somewhat awkward. So for the most part they would just stare at us and we would pretend not to notice them staring at us. Whenever that happened I always felt very much like I was a polar bear at the zoo. Another big difference between playing concerts on stage and playing shows in orchestra pits is the repetition. The programs of symphony and pops programs change fairly regularly (sometimes every night), and operas and ballets tend to run for a few weeks at the most, but a Broadway show can run for years at a time. The big advantage of show work is that it is very steady employment. “Show” musicians are generally much more prosperous than the average freelance orchestra player, whose concert work is often sporadic and seasonal. The downside of show work, though, is that you have to play the exact same show, i.e., the exact same sequence of often painfully easy notes, night after night after night. The matinee days are especially painful, because on those days you have to play the show twice. After a while it starts to feel like working in a factory. But at least in a factory, they occasionally re-tool. Camelot never changes.
Another big difference between playing concerts and playing shows is the dialogue. I once played part of the Boston run of Annie (this show would run for months, or even years, at a time), and that show has a lot of dialogue. You would play a song, then you had to wait five or ten minutes before you would play again. You couldn’t just sit there and listen to the same dialogue every night, because if you did, after a while you would go insane. So the pit took on the appearance of a public library. There were books and magazines piled up everywhere. I only played a few weeks of that run, but some of the guys in that pit had been playing that same show, eight times a week, for two years. Those guys had to be the most literate group of show musicians ever. And what was most amazing to me was that, no matter how engrossed everyone may have been in their reading material, there was always a subconscious internal ear at work, listening for a line from the actors that would awaken them from their article in last June’s People Magazine. Without any cuing, at the exact same moment, everyone would put down their reading material and pick up their instruments, just in time to play the next tune.
The Boston theater district includes the Opera House, the Wilbur, Schubert, and Colonial Theaters, and the Wang Center (a converted movie house with about 5,000 seats). These five venues are all inconveniently located within three blocks of each other, which means that parking at show time is almost impossible. I still have nightmares about not being able to find a parking space in the theater district as show time relentlessly ticks nearer and nearer. There were many times when I had to park far away and shlep a bass six blocks, in my tuxedo, in the snow.
But in spite of all the dust, claustrophobia, repetition, and parking problems, oddly enough, once the curtain went up, I really enjoyed playing in the pit for Broadway shows. Musically speaking, playing the bass for a show is a lot different than concert work. First of all, you’re the only bass, so you don’t have to constantly match up with other bass players in a section; second, the way most show tunes are written, the bass has a very commanding part almost all the time. You’re playing a lot of boom-chick-boom-chick rhythm (where the bass is the boom and the set drummer is playing the chick on a snare drum or closed hi-hat cymbal), so the bass becomes the rhythmic heartbeat of this whole grand production. The parts were easy to play, and to me anyway, it was musically rewarding and a lot of fun, especially when you’re playing some really great tunes from classic musicals.
While most of the shows I played were “post-Broadway” runs, there is also a long-standing show business tradition that newly created shows will “preview” in Boston, typically for five weeks, before opening on Broadway. One year I was hired to play for the pre-Broadway run of My One and Only. This show eventually made it to Broadway, with Tommy Tune and Twiggy in the starring roles.
Since the great classic Broadway musicals are so much a part our culture, we tend to forget that these shows did not just pop out of a box. Long before they opened on Broadway, these shows were written, re-written, and then re-re-written; songs were added or deleted, and entire scenes were reworked during their out-of-town previews. This was also the case with My One and Only.
My One and Only started out (as I heard the story) with a few guys with money who wanted to produce a revival of the musical Li’l Abner. They hired a director, who proceeded to talk the backers into doing an entirely new show, with Gershwin music. This was all well and good until the backers saw the show opening night, at which point they fired the director and brought in a whole new creative team.
Of course at that point the orchestra, theater, and actors had all been hired, and contracts had been signed, and we had to get paid, show or no show. So we started to do this show night after night for five weeks, even though it was being completely re-worked after each performance. Almost every night we were asked to come at 6:00 p.m. to rehearse the latest changes. We got paid extra for that, of course, so we were happy to do it.
That show was especially fun to play because of the Gershwin music. Also, at one point in the show, “Honey” Coles, the well-known tap dancer, did a little rhythmic tap duet with the bass, where I would play a little solo and he would dance to it, echoing the rhythm I played. Sometimes I would throw in tiny little rhythmic variations and he would always catch it. It’s little things like that that can make your night.
Memories of playing Broadway shows tend to run all together, since each night is usually exactly the same as every other, but there was one night at My One and Only that was truly unforgettable.
In one part of the show, the main characters (played by Tommy Tune and Twiggy) were trying to escape from the bad guy, and they flew off to the Caribbean in their private plane. But the bad guy sabotaged the plane, so Tommy and Twiggy were forced down on a desert island. The next scene took place on the beach of this island. To create the beach effect in the scene, part of the stage floor was removed to expose a large steel basin. This held about a hundred gallons of water for the actors to splash around in.
This steel tank was in the center of the stage, at the downstage edge (i.e., near the audience). Every night, in order to keep the water from getting stagnant and stinky, the stagehands would empty the tank, and then they would fill it up again just before the next performance.
As per usual, we were all crammed into the pit, and as is typical in Broadway shows, the lone percussionist had a whole hardware store’s worth of equipment around him. He had a big drum set, plus tympani, chimes, glockenspiel, xylophone, bass drum—the works. And all of this hardware was located dead center in the pit, under the overhang of the stage. In this case, directly under this water tank.
Well, one night we were going along playing the show the same as always, when I noticed out the corner of my eye that the percussionist was moving around in a way that was just not normal. He kept looking up and around, and it was kind of distracting. At one point I glanced over at him to see what was the matter, and in the faint glow of his stand light, I saw a little drop of water come down and . . . plunk. It landed right on his head.
He looked at me; he looked all around; then another drop of water—plunk—fell on his head again.
If you’ve ever seen Journey to the Center of the Earth, perhaps you recall that scene where James Mason chips a little piece of crystal off a wall, which starts a small leak that turns into a flood. If you have, you have some idea of what was about to happen in that pit.
Apparently, the stagehand who had emptied the tank the night before (or maybe the one who refilled it that day) had forgotten to replace the drain plug at the bottom of the tank. It had taken the entire first act for the water to soak its way through the plaster of the pit roof, but once it had soaked through, these droplets grew in intensity until it was a genuine downpour. And it didn’t stop raining for the entire second act.
This meteorological phenomenon was limited to the space occupied by this percussionist. Everyone else was bone dry, but bit by bit, this guy and his tuxedo had become completely drenched. Sopping wet, utterly miserable, he played the whole second act in this indoor deluge. He tried to rig up a xylophone case as a poncho, but it didn’t do much good, since he couldn’t hold it in place while he was playing. His drums were all soaked, and everything made of wood was ruined. He had to occasionally tip his snare drum over to drain the water out, and when he hit the suspended cymbal, little droplets of water were sent up in the air, so much so that one could briefly see a rainbow in front of his stand light. Up above, Tommy Tune and Twiggy sang and danced the night away, while down in the pit we were all torn between genuine pity and hysterical laughter as we watched this poor guy doing his best to play the rest of the show in a monsoon.
It’s not very often that you get caught in a downpour in an orchestra pit. But if you do, well, no matter—the show must go on.
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Excerpt from Real Men Don’t Rehearse
© 2009 Justin Locke