Tag Archives: theatre

State of Touring Theatrical Productions Still Uncertain, But Digital Options Increasing

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The following day, the governor of New York State banned the gathering of groups larger than 500 people after 5 p.m. each night, effectively shutting down all of Broadway. On March 20, the AFM and the Broadway League came to a settlement agreement regarding the total shutdown of the shows. By April 12, all tours had been officially canceled. 

To underscore the impact this has had on theatre and touring, it was only a few months earlier that I had reported to the International Executive Board that we had 27 tours running, 14 of which were full Pamphlet B. All live theatre has been on hiatus for over seven months and the latest information we have from the Broadway League is that the continued suspension of all ticket sales for Broadway performances will continue through May 30, 2021. 

As I write this article, the state of touring theatrical productions is still uncertain. Although we may see certain regions of the US and Canada become less affected by the ongoing pandemic, the inconsistent state and local regulatory restrictions currently in place make putting together a “smart” itinerary a challenge.

One area where theatre musicians are seeing some activity is in electronic media. Show and theatre producers, in an effort to keep our audiences engaged, have held virtual internet streaming events. This offers us the opportunity to perform—something we are all driven to do—but we have to be very careful not to devalue our work by offering to perform streaming events for little or no compensation. My department is working closely with the Electronic Media Services Division to ensure that musicians asked to perform for these events are paid fairly with appropriate benefits. For events that are held to raise money for charity where musicians are asked to donate their wages, an AFM contract must be filed for the event and benefits to those musicians should be paid. Musicians have every right to offer their wages as a contribution, but those wages must be paid for you to be able to contribute the money and receive the appropriate tax credit.

Another source of income for theatre musicians flows from the options available to regional theatres to utilize archived libraries. This new agreement, promulgated specifically for use during the pandemic, allows for the exploitation of these archives in exchange for a fee to the musicians who recorded the captured performance. The agreement allows the use of full productions and clips or excerpts from a show and provides a fee structure based on how long a company wants the archive viewable.

The New Media provision of the Live TV Agreement has also been used as a way to stream new theatrical content. Some theatres are also contemplating productions with a reduced live audience size in addition to a live internet stream in conjunction with the live performance. Needless to say, the live theatre industry is working hard to adjust to these new and difficult challenges.

Early in the summer, I started working with the officers of the Theatre Musicians Association—President Tony D’Amico, Vice President Heather Boehm, and Secretary-Treasurer Mark Pinto—and the Director of Broadway Jan Mullen to evaluate the needs of theatre musicians for a safe return to work. The result was the creation of guidelines to assist in the bargaining of safety protocols for a safe return to work in theatre. 

Please remember, under no circumstance should anyone sign a health waiver in order to return to work. It is the obligation of our employer to provide for a safe and healthy work environment. These safety protocols can be found on the Theatre Resources page on the AFM website.

We will be faced with many challenges in ensuring musicians performing in the theatre pit environment remain safe and healthy. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions or comments: tgagliardi@afm.org.

Report on the Twenty-Fifth Annual TMA Conference

Greetings from the Theatre Musicians Association (TMA) international headquarters, located in north central Massachusetts! Full disclosure: I’m sitting at my kitchen table, reflecting on our 25th annual TMA conference, which took place this past August. Twenty-five years of doing anything is a milestone, and it would be dishonest of me to write I was not more than a little sad that our silver anniversary gathering could not be celebrated in person. The reality of the current pandemic necessitated an online event. So, for the first time in our history, TMA officers, directors, members, and AFM leadership assembled virtually to discuss all things theatre-related. However, there was a silver lining to presenting a conference in this fashion: Attendance by the TMA general membership was far greater than what we have seen at past in-person conferences. Also, we were able to open this conference to interested non-members, as well as potential new chapter organizers. More on that in the coming months.

The conference began with my brief welcome, after which I turned the proceedings over to AFM International President Ray Hair. Hair gave a sobering assessment of the music business in general, and the theatre industry in particular. Currently, the Broadway League and Disney have no intention of sitting down with us to negotiate a successor agreement to the expired Pamphlet B contract. Hair predicted that musical theatre producers and presenters will use this pandemic as an excuse to gut contracts and abolish provisions the AFM has fought for over many years.

Following the president, I was pleased to introduce AFM International Vice President Bruce Fife, who spoke about the new version of the AFM’s officer training course. This course was given only once, at the Western Conference, before the pandemic hit and things were shut down. For the time being, the program is being presented via Zoom. AFM Secretary-Treasurer Jay Blumenthal reported that work dues coming into the Federation were down, as one might expect. To make matters worse, the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program was not available to labor unions, so no help was to be found there. Blumenthal finished his report by telling us the International Executive Board endorsed the Biden/Harris ticket in the upcoming election.

During my president’s report, I spoke about the timeline of the Broadway and touring shows shutdowns, the plight of our musicians on the road whose instruments were stranded on trucks for months, and the uncertain future of our business. While things certainly look bleak, I pointed out the public misses the theatre, as displayed by the tremendous success of Disney Plus’s broadcast of Hamilton. I am confident musical theatre will return to Broadway and cities across the United States and Canada. 

In preparation of that day, TMA, in cooperation with AFM Director of Theatre, Touring, and Booking Tino Gagliardi, drafted a document outlining suggested safety protocols for theatre reopening, previously published in these pages. TMA Vice President Heather Boehm, Secretary-Treasurer Mark Pinto, and myself have also drafted a document that addresses the complexities of subbing after theatres reopen. There will no doubt continue to be new COVID cases after we return to work, and a clear, carefully considered plan for last-minute pit orchestra substitutions must be in place. I also mentioned how proud I was that the TMA Executive Board published a statement of support for those who work towards ending systemic racism in the United States. 

Boehm then spoke about unemployment insurance issues musicians face, the huge threat the new virtual orchestra technology KeyComp poses to the employment of live musicians in the pit, and the successful organizing campaign of Chicago’s Porchlight Theatre she spearheaded. Pinto gave a positive  report on TMA’s finances and membership numbers.

We were then treated to reports from two of the other four players’ conferences—Chairperson Meredith Snow for the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), and President Mike Smith for the Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA). Lovie Smith-Wright gave her always-interesting diversity report, made all the more important due to the current wave of civil unrest and protests against systematic racism in the United States. Her report was the perfect precursor for the following day’s diversity roundtable.

Closing out Day 1 was Gagliardi’s report, giving a timeline of the Broadway shutdown and the subsequent closing of touring productions. He reported that while the Broadway League has stated there will not be a resumption of shows before the first of January, there are some regions that are advertising productions for the fall of 2020. He also cautioned about musicians devaluing their work by offering to livestream their performances without receiving compensation. 

Day 2 of the conference began with a presentation from renowned peak performance psychologist Dr. Don Greene, who offered coping mechanisms customized for musicians. We then heard from the other two players’ conference presidents—Robert Frasier of the Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians (OCSM) and Marc Sazer of the Recording Musicians Association (RMA). AFM Legislative, Political, and Diversity Director Alfonso Pollard gave us a legislative report highlighting the work he is doing to represent musicians’ interests on Capitol Hill. Smith-Wright and Pollard then led a thought-provoking roundtable examining diversity in the musical theatre orchestra. 

The final presentation of the day was titled, “COVID-19, Musicians, and the Return to Work,” led by otolaryngologist Dr. Adam Schwalje. This enlightening presentation examined the science of COVID and the criteria that must be met to ensure our safety as we return to the theatre. 

Finally, elections were held, and all national TMA officers were reelected by acclamation: myself as president, Boehm as vice president, and Pinto as secretary-treasurer. Also elected by acclamation were Jan Mullen as director for Broadway, Lovie Smith-Wright as director of membership-at-large, and Angela Chan as director for travelers. 

My sincere thanks to all the presenters and attendees for making this conference a great success. I look forward to seeing everyone in person next summer!

Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown

An illuminating book of lyrics and stories from the musical Hadestown—the winner of eight Tony Awards—from its author, songwriter Anaïs Mitchell. In this book, Mitchell takes readers inside her more than decade-long process of building the musical from the ground up—detailing her inspiration, breaking down the lyrics, and opening up the process of creation that gave birth to Hadestown.

Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown, by Anaïs Mitchell, Plume Publishing, www.penguin.com.

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.

Countering the Shrinking Pit with Education

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


Summer is AFM conference season, and the Theatre Musicians Association kicked that season off with our 22nd annual set of meetings held in Phoenix, Arizona, July 31 and August 1. It proved to be a pair of jam-packed days featuring presentations, reports, and discussions on many subjects of interest to theatre musicians. Attendees were treated to a pension presentation, facilitated by AFM President Ray Hair and a panel of AFM-EPF trustees, lawyers, and actuaries. A representative from the Actors Fund spoke about health care, and what we might expect from proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act. Chicago TMA Chapter Director Heather Boehm offered some useful member recruitment ideas that have proved successful in her city.

I’d like to extend a huge “thank you” to Local 586 (Phoenix, AZ) President Jerry Donato, Secretary-Treasurer Doug Robinson, as well as TMA Phoenix Chapter Director Jeff Martin for their help organizing the conference and welcoming us to their city.

I am happy to report that Heather Boehm was elected by acclimation to serve as TMA’s national vice president. I look forward to working with Boehm as we continue to build upon the past successes of our organization. My thanks to outgoing Vice President Paul Castillo for all the dedicated work and invaluable assistance he gave me during my first year as president. Castillo will continue to work for TMA as the Southern California chapter director.

During my opening remarks to the conference, I spoke a bit about what I see as perhaps the major issue for theatre players across the US and Canada—the continual downsizing of pit orchestras as technology advances. One player now does the job of what once took an entire section of musicians to perform. Imagine my surprise when, during a trip to a Boston theatre a few years back to see a performance of The Book of Mormon—the epitome of a blockbuster show—I looked into the pit to discover that the percussion-heavy score required not one single piece of percussion, never mind a percussionist to play those sounds.

Of course, this is not a new issue for us. Technology has inevitably improved over the decades, and the practice of acoustic instruments being convincingly mimicked by other means has been going on for decades. While, to me, the computerized or sampled sound of an oboe played on a keyboard cannot compare to the artistry a real oboist brings to the part, in the grand scheme of the modern musical, the nuance is lost in the greater spectacle. In other words, by and large the public doesn’t notice. This is where we can make progress in our fight to keep our pits filled with professional musicians.

The key (as with most things) is education. We must continue to educate the public. They need to know that often they are not getting their money’s worth. A show that used 15 musicians on Broadway will use six on the road, but continue to charge theatregoers the same Broadway ticket prices. Only with an informed public can we ensure the continued integrity of our art form. Only the audiences can demand quality.

The public does notice. During a recent Boston run of a touring show I played, the pit consisted of one trumpet, one trombone, one violin, a bunch of keyboards, and a rock rhythm section. More than one acquaintance of mine commented to me that things sounded quite thin, with one friend even saying the violinist should have just stayed home, since she was contributing so little to the overall sound of the show. An audience would not stand for paying full ticket price for a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony by the Boston Symphony Orchestra with a choir of 10 people along with some sound “enhancement,” or even worse, with the low brass parts played on a keyboard. Of course, that’s ridiculous.

I believe one of TMA’s main missions is to shed light on this subject and let the public reach the natural conclusion: a show utilizing more highly skilled musicians results in a better theatre experience.

Of course, the question is how to go about getting this message out. Some ideas that have been recently tossed around include educational leafleting in front of theatres before performances, letters to the editors responding to reviews (criticizing a show for a small pit or praising it for healthy numbers), as well as social media campaigns. I’d welcome your comments and suggestions. 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.

musical theatre

Today’s Theatre: Diversity in Form and Function

michael-manleyby Michael Manley, AFM Director Touring/Theatre/Booking Division and Assistant to the President

Welcome to the 2016 International Musician Touring and Theatre issue. With New York City’s theatre scene already heavily covered in the press, this annual issue looks at what’s happening outside Broadway. This year we focus on the groundbreaking musical Hamilton as it debuts in Chicago, and examine the future of musical theatre, theatre music, and theatre musicians.

The two words that I feel best describe the changes I’ve noticed in musical theatre are curiosity and diversity. Composers and performers are curious about different musical genres, styles, and eras, and performing artists are diverse in their skill set—even reaching beyond musical performance to other performing arts disciplines.

But curiosity and diversity are not the hallmarks of traditional instrumental music study, which involves focused specialization on narrow goals. “You play the trombone? Great—are you a jazz or classical player? You can’t be both.” That was the chorus of our teachers for generations. And we zeroed in on singular definitions: we identified as an orchestral clarinetist, a lead show trumpet player, a baroque cellist.

While this focus is necessary to achieve the highest level of technical mastery, it is not always sufficient to succeed in the musical theatre world of today. Musicians are being asked to play more instruments, be fluent in an array of musical styles, and adapt to ever-evolving technology. In some cases, they are even being asked to—very literally—take the stage, blurring the line between actor and musician. These “actor-musicians” possess an array of skills that has them playing musical instruments, singing, dancing, and acting, often all at once. You can check out some of our talented AFM actor-musicians touring with Cabaret or Into the Woods this coming season, and in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway.

If there is one show that represents the revolutionary change in American musicals, it is Hamilton. A musical melting-pot that freely draws on rap, hip-hop, rock, R&B, and even classical music, it requires the talented musicians of the Broadway and Chicago productions to not only understand all these styles, but have a passion for and mastery of them.

No one better exemplifies this spirit of curiosity and diversity than Hamilton Orchestrator and Musical Supervisor Alex Lacamoire, who I had a chance to interview as he launched the show’s second production in Chicago. In the Upbeat section, we also cover the view “from the pit” with Chicago Hamilton musicians and Music Director Colin Welford of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL). Veteran actor-musician Katrina Yaukey of Local 802 (New York City) shares her unique career path and story, as she debuts Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway.

In the world of musical theatre, “or” is being replaced by “and” when it comes to musicians. For our trombonist torn between classical and jazz, “You can’t be both” has given way to “You need to be both.” And even this may only be the first step on the curious, diverse learning path—incorporating an array of musical styles and skills both inside and outside of music—which are needed to succeed as a musical theatre musician in 2016 and beyond.

Join the conversation online, through our “AFM on the Road” Facebook group.

katrina yaukey

Taking the Stage with Actor-Musician Katrina Yaukey

katrina yaukey

Actor-musician Katrina Yaukey of Local 802 (New York City) plays accordion on stage in the musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.

One of the radically innovative trends in theatre music has been the emergence of the actor-musician. These multi-talented artists serve not only as musicians in the show—often playing several instruments in one evening—they are also singing, dancing, acting, and delivering dialogue. And while these shows are not the norm, they also cannot be dismissed as mere outliers anymore. Shows such as the Tony Award-winning Once and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812—which debuts on Broadway this month—were originally conceived for actor-musicians. Others are radically reinvented revivals, from Sweeney Todd to Company, and two currently-touring union revivals, Cabaret and Into the Woods.

Actor-musician Katrina Yaukey of Local 802 (New York City) naturally fits the cross-discipline niche required for Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. A double major in musical theatre and musical performance (she is a classically trained oboist), her dual-discipline preparation uniquely positioned her to seize the actor-musician moment. But she admits that her Penn State professors were left scratching their heads at her decision to pursue two very demanding disciplines at the same time.

“I had the musical theatre department saying, ‘What are you doing? Oboe is a distraction!’” notes Yaukey. “And the music department was like, ‘You’re a good oboist—why are you doing this theatre thing?’” While this mix may still seem unnatural to many in the US and Canada, Yaukey notes that in England, universities already offer majors for “actor-musos,” as they call them.

Yaukey credits her parents for stoking her early musical passion and curiosity. “From the time I could stand, I was in front of the piano,” states Yaukey, who also pursued dance at an early age. “My parents had a band, Dean’s Duo—which got renamed to The Main Event, when my brothers and sisters and I were old enough to join.” While Yaukey was initially drawn to the violin, her public school music program lacked a string department. This led her to the oboe, and an eventual music scholarship to Penn State.

While still an undergraduate at Penn State, Yaukey took an audition on a whim, during a vacation to New York City. Much to her surprise, she landed the job touring as a dancer with the first national tour of Victor/Victoria. Noting her offstage skills as an oboist, a fellow touring actor encouraged Yaukey to audition for an actor-musician role in an upcoming revival of Cabaret on Broadway.

“On a break from tour, I went home and pulled out a tape recorder. I got out my oboe … and my brother’s flute, and my sister’s sax, and I played a little piano too,” she says. She eventually landed a role in the production, playing alto sax, tenor sax, clarinet, and keyboards during a four-year stint. And by the way, she also understudied the lead role of Sally Bowles. “Cabaret was the dream—the perfect mix of the two things I loved—music and acting,” she says. “I couldn’t believe I was getting to do all these things at once.”

Her next big role came in a reinvention of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, where she covered several roles playing flute, alto sax, trumpet, tuba, oboe, and piano. “I’ve always wanted to play everything—I think I got that from my parents!” she notes. With the money she was earning—working under the joint jurisdictions of Local 802 and Actors Equity—she was finally able to buy a violin and take lessons.

From here, she went on to play the role of Pirelli in the tour of Sweeney Todd, where she also played accordion, flute, and piano. Her varied career then took her to the play Warhorse and the national tour of Billy Elliot. In between gigs, she discovered a program at the Berklee College of Music that allowed her finally to finish—at the age of 40—her undergraduate degree in Music Production and Technology.

While her role in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 has her playing only one instrument, the accordion, it still poses challenges. “Comet is like Cabaret taken to a whole new level,” she says. “It is very physical, like Once, requiring us to run, kick, play, and sing—often at the same time.” Comet creator Dave Malloy, a member of Local 802 and himself an actor-musician, was interested in an intimate exchange between performer and audience, with roving musicians intermingling with patrons. He created the show with many of his actor-musician friends in mind.

For Yaukey, curiosity and diversity have always been the core of her artistic passion. “It was never about being ‘the best’ for me. I didn’t want to be the best oboist, or pianist. It was more that I love all these instruments, and I love music.” Yaukey’s musical interest seems to have no limit. “I have 33 instruments underneath my piano right now, and I recently got an upright bass.”

Though she chose not to pursue the single-minded perfection of a career in oboe performance, Yaukey has no regrets. She is proof that you can do many things well in order to play—and sing, and dance, and act—your way to success.

The Chicago Hamilton Pit: Musical Variety and Technical Focus

The Chicago Hamilton band, all members of Local 10-208 (L to R): Felton Offard (guitar), Rick Snyder (keyboard 2/assistant conductor), Tahirah Whittington (cello), Colin Welford (music director, conductor, keyboard 1), Roberta Freier (violin 2), Tom Mendel (bass), Heather Boehm (viola/violin), Tom Hipskind (drums), Chuck Bontrager (concert master/violin 1), and Jim Widlowski (percussion).

The Chicago Hamilton band, all members of Local 10-208 (L to R): Felton Offard (guitar), Rick Snyder (keyboard 2/assistant conductor), Tahirah Whittington (cello), Colin Welford (music director, conductor, keyboard 1), Roberta Freier (violin 2), Tom Mendel (bass), Heather Boehm (viola/violin), Tom Hipskind (drums), Chuck Bontrager (concert master/violin 1),
and Jim Widlowski (percussion).

Hamilton Chicago opened October 19, while the Broadway show continues its unprecedented success in New York City. Playing a show like Hamilton, likely to enjoy a long run, is a dream come true for its Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL) musicians. These musicians all share a love for playing the wide variety of genres—from rap to classical—that composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and arranger Alex Lacamoire have written into the show. The demanding nature of Hamilton, in terms of stamina and timing, keeps musicians on their toes.

International Musician asked the pit—the six-piece rhythm section of Colin Welford (music director, conductor, keyboard1), Rick Snyder (keyboard 2/assistant conductor), Felton Offard (guitar), Tom Mendel (bass), Tom Hipskind (drums), and Jim Widlowski (percussion), plus string quartet of Chuck Bontrager (concert master/violin 1), Roberta Freier (violin 2), Heather Boehm (viola/violin), and Tahirah Whittington (cello)—to talk about their experiences so far.

Leading the Pit


Music Director/Conductor Colin Welford

“It feels so nice going in with confidence,” says Music Director and Conductor Colin Welford, referring to the Broadway show’s success. “You can see that in the cast. We know it’s going to sell very well for a good while. It gives you a feeling
of empowerment.”

“The parts are well written so there is breathing room, listening room; it’s varied. Also, the actors keep it fresh. It’s not going to be cookie cutter by any means. That keeps it alive for us,” he adds.

“The most important thing is for the conductor to bring people in together. There’s quite a lot of that, ” says Welford, explaining his role. “It looks complicated on paper, but it’s really about the conductor listening to the stage and making a decision when to place the chord. It looks fuzzy on paper, but makes for a natural performance. The show isn’t directed to the minuscule detail—first it’s acted, second it’s rhythmic.”

Welford had worked with Assistant Conductor Rick Snyder in both Wicked and The Lion King. “I’d been with The Lion King for about seven and a half years, waiting for an opportunity to go home, but I needed a hit,” says Snyder. When he heard about Welford doing Hamilton Chicago he saw his opportunity.

Assistant Conductor Rick Snyder

Assistant Conductor Rick Snyder

Snyder was immediately drawn to the music. “When I heard the show—reading the book at the same time—I thought it was an outstanding adaptation. I didn’t know how I would react to the rap, but it’s really smart. Plus, there’s also a whole lot of late ’70s and ’80s pop music underneath, and that’s what I was weaned on,” he says.

Both conductor/keyboardists say that the fact that the show is extremely verbal means that actors and musicians must be keenly focused. “It’s a challenge for the actors as they’ve got to shape the phrases and communicate [through singing] as in normal conversation, so that the offset of the rhythm doesn’t throw the ear in such a way that the listener gets confused,” says Welford.

Driving Rhythm

Tom Mendel

Tom Mendel

Bassist Tom Mendel plays four instruments in the show. “I’m playing acoustic bass, five-string electric, four-string hollow body for a ‘Paul McCartney’ kind of sound, and keyboard bass, which is pretty unusual. There’s one tune where I’m playing gliss on the five-string bass, and then on the next downbeat, keyboard bass,” he says.

“Alex’s arrangements are very specific and rewarding. He understands the instruments he’s writing for,” he adds. “There is so much nuance in the part, yet still room for putting individual ‘feel’ into it. I really want to honor his arrangements and Lin’s amazing songs. It demands complete concentration for both acts—an hour and 15 minutes each.”


Jim Widlowski

“When Hamilton was at the Public Theatre, everyone would ask, ‘Is it really that good?’ Yes, it is!” says guitarist Felton Offard, explaining what drew him to the show. “Alex Lacamoire’s orchestration calls on each instrument to create colors that put us in a certain time and place. The diversity was what I loved so much. It goes from classical string quartet to all out rock and roll—sometimes in the same song.”

“I’ve never played a through-composed show before—one that doesn’t have any time to rest. This show is a beast for every chair. The electric guitar has 131 patch changes,” he says. “There’s an articulation mark for almost every note.”

Tom Hipskind

Tom Hipskind

For drummer Tom Hipskind, it was the special kinship he felt playing the Miranda/Lacamoire show In the Heights that made him want to play Hamilton. He wasn’t disappointed.

“The lyrics are so catchy and well written,” he says, pointing to the “sheer constancy” of the show. “Most shows have their moments of ebb and flow, but Hamilton has a relentless drive from beginning to end that is reflected in every aspect: music, choreography, lighting. To be part of that, much less to be driving that freight train as the drummer, is quite the rush! Rhythmic demands are what I live for as a drummer, and when I have an amazing part like this to play, it comes naturally and feeds me creatively!”

The Strings


(L to R) The strings (front) Roberta Freier and Chuck Bontrager (back) Heather Boehm, and Tahirah Whittington.

Chuck Bontrager, concertmaster and violin 1, says that words cannot express how fortunate and grateful he feels to be part of Hamilton. “Ever since I started college, nonclassical styles have been as important to me as Beethoven and Shostakovich. In Hamilton, I get to use my Mozart chops, help with rock riffs, carry ballads, and play Motown-like pad and lead lines,” he says.

Bontrager says it’s the most stylistically diverse and challenging show for bowed strings that he’s seen. “There are many sections throughout the show where parts of the string quartet carry the groove. That’s very unusual and brave writing. I think it will prove to be some of the most important and influential string writing in any arena in the past several decades.”

Violinist Roberta Freier says that style, rhythm, and intonation are the most challenging aspects of playing Hamilton. “Other shows I’ve played are more ‘symphonic’ in nature. Your notes can ring and the rhythms are less complex. In Hamilton, pizzicatos are dampened and most notes are very short,” she explains, adding that it was the idea of combining old and new genres that drew her to the show.

“I’m a classically-trained musician who grew up having an affinity for R&B, hip-hop, classical, and soul,” says cellist Tahirah Whittington. “Having the opportunity to perform in Hamilton is living the dream. The way in which Hamilton mashes up different time periods and idioms is mirrored in the score. It’s the ultimate collaboration of time, text, and music.”

“The cello plays many different roles in the show,” she says. Whittington plays solo, rhythm section, bass voice of the string quartet, tenor voice of the string quartet, as a duo with other instruments, plus is the rhythmic drive in songs like “We Know.” “The music never stops for ‘in the clear’ dialogue,” she adds.

“I don’t know if this is a one-off show,” concludes Welford. “It really requires very good timing and I think that’s definitely something we’ll see more of in the future, whether it’s hip-hop or rap. But it’s important to note that, though we talk about the show as rap or hip-hop, it’s still solidly based in musical theatre with so many styles on stage and so many roots. It’s not this weird, bizarre thing. It’s smart, with homage to a lot of musical theatre traditions as well.”