A high point in the pit

By Peter Marks
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The look on Florence Lacey's face said it all. Singing for the first time with the 20-piece orchestra for "Sunset Boulevard" - the largest band Signature Theatre has ever assembled for a musical - the actress lingered onstage and beamed.

"That's incredible," Lacey exclaimed, moments after finishing the rehearsal of "With One Look," the first-act anthem for her character, the reclusive film star Norma Desmond, in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. "I'm having fun."

Her giddiness was perfectly understandable. Accomplished singers love the lift that a lush, full accompaniment provides - and in the musical theater these days, that's an extreme rarity. Standard practice on Broadway and in theater towns such as Washington is to pare the orchestra down to as few instruments as possible, in the service, mostly, of saving money, and at the expense of the robust sound that was once typical of a big musical.

But in selected instances, a counter-trend is developing, one that is allowing audiences to hear shows - particularly revivals of older musicals - in much the way their composers and orchestrators intended. In these cases, artistic administrators are making room in their budgets for full complements of strings, brass and woodwinds in their pits. While star-studded Broadway remountings of works such as "A Little Night Music" and "La Cage aux Folles" get by nowadays with anemic ensembles of eight or nine musicians, these other upstart productions are hiring as many as 30 players.

The statement they are making is profound. It is that the live notes from a harp or oboe or second cello are as essential to the support of a musical as that dazzling lighting effect or that cadre of sleek dancers.

"To me, cutting back an orchestra is the same as saying we're doing different material," said Michael M. Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center and a longtime advocate of full orchestral sound. "It adds up to a cheapened experience. And when we cheapen the experience, we can't be surprised when people stay away from the theater."

It just so happens that Washingtonians can get an earful at the moment of what Kaiser is so passionate about, of the sensuous auditory experience of a fully occupied pit. The Tony-winning revival of "South Pacific," now on a national tour, begins performances Tuesday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House with a total of 26 musicians playing the original Rodgers and Hammerstein orchestrations. And right across the river, on Signature's main stage in Shirlington, 20 instrumentalists are crammed two abreast onto a narrow balcony behind the "Sunset Boulevard" set, applying complex colors to a Lloyd Webber score.

The aural ambition of director Eric Schaeffer's revival of "Sunset," which began preview performances last Tuesday and has its official opening on Saturday , seems all the bolder considering Signature's physical limitations. The auditorium accommodates only 276 seats - a ratio of one musician for every 14 paying customers. Consider, too, the price tag. According to Maggie Boland, Signature's managing director, the company will pay about $265,000 for its orchestra - roughly a quarter of the show's entire budget, and more than twice the expense of the 10-piece band for its recent hit revival of "Chess."

Schaeffer believes that the outsize acoustical impact in that intimate space will make the extra expenditure worthwhile. "I guarantee that you'll remember the show the way you hear it here," he declared.

Routine reductions

Technology has given producers and regional theaters around the country an expanding bag of tricks for trimming the band: The credits for Broadway's "La Cage," for instance, include an acknowledgment of the orchestra's "Synthesizer Programmer." The era of manufactured electronic sound, and the proliferation of rock musicals, have conspired to train audiences to absorb show music as pumped-up in volume but not perhaps as variegated tone. Kaiser says that when he was at the helm of a ballet company some years ago, a board member proposed that since musicians are often invisible to the audience, couldn't there just be a recording of the score and someone hired to stand in the pit and wave a baton?

The practice of reducing the size of the band has become so routine, in fact, that popular expectations for what a show should sound like have changed. Today, some new Broadway musicals, such as "The Addams Family" and "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," can have as many as 18 musicians. But that's still a smaller orchestra than what Signature has assembled for "Sunset." Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, the group that controls the rights to the work of the songwriting team, as well as of composers such as Irving Berlin, says until the recent revival of "South Pacific," he'd never heard a Rodgers and Hammerstein score on Broadway with its complete original contingent of instruments.

The choice of employing a full orchestra for an older musical can turn a revival into an event. That's what happened at Lincoln Center Theater in 2008 with director Bartlett Sher's "South Pacific." When, during the overture, the roof of the Vivian Beaumont Theater's orchestra pit retracted for a few minutes to reveal 30 musicians, the audience broke into astonished applause. "I'm a fan of seeing music being made," said Ted Sperling, the revival's music director. "It just sounds better when you see it."

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