The role of the pit musician in musical theatre

OUaMWatchingWithOrchBy Ande Jacobson

Imagine that you have gone to the theatre to see a performance of that Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, The King and I. You’ve been sitting in the auditorium for a few minutes before curtain reading through the program, and you take note of some of the cast members you may know as you read their biographies.

Before long the lights dim, and the conductor’s hands drop in a dramatic downbeat. Chills shoot up your spine as the bold, fortissimo, opening chord’s perfect fifths ring out. You are no longer reading the program. You can’t; the theatre is dark. You hang on each repetition of that opening chord and each subsequent run until, soon, the “Overture” shifts to samples of most of the songs you’ll hear throughout the show, teasing you with the instrumental renditions. Eventually light and activity abound, the cast bustles about, and the opening scene is underway. Throughout the show, you’re engrossed watching the story unfold, listening to the actors’ dialogue and their songs, and watching them bursting with energy in graceful dances.

While not all musicals play out this way, many of them do. They tease the audience with a sampling of the music that is to come played by skilled musicians. Then the cast makes its entrance, and for the most part the cast is remembered, but what of the pit musicians?

In musical theatre when live music is used for performance, the programs will usually list the musicians somewhere in the back, but while there are a few exceptions, unlike the actors and artistic staff, the pit musicians will normally not have their bios included. And, for those theatres that have orchestra pits, the musicians are generally hidden or are only partially visible. Ande_Katie_TheWizEven in some theatres without a pit, the musicians are often sequestered backstage out of sight. Occasionally players may be on stage, although this tends to be the exception, and in some community arrangements, they might be seated in front of the stage. Even in cases where musicians are visible, generally the audience won’t know much about them.

The musicians travel a very different path from the actors. Theatre music is often challenging, and the pit musicians usually have far less time than the actors to learn their parts. Certainly actors and musicians alike have to do their homework, but the nature of that personal practice is different. Actors have to memorize their lines and lyrics, review their notes from their blocking, vocal, and dance direction, and perfect their movements between rehearsals, but they normally have far more ensemble rehearsal time to reinforce all of this. By contrast, the musicians don’t customarily have to memorize their music, but they are required to bring with them technical skills that take many years to acquire that allow them to master their parts almost entirely on their own. Their limited instrumental ensemble time is reserved for coordination and synchronization, not for learning their parts. To hammer home the point, many musical directors are known for telling their orchestras to practice on their own time, not at rehearsal.

Musicians, like actors, are performers, and in a concert setting, they are the focus of attention. Not so in musical theatre. The highest compliment a pit orchestra can receive from critic and audience member alike is that the musicians aren’t noticed. They shouldn’t detract attention from the stage. Their primary job is to expertly accompany the stage action, and often the times they are noticed are when they miss.

This shift puts musicians in a rather conflicted position. Like the actors, as performers they like to be recognized for their expertise and their proficiency. And there are times when they have to be ready to step into the forefront for an exposed and/or difficult passage. They have to play it with appropriate expression, precision, and life, but then they have to immediately fade into the background still playing with great precision and accuracy providing critical subliminal emotional impact rather than being overtly noticed by the majority of audience members as they support the stage action. The musicians in the house will sometimes focus on the pit, especially if they’ve played the show in question. As a pit musician myself, I must confess to watching the conductor at times when I am in the audience.

There are a few exceptions beyond solo licks when pit musicians can shine. In many shows, the “Overture”, “Entr’acte”, and “Exit Music” are numbers during which the orchestra is the sole focus and can assume a more concert-like demeanor playing solely based on the musicality without regard for staging requirements. It’s gratifying for the musicians to hear a round of applause at the end of the “Overture” or “Exit Music”, and often, some of the best music from the show is included as a medley.

Numerous theatre musicians have described their contributions as those of an actor, “acting” or expressing themselves through their instruments and their music rather than through movement and dialogue. There is overlap in a musical since the singers are also musicians delivering their music through their voices, but the actors augment that with facial expressions and movement that are seen by the audience. The pit musicians don’t have that opportunity for the most part. As previously mentioned, in some shows, the musicians are on stage, and sometimes they are actually a visible and viable part of the show, but that’s the exception rather than the rule, and even then, they still have to retreat to the background most of the time to literally play their parts.

Unlike concert performers, pit musicians often also need to be versed in the stage as they are sometimes called upon to play minor roles, and they may even have lines in walk-on bits. Although this is atypical and is beyond the scope of strictly playing their instruments, it points to another dimension sometimes required in performance.

As for customary flexibility, in theatre as opposed to concert performance, musicians are frequently called upon to double on multiple instruments. For example, it’s an established convention for a woodwind player to cover between three and six instruments including combinations of various clarinets, multifarious flutes, multiple saxophones, and sometimes double reed instruments or recorders. The instruments are often pitched in different keys and are played with different fingerings and embouchures, but the players are expected to master all that are combined in their parts. Although rare, a bit of percussion can even be included in a reed book which calls for additional stretching of expertise.

Outside of percussionists, woodwind players (or reed players as they are more commonly known in pit orchestras) often have the widest variation in the types of instruments they have to cover, but they aren’t alone in being called upon to double. Guitar players often have to play a variety of stringed instruments ranging from several types of guitars in both the acoustic and electric realms to ukuleles, banjos, or even mandolins depending on the show. Brass players too have to cover a range of instruments at times. Trumpet players can cover trumpets and cornets, piccolo trumpets, and flugelhorns while using a bagful of mutes. Finally, on occasion a trombone player may be called upon to double on tuba or baritone horn to provide more color. To accommodate playing a wide variety of instruments, pit musicians have to maintain and transport a fair amount of hardware as part of their craft.

Outside of professional theatre, in most companies even where the actors are unpaid, the musicians are normally financially compensated to some degree although the rate varies wildly. Part of the reason for that compensation is to attempt to draw the better players.

Local actor, director, and playwright Troy Johnson has been involved in numerous musicals and marvels at the speed at which the musicians master their parts. He has also mentioned that in his experience, given the specific musical skills necessary, it’s often easier to find actors when casting a show than it is to find qualified musicians to cover the more challenging and varied orchestral parts. Dramaturge, director, and theatre critic Jeanie K. Smith is also impressed by the rapidity of musicians’ incorporation of direction during a rehearsal period. While Smith hasn’t done pit work directly, she is also a classically trained musician and appreciates the technical skills necessary to perform as a pit musician.

In short, pit musicians are jugglers, but instead of clubs or flaming batons, they juggle instruments, disciplines, and emotions to contribute to musical theatre. Although usually unseen, they would surely be missed were they not heard.

Additional Reading:
A Voice from the Pit: Reminiscences of an Orchestral Musician, by Richard Temple Savage
The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness, by Gerald Klickstein
The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living & Making a Difference, by David Cutler

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11 thoughts on “The role of the pit musician in musical theatre

    • Bob, thank you for your kind words and for the link. I hadn’t read the Wikipedia article before writing the piece as I wrote it from experience, but the Wiki article has some good information particularly related to size and space. While I didn’t go into gory detail on the doubling needed for specific shows, there are sites for that as well. As a reed player, one I particularly like is: http://shows.bretpimentel.com/. I’m sure similar sites exist for other sections as well, but outside of reeds, I’ve always relied on the licensing sites.

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  1. Very well said. I have played on-stage and pit roles, and loved them both for different reasons. Love a good juicy prime musical role, but have a natural expectation the instrumentalists will perform to a much higher standard of excellence and expectation. I am somewhat amazed at the musical breadth of the pit members…..bless you all for your thankless, but beautiful contribution.

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  2. Nicely said. I’d also be interested in what a working pit musician has to say about another element; working in the dark, in cramped quarters, with actors stomping overhead. That’s gotta be a whole skill set in itself!

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    • Thank you. That’s an element that musicians just have to get used to. For some, the 25-40W bulbs on the stand lights are a bit of a challenge, and some players will put two stand lights on their stand to more fully illuminate their music. As for the stomping from above, yes, that can be a little distracting at times, but not nearly as much as props flying into the pit from the stage. The worry there of course is potential injury to the players or damage to the equipment.

      Some theatres don’t actually have a physical pit. In those situations, the musicians can be backstage or in front of the stage in the house. Still other configurations will sometimes put the musicians on stage altogether, but it’s still different than being an actor in the performance. The hidden configurations are a bit better for maintaining focus and for flexibility between musical numbers. While many musicians appreciate playing in spaces where they can see the show when they are not playing, they have to work harder in those cases to maintain focus.

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  3. Nice introductory article for anyone interested in what happens off- or under-stage.

    You said: “Outside of percussionists…”. I thought you and your readers might be interested to see what is involved for a show percussionist. http://www.themillermachine.com/photos/ Modern shows often are written for large numbers of instruments (sometimes including sound effects), so careful equipment placement is essential, which is usually the result of a lot of trail and error.

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    • Thanks Brad – very interesting site and setups. Having set up many pit configurations, I’m well aware of the web our percussionists have woven. You’re right, there is quite an art based on experience to make it work.

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  4. Enjoyed this article very much. As for doubling, there’s been a few shows that I’ve done where I’m required to play both electric bass and string bass. I enjoy playing both when applicable, however, in some theaters, space can be somewhat limited in the pit so it can be a bit of a challenge making that work. I remember a show that I was on a few years ago and there was a few pieces in the score that required string bass played with the bow. I had to be careful as to not “stab” another string player with the tip of the bow due to it being close quarters.

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    • Thank you for your kind words. Close quarters are certainly not uncommon. In one very crowded pit orchestra I played in, the cellist occasionally stabbed me right before one of my clarinet solos. For another show, space was so tight that there wasn’t room for enough chairs for all the players. To save space, both the guitar player and the bass player ended up sitting on their amps. In that one, I also had to drop from using five horns to four because there wasn’t enough room to set them all up. Fortunately the one I dropped was only used for 12 measures, and I could cover those on another horn pretty easily.

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