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pit orchestra

Why We Should Advocate for Larger Pit Orchestras

by Anthony D’Amico, President Theatre Musicians Association (TMA) and members of Locals 9-535 (Boston, MA) and 198-457 (Providence, RI)

pit orchestraI received many insightful comments from musicians across our Federation after my November 2017 column addressing the downsizing of touring musical orchestras. Most of the comments suggested ways to educate the public about this issue in order to have them demand larger orchestras to enhance their theatre experience. However, one colleague in Boston asked me to expand on why a larger orchestra would provide the public with a more satisfying night in the theatre. What is it about a fully staffed pit of highly skilled musicians that gives theatergoers the unquantifiable thrill that only live music can offer?

Real Instruments Just Sound Better 

There is no doubt that synthesizer technology has improved exponentially over the last 20 years or so. Keyboard samplers continue to get better, guitarists are using Fractal multi-effects processors more frequently, and percussionists often use CAT technology to broaden their sound palette. However, I am convinced real instruments always sound better. A sampler cannot reproduce the turn of phrase of a master oboist, the excitement generated by a lead trumpeter, or the warmth of a full string section. Perhaps these things are unquantifiable, but audiences notice. In my experience, the average patron might not be able to explain why they prefer the sound of real instruments, but they know they do.

Music Sounds Better When Musicians Play Off Each Other

We musicians have all (I hope) experienced the unique thrill of interacting musically with our colleagues. Again, it’s a sensation that is difficult to express in words. It is an important element that transforms mere sound into art. In musical theatre, I would argue that, when a larger number of musicians play off each other in a pit, the musical back and forth raises the quality of the show. There is no doubt audiences do notice.

More Is More

As mentioned in my previous article, shows originally orchestrated with larger forces often tour with a reduced complement of players. Also, when shows are revived, it is common for the scores to be reorchestrated for smaller forces. A show that once boasted a full string section, hits the road configured for few or even no players. Three trumpet books are condensed into one, and so on. Obviously this produces a thinner sounding orchestra. But, we also need to be aware of the wear and tear these reduced orchestrations exert on the players performing them. Where once a three-trumpet section shared the burden, on tour one player is handling all the trumpet duties. I’ve often heard brass and woodwind players complain that their instruments don’t leave their faces for the duration of the show, resulting in fatigue or even injury.

While the obvious reason producers reduce orchestration is financial, I would argue this practice could very well hurt their bottom line. If the audience hears a show with the large orchestra the composer intended, what will these patrons think when they attend a future production with a small ensemble? Will they notice and next time think twice before spending their hard-earned money on the ever-increasing cost of a ticket?

In a recent phone call with TMA Vice President Heather Boehm, she mentioned to me that the Lyric Opera of Chicago produces one musical theatre production per season using their full opera orchestra. A show presented with these kinds of forces in the pit produces an authentic, remarkable experience. What will patrons in attendance think the next time they see a show with an orchestra of seven musicians? I guarantee they will notice. Recently, Jesus Christ Superstar was presented live on NBC utilizing a 32-piece orchestra. Playbill, in listing the seven best things about this broadcast, ranked the use of a large live orchestra as number one.

At recent Theatre Musicians Association (TMA) conferences, we have often discussed this issue. These meetings have produced useful ideas to raise audience awareness of pit size and quality using a few simple actions. For example, if a show in your local theatre uses a large orchestra, take a few minutes to express your approval on social media or in the comment section of online reviews. Conversely, negative comments can be added to shows using small ensembles. Increasing the pit musicians’ visibility is important, and can be achieved by having musicians hand out leaflets in front of the theatre before a show, giving short bios of the talented musicians they are about to hear, and inviting patrons to come to the pit before the performance or during intermission to say hello.

Another idea is to include a clause in local theatre contracts that requires the names of the musicians be listed in the program, and even allow for short musician bios to appear alongside those of the cast. As always, I welcome your ideas. I can be reached at president.tma@afm-tma.org.


Introducing the Audience to the Pit

by Tony D’Amico, President Theatre Musicians Association and Member of Locals 9-535 (Boston, MA) and 198-457 (Providence, RI)

Musical theatre and technology have always had a bit of an uneasy relationship. The modern musical was born out of the light opera traditions of Gilbert and Sullivan in the 19th century, where it was the norm for large pit orchestras to accompany the singers on stage. The Golden Age of Theatre (1940s-1960s) saw the premieres of many of the classics of the art form by the likes of Porter, Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, and Gershwin, and culminating with the shows of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

As a rule, those shows used large orchestras. Oklahoma (1943) used 28 musicians in the pit and Carousel (1945) had an orchestra of 39. Not only did audiences expect a show to have an ensemble of this size, there was no viable technology that could replace musicians.

Things changed with the introduction of the synthesizer into musical theatre. The 1987 Broadway contract allowed the synthesizer into pits, and the instrument was used mainly to enhance the sound of orchestra members still numbering in the 20s. The 21st century brought us the Virtual Pit Orchestra; a device whose manufacturer claimed could emulate the entire pit orchestra, with just one person, known as the “tapper” controlling tempo and dynamics. The machines proved buggy (with entire productions coming to a standstill while the computer rebooted), and the sounds they produced were less than desirable.

New shows generally use smaller orchestras, and those players who are hired are asked to do more. This is even more the case when a Broadway show is configured to go out on the road. For example, Something Rotten, which played on Broadway for approximately a year and a half, had an orchestra of 18. When it went out on tour, the score was orchestrated down to 11 musicians. Phantom of the Opera opened on Broadway with an orchestra of 31 players. The tour out now is configured for 16.

Thanks to the admirable talents of musical theatre orchestrators, these reductions work well, but it also means players are being asked to do more. A Broadway production that had four reed players might be reorchestrated for two for the national tour. String sections are always ripe for downsizing. Going back to my previous Something Rotten example, a string quintet on Broadway has been trimmed to a duo of violin and bass for the tour, with synthesizers picking up the slack.

Of course, this is all driven by economics. Musical theatre in an expensive enterprise, and touring shows even more so. But, it’s a fact that audiences like shows with big orchestras. The 2008 Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific had a 29-piece orchestra, and both critics and audiences took notice.

This is a subject that gets discussed a great deal at Theatre Musicians Association conferences and board meetings. What can we do to convince producers that the investment in well-staffed pit orchestras will pay dividends in positive reviews, audience appreciation, and consequently ticket sales? It is clear that the public can, in fact, tell the difference when a production uses a full complement of excellent professional musicians. Ticket prices are continually climbing higher, and theatregoers should demand a first rate experience, which I would argue includes a band that uses the forces the composer intended.

One of the cornerstones of TMA’s mission is to educate the public about, and promote the idea of, quality musical theatre. Countless hours are spent at TMA conferences and in executive board meetings discussing how we can spread this idea. Informational leafleting before shows with an invitation to stop by the pit before the show or at intermission, ads in playbills, letters to the newspapers, and comments to online reviews are some ideas we are discussing to increase pit musician visibility to the audience. Please feel free to contact me at www.afm-tma.org if you have suggestions.

Musicians Bid Farewell to the Circus Life

by Michael Manley, Director AFM Touring/Theatre/Booking Division

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circuses—the Red and Blue units—give their final performances in May. Here’s a look at the unprecedented musical legacy of The Greatest Show on Earth.

A Singular Spectacle

Perry George (“P.G.”) Lowery sideshow band. Photo: Ringling Circus Museum

Every year for 146 years, The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (RBBB) Circus has inspired audiences throughout North America with one-of-a-kind spectacles accompanied by professional musicians performing bespoke circus music. Though there have been many traveling circuses over the years, RBBB is known simply as the Circus—with a capital C.

For every season since its debut in 1871, each act of The Greatest Show on Earth has soared to the waltzes, gallops, marches, drumrolls, and fanfares performed by tireless professional circus musicians. While the United States Marine Corps Band and The New York Philharmonic precede it on the cultural landscape, the circus is the oldest enduring touring entertainment in US history. It arrived five years before the debut of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Richard Wagner’s opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, and only six years after the end of the Civil War.

The train car has always been home to circus employees, and the railway their Main Street. Before the circus began playing arenas in the 1950s, workers set up temporary tent cities next to the big top. Performers—and animals—from around the globe lived and worked together in a mobile melting pot that foreshadowed the multicultural patchwork that came to define the American experience in the 20th century. Before radio, film, and television, the circus brought its singular spectacle to smaller cities and rural towns, whose residents had no access to the theatres, opera houses, and music halls of large cities. In building audiences in these smaller markets, the circus tilled the soil for future touring entertainment—from vaudeville to Broadway musicals—and even today’s sports and concert spectacles.

Music and the Circus

The final “Red” Unit Circus Band

Through every season, live music has been the engine of the circus. Its musicians are known as “windjammers,” a reference to “jamming” wind through their brass and woodwind instruments, sometimes for seven or more hours a day. In the early days the 30-plus musicians of the circus would divide so that half the musicians could play the traditional parade through town, while the other half gave a staged band concert—all before the show began. The circus provided access to jobs for musicians who were often outside the conservatory training programs. It spawned a large body of repertoire, which has become standard literature for concert, marching, and military bands. Like the well-known marches of Karl King and Henry Fillmore, much of this music was written by circus musicians themselves.

The Circus and Labor

Long-term steady employment has always been a draw of circus work. Its most famous bandleader, Merle Evans, raised his baton for 50 consecutive seasons from 1919 to 1969. In the first decade of the 20th Century, Ringling and other circuses of the day were early employers of African American musicians, though they were barred from the main tent and relegated to perform as “sideshow bands” due to the racial segregation of that era. The most renowned sideshow bandleader—composer and virtuoso cornetist Perry George (“P.G.”) Lowery—was justly famous for both his brilliant playing and his compositions, through his nearly 50-year circus career. Circus bands were not fully integrated until after the civil rights movement.

Over the years, the model for musical employment changed. In the 1950s, the circus retired the big top and began playing arenas. They toured with a small core of musicians, filling out the rest of the ensemble with local musicians in each venue. In this way, the circus provided a wealth of local musician employment over the next 30 to 40 years. In the late 1990s the circus phased out local musician hiring, and returned to traveling all of the musicians—bands of nine players on each unit—in 1998.

The 2014 “Gold” Unit Circus band. (Photo: Emily Fleck)

The AFM has covered the employment of circus musicians going back at least to the early 1940s. This continues today through an agreement between current circus owner, Feld Entertainment, Inc., and the AFM. One challenge faced by circus musicians is familiar to those in other sectors of live music—the preservation of jobs and maintaining large-size bands. The AFM has maintained the current traveling complement of nine musicians per unit for nearly 20 years, from 1998 through the RBBB Circus closure in 2017.

From 2004 to 2015, six additional circus musicians were employed on the Ringling “Gold” Unit, which was designed to play smaller towns outside the range of the railways that defined the “Red” and “Blue” Unit circuits. Since the employer was not providing train transportation, the “Gold” Unit contract contained a unique provision that allowed musicians to travel and live in recreational vehicles. This “RV clause” required zero-interest loans, the payment of a per-diem to offset vehicle costs, and an employer buy-back provision to protect musicians from incurring huge debt if their employment was severed. This was one of many “only on the circus” labor issues; problems with the train car, temperature, animal dander, or transportation from the train to the venue often trumped wages as priority negotiation items.

While the current Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circuses take their final bows, circus entertainment is far from dead. New York’s Big Apple Circus is currently striving to make a return, and Cirque du Soleil has a successful roster of updated traditional European circus shows. And it is not impossible to imagine the Ringling Circus resurrected in some smaller form in the future. What has always differentiated The Greatest Show on Earth is the sheer enormity of its scale—no future entertainment is likely to travel a company of 200-plus workers all over the continent on a mile-long train, for more than 40 weeks a year. Nor is any future production likely to generate hundreds of scores of musical repertoire, or provide a century of continuous musical employment.

The circus as an art form will live on, even as it also moves on and evolves. Still, it will never quite be the Circus.

The Clown Mohawk: A Story of Circus Solidarity

“It all started when the clowns gave him a mohawk,” the email began.

Not the usual message a union representative receives from a musician, but then nothing about the circus is usual. Former circus musician and union steward Donald Parker recounts the curious incident, circa 2004, which lead to his famous opening line:

“The circus was in Dallas at the United Center. We had a general manager (GM) who thought he could do whatever he wanted, and walk all over us. One of the musicians did get a mohawk haircut from one of the clowns, and the GM wanted to discipline him and pull him off the show because of his appearance. I told the GM he could do that, but he would still have to pay him because we didn’t have an appearance clause in our contract. The GM took issue with that, which really made the rest of the band mad.

“That night we set up a barber station outside our train car, and all nine of us in the band got a mohawk. Then we went down to a show party the GM was throwing, and proceeded to mingle and socialize as it nothing was different. We really wanted to shake him up and get under his skin. After the party, we all came back and shaved the rest of our hair off so the management couldn’t complain about our appearance on the bandstand. We shaved our heads in solidarity—and oppressive management was our best organizing tool!”

Thanks to Mike Montgomery (Windjammers Unlimited, Inc.), Mark Heter, Paul Celentano, and The Ringling Circus Museum for their research assistance in the preparation of these stories.