Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Tales from the Orchestra Pit: Guys and Dolls Part 1


When people go to the theatre to see a musical, they are well and truly given a feast for the senses. There is song, dance, drama, magic and often elaborate lighting, all of which contribute to a powerful evening’s entertainment. But there’s one part of the package that is often taken for granted and overlooked by those who come to watch. I’m talking here about the music, or more specifically, the musicians who play it.
I think for many theatre-goers the orchestra pit is a bit of a mystery, a strange hole in the ground from which wonderful sounds are produced. In fact it must be difficult to think of the pit as much more than a high quality sound system – after all, it serves the same purpose. It is all too easy to forget that that hole is populated by a group of musicians who are often just as talented as those seen on stage, but who are considerably more enigmatic, hiding as they do in the shadows beneath the stage.
Which is why I am starting this series of blog posts, ‘Tales from the Orchestra Pit’. I frequently play in pit orchestras (in fact it’s one of my favourite types of performance), and I think it is time that I shed some light on this area of musical theatre. I hope that this will be interesting for other musicians, who may well recognise some of their own experiences, but also for the inquisitive audience member who wishes to learn more about those unsung heroes of the theatre.
We begin our story, then, today: Tuesday 14th January 2014. In precisely one week the curtain will open on a five-night, seven-show local university production of Guys and Dolls. Once again I will find myself in the pit of the city theatre, tuning up in readiness to help produce the first sounds the audience will hear from the performance. I have been asked to play the alto saxophone and clarinet sections from the Reed 1 part. This part also includes passages for flute and piccolo, but as I understand it there will be a specialist flutist to cover those sections. I’ll find out for sure at the first rehearsal tomorrow.
It may seem a little last-minute to have the first orchestra rehearsal less than a week from opening night, but this is really not unusual for such productions. The cast, of course, have been rehearsing for much longer. After all, they have lines to learn, dances to prepare, songs to master. But we in the orchestra will have all our music written down in front of us, so there’s really no need for us to memorise anything and as a consequence we can put together the whole thing rather quickly. That’s one reason I enjoy playing for shows: you get to be part of all the thrill and excitement without having to sit through endless rehearsals.
Nevertheless, it is always best to be prepared so over the past few weeks I have done some work to familiarise myself with the show. First and foremost, I’ve looked at and played through my part a few times, which was given to me in advance. On the whole there is nothing overly challenging – a couple of tricky bars here and there, but they will likely work themselves out over the next seven days. In keeping with the early ‘50s jazz style of the show, there are a fair few pitch bends and even some flutter tonguing, which always makes life interesting. I look forward to putting them into practice.
My other main piece of preparation was to watch the film version, which just so happened to be shown on television this Christmas Eve. In conjunction with this, I followed along with the music from a complete piano score that I had picked up second-hand a couple of years ago thinking that it may come in handy one day. How right I was!
On the whole the film stayed reasonably close to the original score as far as I could see. There were very few alterations to the songs themselves, although the incidental music in-between was for the most part completely rewritten. The version of ‘Havana’, too, that was used in the film bore little resemblance to the original, but I can forgive that. I was surprised to discover, though, that a couple of songs were completely omitted, including ‘I’ve Never Been in Love Before’, which seems to be one of the major musical themes of the theatre version. After all, it opens the show right at the beginning of the overture! The film also included some newly-written songs, notably ‘Adelaide’, which I enjoyed very much and was a little disappointed to realise I wouldn’t be playing.
That brings you more or less up to date with my preparations so far. As I say, though, the real work starts tomorrow with the first orchestra rehearsal. This will be a chance for the orchestra to get together for the first time, without singers, and get the music up to scratch. I know I will be working with excellent musicians so I have no doubt it will sound brilliant, but I only hope we don’t have to go on for too long – the musical director has told us we will begin rehearsing at 9 a.m. and not stop until the whole show is sounding good (even if it takes until 6 in the evening)! Fingers crossed it won’t take us quite that long.
That concludes my post for today. Join me again tomorrow when I will tell you all about the first rehearsal!

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