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Pit Sit

I had a, well, magical experience on Saturday night.  Andy Einhorn, the indefatigable conductor and musical director of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s CINDERELLA, invited me to sit in the orchestra pit of the Broadway Theatre during the performance.  Because the pit is big enough, there is a space where, once the orchestra members are settled in their seats, a chair can be placed safely, between the bows of the violins and the constant instrument shifting of the woodwind section.

It is pretty clear that Richard Rodgers’ music lends itself to an orchestra of real instruments.  The score of CINDERELLA is based on what was written for a commissioned 1957 TV Network television special, augmented cleverly by songs from the very small R&H  ‘trunk’ of unused songs.  David Chase was the man in whose hands the responsibility landed to make it all sound like a whole.  And with orchestrator Danny Troob and conductor Andy Einhorn, Mr. Rodgers is being extraordinarily well served.

 
Richard Rodgers Conducting, 1949
Richard Rodgers conducts SOUTH PACIFIC, 1949

“Sounding like a whole” is, more than anything, what you learn sitting in the pit.  The orchestrations that Danny Troob created for the arrangements David wrote not only make the score sound good, but all “of a piece.”  When people who don’t feel skilled at judging Broadway orchestrations ask what makes a good orchestration, I say listen to CINDERELLA.  Admitting my bias here, I would say that these orchestrations are the best in many a year.  Troob had good music to begin with, but how he laid it out among the instruments at hand, with nuance, spirit, humor, passion and romance is pretty astonishing.  Hearing the orchestrations in true surround-sound, I understood why these orchestrations are Tony-nominated, and deserving of the award.

The CINDERELLA orchestra is 20 players strong. Behind me was the harp, and in front of the harp, 1 cello and 1 viola.  To my right, were the 4 violins.  In front of the violins, a keyboard player (usually the associate conductor) was seated at an electronic keyboard.  Beyond the woodwinds, seated against the back wall of the pit were the 2 French Horns, which I could eyeball between the stands of woodwinds.  To the right of the podium were the 2 trumpets and the 1 trombone.  Behind them, 1 bass, and the two percussion players, one on drums and the other manning a wide variety of tingly and funny sounding things.

Why that complement of players?  Here is where the Messrs. Chase (who recommended the make-up of the group) and Troob (who gave input on the group, and then determined which instrument played what at any given time) showed their stuff.  Some observations: two French Horns give a particular and heralding sound.  Right from the start of the Overture, you hear 2 horns together, and it sounds majestic.  CINDERELLA is, after all, a fairy tale, and you want the sound of horns in a fairy tale.  The 4 violins are enough to sound like a string section – when romance kicks in, and you want strings to soar, 4 playing together with passion sound just fine.  The one viola, then, can provide a little darker and lower pitched tone to the strings, and when used as a solo, can be slightly melancholy.  Similarly the cello, which is lower pitched to give the strings a bit of a bottom (of course the bass sitting across the pit is there primarily to give a, well, base to the sound) can be very impressive in its solo moments.  The woodwinds were a marvel.  The 4 players each spent the night gracefully switching instruments, and the player I was closest to manned three instruments: a flute (blown across its mouthpiece), a clarinet (a single reed attached to the body of the instrument) and a bassoon (a double reed attached to a tube that leads into the body).  I asked the player, Daniel Sullivan (not the director…) the sequence in which he learned those three distinctly different instruments, each with its own particular means of creating a sound. (Answer: clarinet, Flute, bassoon).  One colleague, Jonathan Levine, stayed in the clarinet family, switching among three instruments of different pitch – high, middle, low. Similarly, Katherine Fink stayed within the flute family, also changing among three differently pitched one: high (piccolo), middle, and low.  Then Lynne Cohen alternated two double reed instruments, similar in style, with one (English Horn) pitched lower than the other (oboe.)  I explain all this – aside from the fact that I was in their midst – to say how mind-blowing it was to watch and listen all night long as Troob pulled different colors out of these instruments, often working in different grouping, depending on what the music needed at any given time.  The particular tight sound of the highest clarinet, to the mellow sound of the lower double reeds (bassoon and English Horn) gave a sense there were 20 players in that section alone.  The keyboard was also fun to watch.  There was a computer screen on which large numbers were progressing all night long – each number indicated the next ‘patch’ that was programmed into the keyboard.  It could be a Celeste when the Fairy Godmother was describing the Venetian glass slippers, or a honky-tonk piano when Charlotte pounds away in “A Lovely Night.”

 
Ted Chapin and William Ivey Long
Ted Chapin and William Ivey Long waiting for the opening night performance. Photo Credit: Nathan Johnson
Across the pit was the now-familiar orange and blue trumpet of Dominic Derasse, which I first became aware of in SOUTH PACIFIC at Lincoln Center Theater, when the stage opened to reveal the full orchestra.  Orange or not, the man plays a mean trumpet, and as with the French Horns, two trumpets create a fanfare of sound that announces their strong presence.  Mark Vanderpoel at the bass, slouch cap on all night, did what bass fiddles are there to do: provide a bottom to the sound, and occasionally get to use the bow for a melodic step-out.  And Rich Rosenzweig, at the drums, was the most familiar face, since his trap-set had been in the rehearsal studio when the orchestra was still a dream and the piano provided the accompaniment.

I should also add a word about the sound.  As I looked around the pit expecting to see lots of microphones hanging overhead, I saw only a few.  The violins each had a small unobtrusive black thing attached to the bridge – no wires attached.  That was a microphone, I was told, which is somehow grabbed by the sound board.  Looking around, I saw a few small microphones placed near the bells of instruments.  I was quite amazed – this is why the sound for this production is so skillfully created, and creates the impossible task so well: it makes an acoustic musical sound, well, acoustic.  Taking care to mike each instrument in the best and most natural way possible, Nevin Steinberg has at his finger tips the most technically sophisticated way to make the whole sound like it isn’t really amplified.  That is a very hard task – it is far easier to mike pop music that has had amplification as part of its very existence from the beginning.  Amplifying a show that has its musical core in a pre-amplified time is a very tough challenge.  Bravo to Nevin.

By the end of the night, I felt I had been swimming in the most beautiful, clear-watered pond I could imagine.  Listening to the responsive Saturday night crowd laugh and cheer, and hearing thumps from the stage floor above just added to the magic.  Two last things:  A piece of the fox’s tail ended up, by mistake, in the pit, on the conductor’s podium.  Andy Einhorn shrugged, but shortly afterward I noticed the light going on that signals the stage manager wants to speak with the conductor.  The wardrobe department wanted the fox tail back, and so the pit door slid open, and a serious minded woman showed up to take the tail – it would, after all, need to be reattached for the next performance.  And at one point the door opened quietly, and Laura Osnes appeared to say hello.  It was, she said, the one time in the show she had enough time off stage when she could come down and greet the visiting pit guest.  Now that, my friends, is a star!

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Ted, thanks for sharing this. I will never forget the evening I spent in the pit during the run of STATE FAIR. It was, as you say, magical. Troob's orchestrations for CINDERELLA are astounding (I've been his biggest fan ever since BIG RIVER) and i hope he has his Tony speech ready. Delighted that my pal Rich is on drums. One of the nicest guys in the world.
Posted by Thalian Association on May 22, 2013
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Thanks for this wonderful description! The pit is always my favorite place to experience a musical; you get the clearest picture of the "tone" of what is happening. I'm glad this one is a full one with strings. So many have left that section out of today's pits. I look forward to hearing the show in another three weeks!
Posted by David H. on May 22, 2013
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