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Discussion in 'Pit Orchestra Stories' started by tenorsaxman90, Sep 26, 2008.
Now they have solid rosin in a box offstage, and the dancers crunch their feet in it.
Thanks for the welcome. It's nice to be here.
I know this is an old thread, but reading about stage fog made me think of a recent production of Jekyll & Hyde I did. The director called for fog to be a part of Jekyll's big number, "This is the Moment."
During the first two days of tech week, things went fine, although on Tuesday (the second day) it seemed thicker than normal. As the singer got into it and began the belting section and the band joined him in a nice loud ff, it seemed like he was singing some very impressive falsetto figures. After about 15 seconds, we all realized that that was not him singing--it was the fire alarm that had been set off by the fog!
We left the theatre and waited for the fire trucks and cops to come. It was a fairly small town and it took them a while to show up. Finally, after about a 40-minute delay, we were allowed back in. (Although I knew it was a false alarm--literally--I kept thinking about the $20,000-or-so-worth of horns I'd left in there!)
BTW--they dispensed with the fog after that.
not sure how big the scale of that production was, but I know that in some of the theatres I've played in they allow the smoke detectors to be disabled in certain areas. The ones in the house remain active, but some of the ones over the stage are allowed to be turned off during production for fog and what not. Some of the nicer/new theatres have very specific smoke detectors to allow for the use of extensive fog. They're combined with heat detectors that will only go off if the combo of smoke+heat is there.
Not so much a horror story, but one that shows that danger is lurking around every corner: I was a Sunday matinee of Guys and Dolls at a high school. It was the end of intermission and the pit orchestra was getting seated for the second act. Everybody quickly warmed up and tuned, and we waited for the conductor to make his grand entrance. And waited. And waited.
We all began looking at each other with amused grins. The inevitable titters started in the audience as everyone in the place was wondering what was going on. It must have been about three or four minutes before the conductor bounded in and took up his baton to begin the Entr'acte.
Turns out that the custodian in charge of security that day was making his rounds during intermission and found that the rear stage doors to the auditorium were unlocked, and, just doing his job, locked them, which kept the conductor out in the hallway, running frantically from one side of the backstage to the other, trying the doors and banging on them until someone heard him.
Not even an auditorium full of people that day made it evident to the custodian that perhaps people would need to enter through those doors. Just doin' his job.
One bad actor can spoil the whole operation
I've just returned home from the road production of Catch Me If You Can, and I am a bit miffed.
Not with the evening itself; dinner was fine, if a bit noisy, and our seats were about as good as it gets down here - orchestra, dead center and fourteen rows back.
And, not with the play itself per se, for it is better than much of the stuff that Broadway coughs up these days. Nice storyline, based on a true story, with lots of the classic three items in the quintessential Broadway review - "The show had all that it needed; legs, lines and lyrics!" A bit weak in the second act, perhaps, when a sappy love story gets in the way of the main plot, but nothing's ever perfect.
(I've already had two of the tunes from the show arranged for my group: Butter Outta Cream and the spectacular Doctor's Orders. The first is a Sinatra style tune, a duet for two males along the lines of the "Whoops there goes another rubber tree plant" thing that he did. A nice bass clarinet/baritone chart; you can guess why I had that one done. The other is a group girl's number that has to be heard and seen to be believed. You have to have strong girl singers who are comfortable with doing more than singing, but the end effect is well worth it. (It will make for a good set closer once we get it all worked up right and proper.)
And, the actors were all strong in their roles - superb male leads, a tolerable ingenue, a fantastic chorus that could both sing and dance up a storm. No complaints there.
It was the music. But, not all of the music. The "band" was just fine - the mini-big band that makes up the core of most Broadway theater pits. With 3214 instrumentation (although I kept hearing what sounded like a bass trombone in there now and then), they were tight and on the money. That's good when you consider that they are using locals for almost all of the parts.
(Although I've been down here for over twenty years now, and in the union for almost all of that, I'm not well enough connected to land the traveling show jobs like I did back home in the Sixties and Seventies. Other than one or two sub appearances, almost all of my work down here has been pop with my group or one similar to it, plus a lot of college and high school shows. It's a pity, because I would have loved to cover the clarinet/bass clarinet/baritone book on this one - lotsa juicy bass clarinet lines.)
Nope, my objection was solely with one person and one person only - the synthesizer player. For you see, although they carried a bass player who switched between upright and electric as appropriate, all of the rest of the string parts were covered by said synth player - and they were covered poorly.
She came in early. She came in late. She carried her part through pauses where the rest of the group was silent. She had about as much idea of how to play a swing style line as I do of how to play a friggin' trombone.
And, she was LOUD, sometimes to the extent of overwhelming a weaker vocalist. Don't those things have a volume control on them?
We left the programs out in the car, but tomorrow I'm going to run her name against the union directory, just to make sure that I never, ever EVER give her a call. I'd rather go it without a keyboard player than to pay her a share.
It's bad enough when the assumption that "a synth is as good as a string section" puts those eight or ten rosin breathers out of work, but at least they could have laid on someone who knew what he or she was doing. And, at the prices that they charge at our Hobby Center for a traveling company, they sure as hell could afford them.
You know, I'm kind of grateful I didn't play the woodwind parts in Legally Blonde because they rarely even play! If you want to know what's going on, I recently played Keyboard 2 for my school's production of Legally Blonde. I was able to look through the two woodwind parts as well as the brass books (two trumpet parts and trombone) as we were going to send back the books. From looking through these, I see that they rest a lot. It's the rhythm section that does the grunt work. Legally Blonde should've been orchestrated as the three keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, percussion, and violin. I kind of find it silly to put in brass and woodwinds into rock shows when they rarely play.
To me, that is a horror story.
I come from the school of arranging that you don't just give someone a part just for there to be a part -- and when I give someone a part I really wanted the tonal quality there and at that time. However, there are practical considerations, too: 45-minute piece and one measure where I need a harp? Unless I'm a bigshot composer, I can't justify that.
Was the synth player not from New York? Usually in touring shows the rhythm section comes from NYC. If she wasn't from New York there's a good reason to feel justified on the fact that she was bad. But if she was from New York, then they need a better choice next time.
Well, I'm gonna give you the whole rundown about my Legally Blonde pit horror story and why 9 to 5 pit orchestra was superior than the piece of crap that I had to deal with during my senior year of high school this year. You see, there's a thing that was missing in the production called control. The pit conductor had no control over the orchestra. But not that us musicians were obnoxious or out of control. No, it was the artistic director controlling the pit director like telling what instrumentation to use or cutting measures when this is all up to the vocal director and the pit conductor.
Our pit consisted of piano, two keyboards, bass, drums, guitar, and guitar/violin. It started off bad when the senior guitarist got kicked out because his grades were way too low and because of that he couldn't participate in extra-curricular activities (Legally Blonde being one of them). Making matters worse, the pit director didn't really want to do this in the first place so her heart wasn't really into it for this show. I played the "Keyboard 2" part because they weren't gonna use any woodwinds in the show according to the artistic director. For those wondering what keyboard I used, I used the school's keyboard which is an 88-key Roland RD-700. Everyone one was okay, except for the freshman girl on "Keyboard 3". Why's that? Couldn't hear her. In fact, no one could hear her; even though she said multiple times she could hear herself, none of us heard her. Also, I was completely undermined of my abilities. While I am a returning pianist, even I couldn't believe what I had to do. I kept being told not to play at certain parts and let the piano just do it because of whatever goes on stage is always different for some reason. So that made me kind of frustrated.
So you wanna know who did the piano part? In the actual show, it should be done on "Keyboard 1/Conductor" but we'll get to that issue in a bit. Two people took over that part. In the first act, the pit director took over the part while the vocal director conducted the show. In the second act, a friend of mine who's going to be a senior took the part while the pit directed took her rightful place and conducted. Now you wanna know what the "Keyboard 1" book they used? They didn't, and instead used the "Piano/Vocal" score and conducted from Keyboard 1! That is NOT what you use to play the so-called "Keyboard 1"! You either have the conductor play that part on synth (which the pit director for some reason couldn't), or have a student play the book while the conductor just conducts. I'm sorry, but I guess people have different reasons but this was the biggest crime in my book. The P/V score should be for rehearsals when the pit has not joined just yet. And if I'm being too picky on the conductor conducting and playing, they'd only need to conduct on certain and important places like getting out of a vamp or just about to start a number. Other than that, they'd just play.
Well how about the show? Well, I can only say the show was okay. I thought the music was and cool and all, but into rehearsals I soon realized that Legally Blonde wasn't as great as I thought it was. Coupled with the fact that two great songs were cut ("Gay or European" and "Bend and Snap" cut by the artistic director) and multiple changes were made, it wasn't a very enjoying experience. Now I did go to a Catholic school, but I thought this was ridiculous. If you could keep "Naughty Baby" from Crazy For You and the "Shriner's Ballet" from Bye Bye Birdie but cut two songs because they're about getting a guys atention or questioning someone's somewhat effeminate behavior, I just can't go on. This is borderline content and might not fit well for some schools, but seriously! Give the kids a challenge! It's not like they were really dedicated for this production in the first place. Even though the audience enjoyed it and the pit director said I was doing a good job, it was just crap. And they might bring me back for their next spring musical, which I probably won't do though. Well, I can tell you that Legally Blonde was an absolutely horrifying experience. I'm just so glad that 9 to 5 was so much better than what I had to go through previously. 9 to 5 actually had a dedicated cast, a musical director that actually enjoyed his profession, and much better songs might I add. And I got to actually play woodwinds! Overall, Legally Blonde showed me how much of a train wreck a show can be sometimes.
None of this is uncommon in school staged shows, so don't be too hard on any of the participants. It's a learning experience for all, and sometimes you just have to go with the flow.
The weak performer on "Keyboard 3" is going to happen any time you have students filling in for experienced musicians (of any level). Timid/lack of confidence = low volume and a tentative approach to the part.
Conflict between the various directors is as old as Mozart. (Remember the opera staged in Amadeus?) Remember that they may not want to be doing a show in the first place, and that the overall director is technically in charge of everyone. There may be conflicts or resentments there that you are not privy to, and under the stress of making it happen, such conflicts have obviously surfaced.
With theater (or, should I say "theatre"?), almost anything can happen, and those that want to participate need to be able to roll with the punches. You either fish, or you cut bait.
My worst experience was when I was contracted for a pit with a Catholic girl's school in Saint Louis (for which the pay was pretty decent - they had to hire since their school did not have a legit music program). We college folks were all there for the dress rehearsal of a first-quality production of Hello Dolly!, and everything was going like clockwork until the female ingenue lead (the dress shop owner) literally dropped dead on stage.
(The young lady in question had been experimenting with heroin, and unfortunately chose that evening to push things a bit too far. This was back in the very early 1970s, but you would think that an upper class Catholic school girl would have had a bit more sense.)
Other than losing a pretty attractive young woman, this didn't affect me directly - except for the fact that they had to bring in a "ringer", and said ringer couldn't accommodate the fluid tempo changes in "Ribbons In My Hair", the big intro solo number. I had to spend extra time with the piano player to get her lapped into the tune.
I guess. I've been thinking about it and I guess I set my standards too high. Doing community theatre sort of changed my look on how a production goes and how it should be done. But I can say Legally Blonde was a learning experience per se.
And, the edits to shows (such as the two cuts that you experienced in this most recent one) are technically illegal, but in the de facto world of parent sensibilities, they happen all of the time. I have done shows where cuts have been made that literally scrapped the whole story line (in one case leaving a character in the show with no explanation or introduction as to who they were, that being the union organizer in Pajama Game), but if it comes down to offending a prominent parent, they are going to be made every time.
Looking at it another way, every time you do one of these you are going to have a new experience, good, bad or indifferent. Chalk it up to living in a world where people sometimes do strange things.