Ticket prices and the profits generated by Broadway shows continue to soar but how does the experience compare with what audiences were getting fifty years ago? This question came to mind after a recent conversation I had with a student, following her attendance of Troika Entertainment’s touring production of West Side Story.
Initially excited to see a live performance of one of her favorite shows, my student was quickly distracted and disheartened by the empty, thin sound of the production’s greatly reduced pit orchestra which consisted of one violin, one cello, two reeds, trumpet, trombone, bass, percussion, drums and two ADM/piano players. The production’s playbill credits Leonard Bernstein, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal with the orchestrations, even though the majority of their lush, intricately layered string and wind parts ended up on the cutting room floor.
West Side Story begins and ends with the orchestra, from the Prologue which immediately gives us a sense of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks on the rough and tumble streets of New York, to the emotionally conflicted final notes. The score is symphonic, with motivic threads (like the use of the tritone) running throughout. In West Side Story we are constantly pulled between two opposing realities: the ugliest, darkest impulses of humanity and the transcendent nature of love. Most of the time it’s the music coming out of the pit which brings the drama of this duality to life. Would The Rumble be quite as terrifying without Bernstein’s orchestra music? Listen to a few excerpts from the original Broadway cast recording and notice how often the orchestra tells us exactly what the characters are feeling: Tonight, Somewhere, Something’s Coming.
In 2010 Paul Woodiel, a violinist and friend of Leonard Bernstein wrote an excellent Op-Ed in the New York Times called Gee Officer Krupke, I Need Those Violins, which lamented the unprecedented reduction of live musicians on Broadway and the resulting degradation of the product. Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Arts wrote another thought-provoking piece called Why We Use the Full Orchestra. This article sheds additional light on the replacement of live musicians with synthesizers in the theater pit.
Does Broadway deliver the same exciting musical experience it did in the past? Some might correctly argue that the influence of rock music necessitated a more electronic and less acoustic sound on Broadway. Orchestrations should fit the character of the show. A huge pit orchestra isn’t needed for every show. In the 1980’s when orchestras were beginning to shrink, Jonathan Tunick gave Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods a chamber orchestra sound not unlike the witty, dry, neoclassical music of Stravinsky.
But imagine what it was like to buy a ticket in the late 1950’s, walk into the theater and hear the lush, full string sound of the My Fair Lady Overture. The sound of a full orchestra is as relevant today as it was back then. We hear it at the movies, in video games and in the concert hall…just not on Broadway:
Or listen to the spectacular lead trumpet playing in Jule Styne’s Funny Girl Overture. The Virtual Pit Orchestra can’t do this. This overture explodes with an energy and jazzy virtuosity (don’t miss Don’t Rain on My Parade at 2:43) that can only come from real, live professional musicians…in this case, some of the world’s finest. Does today’s Broadway offer anything this exciting, before the curtain even goes up?
Next time you open up your wallet to buy a ticket for a Broadway show ask yourself if you’re getting a full, honest product or a downsized, Disneyfied shadow of what used to be. Ironically, at a time when its profits are up, Broadway may be going artistically bankrupt.