09 August 2014

“Broadway’s Musical Chairs”

by Gabriel Cohen

[I’ve published articles on various backstage aspects of theater in the past, most recently “Two (Back) Stage Pros” on 30 June.  I’ve also written about the pit orchestra and theater music.  Here’s a report from the New York Times that describes a truly esoteric, inside-baseball part of that world—the replacement musician in a pit orchestra on Broadway, or what happens when a player goes on vacation or gets ill.  Like substitute teachers, there’s often not a lot of time to plan (or rehearse), but unlike the classroom sub, the replacement instrumentalist has to approximate the work of the regular player or risk throwing not only the ensemble off its rhythm, but the actors off theirs on stage as well.  Also unlike teacher substitutes, the replacement musician gets a great deal of respect from her or his fellow players—many, as you’ll read, are in great demand and can work multiple gigs just about simultaneously.]

Beneath the stage of Broadway’s Al Hirschfeld Theater lies a dark space with a low ceiling — a cross between a suburban rec room and a submarine. Shortly before each performance of “Kinky Boots,” 13 black-clad musicians file to their battle stations, each illuminated by a small light attached to a music stand. The expectant buzz of the audience filters down from a narrow opening at the edge of the stage.

As at any Broadway show, the musicians in the “Kinky Boots” pit are expected to play flawlessly for two-plus hours — even those who are sitting in for what may be the first time. During a recent Sunday matinee of the hit show, for instance, four of the musicians were substitutes, called in and asked to unobtrusively join a band grooving at the top of its game. After all, even Broadway musicians may want to take vacations, or spend the summer touring with Sting or the Rolling Stones.

“Subbing is a bit nerve-racking,” said Ann Klein, 52, who replaced Michael Aarons, the regular “Kinky Boots” guitarist, twice in July. Ms. Klein has worked as a replacement on Broadway for five years, in five different shows. She has a career as a singer-songwriter and will pick up work on tour with other artists. But substituting on Broadway pays pretty well — like regulars, subs earn union scale, $227.42 per performance — if you can deal with the high stakes. “You don’t have the luxury of rehearsing with the band,” Ms. Klein said. “So it’s scary.”

“Once,” Jeff Schiller, another “Kinky Boots” sub, recalled, “I got a call half an hour into a show, when a regular was experiencing incredible kidney stone pain.” Luckily, Mr. Schiller, who goes by the nickname Houndog, lives near the theater district. He swapped in between numbers in the middle of Act One.

Thankfully, this kind of quick-change routine is rare. Most subs get some notice before they have to step in.

Mr. Schiller, 55, has filled in on more than 40 Broadway shows, including “Phantom of the Opera” and “The Book of Mormon,” and he says that most productions follow a similar system. Each regular musician is required to name five possible substitutes, who learn their parts through a process called “watching the book.”

“If there’s room,” Mr. Schiller said, “you go in and sit in the pit and make a recording of the regular.” Then the subs go home and play along.

A regular works eight performances a week, but subs can do more if they’re playing in more than one show at a time. Indeed, Mr. Schiller has had 10-performance weeks. Part of what puts him in such demand is that he’s proficient on saxophone, flute, clarinet and a raft of other instruments. This flexibility, known as doubling, opens him to a wider range of work — not to mention extra pay.

Unfortunately, there’s a major downside to the sub lifestyle: There’s no guarantee of when you’ll play next. Mr. Schiller averages two or three jobs a week, but there are weeks when he gets none. That’s why he and Ms. Klein would love to receive regular chairs.

As recently as the late 1980s, playing in a Broadway musical was not considered the most desirable gig for a musician. Most professionals sought better-paying work in jingles and recording sessions. But as that work dried up, due in part to samplers and digital-audio software, the ace musicians gravitated toward theaters near Times Square.

But just as the competition for spots in a live Broadway orchestra has increased, the pit itself has contracted.

“The average number of full-timers per show has gone down by half since the 1950s and ’60s,” said Robert Meffe, director of music at San Diego State University, the author of a paper on the shrinking pit orchestra and himself a former sub.

According to Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, there are only 349 full-time players on Broadway now. That means that all players — regulars and subs alike — must be in top form. “There’s a lot of pressure,” Martha Hyde, a frequent substitute, acknowledged.

“I subbed on ‘Matilda’ today — mostly flute,” said Ms. Hyde, who has been doing this work since 1988. “Tomorrow I’m playing second clarinet and second flute on ‘Phantom,’ and the next evening I’m playing alto sax and lots of clarinet solos on ‘Chicago.’”

“It’s a little bit like landing an F-14,” she added.

“But your job is not to stick out or make a big statement. You emulate the regular; you have to be willing to be a chameleon.”

Brian Usifer, 33, the music director, conductor and first keyboardist for “Kinky Boots,” makes sure his subs fit in. Every replacement starts in an audition phase. On a sub’s first night, though, he tends to allow the occasional error to pass. “It’s O.K. if a few mistakes happen early,” he said. “It breaks the tension.”

Both cast and orchestra can see him in the video monitors, he noted, saying: “I try not to show it in my face if something goes wrong. But when you have a sub who is good and who everybody likes, I don’t have to worry about them.”

Though the pressure and lack of job security are challenging, Ms. Hyde sees some advantages to subbing. “It forces you to keep your skills razor sharp,” she said, “and you play with more people.” That can mean more contacts for future jobs.

Even so, most subs supplement their Broadway stints with other work. Mr. Schiller has worked as a composer, arranger, touring musician, copyist and instructor. Ms. Hyde is a member of a chamber trio called the New River Ensemble, which sometimes plays live to silent films by Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

The route to a regular gig is not predictable, as seniority does not necessarily determine who gets those jobs. Contractors, hired by producers to put together orchestras in tandem with music directors, make those decisions, and personal connections can trump other factors.

Despite the competition, Ms. Hyde says that she has found much camaraderie on Broadway. She has been a regular four times, in shows including “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “1776.” Whenever she gets a chair, she hands out sub slots to musicians who have helped her in the past, but also makes an effort to aid hopefuls. “If no one gives the new people a chance,” she said, “they can’t break in.”

Tino Gagliardi certainly broke in: He played trumpet in and out of Broadway pits for 30 years, as a sub and as a regular, and now he’s president of Local 802. “Being a sub is far more difficult than being a regular,” Mr. Gagliardi said. “Regulars only have to know one book.”

“Once,” he said, “I was subbing on five different shows and was so busy that I actually walked into the wrong theater. It’s a very hard way to make a living.”

But those F-14s still need replacement pilots. The goal, as Ms. Hyde put it, is “to make it as seamless as possible.”

“If the other musicians across the pit don’t notice that there’s someone different playing the part,” she said, “you’ve done your job.”

[This article was originally published in the “Metropolitan” section of the New York Times on Sunday, 27 July 2014.  Gabriel Cohen’s debut novel Red Hook was nominated for the Edgar award for Best First Novel, and he is also the author of four other novels and the nonfiction book Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce. A writer, freelance journalist, teacher, and editor, he has written for The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Gourmet.com, Shambhala Sun, the New York Post magazine, and Time Out New York. He teaches writing at Pratt Institute and New York University.]


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