I should begin this post by saying that I don’t have musical theater in my blood. I don’t often know who the Tony Award winners are (let alone, nominations), and I never was one to scrimp and save my money only to spend it on a day in NYC to see a show. I never stood in the middle of Times Square waiting for hours on line at the TKTS booth, and there are very few songs that I can sing along to.
I have, however, seen a few Broadway productions (Phantom of the Opera, Aida, Les Miserables, 42nd Street, Avenue Q, RENT, Hair, and The Lion King) and a few shows on their national tours (1776, Spamalot, and Next to Normal). I’ve seen a bunch of off-Broadway productions (Oklahoma, Bye Bye Birdie, Grease, A Chorus Line, South Pacific, Damn Yankees, Guys and Dolls, The King and I, Little Shop of Horrors, Ragtime and The Music Man), and I’ve even played in the pit orchestras for a bunch of musical theater productions with schools and theater companies (My Fair Lady, Annie, Annie Get Your Gun, Mame, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Jesus Christ Superstar, Once Upon a Mattress, The Secret Garden, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, A Little Night Music, and probably some more I forgot about). My mom used to take me to see shows at the high schools in our area during the springtime, but the stage productions were never as fascinating to me as the meet-and-greet with the actors after the show. Despite not going out of my way to experience and participate in this genre, there are quite a few shows that I’m embarrassed to say I’ve only seen on television, VHS, or DVD.
I’m not sure what keeps me from indulging in this performing art since opera – which I enjoy – shares most of the same unpleasantness: long rehearsals, chilly orchestra pits, cramped quarters, and sometimes unpredictable cuts and cues. Musicals are [generally] much more entertaining than operas from the perspective of the pit musicians who don’t benefit from supertitles, and though their plots are often much more straightforward and predictable, musicals usually seem more socially relevant to me. And, of course, the dancing! One can usually count on a few good ensemble numbers in musical theater, sometimes even tap-dancing! Regardless, I usually dread the tech weeks and often wonder how I managed to survive playing in pit orchestras in high school when I didn’t have a smartphone to entertain me during the inevitable microphone malfunctions.
So when I was unceremoniously thrust into the position of music director for the Brewster High School Theater spring musical, I was dreading the assignment. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was the show, and I knew nothing of the music. Luckily, the show’s director and vocal director were enthusiastic, organized, and visionary Brewster High School alumni worked well together and were ready to take me along for the ride! They helped me set a schedule and even loaned me copies of both the original Broadway cast and current revival recordings. I had a student orchestra, I had hired some adult musicians to fill in the instrumentation gaps, and I was feeling really prepared…
…Until the parts arrived. As I now know, How to Succeed books are the bane of the gigging musician. They are sloppily handwritten with awful page turns, inconsistent rehearsal/measure numbers, and frustratingly absent key- and time signatures. In true pit orchestra fashion, woodwinds are grouped as “Reed books,” combining flutes, oboes, clarinets, saxophones, and other reed instruments together into one part — a veritable nightmare for a high school director negotiating space with single-instrument students. The score itself is little more than a piano part that has been hastily-annotated with lyrics. To make matters even worse, I had to break the news to my violists — my lovely, eager, hardworking violists — that Mr. Loesser had not composed a part for them.
It was rough work. I had spreadsheets for each reed book detailing measures and instruments played, ranked by difficulty. I spent time playing through all the string parts to find the most accessible fingerings and bowings for those Chamber Orchestra students of mine that were already being pushed to their limits with class repertoire. I had to reconcile additions and cuts from the vocal director and dance instructor with what little I could piece together from the score, and I had made it a personal goal to have everything figured out before the first rehearsal. That didn’t happen.
A giant compromise I was forced to make early on was in my rehearsal technique. The previous pit orchestra director had been a fan of run-throughs, even in the early stages and regardless of unity. Playing along with the recording was common in these rehearsals, with the volume turned all the way up. That was not my style. However, the band students found my attention to intonation and constant repetition tedious. The brass players didn’t have slow warm-up routines in place and if their chops lasted through to our rehearsal break it was a miracle! The string players were not without their own challenges, particularly when it came to rhythm and shifting past 3rd position. After all, their band peers were mostly preparing All-State auditions while the average level of the string section hovered closer to NYSSMA Level 4.
When tech week finally arrived, I was pretty nervous. For one thing, the Brewster Performing Arts Center wasn’t designed with a pit! Instead, we all had to squeeze into a small area between the front of the low stage and the first row of seats. Taller students (and the double bass player) needed to be pushed as far to the sides of the stage as possible, and I needed to conduct from a Wenger chair — rather than a stool — so as not to limit an audience member’s view.The show itself also isn’t very endearing. At best, it is a satire of corporate life and politics. By no fault of the actors, sexism is more pervasive than comedy, and for those of us living in Putnam County, Rosemary singing about mansions in New Rochelle is just as annoying as hearing a catchy tune about a town named for the Honorable Elbert Gary. Tech week was intense. We were in the pit from about 5pm until 11pm each night, constantly stopping to set lighting cues and negotiate scene changes. There was much more yelling than I had ever experienced in any lead up to a performance, and the stress level from my colleagues was contagious.
But it was all worth it.
I’m fully aware of my bias in this matter, but I think it was one of the best high school productions I had ever witnessed (second only to the BHS production of The Secret Garden last year). The combination of set design by Jan Anthony (a devoted volunteer) and lighting by another Brewster alumn Joe Beahm was really breathtaking, and the kids’ hard work really showed! Especially since I have some ideas about how to make my contribution more efficient, I’m actually a little excited for next year…though I could still be a bit sleep-deprived…
In fact, I had not intended to write about this at all, and you may be wondering why I delayed posting for so long. Most of my students and colleagues know that I spend a lot of time driving on the weekends, often trekking to Philadelphia, and podcasts keep me sane for hours at a time. Just as I thought I could finally start to have peace of mind, Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me!, the NPR news quiz, started playing. This back episode — from March 8th, of all dates! — featured special guest Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, on the “Not My Job” portion of the show. What theme music did they insert to introduce Mr. Duncan? “A Secretary is Not a Toy,” of course. And it all came rushing back…