Archive for July, 2010


And speaking of pit orchestras:

July 30, 2010

Here are some words of wisdom from another pit director in the trenches, Chris Horn.  (One of the most capable, best prepared, most competent, and all-around nicest pit directors I know):

Pit Director Tutorial:

1. Set the orchestra call time for 45 minutes before the curtain, but donʼt be afraid to adjust it towards closing night.

2. Give kids the experience of playing in the pit; I pursued music because my band director let me read the 3rd trumpet book of West Side Story as a sophomore.

3. Donʼt overestimate your drummers. Make sure they can play mallets, toys, and read pitches if called upon. You want a solid beat for rock shows to help the actors/actresses, so hire someone if your students are average players.

4. Donʼt be afraid to cut parts. Play a few things well, rather than many things mediocre. Your pianist will fill in the gaps.

5. Hire a pianist that has played the book before, especially if you havenʼt conducted the book. Check the local houses of worship for a good musician.

6. Keep extra light bulbs, screwdrivers, wrenches, post-its, clothespins, and pencils in the pit at all times.

7. Insist that the director gives their notes to the actors from the stage, so that you and your orchestra can leave. Pit notes should be given first.

8. Donʼt let non-music trained directors give notes to the pit without the notes going through you. For example, a director shouldn’t tell students to play softer. They don’t understand that there are tone quality issues with playing very soft, and given student nerves, when that part comes up it won’t speak. You might have better suggestions anyway!

9. Leave your classically trained 4-pattern at home. Your job is to know the score, properly cue everyone, and negotiate the wacky transitions. You canʼt do that and conduct 4/4 the whole time.

10. Have a plan for the curtain call music. Most directors wait until the dress rehearsals to finally practice their cast curtain calls. By then, it will be too difficult to learn new pit music. I usually plan for 2 minutes longer than whatʼs written by adding D.S.ʼs and repeats. Try to keep these repeats on one page to avoid crazy page-turns.

11. Have carpets laid down to ease the sound of brass mute drops.

12. Do not take fewer string players if you are worried about the pitʼs volume. String players sound too thin with too few players, and errors are more exposed.

13. Do not compromise good tone quality to get under mic levels. While the point of the show is to hear the actors, teaching the students to play with bad T.Q. defeats the purpose of playing an instrument. Most of the time, younger actors are not taking an appropriate breath and singing with open throats.

14. Face guitar amps toward side walls or towards the stage if you the actors arenʼt using monitors. This will control their volume and cut back on direct sound.

15. Listen to the pit from the different areas of the audience (and also the sound booth). The sound guy might have the worst seat in the house.

16. Practice the overture and entrʼacte last. They will be review after you have covered the rest of the book.

17. Steal student singers during while not being worked with to practicing singing with your live pit during rehearsals. Itʼs a thrill for your students, and gives the actors a different environment. You will be able to tell if they have their parts nailed.

18. Hire your school districtsʼ music teachers when possible. Sometimes the district will foot the bill and it wonʼt come from your budget. Students get a thrill from seeing their teachers play in a professional setting. Three Blind Mice doesnʼt cut it.


Contracting Your Pit Orchestra

July 30, 2010


It was my first pit directing experience, and when I got the box of books, I saw a bunch of parts for people I knew. So I gave out the oboe book, 2 violin books, a viola book, a drums book, a flute book, and a trombone book. I would play the piano, and I thought, the big dance numbers I’d sequence on my computer and the real players would play along with the synthesizer. Can you imagine? My oboist was great, but my flute player kept getting lost, and my trombone player was terrible. There is no instrument that can destroy a pit sound quicker than a trombone that’s lost and out of tune. The synth part was impossible to coordinate, and we kept getting out of sync with it and the dancers onstage. The old sound designer who was working the show would just look at me, smile and shake his head. And now I understand why.


When I came into the job I asked what they did for pit players. “We have a drummer who plays for us.”, they tell me. “Fine”, I said, and I got him the book. Months later, first pit rehearsal, the downbeat of the first number. Tempo marking: Funky. The drummer plays swung eighths. Within a quarter note, I knew I was doomed. Plus the drummer was the guy who signs the checks, so there was no escape.


1) Don’t hire a person for every book they send you. Here’s my method: When the box arrives, I take out the drums, bass, and piano books and put them aside. (and guitar for a rock show) I then stack the remaining books from fattest to thinnest. (no joke) The 3 or 4 fattest books and the drums, piano, and bass books get hired. The other books go back in the box. Why not hire the whole box? Well, even if you have the money to do that, the more people you have in your pit, the greater your balance problems, and the more fights you’ll have with the sound crew. Plus, unless you happen to have a bunch of guys who are awesome at your disposal, more people is harder to keep together and there is a higher chance you’ll hire a dud.

2) You’ll have to decide what your goals are for the pit experience. If you really want to use it as an educational experience for the instrumental students, you owe it to them, and to everyone else working on the show to have a bunch of rehearsals; enough rehearsals that they really know the book. Putting under-rehearsed kids in a pit under a well rehearsed show is just a crying shame, and it demoralizes the kids who are playing the music they don’t know. If you don’t have time to really work it, please hire professionals.

3) My criterion for pit players is simple, but I learned the hard way.

a) The player basically needs to be good enough to read the book at sight. Things are going to go wrong in the pit, and if your players are worrying about reading the book, they’ll never catch up when the thing goes off the rails.

b) They have to have a good sense of humor. You’re going to be at some crappy and long rehearsals, and having a sour face in there with you stinks. I don’t care how good you are, if you can’t crack a smile, I don’t want you in my pit.

c) They have to get back on the train. If you get lost, find your way again, or at least try. When I have a player get that look of confusion, then give up and look up at the stage with a shrug, I know it’s not going to work out. A good pit player will be listening and try and find a landmark to get back on track again.

4) I keep a long list of everyone ever recommended to me. When I started contracting pits, I called the people I knew for references, and I’d write down all the info under an instrument heading in a word document. I called the numbers, and when they turned me down, I’d ask them if they knew anyone else who would be interested in a job like the one I was offering. Then I’d write those numbers down and start all over again. It wasn’t long before I had most of the good players in my book. It also helps to have the names of the major instrumental teachers in your area. There’s nothing better than a really good bass player who is a sophomore in high school. They’ll work for peanuts for you for three good years, and they’ll learn some fantastic lessons playing with you. Some of my pit players I met as high schools students are now playing professionally in New York, and I’d never be able to afford them now. After every show, I write the name of the show next to the person’s name on my contact sheet to help me remember them. I’ll also write things about the abilities of the player. Like a guitarist might say: great jazz, no rock. Or a reed player will say: no doubling, or clarinet and some flute. That way I’ll know what I’m looking at when I go to contract my next show.

5) The reed books are an interesting animal in a Broadway show.

In the early days, the Broadway pit orchestra was based on the classical chamber orchestra. There was a flute, an oboe, one or 2 clarinets and a bassoon. As long as the show was from the extended operetta tradition, those would be the reed instruments you’d expect to see in a it orchestra. Most of Robert Russell Bennett’s Rodgers and Hammerstein orchestrations work this way, for example. Slowly in the late 1930s and Early 40’s, saxophones begin to find their way into the orchestra. Usually you’ll find them in the same books the clarinets are in.

Don Walker’s sound in the 1950s and 1960s requires much heavier sax work from the reed section. The person playing oboe and English horn is also required to play a sax and some clarinet now. Normally that person plays Tenor sax, probably because the tenor sax is usually playing a lower note in the harmony, under 2 altos played by a flautist and a clarinetist. A so so sax player is better off playing the lowest note in the chord. The person formerly just playing bassoon is now doing lots of work, playing Baritone sax at the bottom of the group of saxes, playing clarinet or bass clarinet at the bottom of a clarinet choir, and playing bassoon when things are a little more straitlaced. Fortunately many of these reed 5 books are written in such a way that the bass parts can be played on all bassoon or all bass clarinet, which gives you a lot of leeway.

You still see shows done the old operetta way through the 1960s and beyond, but the doublings become more and more common. For example, Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations of A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd, because they have such a classical flavor, are almost in the old style, but the clarinet player is doubling second flute, and the bassoon player is also playing clarinet. Once orchestrators got used to the flexibility of doubling, it was hard to go back. Tunick did the same thing for Pacific Overtures, which has a very different flavor, but just doesn’t need saxophones.

From the 1980s through the present, you’ll find two things at work: Economics has forced pit orchestras to cut back on their musicians. Sometimes you’ll see shows with 4, 3, or only 2 reeds. Into The Woods has a flute, a clarinet, and a bassoon. Fewer reeds equal more doublings normally, although there is an incentive not to, because union rules make it so that players who double get paid more. After a certain point, it winds up making more sense to hire another guy. The gigantic pit orchestras are still in play, but they seem to be able to get by with only 5 reed players max. Ragtime, City of Angels, and Les Miz are huge shows, but each uses only 4 reeds. The thing is that in New York, the doublers are so good, you don’t gain much by spreading things out among specialists, and orchestrators usually use the sections in groups, ie. All the saxes together, all the clarinets together, a flute trio, etc.


The actual numbers (Reed I, Reed II, etc.) vary widely from show to show, but if you look through your books, you’ll see the following is generally true:

There is a book (usually Reed I) that looks like this: Flute and Piccolo normally, sometimes Clarinet, Soprano and/or Alto Sax. Normally this book is very flute heavy. In old shows, sometimes it’s only flute, with no doubling. Hire somebody with a good flute embouchure, not a clarinet or sax player who plays flute with an airy tone. Have the guy who dabbles on flute play the book with all the second or 3rd flute parts. For some reason, the alto flute got really popular from the 70s through the 80s, but beware. 1) you’ll never hear it. 2) You’ll never find one! I swear, I called every instrument rental house in Philadelphia and South Jersey for a show recently and nobody had one. 3) your player will pass out from too little oxygen to the brain.

There is a book (Reed II or III) that is very clarinet and alto sax heavy. Sometimes this book has the alto sax lead parts. A quick check will see whether these alto parts are playing the melody of the sax section. It makes sense to give this part to your best sax player who also happens to play clarinet.

There is also a book, Usually Reed II or Reed IV, which is basically Oboe, English Horn, Clarinet, Tenor Sax. If your show isn’t very lyric, sometimes those oboe lines don’t add up to much, and you can give the lines to a good clarinetist, and they can transpose. But oboes and English Horns sound crappy unless played well, so be careful.

And then there’s Reed V: Clarinet, Bassoon, Bari Sax, Sometimes Bass Clarinet. This is the Bass end of things. I normally don’t hire this book, unless there are really characteristic sounds in the show, like the bass clarinet in The Wizard of Oz. Again, sometimes these parts can be played all on one instrument, if your player isn’t a good doubler.

As you begin to use reed players, listen carefully and make note of what they do well and what they don’t do well, and mark it down so you can know what book to hire them for next show. Believe me, they’d rather sound good. Give them what they do best.

I’ve heard that in national tours, the reed 4 and 5 books are hired from town to town, and that reeds 1-3 are New York players who move with the show. So no crucial material is in Reed 4 or 5, just in case. I don’t know that for sure, but in my experience, nobody misses those 2 books.

6) The percussion/drums book. Look carefully at the book. If there’s a lot of mallets and timpani in it, (or if the book says percussion) you need to hire somebody who can do that well. If there’s a lot of traps work (drum set work) or if the book says drum set, hire somebody who can read well and plays set well. Under no circumstances hire a drummer who can’t read music. It doesn’t matter how great a drummer they are, or how much you like them, or how much they promise to listen to the CD over and over again. If they can’t read music, they will not work in your pit. Better to have no drummer than one who doesn’t read music. There’s an old joke in pit circles: “Q: What are 2 words that srike fear into the heart of a music director. A: Sub Drummer” The reason is that the drummer is the backbone of the pit. If the drummer can’t follow, doesn’t know where he is, or plays tastelessly or too loud, you are sunk, and there’s no recovering.

7) Unless your string section is huge, don’t bother bringing in any violas. Their parts are lost in the pit; the tone just doesn’t carry.

8 ) If you’re working in a school district with multiple musicals, don’t poach players from other pits. Don’t steal all the good strings from the high school show for the Junior High show. Payback is, well, you know…

9) As soon as you have your pit contracted, mail out the material. Don’t wait and think, “I’ll do it later when I have more time.” No you won’t. You’ll wait until the last possible minute and the players won’t get their books in time to really look through them.

Preparation is key in getting together a good pit. You’ll reap the benefits and liabilities of your first choices when the show goes up.


Know Your Show

July 16, 2010

You would never conduct the Bach B Minor Mass without a lot of legwork. You’d listen to a number of recordings, read some books, do some analysis of the pieces Bach based the sections on, if you were a real stickler, you’d look into other Masses of the time to compare, and you’d listen to other major Baroque vocal works to get a sense of the style. No, your musical is not Bach, (although if it’s Sondheim, you might be getting to that level of complexity) but you still owe it to yourself, your cast, and your audience to do your homework. There are many things you can do to be intelligent about the show you’re directing.

1) There will be a cast recording, possibly more than one. Listen to all of them you can. Usually the second recording has a little more of the music in it, for some reason. Make a note of the sound of the show, the tempos, the quality of the singing, etc. P.S. Go ahead and buy the C.D., don’t just download it on itunes. Firstly, cast recordings are often quite cheap used, because people buy them when they see or are in the show, and then get rid of them after the show ends or they get sick of it. Secondly, the liner notes are usually very informative, and itunes doesn’t help you there.

2) The author of a show has a particular sound, and usually a career trajectory. Try to be familiar with a few of your author’s shows, and know where this show fits into his or her career. If the show marks a big change for the author, there are usually some stylistic points that require correct execution.The biographies of composers and lyricists are often really great reading. Meredith Willson’s But He Doesn’t Know The Territory, for example, is really fun reading.

3) Be aware of the cultural context of the show you are doing. A great set of books for that are Ethan Mordden’s books that go through Broadway history decade by decade. Scott Miller’s books are also worth looking at. For books with a very large, encyclopedic outlook, try Gerald Bordman’s survey, arranged by year, Steven Suskin’s book, arranged by writing team, or David Ewen’s book, also arranged by writer, unfortunately never updated. Keith Garebian has a set of books about the making of particular shows. They are of varying quality, but worth looking through. He has put out a book on West Side Story, Gypsy, Cabaret, Guys and Dolls, and My Fair Lady.

4) If the play is based on source material, read the book, or read the play, or watch the movie that the thing is based on. Sometimes that can be very involved. For example, if you’re doing Ragtime, you should really watch the movie, you should read the E.L. Doctorow book, and you should read the Heinrich von Kleist book that Doctorow’s book is based on. (which is fantastic, by the way) And then there is a treasure trove waiting to be found of books about the characters in Ragtime that are waiting at your library for you.

Know your show. Be the person on the team that knows the most about the material. And have a great time reading and listening in the process!


Dealing With Your Predecessor

July 9, 2010

Unless you’re starting your program from scratch, you’re going to have trouble living up to your predecessor. If the person was incompetent, people will be demoralized and it’ll be hard to convince them it’s a good idea to do a show. If the person was wonderful, there will be a group of people that you’ll never be able to please. But whether you think your predecessor was great or terrible, you must never say anything negative about them if you can possibly avoid it. If someone comes up to you and says, So-and-so had a better way of doing it, don’t disagree, just say how you’re planning on doing it, and why. If someone comes up and says they love your way, and tries to bait you into saying something bad about the previous person, don’t take the bait. Just thank them for their compliment and change the subject. The thing is, nobody tries to do a bad job music directing. Some do it well; others leave something to be desired. But no good can come of trying to make your predecessor look bad. And you can get a reputation if you badmouth people. Hopefully your successor will be as kind to you as you have been to your predecessor.


Appropriate and Inappropriate Material

July 2, 2010

For some reason, everyone forgets that Grease is a totally inappropriate show for most schools to do. And then when they get into rehearsal, they realize that some major plot points are going to have to go away, and they end up rewriting the whole show. This is a violation of Principle 2. Do Grease at your community theatre group where nobody cares about the subject matter.

One director I know cuts everything inappropriate out of her scripts, retypes them, and hands them out on the first day of rehearsal, so that the middle school kids she’s directing don’t even know what they’re missing. I think this may be shady legally, but practically, it sidesteps some difficulties.

Here’s the crux of the problem: These shows were not written for you and your school. They were written for a very savvy New York theatre audience; and largely to the tastes of upper middle class housewives from New Jersey and Connecticut who want something a little snappy, a little saucy, with some chorus boys to look at, and some stuff to amuse their husbands, who were dragged there against their will. These are the sorts of things that tend to make you squirm when a 13 year old is doing them.

A test of the appropriateness of this material is to picture your own children (if you have them) or some young people you know and love doing the material. If a part of you feels sad that your child is pretending to be this character, there’s probably something there worth thinking hard about. Remember principle no. 2: The author intended the inappropriate material to be in the show. If you backpedal or remove the inappropriate material, you may be taking out something important.

An example: Once Upon a Mattress is such a wonderful show for kids. It’s really about awkward adolescence in some way, and the writing is so clever and funny. It’s a natural. Except that there’s an unwanted pregnancy that precipitates some of the major dramatic actions that drive the plot. I suspect there are hundreds of productions of this show that have been mangled in one way or another to avoid this problem. (I did one myself!) But that not only breaks your contract with the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, it breaks the conception the writers were trying to get across, it breaks the thousands of connecting threads that hold the plot together, it mangles a song moment, and it breaks two of the main character’s entire group of objectives. I think there might be a tasteful way of having middle-schoolers do that part of the show. (I think High Schoolers are probably in the clear) But go in with your eyes open as you tackle a show with that kind of a potential problem written in. (and as far as these problems go, that one is very mild!)

Please, for the sake of everyone involved, read the script of your play before you agree to do it. And let some other people have a look at it too, to make sure your choice fits the values of the people who are helping you put on the show. If you have an administrator who second guesses things all the time, you should send over a copy of the script with questionable passages marked and make a note of having done so. Then when you get the complaints, there is a paper trail showing that you did your job in clearing the issues. Better to pass too much information up the food chain than too little.

A further thought: Deciding not to do a show based on content is not cowardly. It also doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the piece. There are many plays and musicals that use adult content to make important points. The important points will be lost on an audience that can’t get past the fact that their children are making them. If making a point about the world is important to you, there are shows (the R&H canon, for example) that make very strong points while completely ingratiating themselves with their audiences.