This week I joined the orchestras of two hit Broadway shows back to back; “Sunset Blvd.” and “Kinky Boots.” For those of you who don’t know what it means to sub on a Broadway show for the first time, It may be interesting for you to get my perspective.
Playing a Broadway show for the first time is like walking a tight rope 50 feet in the air with no net. There is no rehearsal with the band. You get the music and you prepare as best you can without actually playing with the orchestra.
The notes (although absolutely important to NAIL) are the least of your worries. It is the unknown variables that you don’t find out about until you actually get on stage and perform. Theater is live, you never really know what is going to happen. In the case of “Subset Blvd,” some of those variables included the following.
One of the big challenges for all the orchestra members is a lack of space to play your instrument. This is a problem in almost every pit I have played in. While playing the 1st trombon chair at “Sunset Blvd.,” if you move a few inches from side to side, your instrument will hit parts of the set.
Anothe unknowable variable was the music stand being inches from my face. This makes it difficult to see the notes at the top, bottom and sides of the page while trying to follow the conductor. Oh yes… and you can only see the conductor on a small video monitor above the stand which is difficult to see and hard to follow while reading the music that’s too close to your face.
In addition, the trombone section mate (the bass trombonist) was suiting in front of me with a felt curtain between us.
The level of musicianship on Broadway is exceptional. Tonight, my section mate (the bass trombonist) had only played the show once before. In other experiences, this could definitely make my job harder. Luckily “my man” did his homework and played beautifully.
From the conductors perspective, all of these variables are the subs problem. The maestro wants to hear the same thing that the regular musician plays.
It might sound a little stifling to the reader if they have never experienced this level of chaos when they go to work. For the Broadway sub, this is well within our wheel-house. We deal with all of these variables because this is how we make our living.
Tonight the conductor was thoroughly pleased with my performance. To me that means I could be called back. That is the paramount goals.
It’s not all about getting a gig though. The orchestra at “Sunset Blvd.” is one of the best orchestras I have played with. It is also one of the largest. There is a full string section, brass, winds, percussion/drums, and even a harp. Most Broadway shows have less that half of the musicians that are in the “Sunset Blvd.” orchestra. It was truly a joy to play with this fine ensemble.
It was also cool to see Michael Douglas hanging near the musician are. When he saw me and a group of musicians (wearing our tuxes) he said to us “The orchestra sounded beautiful!”
“Kinky Boots” had a whole other set of variables.
Preparing the music was essential, but it is only part of the skill set needed to thrive as a Broadway sub.