Everything Old is New Again: How Big Orchestras Are Making a Broadway Comeback | Playbill

Special Features Everything Old is New Again: How Big Orchestras Are Making a Broadway Comeback

This season, Sweeney Todd, Camelot, and Some Like It Hot are bringing back the big 20-something-piece orchestras.

NaTasha Yvette Williams and cast of Some Like It Hot Marc J. Franklin

It’s no secret that Broadway orchestras have been shrinking. Since the mid-20th century, pressures on pit size have sliced away at the sonic landscape, with technologic innovations such as synthesizers and audio preprogramming swooping in to seemingly replace acoustic instruments. When Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in 1943, it had a 28-person orchestra, which was already seen as a significant compromise from the standard chamber orchestra size of 50 musicians that composers were trained to write for. Now, many Broadway pit orchestras are less than half of Oklahoma!’s.

That isn’t to say Broadway’s music quality is inferior than it was 80 years ago. The type of sound one expects from a musical has changed, so have the requirements. For instance, a pop show such as & Juliet makes masterful use of a synthesizer, and has no use for a symphonic string section. Scores that are influenced by pop and rock music often rely on similar pit setups to an actual studio session band: electric guitar and drums as a foundation, rather than the traditional violin and brass section. And fewer musicians.

Still, there are many who yearn for the lush musicality of old, when sound would wash over an audience like a thick blanket, enveloping them in the world of the composer. Some theatre companies, such as Lincoln Center Theater, pride themselves on continuing to provide that experience; their collaborations with director Bartlett Sher have invariably featured rich, often original orchestrations for revivals of Golden Age musicals—such as South Pacific, The King and I, My Fair Lady, and the upcoming, Camelot. And they had the robust orchestra to match.

Now, that full musical sound can be a useful shorthand for new musicals that harken back to yesteryear. Shows like Some Like It Hot use the sonic impact of their larger orchestras to center audiences in a time and place, much like using a specific synthesizer sound to signal the 1980s, or a record scratch for the 1990s. Others, including revivals like Parade or Sweeney Todd, use the heft of their sound to capture some of the magic of the original Broadway production—a bit of sonic time travel to transport audiences to what it was like to hear those songs for the first time.

“It's a huge privilege, and also a rare pleasure, to have an orchestra of this size to work with,” says Charlie Rosen, the Tony-winning orchestrator behind Moulin Rouge, A Strange Loop, and now Some Like It Hot. “I've done many shows, and none of them have come even close to the size of this musical ensemble.”

Bryan Carter and Charlie Rosen at opening night of Some Like It Hot Michaelah Reynolds

Some Like It Hot, with it’s jazz-inspired, Big Band-influenced score, features 17 musicians, including four-piece brass and reed sections. It’s big for Broadway now, but Rosen admits that, “in truth, we are still compromising—we have only three strings, and we have two trumpets, two trombones, and four reeds. Whereas older shows would have had many more strings, three trumpets, five reeds, and four or five other brass players. Even at this large scale, we have to employ a lot of tricks to get the most sound out of these players that we can.”

There are a few tricks orchestrators can use to fudge the physical size of an orchestra: prerecorded instrument features, doubling up tracks for musicians, and careful sound design can make a pit orchestra feel further fleshed out. But when part of the pit is visible onstage as they are in Some Like It Hot, many of those shortcuts are swept off the table.

Bryan Carter, Rosen’s co-orchestrator, is a wizard at creating the big band sound. As Carter sees it, “Orchestrators are illustrators; you can give a great visual artist three crayons, and they can draw something wonderful. Or you can give them a 20 pack, and their masterpiece will be even more detailed.” He smiles, before adding, “Give us time and we can make something incredible with the three crayons. But when I look at mid-century orchestrations…it’s like they had the crayon mega pack, with a sharpener in the back.”

Alex Lacamoire—the three-time Tony-winning orchestrator and music director behind Hamilton, In The Heights, and Dear Evan Hansen—is now at the podium for Sweeney Todd, now revived with the original 1979 Jonathan Tunick orchestrations. “The impact is enormous,” Lacamoire details when discussing Tunick’s work. “There is nothing superfluous, even though there’s 10 strings.”

Enormous is right; with more than 80 percent of the show consisting either of musical numbers or underscoring, Sweeney Todd’s 26-person orchestra rivals the 30-person cast both in size and scope. “We’re honoring the grandeur,” says Lacamoire. “We’ve had some revivals that scale it down. But this is Sweeney in all its glory, and we aren’t shying away from that.”

Alex Lacamoire

The constant juggle of artistic aspirations and financial limits naturally trickles down to orchestra size. As production costs rise, cuts are made. And as time goes on, audiences don’t necessarily realize what they’re missing—only that something feels different about the experience. “Audience members might never know unless you played the different versions side by side. But we aren’t in the business of pulling the wool over their eyes,” Rosen states emphatically. “We have to maintain the integrity of the art form.”

Certain protections, many of which stem from the musician’s union Local 802, help to maintain that integrity. Each theatre has a mandated minimum number of musicians it must have in the pit, which is determined by the size of the house. “We’re actually using the minimum number of musicians you can use in the Shubert Theatre, believe it or not,” Rosen laughs. “The larger the theatre, the larger the union minimum, which is a huge help. I can’t imagine trying to do this with 12 players in a space this size.”

Carter shudders at the reminder of having to cut one of Some Like It Hot’s cello parts when the minimum of 17 was determined. “It keeps me up at night,” says Carter, shaking the tension out of his shoulders. “But you know what, it had to happen. And we will hopefully have that cello line back for the cast recording.”

It is hardly unusual for a cast recording to feature an expanded sound compared to what you hear in the theatre. The practice has been happening since the advent of cast recordings themselves, as it is much more difficult to distract from a missing harmony when you don’t have visual tricks to pull from. Plus, if it is financially an option, it affords the music department the opportunity to pull out all of the bells and whistles, similar to how an orchestrator might write a symphonic suite for a successful show that can be performed at concert halls—there the score can be heard on more than 100 musicians.

While Sweeney Todd’s revival orchestra is above the minimum union requirement for the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Lacamoire was lucky in that he didn’t have to fight for any of the extra chairs. Orchestra size is determined by a complex combination of union requirements and production pockets, with it sometimes coming down to the music department (or on a new musical, the composing team) to convince the producing team that there is an artistic necessity in paying for anything above the minimum. And these days, a large orchestra is seemingly an artistic choice on par with costuming or set design. 

The Sweeney revival got off the ground with the understanding that they would be bringing back the original orchestration, and all that it required. “When you hear that amount of sound, it’s breathtaking,” Lacamoire sighs happily. “Conducting this show is akin to dancing. This music is a partner you have to sway and bend to. You follow its lead. Sometimes you have to be the motor for a musical, to keep it moving, but Sweeney supports you. It’s an experience I’m savoring.”

Hear the sitzprobe for the Sweeney Todd revival below.

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