‘The Wiz’ pit chronicles

By Ande Jacobson

Sunnyvale Community Players (SCP) opened The Wiz on Saturday, 27 April and continues Thursdays – Sundays through 19 May 2019. This closing production of its 50th season has become a quick crowd favorite for many reasons such as its stellar cast, impressive technology incorporated into the show, and of course the orchestra. With many musicals, the orchestra, while certainly not incidental, is often unnoticed. This time, music director and co-producer Kevin Surace has recreated the power of the Broadway arrangement with a 23-piece instrumental ensemble. Due to the cozy performance space and the equally cozy pit, his orchestra is spread across multiple locations in the theater as the pit cannot contain it. As a result, the music wafting through the facility is noticed in a very good way. Great care has been taken to individually mic each player and balance the entire ensemble to achieve a smooth, powerful sound. This article discusses how we got there, and what it’s like in the pit for The Wiz.

First, listen to a sample of The Wiz orchestra from opening weekend:

From the pit’s perspective, it all started in spring of 2018 when Surace began staffing his orchestra. He started early because musicians tend to get booked well in advance, and he wanted who he wanted, bringing back many of the players he used for SCP’s fall 2017 production of Fiddler on the Roof. See: SCP’s ‘Fiddler’ 2017 Tech Week Chronicles from the pit for the pit view of that production.

The local music community lost three of the musicians from that 2017 production, two due to terminal illnesses, and one due to a tragic accident. Two of them, Keith Leung (reeds) and Rob Gloster (cello) were originally slated to play the Wiz run and had to be replaced along the way, the last one, after playing the first two orchestra rehearsals. Being so recent, the loss of Gloster hit the company especially hard, and there’s a lovely program note dedicating this production to his memory.

Sadness aside, this production is about joy, hope, living life to its fullest, family, the importance of friendship, and the music makes the story soar. Surace used a split ensemble in 2017, and this time, he’s splitting it even further than he did before, but that’s only once the show moved into the theater. Before that point, the orchestra had three rehearsals, the first was for the instrumentalists only one Saturday morning in late March. In the following video, Surace discusses what he brings to this production to make it particularly memorable, and the clips of the orchestra are from the initial orchestra-only rehearsal held at a local park clubhouse. Note that Gloster can be seen playing cello in the clip – he’s the cellist with the beard.

The next two rehearsals the first two Saturdays of April were sitzprobes including both orchestra and cast. A sitzprobe is technically a seated music rehearsal. Often these end up being music rehearsals where both vocals and choreography are executed, but that wasn’t the case for this production. Although the cast members stood while singing, because of the size of the cast and the orchestra combined, these two rehearsals focused on the music without the majority of the movement.

Tech (often known as “Hell Week” in theater circles because of the lengthy hours and sustained focus needed to get to opening) started on Saturday, 20 April 2019, and that was the first rehearsal inside the theater for the orchestra. Although I wasn’t present for this one rehearsal, I have it on good authority that the first few hours were devoted to tuning mics individually for each orchestra member before eventually running a few of the charts in the show to hear the overall balance. The orchestra was set up for the show in a very distributed fashion as follows:

Thirteen players including the reeds, brass, and keyboard are set in the actual orchestra pit with no view of the stage. There are several video monitors of Surace to allow the players to see him despite obstructions in the pit due to an incomplete seismic refit. There are also audio monitors on either end of the pit so that the players can hear the instrumentalists and singers on stage and in another portion of the pit.

The orchestral strings including four violins and two celli are set in a downstage alcove backstage, stage left. They have both audio monitors to hear the pit, and video monitors to see Surace. They also can see just a bit of the stage around the leg hiding them from audience view.

The drums, percussion, bass, and guitar are set in the wings stage right. The drums and percussion are slightly visible behind a sound shield. They also have a monitor to hear the rest of the orchestra and can some of the stage action.

The players include:

  • Keyboard: Rowland Evans;
  • Reeds (4 per show): (Flute/Piccolo/Alto Sax, 2 per show) Ande Jacobson, Doreen Oroshnik, Jack Stanley; (Clarinet/Oboe/English Horn/Tenor Sax) Marty McHan; (Clarinet, Bari Sax, 1 per show) Gordon Snyder, Jordan Selburn, Ron Bowman;
  • Brass (7 per show): (Horn, 2 per show) Ed Lacina, Joe Kelly, Fleurette Sevin; (Trumpet, 3 per show) Andy Scott, Ken Thomas, Mark Bishop, Rebecca Bishop; (Trombone, 2 per show) Don Brownson, Jason Loveman, Doug Brown;
  • Guitar: Michael Perry
  • Bass (1 per show): David Lake, Richard Lum;
  • Drums and Percussion (2 per show): Bruce Campbell, Peter Wallack, David Herberg;
  • Violin (4 per show): Nathaniel Mailoa, Ichang Hu, Jaime Yuen, Marilyn Anderson, Faye Yang;
  • Cello (2 per show): Peggy Liu, Yu-Ting Wang, Lynda Bloomquist

The next time the orchestra was in the theater was on Tuesday of tech week. Although the mics were ostensibly tuned the preceding Saturday, those who missed that initial sound check (like me) got to enjoy an intensive orchestra sound check exercise via its instant replay on Tuesday. From down in the pit from a player’s perspective, it wasn’t clear whether something had changed since Saturday. The extra orchestra mic tuning pushed the start time of the run-through quite late, so we were only able to run about half of the show on Tuesday night. For the remainder of the time Tuesday, there was a fair amount of starting and stopping, sometimes for tech corrections, and sometimes for musical timing.

Wednesday, there was only a very brief check of a couple of orchestra mics, and then we picked up where we left off on Tuesday. Surace worked very closely with the sound designer at least for the orchestra portion of the sound design, and Wednesday night he spent his time at the sound board to complete the run-through that started on Tuesday. Vocal director, Mary Carroll, directed from the podium during that time. As with Tuesday, there was a fair amount of starting and stopping, and a few Mulligans to rerun some numbers to lock them in.

After completing the first cast and orchestra run of the show, the company got a short break. Surace then came back to the pit, and we all started from the top of the show to run most of Act 1 before calling it a night.

Thursday night, technically the fifth tech night if we count Saturday, we ran the whole show from top to bottom. Throughout the week, the audio monitor levels in the pit were somewhat problematic in a kind of Goldilocks fashion. First they were nonexistent or too soft, then they were too loud across the board, all the while seeking whatever “just right” meant to everyone down there. The issue was that different parts of the pit needed to hear different things. The brass really needed to hear the drums and little else; the reeds needed to hear some drums, but they also needed to hear the strings since so much of their parts were in combination with the strings; and everyone in the pit needed to hear the singers to some degree.

The pit audio monitor tuning started with the monitors not working at all – so Tuesday the pit couldn’t hear anything outside of the instruments located therein. Once the pit monitors were live, the strings, particularly the celli, were far too loud and overpowered the pit. The drums were kind of background at that point. When the drums weren’t audible, the pit had difficulty keeping the tempo up on the faster charts. It took several days with constant adjustments, but eventually the pit’s audio monitors were able to convey both strings and drums/percussion at reasonable levels to suit the disparate musical needs of the various pit sections. The singers were also audible through those monitors. Although I’m not directly aware of the specific issues the sections of the orchestra on stage experienced, I heard that their monitors also took some tuning before they were able to hear the players in the pit later in the week.

In addition to the orchestra, there are also 12 pit singers who are located in yet another space. They are part of the cast, but they aren’t on stage. They are located in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs leading to the pit. A door separates the pit from the hallway, so the pit singers’ sound and the pit players’ sound is only mixed through their mics. The pit singers have an audio monitor to hear the orchestra and the rest of the cast, but unlike the players in the pit, they have video monitors of both Surace and of the stage, so they can see the show from the audience’s perspective. As such, the keyboard, reeds, and brass are the only ones who cannot see the show at all.

As with so many shows, things tend to go wrong during tech, but they get corrected, and eventually the show gets its first audience. For The Wiz, that happened on Friday night of tech when a small, invited audience of insiders came to see the show. In short, they loved it. There were just a few minor hiccups of which those of us in the pit were completely unaware. After that, the show was ready to open.

And open it did. Saturday night, 27 April 2019 ushered in a full house, and a very appreciative audience as The Wiz came fully to life. Another full house enjoyed the show on Sunday, 28 April.

Audiences can peer down into the pit and see a few of us either before the show, at intermission, or while we are playing the Exit Music. Otherwise, after we put away our instruments, a few of us sometimes make our way to the lobby after the performance to join the cast meet and greet.

See the full cast list here.

The production staff includes:

  • Director/Choreographer: Gary Stanford
  • Music Director: Kevin Surace
  • Vocal Director: Mary Carroll
  • Producer: Ramesh Krishnan

Tickets are available online through the Sunnyvale Community Players website or by phone at 408-733-6611. Again, the show continues Thursdays – Sundays through 19 May 2019.

Performances are at the Sunnyvale Community Theatre located at: 550 E. Remington Dr., Sunnyvale CA 94087.

Note that you can receive a 20% discount if you use the code “Elsa” when ordering tickets.

Please join Sunnyvale Community Players for this production. You will be glad you did.


References:
The Wiz / The Wiz Live! Musical Double Feature
The Wiz – The Super Soul Musical: Original Cast Album (1975 Broadway Cast)
‘The Wiz’ will make the finale to SCP’s 50th season sparkle

(Photos and video courtesy of Sunnyvale Community Players and Kevin Surace)


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