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Home » Organizing » Theatre Orchestration Trends and Possibilities

Theatre Orchestration Trends and Possibilities

  -  Theatre Musicians Association (TMA) President and member Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL)

I wrote an article in the May 2014 issue of the TMA Pit Bulletin entitled “Trends in Orchestration.” On hearing that this issue of the IM is focused on theatre, I decided to expand on those thoughts.

For the past decade, and perhaps longer, there has been a trend with some of the shows being produced on Broadway to use smaller-sized ensembles. This arises, in part, because many shows are using a pop orchestration containing a rhythm section (keyboards, guitars, bass, drums, and/or percussion), which may be augmented by a few horns and possibly some strings. Some of the electronic programming (keyboards, drums, and percussion, etc.) is done, not only to enhance the sound, but also to augment the size of the ensemble.

This trend has especially been the case for shows that leave Broadway and tour, where a reduction in instrumentation—and the musician employees who would play those chairs­—is often the case. The reason most often given for not using the original larger ensembles is cost. Of course, when some of these shows are blockbuster hits that sell out before they ever play a venue, and yet still choose to tour with reduced orchestrations, we can surmise that profit, not cost, is the controlling factor.

The fact that economics has such power in shaping the art form is disturbing. Obviously there is a finite amount of money to produce any given show, and the pencil-pushers have been encouraged to cut costs wherever they can. Over the years, accountants have encroached more and more on the artistic aspects of the show. In my opinion, this trend has gone too far. When cuts are being made to instrumentation strictly based on the bottom line, there is too much pressure being put on orchestrators and arrangers to get a full sound with the minimum number of musicians possible. This not only reduces the size of the ensemble, but usually puts a lot more weight in each performer’s part, which can result in injury to the musicians.

Another trend has been for some of the music licensing houses to refuse to rent out the larger original scores of musicals to theatres that ask for them. We need to advocate with these rights holders, composers, and producers that when productions choose to use the original large orchestrations, they should be allowed to. These scores are part of our American musical theatre heritage.

I believe the public is thrilled to hear larger ensembles. Isn’t it wonderful that a production like On the Town, which just opened on Broadway to rave reviews, chose to use 28 musicians for the Bernstein score and elevated the pit so that the audience could hear the natural sound emerging from it. Many theatres across the country (from the 11,000 seat MUNY in St. Louis to some with only a few hundred seats) are choosing to use larger orchestrations.

We are in the business of music, just as producers are in the business of putting on musicals. Finding ways to cut corners in artistic areas has been seen as a bottom-liner’s way to ensure profit, but the audience’s thrill of hearing larger ensembles, with their expanded richness of colors and textures, is also valid. We need to get this information to the public.

I live in Chicago, where reviewers have not only called presenters on using non-Equity and/or non-AFM productions, but also have raved about larger orchestras and original orchestrations.

In a recent review of Cats at a suburban theatre that touts using original orchestration, Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune said: “You also get to hear the original full orchestrations. Now, that might sound like a weird thing to highlight—you generally read lines praising big orchestras in reviews of light opera or lush, string-dependent classics like Carousel. But after years of hearing Cats scored with two computers, it really is exceptionally refreshing to hear the real flute, piccolo, trumpet, and English horn again. I’d forgotten some of the finesse in the original Andrew Lloyd Webber score.”

I am hopeful that there are reviewers that write these kind of positive articles in your areas. If not, make them aware of the role orchestration plays in the theatrical experience. Ticket prices are not going down. Shouldn’t their reviews advocate for the consumer as well?

These days, when technological advancements afford many people the ability to be entertained by staying home, isn’t providing an audience with live theater and live music an undeniable reason for them to attend? After all, they’re paying for it!