Who is Conducting Tonight?

The house lights dimmed.  Then they dimmed even lower.  Starting high up in the balcony, some people started to applaud.  Others followed suit, until most everyone was clapping, nicely.  The conductor, you see, was entering the pit, walking through the orchestra, up to the podium.  When he got there, he stepped up, and looked out to the audience, acknowledging the warm hand.  He then turned around, lifted his baton, and gave the downbeat to the overture of…a musical.  Kern and Hammerstein’s SHOW BOAT.

 This production was in the Opera House of the Kennedy Center and it was presented under the auspices of the Washington Opera.  Now in the opera world, the conductor always makes an entrance. The orchestra pit is always large enough to accommodate his walk-through. The podium is prominent enough to be seen clearly by those on stage as well as the instrumental players arranged out in front of him.  This clearly acknowledges the importance of the music, and the importance of the person whose task it is, at each performance, to guide that music.  At the curtain call, the conductor leaves the podium and comes up to the stage level where he is brought out by the leading lady to join the company in a bow.  This allows him to walk to the lip of the stage, and gesture toward the orchestra for a hearty acknowledgement from the crowd.

 But SHOW BOAT is not an opera.  It is a musical – in fact, one of the greatest of all American musicals. So seeing the Jerome Kern music being accorded this kind of respect – in a hall that will have as its next tenant a touring production of ANYTHING GOES - made me think about the role of the conductor of musicals, and even more so, the role of the conductor of musicals on Broadway today.

 Broadway theaters – most all of them, even many of the smaller ones – have orchestra pits.  In the old days, those pits were in front of the stage, on a level slightly lower than the floor of orchestra level of seats, so patrons sitting in the front rows could see over the instruments to the stage.  Placing the pit in front of the stage allowed there to be an acoustic sound – the architecture of the auditoriums was created for a blend of sound from the stage and the pit to come together without the need for amplification, which wasn’t in existence when these buildings were built.  But the pits were all lowered, and pushed back under the front of the stage, making it harder to hear the music that was created there.  Leaving an open space helped, but today’s set designs often come right out in front of the proscenium blocking off any direct access.  Every instrument and every singer is miked today, and the reality is that the sound is created by the person manning the sound deck in the rear of the theater.  Hopefully, that operator follows the design that the sound designer has created.  Sometimes yes, sometimes not so much.

But where is the conductor?  And how important is he?  (Many of today’s popular conductors are women.) Interesting question.  In a perfect world, he is a collaborator with an equal say from the very beginning of the rehearsal process. In performance, he is the person through whose gestures flow the synthesis of the creators work on a musical.  He has a unique responsibility, since he is carrying many a gauntlet, including the work of the composer, the lyricist, the arranger(s), the orchestrator and anyone else on the musical team – but also, especially today, it can also mean the director, the choreographer, the scenery, costume, lighting and sound designers, the producers, maybe even the star.  So you can see that it’s a tricky position. Sometimes, alas, he is the person at the end of the chain who simply picks up the baton to keep orchestra, performers, and physical production together in performance.

Sometimes there will be an announcement that “at this evening’s performance, the [name of show] orchestra will be conducted by [name of conductor].” That is, I suppose, a good step in the direction of giving credit where credit is due.  (Musical contractors, the person who actually hires the various musicians that make up the orchestra, now get billing on the title page of the program.) Rarely, in my experience, has that announcement meant much to the audience.  And I am not sure where it comes from, since it doesn’t seem to be consistent.  Other times there is not only no mention of the conductor, but judging by what you hear from the speakers, you’re not even sure if the orchestra is in the building.  In some shows, a bunch of people come out on stage during the curtain call, all wearing black, and one of them is holding a baton.  Most of the audience has no idea who there are – but they are the live musicians who have been providing the accompaniment.  Often, the only way to see that there even is a conductor is to look at the front of the balcony rail and watch the TV monitors which show a blurry black and white shot of someone waving his hand or a baton during the songs.  Who knows where he actually is?

It seems a little odd that a theatrical genre with the word ‘music’ in its name would seem to favor other aspects over, well, the music.  Go to - well, I will admit to favoritism here – Rodgers + Hammerstein’s CINDERELLA at the Broadway theater for a lesson in the importance of a visible conductor.  Luckily the Broadway Theater is large enough to accommodate a decent sized orchestra, but also credit goes to set designer Anna Louizos whose set comes downstage far enough to let all the action take place properly, but also makes room for a real sense of an open orchestra pit from which the sound can come.  The height of the podium allows the Conductor to have a real presence, almost in…well shall I say, an opera house style?  Clearly he is in charge of the music all night long, and in the case of CINDERELLA, we can watch each performance conducted with all the passion of an opening night.

I don’t think Broadway will ever adopt the opera house tradition of a house-to-half applause entrance for a conductor – that tradition has never made the transition.  But wouldn’t it be nice to give a little more respect and acknowledgement of the task than what comes across on a grainy black and white monitor on the balcony rail?


Older Posts:

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. Read more →

With the 9 Tony Award nominations for Rodgers + Hammerstein’s CINDERELLA announced this morning, once again Rodgers and Hammerstein stand tall and proud among the best of Broadway.
Read more →

It turns out that Melbourne, Australia, longs to be the third global capital of musical theater. In fact, Jeff Kennett, a Premier of the state of Victoria, in which Melbourne lies, announced early in his term that he wanted Melbourne to become ‘the third point of a cultural triangle for musical theater’ after New York and London.
Read more →

Familiar with Irving Berlin’s “The Kick in The Pants?”  “Ve Don’t Like It”? Can you sing Rodgers & Hart’s “How To Win Friends and Influence People”?  How about Cole Porter’s “Farming?” What those titles have in common – along with far more familiar songs like “The Saga of Jenny,” “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’,” “God Bless America,” and “Some Other Time”  – is the time they were written and the circumstances of that time. Read more →

When OKLAHOMA! first opened on Broadway, we were in the middle of a war. Its seemingly simple tale of people in the ‘territory’ during the nineteenth century dealing with the prospects of the future struck something profound in the psyche of the country. The fact is that the show was also really good – good storytelling, good music, good lyrics, good dancing, good characters, good performances . Read more →

Stand behind the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, today and you get a pretty good feeling of what the Mississippi River must have felt like in the era of Edna Ferber's novel SHOW BOAT.  You are literally on the banks of the Connecticut River, either on the shore or on the dock at which boats can still tie up. Read more →

The Sound of Music Cast reunion episode of OPRAH is being re-broadcast tomorrow. In this blog R&H President, Ted Chapin takes a look back the filming of the episode last fall. Read more →

In this blog R&H President, Ted Chapin talks about the Rodgers & Hammerstein references on Broadway in the 2010-2011 season. Read more →

What better way to approach the end of a run than to have a performance televised live. Thats what happened with the extraordinary Bartlett Sher-directed production at Lincoln Center Theater that ends its long run this weekend. Live From Lincoln Center is a wonderful idea and a wonderful program through the PBS network, different individual performance from all over the Lincoln Center campus gets broadcast absolutely live. OK, the PBS stations around the country can either show it live or choose a delayed ... Read more →



Blog History

You must log in before you can post comments. You can login here.