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Home » Organizing » Larger Orchestras Bring Excitement to Broadway Shows

Larger Orchestras Bring Excitement to Broadway Shows


While touring orchestration sizes remain a concern, the past few years have seen an encouraging return to original, large orchestras in revivals of classics on Broadway. For example, the revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theater, which played sold out shows for two years (2008-2010) used a 29-piece orchestra, as does the upcoming revival of The King and I (March 2015).

On the Town, which opened to rave reviews at Lyric Theatre in October, currently has the largest orchestra on Broadway, a fact that has been well marketed. “The choice was made early on to elevate the stature of the orchestra in this production,” explains James Moore, music director for On the Town and a member of Local 802 (New York City). The orchestra was also physically elevated about four feet so it is more visible to the audience.

“On our official opening night the orchestra got a standing ovation in the middle of the show from 1,900 people,” adds Moore. “It’s been like nothing I’ve experienced and this is my sixth or seventh Broadway show. And the players feel it too. The play is just world class and it is a total joy.”

Local 802 member Ted Sperling is music director for The King and I and was also music director for South Pacific. “It takes a certain size to sound like ‘an orchestra’!” he explains. “You need a critical mass of string players, for example. Otherwise it sounds more like a chamber group or a pop band. You get an incredible sense of joy and excitement from a big orchestra. Interestingly, a large orchestra can also be very sensitive to accompanying singers. With a string section, you can have 15 people playing and still hear every word.”

According to Sperling, the orchestra size should relate to the production as a whole, and be in scale with the number of cast members. Scaling down that equation will lead to compromises that could sacrifice sound quality.

“It’s pretty hard to do purely instrumental selections, like overtures and entr’actes and dance music, when you have a very small group,” he contends. “It’s also tricky to have variety in the sound.”

For example, he explains the dilemma he faced with the 2005-2006 Lincoln Center Theater production of The Light in the Piazza. “When we were in rehearsals, we started to worry that the orchestra was going to be too small for the scale of the production and the size of the theater. So we did an experiment in a rehearsal studio, and played the same pieces twice, first with a nine-person group, and then with 18. All we did was add more string players. It made a huge difference, and with the help of a generous benefactor, we were able to perform the show with the full 18 players.”

Both critics and audiences know and appreciate the difference between scaled down orchestras and a full pit. “We got overwhelmingly positive response from audiences who saw South Pacific,” adds Sperling. “Our director, Bart Sher, worked with our set designer, Michael Yeargen, to figure out a way to feature the orchestra visually during the overture, which was extremely effective. As a result, everyone knew we had 30 virtuosi down in the pit playing their hearts out!”

In an opening review of On the Town, Huffington Post drama critic Steven Suskin wrote, “The producers have wisely invested in a full orchestra of 28, which makes a big difference in a day when hit musicals make do with nine. (Thirty years back, most musicals—even lousy ones—had 20 or more players.) Full credit goes to musical director James Moore, who did a similarly stellar job on the recent large-orchestra revivals of Follies and Ragtime. Listeners be advised: this is what Broadway sounds like when you splurge on six violins.”

“There is nothing that can replicate the sound and the feel of a full orchestra,” adds Local 802 AFM President Tino Gagliardi. “There is a reason that people love the excellence a full complement of musicians provides: it is simply a richer and more vibrant experience, and audiences can tell the difference.”

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