Sunday, 26 January 2014

Tales from the Orchestra Pit: Guys and Dolls Part 12

Yesterday was the final day of this run of Guys and Dolls, and once again included two performances – a matinée and an evening show. But far from being simply repeats of all the other showings, these were in fact probably the two most exciting performances of the entire run.
There were a number of reasons for this, the first of which came unexpectedly at the start of the matinée. We were about two thirds of the way through the overture, playing just the same as we had for every previous show, when the musical director suddenly started waving his hands back and forth in a gesture that could only be a direction to stop playing. You can imagine how we felt at this point, being silenced in the middle of the overture. That’s not the kind of thing that happens unless something has gone seriously wrong, and therefore it put all of us a little on edge. To be honest a little part of me was grateful to get a bit of excitement, which made a change from just playing everything straight through the same way as always. But what was wrong?
The house lights came on after a few seconds and the safety curtain was lowered onto the stage whilst it was announced over the speakers that they were having to stop the show. The announcement said that the problem was a ‘technical difficulty’, but that doesn’t mean anything. Everyone knows that ‘technical difficulty’ is most often just a euphemism that’s used when the production team don’t want the audience to know what’s gone wrong. I suppose it’s meant to reassure and calm people, but in reality I think it has the opposite effect because everyone knows that they are being kept in the dark as to what the issue is. My major worry at this point was that one of the cast members had been taken ill or something, in which case how would we continue with the show? We could hardly turn away such a large audience, many of whom had presumably travelled some distance to come and see the show.
The musical director instructed us to play the overture again, but quietly in a ‘toned-down’ version, just to give some background music and lighten what had become rather a heavy atmosphere. Once we had finished playing that, it wasn’t long before the safety curtain was raised, the lights went down and we were instructed to continue from the end of the overture just as normal.
From there the show went as planned, which was a great relief for all concerned. We found out during the interval that the reason we’d had to stop was that there had been an issue with one of the audience members which needed to be sorted before we could continue. So fortunately the actual performance was largely unaffected, except for being delayed by fifteen minutes. I think the audience’s spirits were dampened by the event as well, because they didn’t give particularly big reactions for the rest of the show, despite there being a considerable number of people there.
This little drama also reminded me of a key problem with amateur productions, namely that there are no understudies. So if one of the cast had been unable to perform one night, it would have really proven problematic. With no-one else to take their place, it would have been very hard to perform the show at all. It may even have had to be cancelled, which would have been disastrous for the large audience that had come to see it. Fortunately I have never been in a production where something so serious has occurred, but it’s clearly a risk that is always present in these shows.   
As this was the second-last performance, the cast were given the chance to add in little jokes and variations in the script (although as I’ve explained, some had been doing that every night anyway!). Of course these all had to be very subtle, because it’s all too easy to insert a joke that is hilarious to the rest of the cast but spoils a scene for the audience. It was also agreed that there would be no jokes in the second half, when the plot really deepens.
My favourite of the jokes was from Nicely Nicely Johnson at the beginning of the title song, ‘Guys and Dolls’. The original lyric is “What’s playing at the Roxy? I’ll tell you what’s playing at the Roxy. A picture about a Minnesota man, so in love with a Mississippi girl that he sacrifices everything and moves all the way to Biloxi. That’s what’s playing at the Roxy.” For this show, however, he replaced ‘the Roxy’ with the name of the theatre we were performing in, and even modified the rest of the line so that the ‘Biloxi/Roxy’ rhyme wasn’t jeopardised. It really was very neatly done, and although I couldn’t hear the entire thing over the sound of the orchestra it still made me smile.
We in the orchestra had also worked out our own little joke. Near the start of the show, there’s a cue for ‘Follow the Fold’ which is meant to be played ‘dejectedly’, according to the music, as the team from the Save a Soul Mission walk off after having been ignored by everybody. So for this performance we decided to play it in a minor key. The effect ended up being more like a funeral march than anything, to be honest, but apparently the cast really liked it so it was worth doing.
Then there were all the usual variations. This time the gangster names recited by Lieutenant Branigan included ‘Jimmy the Squealer’, ‘Dockside Dan’ and ‘Red Cheeks Freddie’. After being told that Big Julie is a scoutmaster, he responded with “Don’t let me catch you tying my mother in knots”. The Nicely Nicely Johnson food scene again used a pizza and a doughnut. I didn’t hear Big Julie’s insult just before ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat’, but it was something to do with a lemon.
By the time the matinée finished there was only around 45 minutes left until we had to be back in the theatre to get ready for the final evening performance. That time was spent partly getting dinner, partly hanging around talking and partly getting changed into dinner suits and dresses, which we had agreed upon as the dress code for the final show. For the rest of the performances we had been required to wear all-black, which is a lot easier because you don’t need to wear smart trousers or anything like that – it just has to be dark. Black tie has more of an air of ceremony about it, but it’s more of an effort to dress up in and is also slightly more distracting for the audience because we aren’t as well camouflaged. That’s the main reason why it is rarely used for such performances.
I also learnt something that evening that I’d been wondering about for the entire week, namely where the mysterious door in our dressing room led to. Obviously there was the entry/exit door, but there was also another door with a strange symbol on it which had remained unopened. I had assumed it was locked, which is why I hadn’t bothered trying to look behind it earlier. It turned out, though, that it wasn’t locked and was in fact the entrance to a spacious shower room, which some people used to get changed into their smart clothes in. So there you go. Another mystery solved.
Seeing as it was the final performance, everyone was in high spirits. Plenty of photos were taken, both individually and in groups, and chocolates were handed round which had been bought for us both by the cast and also by the musical director.
Before the audience were allowed in, we once again proceeded into the pit to tune and warm up. I had left my instruments set up on their stands from the matinée, and had rather a nasty experience when I took my seat. Just as I sat down, I felt something scrape lightly against the bottom of my left sleeve. To my dismay I realised it was my clarinet reed, and when I picked it up I discovered that I had managed to chip off both corners in a moment of carelessness. I couldn’t believe that I had got all this way with that reed, which had been playing admirably for the whole week, and now I had managed to break it just before the final performance. Fortunately, when I tried it out I found that it hadn’t been seriously affected and still played well enough, so I was able to use it for that show. Nevertheless it was not an experience I’d want to repeat!
This tuning/warm-up session also gave rise to one of the best moments of that night’s show. You see, there is one scene change that is accompanied by a highly dull rendition of ‘Home Sweet Home’, played in unison by several saxophones. So for the last night we decided to jazz it up a bit by adding an oom-pah bass line on the baritone saxophone, and harmonies in thirds above the tune (provided by me). It sounded so much better, and the musical director loved it. It’s a shame we didn’t think of it earlier – it would have been great to do it like that in all the shows.
The theatre was sold-out for that final performance, and the audience was especially lively, mainly on account of some very loud friends of the cast and crew who cheered and whistled for just about every song. They even began whooping ecstatically as soon as we began the overture, which is not something that often happens! I mean, there are good audiences, then there are great audiences, and then there are audiences that seem to have overdosed on Prozac or something. This lot definitely fell into the latter category.
Aside from that the show went pretty much as usual. Lieutenant Branigan managed to come up with some really fine gangster names, including ‘Frederick the Ambidextrous Bandit’, ‘Crunchy Dan’ and ‘Semi-Permanent Steve’. After being told that Big Julie was a scoutmaster he responded with “Don’t let me catch you taking my mother into the woods”. The Nicely Nicely Johnson food scene involved a bunch of grapes and a baguette that must have been about three feet long. That did give a pleasingly comical effect.
There was one small issue in the orchestra, namely that people hadn’t agreed on whether the dejected version of Follow the Fold should still be played in the minor key or put back into the original major key. The first couple of bars, then, were a pretty unpleasant mixture of the two, before it finally settled into the minor. As a result it sounded more like a horror film soundtrack, which was interesting!
I occupied myself during the long dialogue scenes in the second half by rubbing out all the pencil markings I had made in the part, so it would be ready to send back to the company that had rented them to us. Of course I left in the useful things like corrections and so on, but all of the cuts and repeat marks had to go. It was quite good in that it gave me something to do rather than just sitting around like every other night.
We finished the show as usual, albeit with the addition of a brief encore just to make the most of it being the last night. Once the curtains had closed and we’d finished the exit music, I packed up my instruments, stand and light, returned the part to the relevant person, and headed off home. I would have stayed to help pack things away, but judging from past experience I would probably just get in the way of all the many people rushing about.
And that was that. Six days of rehearsals. Seven shows. Five nights. I can’t say it was the easiest production I’ve ever done. In fact at times it was blinking frustrating. There have been all sorts of difficulties to overcome and creases to iron out. It’s been hard work, and I for one am worn out.
Having said that, though, it did all work out in the end. When it finally came together, I have to say it was one of the finest productions I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in. The audiences have loved it, as have the reviewers, and it will surely be remembered by plenty of people for many years to come. In short, no it wasn’t always easy. But I can think of few ways that I would rather have spent that fortnight.
Oh, and there were lots of mistakes in the part. So before I go, here’s one more thing you might want to note about Reed 1:
In cue 6, ‘I’ll Know’, the final quaver of bar 21 is missing. It should be a quaver rest.
I hope that’s helpful.


  1. This was absolutely fascinating to read, as it describes my life perfectly! I'm one month from opening Les Miserables (Reed 2--oboe, English horn) and two months from West Side Story (Reed 3--piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano and tenor sax). And my wife plays French horn. JUST French horn. She just doesn't get it...

    1. Thanks very much - I'm glad you enjoyed the articles! And good luck with your upcoming shows - it looks like you've got a busy few months planned. Do you play professionally then?

  2. It has been so fun to read your minute by minute take on the process of putting together a show. Thanks for taking the time to share! In our HS theater group, we have a strict "no ad-libbing" rule (what we like to call "amateur improv night") so I'm not sure I'll be able to let them read it lest they get some ideas and try to get away with anything! But I will definitely take note of all your typo corrections. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks again for your feedback. I hope to do a similar series in the future, when I next find myself back in the pit, so keep an eye out for that! I must admit I'm in two minds about the actors ad-libbing. It does make the show more fun for those involved but it usually detracts from the show from the audience's point of view. There's a very fine balance to achieve if it's to be done effectively.

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