27 September 2011

"Big Sound"

by Mary Donovan with Marisa Friedman

[On 16 June, I published an article on ROT, “The Sound of Muzak,” about my response to the increasing use of recorded and synthesized music in stage productions. It was prompted by the action taken by Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents the pit musicians on Broadway, against the producers of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. (That arbitration hearing was scheduled for 20 September.) In the September 2011 issue of Allegro, the magazine of Local 802, appeared the article below, a sort of follow-up to my ROT post. It compliments the producers of the current Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, for using a full orchestra for the production and returning to the original orchestrations. Obviously, the musicians’ union isn’t a neutral observer on this issue, but the article by Mary Donovan, Assistant to the Prsident of Local 802 and Supervisor of the Theatre Department, and Marisa Friedman, union rep and organizer for theater and teaching artists, so clearly reinforces my feeling about this subject, I decided to share it with readers of ROT. I hope you all enjoy it. ~Rick]

'Follies' revival on Broadway does it right, with a 28-piece orchestra

When it comes to live music on Broadway, it doesn’t get much better than this. The Kennedy Center’s $7.3 million revival of Stephen Sondheim’s "Follies" is now in previews at the 1,595-seat Marquis Theatre and is set to open on Sept. 12.

"At the first instant of our first rehearsal, the sound of the orchestra took my breath away," cellist Laura Bontrager told Allegro. "I hadn’t expected to feel such a difference from other show orchestras I’ve been in, but I was really knocked out."

The minimum number of musicians required at the Marquis is 19, but "Follies" will be coming in at 9 above that. Best of all, producers have stated that there will be no cuts list, meaning that the size of the orchestra is guaranteed to stay at 28.

(Under the Broadway contract, a cuts list means that producers who engage more than the minimum for that theatre can reduce the size of the orchestra after a certain number of performances.)

"Follies" will also not include any recorded music. The audience will be treated by the original orchestrations and original intent of the 1971 production.

"If you really want to claim the artistic high ground, when the show calls for a large orchestra, give the audience what they want," said cellist Peter Prosser, who played in "West Side Story," and "Gypsy," which both used larger orchestras.

The production opened at the Kennedy Center on May 21 and accomplished a successful two-month limited run.

There was much speculation whether or not the production could make the move to Broadway and retain its large cast of 41 members and its sizeable orchestra of 28 musicians.

We considered these ingredients absolutely essential to a successful Broadway run.

Another consideration was the star-studded cast, which included Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Linda Lavin, and Danny Burstein. Could they be enticed to do the Broadway run?

Three of these top actors were quoted in a recent story in the L.A. Times about what "Follies" meant to them.

As a child, Linda Lavin attended the Broadway opening of "Follies" on May 4, 1971. She said, "I remember the overwhelming sight and feel of it. "It was just this huge, impactful, passionate piece of work…with moments I’ll never forget." Lavin went on to suggest that what makes for a spectacular production, the large cast, orchestra and set may make it unattractive to Broadway backers. We’re glad she was wrong about this!

In the same story, Jan Maxwell said that "Follies" is "a beautiful piece…I’ve never experienced this type of artistic expression in a musical."

Finally, Bernadette Peters warmed our heart when she said, "When I first heard the 28-piece orchestra start playing at a run-through, I just started to cry." We couldn’t agree more.

"I think the producers of ‘Follies’ realize that this show has some of Stephen Sondheim’s most heartfelt music," violinist Robert Shaw told Allegro. "To do justice to Jonathan Tunick’s brilliant orchestrations, a full orchestra was of utmost importance."

The original Broadway production of "Follies" ran for 522 performances and 12 previews. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won seven. It was actually not a commercial success, but ultimately became a Broadway classic as predicted by a young Harvard student named Frank Rich (now a theatre critic for the New York Times).

Critic Clive Barnes wrote that "‘Follies’ has some of the best lyrics I have ever encountered, and above all it is a serious attempt to deal with the musical form."

"Follies" last came to Broadway in 2001 at the Belasco Theatre. That version was significantly stripped down; producers hired only 14 musicians and it was not a critical success. Six years later, a concert version using the full orchestra was produced as part of City Center "Encores!"

Local 802 would like to say to the musicians, cast and crew of "Follies": Welcome to Broadway and welcome to New York City, the live music capital of the world.

And to the producers, a special thanks. They are:

  • The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (David Rubenstein, chair; Michael M. Kaiser, president; Max A. Woodward, vice president)
  • Nederlander Presentations
  • Adrienne Arsht
  • The HRH Foundation
We applaud you for doing it right.

"I am so very happy that this choice has been made," Broadway conductor Kristen Blodgette told Allegro. "I’m thrilled for the orchestra members, the brilliant cast, the wonderful music director Jim Moore…and oh so glad for Mr. Sondheim. I can’t wait to hear it."

[There were three related articles in recent issues of the New York Times. “Sound, the Way the Brain Prefers to Hear It” by Guy Gugliotta appeared in “Science Times” on 6 September. An article about "psychoacoustics"—the science of how we hear what we hear—the point of the article is how acousticians keep trying to replicate the sound of great auditoriums with electronic reproduction and amplification, to capture the experience of being in a live room while listening to a recording in your living room. But what I spotted was the implication that recreating the sound of a live orchestra through electronic reproduction is, first, very delicate and difficult to accomplish, even approximately, and, second, more expensive than hiring the live musicians would be. The ear, as I've heard before the article reinforced this fact for me, is our most precise sense. We can tell the difference in inches where a sound is coming from and how it moves around a space. That means that a single stationary loudspeaker, or even two or three, placed around the perimeter of an auditorium or theater won't really replicate the sound of live instruments on a stage or in a pit to a spectator's ear. It would take dozens of amps placed all around the room, including right in front of the listener—and, therefore, between the spectator and the performance—to come close to the experience of a live pit orchestra. And they'd have to be very precisely adjusted for volume and so on. Anything else is just a pale approximation of the experience of live music, regardless of what any producer says who wants to promote the use of electronic reproduction.

[The second article was “Classic Score by Bernstein Is Remade” by Daniel J. Wakin, on 7 September, about a live orchestra performance of the score of the film version of
West Side Story to accompany the film. (The film has been electronically stripped of the music, but not the singing voices. It's an ironic reversal of the process of replacing live musicians with recordings.) The point of this effort has to do with the fact that apparently Leonard Bernstein hadn't been happy with the orchestration used in the film, but it also points up again the flexibility of live music over recorded sound. On 9 September, the New York Times
ran a review of that performance, “A Beloved Film Gains a Live Sound” by Allan Kozinn. In his review, Kozinn wrote: ". . . the film voices sounded a bit tinny beside the three-dimensional orchestra." My question is, Does anyone think that the reverse is not also true—that recorded or electronically enhanced orchestras sound tinny beside "three-dimensional" singers? Of course they do! Then, if you add the psychoacousitical fact that human hearing is very precise and sensitive, you can be pretty sure that only someone with a tin ear wouldn't hear the difference between a recorded, enhanced, or synthesized orchestra and a live one. QED, I say!

[(This doesn't mean, by the way, that when a show's score is meant to be "tinny" and sound like a recording, say, like
Priscilla’s, that the dramatic or theatrical demands don't impose some manipulation of the music. That's an entirely different argument.)]


  1. The arbitration hearing originally scheduled for 20 September, as mentioned in my introduction to "Big Sound," was postponed until 4 January 2012 according to the November issue of "Allegro."


  2. The arbitation hearing on the use of recorded music in "Priscilla" has been delayed again. According to the December issue of "Allegro," "Now we are looking at a date in April or May." Leaders of Local 802 lay the cause at the feet of producers who haven't made a key witness available.

    On another front, the production of the revised "Porgy and Bess" from the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., will be played in New York with an orchestra of 22 live instruments, five more than it used at ART.