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?