Climbing out of the pit

Fiddler_0332By Ande Jacobson

In the fall of 2012, A Good Reed Review published a commentary entitled “The role of the pit musician in musical theatre”. The article discussed the unique role pit musicians play along with some of the challenges they face. Part of that discussion focused on some of the differences between being a pit musician versus a cast member. While I am a pit musician and musical director (normally the reason for periodic breaks from publishing theatre reviews), last fall, a different opportunity presented itself. For a change of pace, I climbed out of the pit and onto the stage as a cast member in West Valley Light Opera’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, an experience which confirmed, amplified and expanded upon much of the discussion in my previous commentary.

The reasons for this change of pace were numerous. Fiddler on the Roof has been one of my favorite shows for as long as I can remember. I had studied Fiddler in great detail over the years, so I was very familiar with the music and the nuances of the story. This was a show I knew better than almost any other, having listened to the original cast recording since it was first released and having read the collected stories of Sholom Aleichem on which the book was based. In addition, I’d seen close to 20 productions of the show, both professional and amateur, and wrote a term paper on Fiddler in university for a course on the history of the American musical. Lastly, I’d played in the pit for a previous production of the show, but this time, the orchestra was full, so to be a part of the production would require a change of perspective.

The path to being cast is very different from being hired for the orchestra for many companies. Although not covered in the previous commentary, and although not universal, often musicians are hired by referral. Other times, they are hired because they are on the musical director’s play list or because they happen to contact the musical director at the right time and play something that is needed. In any case, they often do not have to go through any kind of audition process, particularly for community theatre. For cast members on the other hand, the audition route is the norm, and this was the case for Fiddler.

As a musical director, I’ve sat on the staff side of the table for many auditions, but this was the first time the tables were turned. The general audition required a song. As a tenor, there were several options, but as a musician, there was a new element. In the previous commentary, one major difference noted between cast and orchestra is that the cast members must memorize their parts while the pit musicians normally have the advantage of having the music in front of them. This is also true for the audition where the candidate’s chosen song should be memorized. This wasn’t a huge obstacle, but it was a different perspective. As a musician, I was concerned about the technical precision of my performance and sought feedback from friends from the actor’s realm to ensure my physical presence and musical interpretation were appropriate for the task.

Fiddler_0079Since I was seeking an ensemble position, my first goal was completing the general audition without injury. I wasn’t particularly nervous. I was confident in my prepared song, and while the dance routine was something new to me, at least I didn’t trip myself or anyone around me which was a success as far as I was concerned. By night’s end, I received a vocal callback, but as expected, none for reading or choreography.

I found the ensemble vocal callback interesting and very well organized compared with many in which I had served as an auditor. The vocal director effectively and efficiently taught the candidates their parts (which for those familiar with the score came as no surprise). She then proceeded to rotate the candidates through quartets consisting of one “papa”, one “mama”, one “son”, and one “daughter” based primarily on singing range and secondarily on outward appearance. This allowed the staff to hear not only how well the candidates learned their parts, but to evaluate how well they could blend with the others in their groups. Given my vocal range and appearance, I landed in the sons group. There were fewer sons than any other group, so most of us got to sing in three different quartets which was a lot of fun, at least from my perspective.

fiddler-rumorAfter everyone had sung in at least one quartet (i.e., once all the daughters had sung since there were more of them than any other grouping), we then sang en masse but with instructions to find a place onstage away from anybody else singing our parts. While a bit chaotic, this was an interesting ensemble. After all was said and done, I came through auditions unscathed. The next evening, I received a phone call from the director asking if I’d be interested in being in the ensemble. I gleefully accepted and was cast in the ensemble as a son.

As a musical director, I was well aware of the intensive rehearsal schedule and process the cast members must negotiate. The time spent in rehearsal allows for less personal practice time compared with a pit musician. For a pit player, the bulk of their rehearsal time is done in private. For the cast, not only do the rehearsals provide coordination time, they allow for learning time. The music, stage blocking, and choreography are all taught meticulously and drilled with copious amounts of repetition. While it depends on the show, for an ensemble member this can sometimes be sufficient practice, even down to memorizing lines.

For me, since I had very few lines and wasn’t in the most difficult dances, I found the work itself far less challenging than I normally do as a musician, at least from a technical perspective. As a musician, for many shows I spend several hours practicing challenging passages in the music at home before ever setting foot in the rehearsal space. That was certainly the case when I subbed on the lead clarinet book for a few performances of a previous production of Fiddler. Then again, some of that practice resulted from just enjoying the music. The Klezmer style is a lot of fun to play, especially for a clarinet player.

As an actor this time, about the only things I needed to practice outside of rehearsal were a few dance steps. I’m sure I looked rather amusing running through the routines alone in my living room, but in addition to allowing me to cement them in my memory, they gave me a bit of extra exercise which is always a good thing. Of course being a musician with some piano skills, I couldn’t resist also playing through portions of the music on my piano while singing my vocal lines just for fun.

Another aspect that was different from playing in the pit was being incorporated into many of the set changes. In this production, all of the visible moves were executed by cast members in costume. The crew helped, out of audience view, and guided the cast members through their changes. For me, this meant moving the house a bunch of times and moving several tables, benches, and chairs for various scenes.

Compared to playing in the pit, there is far more time to interact with fellow cast members. Between the numerous rehearsals and the downtime during the production, the cast, staff, and crew become a theatre family of sorts, or in this case – a village. Friendships are forged, and hopefully maintained beyond the confines of this single production. In some cases they will endure, in others they are more fleeting.

The proximity required is mostly positive. During rehearsal, there are many lighter moments. During one staging rehearsal as some of the set changes were being incorporated, I asked the director if it would be more efficient for me to just move upstage after moving the house late in the show rather than running off downstage and immediately coming back on upstage. She smiled and gently told me to “stop being an efficient engineer.” Evidently my suggestion didn’t have quite the artistic impact she wanted.

The one major negative to the togetherness required of the cast is that colds and flu can spread more readily than they seem to in the orchestras. Starting midway through the rehearsal process, a flu breakout, termed the Anatevka plague, started working its way through the cast, staff, and crew, a few members not succumbing until the show was in production.

Once we got into production, the positive response of the audiences added great excitement to our village. Even the most critical of attendees found much to enjoy in this production, which was gratifying to all concerned.

To me, it was a very different view all around. For one thing, I had far more downtime during the performances than I ever seem to as a musician. My downtime was filled with a variety of activities such as sauntering back to the dressing room to change my costume, chatting with castmates in the Green Room, pacing behind the theatre (I tend to pace a lot), or sitting backstage watching the action onstage awaiting my next entrance or set change.

Fiddler_0727Initially I was concerned about one costume change, which if done when it should have been would have been impossibly quick. Fortunately many of us were allowed to change before an earlier scene, so that became very relaxed. The one change that was difficult was made so because I was in a set change immediately before the scene. I had to enlist the help of the one actor who wasn’t in the following scene to help me with that one each performance.

Having played or music directed so many productions, I sometimes found this extra downtime a little disconcerting. I missed the more consistent focus I tended to have as a musician. I’m certain this was more a function of my role though. In this production, many in the ensemble had long breaks as opposed to some of the leads. Tevye, for example, rarely left the stage. His focus had to be more extreme than even the busiest musician.

There are risks onstage, and small changes can sometimes have unexpected consequences. One matinee, my stage brother changed his entrance at the beginning of the dream sequence. We normally ran toward one another, but we stopped before actually meeting. This particular performance, he decided to race me and ended up much closer than expected. Since I was running full speed, I couldn’t stop and ran into him. Unfortunately, he planted very solidly, and I went flying backwards landing flat on my back on the upstage platform. Needless to say, I was mildly disoriented, but fortunately I wasn’t badly hurt. In fact, a few of my fellow actors seemed more shaken than me.

One of the most memorable moments for me occurred backstage during one evening performance in the middle of the run. During “Matchmaker”, there was quite a bit of space as the set normally stored there was onstage, and in the dark, out of sight of audience and the orchestra, my stage brother and I danced through the number. Mind you, I am not a dancer, but he was, and he led me well.

I don’t know whether I’ll end up in another production as an actor in the future, but it was exciting and gratifying to be part of WVLO’s Fiddler on the Roof. Going forward, I’m scheduled to play in several pit orchestras over the next few months, and on some level, it feels like returning home after a wondrous journey.

(Photo Credits: Edmond Kwong)

Fiddler on the Roof products from Amazon:
Script: Fiddler on the Roof: Based on Sholom Aleichem’s Stories
Cast Recording: Fiddler on the Roof (1964 Original Broadway Cast)

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5 thoughts on “Climbing out of the pit

  1. I am glad this was an interesting learning experience for you. One paragraph that really amused me was when you talked about the down time when you were not in a scene. It’s something that I consider before I even audition for a show, depending on my life at the time. Every show is different and some are more ‘ensemble’ and others are more ‘leads only’. For example: In ‘She Loves Me’ I had about 6 minutes of on stage time, and only a few lines – one of which managed to get a laugh. But at that time I was going through a lot at home and was really glad to have the distraction of being in a show. I got a lot of knitting done and made some good friends backstage. ‘Camelot’ is a show that I have never auditioned for because the female ensemble does not do much either. But other shows like ‘Bells are Ringin’ or ‘Drowsy Chaperone’ the ensemble is so busy that they have to organize their costume changes backstage because there is no time to go back to the trailer and change before they come on for the next number in a different costume. ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is what I would consider average on the ensemble participation (and I added to that with the set changes yes). Its focus is on the family, but there are several big scenes with everyone. Many directors cut ‘the Rumor’ but I did not.
    This is getting too long. Anyway I enjoyed reading this and having you in the show.

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    • Thanks Becky. Your concept and cast were good ones, and they made for a very compelling production that reached even the most critical of attendees. They also made this a very favorable and memorable experience for all of us on stage. The downtime consideration is far different than it is in my usual roles as a musician or music director. It makes a lot of sense to consider that when auditioning, though that wasn’t a consideration at all for me prior to the production. I was a little surprised at how it affected me during the run given it was such a departure from what I knew from my previous experiences with theatre as both a performer and a reviewer.

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  2. I love this piece! I am glad that you got to experience being in a cast of good people. It’s very important to get the right group of people together not just because they have the talent, but the closeness that happens in shows like this makes the “village” really become a village. One where the neighbors care about each other and things of that nature.
    Again, glad you enjoyed it. Maybe, sometime, you will hop back on stage?
    See you in the pit in Crazy For You!

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    • Thanks Jery. I honestly don’t know if I’ll switch to the acting side again or not. It would have to be another special show where the director would have to be willing to take a chance on me, and of course cast me as a tenor.
      I appreciated what went into a show on the acting side from experience both as an MD and as a reviewer before Fiddler, but this production had so many other aspects that made it the perfect show for me to do this.
      For now though, back to practicing my part for Crazy For You. This is my first time back to the Saratoga Civic Theater since Fiddler.

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