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November 1, 2022IM -
Julie Ferrara of Local 802 (New York City) likes to joke that her career has gone in reverse. “Most pit orchestra musicians get on tours with the hope of eventually making it to Broadway,” says Ferrara, a woodwind doubler currently touring the country with Disney’s musical Frozen. “Instead, I worked on Broadway for 14 years before entertaining the opportunity to go on the road.”
Prior to joining the Frozen tour, Ferrara held three Broadway chairs and subbed on more than 30 shows. Since leaving the Broadway pits, however, she has not just embraced touring—she has taken an active hand in helping improve the lives of her theater musician colleagues currently working on national tours.
An oboist hailing from Baltimore, Ferrara began her performing career at the age of five. “My parents started me and my sister on piano lessons. It evolved into a cute circus act having twins play together in shopping malls,” she says. Her dad traded in his beloved Mustang for a piano for the girls—then she encountered an instrument “petting zoo” at school. “I ran home and told my mom I was going to play the flute.” But her elementary school band director said she was learning the flute way too fast and switched her to the oboe. “That opened a ton of opportunities for me because not many people played the oboe.”
A bachelor’s in oboe performance from the University of Maryland at College Park was followed by a move to New York City in 1997 to study with Local 9-535 (Boston, MA) member John Ferrillo, then co-principal oboist at the Metropolitan Opera. “Mr. Ferrillo took me on as a private student, something he rarely did. On Sundays, I took the bus to his house for lessons. He made me feel like part of his family,” she says.
Ferrillo is also the reason she got into woodwind doubling and Broadway. “After several months of lessons, he told me that unless I wanted to be on the outside looking in, waiting for someone to die to get an oboe job, I should look at doubling. He suggested lessons with Rick Heckman [member of Local 802], who was the best oboe doubler on Broadway. So, I enrolled in the master’s degree program in Multiple Wind Performance at New Jersey City University in 2002 and was finally able to study with Rick.”
Ferrara graduated in 2005 and scored her first Broadway substitute experience in July 2006 for The Producers.
Ferrara says she always maintained a kind of parallel career in New York City. “When I got there in 1997, I landed a job working in the grants office at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Working 16 hours a week paid all my bills. I didn’t want to lose that job, so the few times I was offered tours, I declined. I always had my eye on Broadway.”
Things began to change, she says, in 2019. “I could see the writing on the wall. Lots of new young people were coming into the city, and hiring practices were changing. The Frozen tour came up, and I thought, why not? It’s guaranteed work.” Ferrara adds that these days, long-running shows are becoming a rarity. “If you have work in a show on Broadway that runs longer than a year, past the Tonys, you’ve struck gold. Otherwise, you’re continually starting over, looking for work again. I thought touring might be easier.”
The Frozen tour also offered Ferrara the opportunity to play a reed one book, calling on her doubling skills. “On Broadway, I typically got pigeonholed as an oboe player. With Frozen, the contractor had heard me playing flute on a recording and loved it, so I was engaged to play flute, piccolo, clarinet, alto sax, and soprano sax.”
Asked about her typical week, Ferrara is quick to point out that tours differ in their requirements and working conditions, so it’s inaccurate to assume that all tours are like hers. “Being offered a chair on the Frozen tour, though, is like winning a Cadillac,” she enthuses. “We get treated really well.”
Travel days are Mondays, when the tour finishes an engagement and relocates to the next city. “It’s usually a long day. After checking into the hotel, you need to figure out how to feed yourself. I hook up with my more seasoned colleagues who know the best places to get groceries and other necessities.” Wednesday is sound check and an evening show. Thursday and Friday nights are single shows, with double shows over the weekend. Since Frozen is a self-contained production, there are no rehearsals, unlike tours that travel with a smaller core of musicians in the pit and fill in with locals at each stop. “Some travelers miss that. They enjoy meeting and working with local players.”
Tours have presented Ferrara with several unexpected surprises. “The most rewarding thing so far has been developing close relationships with my colleagues,” she states. “We have really become a family. On Broadway, you play with your colleagues and then go home to your real family. Here, you go ‘home’ to your tour family.” While it has undoubtedly become easier to stay in contact with people at home via Zoom and WhatsApp, she says tour colleagues are who you turn to when you need human interaction.
One frustrating aspect of touring has been Ferrara’s inability to find a suitable place to practice every day. “Brass players often warm up and practice on the loading dock, but reed players can’t do that, and we can’t practice in our hotel rooms.” She does teach online, however, and says that helps keep her head in the game, even if she’s not physically playing. “It keeps me thinking, and makes me focus on how to generate tone, use my air, etc. Prior to the pandemic, we didn’t have these online tools.”
Ferrara’s reed two colleague and fellow Local 802 member, Mike Livingston, covers oboe, English horn, flute, clarinet, and tenor sax. She says he keeps occupied with his own business repairing instruments on the road, which also comes in handy for the tour. “Our instruments also break,” she points out. “The G# cork fell out of the flute in a show once, and Mike fixed it at intermission.”
Another revelation: Ferrara points out that on Broadway, you don’t have to play eight shows a week. “There’s a very healthy sub pool. Someone once said that when you take an elevator to the top floor, you’re supposed to send it back down for those waiting. On Broadway, even if you don’t need the time off, you spread the workaround. But on the road, you can’t do that.” Eight shows a week is taxing on the body, mind—and sometimes soul. “On the plus side, Disney does give us access to the cast’s physical therapist, which is immensely helpful.” Also, in each city, the company managers publish a highlight sheet. “They have been sending us a list of LGBTQ and BIPOC-owned businesses and restaurants that we can support. That’s a tremendous thing.”
Other tour discoveries have been a little more fun: “One of the best pieces of advice I got about personal care is that hotel hard water is terrible for your hair,” she laughs. “I always seek out a good salon and find someone to do my hair.”
After figuring out the ins and outs of day-to-day existence on the road, Ferrara decided it was time to dig deeper. “We joined the tour in February 2020, and six weeks later we were shut down by COVID-19. Then, we had 18 months of not playing. But we still met once a month, and I was elected union steward.” In this role, Ferrara is charged with fulfilling many of the duties that would otherwise be undertaken by an in-house contractor. The post affords her direct contact and daily interaction with the Frozen company management.
Last year, AFM President Ray Hair reached out to ask if Ferrara might represent the opinions of traveling musicians on issues around COVID-19, in advance of the June 2022 COVID Agreement. “Everyone had been doing the best they could with limited info,” she explains. “My work as road player rep involved calling union stewards on other tours and asking about issues like masking, testing, etc., to determine what worked and what didn’t. I also attended two meetings with the Broadway League where I spoke on behalf of tours.” Ferrara says this will help set precedent for any future events, such as another pandemic.
Ferrara is currently engaged in discussions for the Pamphlet B 2023 negotiations. She explains that tours fall under two categories. Short engagement tours are exactly that: “These tours could be one-night stops. They are exhausting and can last for around a year.” By contrast, the Frozen tour falls under the Full Pamphlet B category. “We sit down for weeks at a time, sometimes months.”
Often, she says, musicians considering employment on a tour don’t understand the difference. “I urge colleagues with questions to call the AFM and ask about the contract.” She points to George Fiddler, the AFM’s director of Touring, Theater, and Immigration, and Michael Manley, Organizing and Education Division director. “Both have been extraordinarily helpful.” She is also involved in the Pamphlet B Survey Committee tasked with creating a survey for traveling musicians, with the info serving as a tool for upcoming negotiations.
In all of these areas, Ferrara says that communication and its related technology has been a remarkable boon. “Stewards on different tours can talk to each other in real-time. We can’t always call our AFM rep on a Saturday night if a problem arises. Video conferencing on Zoom has become a fantastic tool to foster a supportive network of stewards and provide access to fast, valuable feedback. This is my very first tour, so for me to have a question and be able to reach out to someone, say, from The Lion King tour, who has been on tour for years, and get immediate answers, is extremely valuable.”
She adds that Zoom has also become a powerful tool for potential organizing. “We can now train stewards to organize, making it possible to take action if we need to. Before, Michael Manley would have had to get on a plane to visit every tour. Now we can just organize these meetings on Zoom and truly meet the needs of traveling musicians in a way that wasn’t possible before.”