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Guys and Dolls - making four the hard way


Old King Log
Staff member
I'm in the midst of a community theater (er, "theatre") production of the venerable Guys and Dolls, and it's been a trying experience.

I had played at the theater, a poorly funded community organization with a less than idea facility, during the early 1990's, but the management that was in place then wanted to cut back on expenses, and decided to go with piano only. Recently, however, there's been a turn over in management, and I was pulled in by a friend who had just heard of the change.

Guys and Dolls isn't much of a challenge as written. Mostly in cut time, the melody lines are typical Broadway for the period, with huge amounts of bass clarinet parts in harmony with the other members of the tribe, and enough sax stuff to make things lively now and then. Bread and butter Broadway, and I've played nine or ten productions of it over the last thirty years.


• The musical director is your typical church musician. He's a wiz on the keyboards, but his conducting skills leave a lot to be desired. He's also attempting to conduct from the keyboard, which is located in an obscured pocket to the one side of the stage.

• I've never seen a rehearsal schedule, and only the night before the run did I get a performance schedule

• They didn't bother to make a decent effort to obtain a percussionist

• They didn't bother to make a decent effort to obtain a bass player

• The theater is devoid of the most basic musical equipment - no stands, no electrical wiring, no lights, no ventilation

So, I go to work:

1. I get my bass player to sit in for the first weekend, and draft a talented kid to play the last two weekends (a total of eight shows overall)

2. I draft my male vocalist/auxiliary percussion guy to play drums. Unfortunately, he had to miss the first two shows due to work, and may have to miss more. My other "charity" drummer lives too far away to make the trip, or I'd impose on him. As is, I'm bashing the tambourine on the "Follow The Fold" reprises as appropriate, and covering the claves on "Havana Escapade" while my friend Jim handles the scratcher.

3. I scare up a drum kit from two different sources, and then transport the whole thing to the theater. This was the first time I ever had to move and erect a trap set, and I can see why most drummers are a bubble or two off of level. I nearly amputated a finger, trying to get the toms aligned on top of the kick drum.

4. I bring in one of my lighting snakes, thereby eliminating the maze of tinsel cord extensions that they were using.

5. I bring in enough stand lights to cover all of the stands. Suddenly everyone can see the music.

6. I bring in a fan or two to move the air around

7. I pester all and sundry until I get some dates and times for rehearsals and shows

But, there's no fix for "the trying to conduct a jumpy show like Guys and Dolls while trying to play the keyboard." It's gotten so that we in the woodwinds are listening to the vocalists rather than trying to interpret the elbow thrusts of herr Cappelmeister in order to make the entries right.

The conductor also doesn't have a good feel for jazz idiom. (I run into this in most community theater stuff - not much swing or jazz in church choir gigs...) There's one jazzed up version of "How Do I Feel" in the overture where there are three quarter notes leading into the tune. He beats the three quarters like they are dotted eighths, rather than the laid back fashion (and they are marked that way) needed to set up the tune. If we kept the meter, we'd be playing a march version.

But, it's still fun, even though it's a comp job and with all of the extra stuff that I'm doing. It's one of the shows I can walk into and cover the part without worries, and the tutti clarinet parts, with all of the movement in each of them, are a joy to play. Sure wish I could make out the downbeats, though.

The worst thing about it all is that they have done shows like Urinetown ("That's right, Little Sally!") and The Producers, these in the very recent past. I may have missed my chance to attempt the bass clarinet/baritone/contra-alto clarinet/bassoon book in The Producers. Damn...
DavidW and I did a bout of Music Man last fall that was like that. Except it was the conductors that were inexperienced and the piano player was good but not very confident. I was covering 2 reed books and half conducting with the lead trumpet player across the pit. Was in a place where I couldn't really see so when we had the music director conduct the last performance because the conductor had a concert for school I was standing up watching the stage and my two books. No bueno... I feel for you man, but at least they're making an effort to get live music back
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