Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Pit

Some of my fondest memories are from playing in pit orchestras for various musicals. The atmosphere in the pit is a lot different than when we are on the main stage. People relax. It's not that the music is necessarily easier than our usual symphonic fare. Actually, scores for musicals can be quite challenging. The songs are scored for the comfort of the vocalists, not the musicians, so keys like B major (five sharps) or D-flat major (five flats) are quite common. Really, I think the musicians relax in the pit because the focus is not primarily on us. Our job is to make the people on stage look good. If we are noticed it's not always a good thing.

Just about every musical I have played for has had some near-disaster during production. (I don't think I'm the violist equivalent of Typhoid Mary, but who knows....) Most disasters happen without the audience ever knowing, but a few memorable times things have gone horribly wrong for everyone to see or hear. The worst (or best, depending on how you look at it) disaster that I witnessed happened during a run of Oklahoma when I was freelancing in the Chicago area. We were giving a special presentation for a packed house of school children. It was a doomed venture from the overture. A picnic basket was kicked into the pit (if you come see the Knoxville Opera next week, you will notice that there is a net above part of the pit to catch falling objects), a actor forgot an entire verse of a song, and several people missed entrances or forgot lines.

Clearly, it was not going well, but the show didn't reach full fiasco status until near the end. Curly, the leading male, had a fast costume change. Apparently no one was around backstage to help him get dressed and when he came back out on stage it was clear that he hadn't had time to properly put his pants on. For a few minutes he made it work by keeping one hand on his pants and using the other in his fight scene with the evil Jud Fry. Given that handicap, you would think that Jud would have had a better chance, but Curly still got the best of him. When the actors playing the police came out to arrest Curly they didn't notice he was holding his pants up. Or maybe they just didn't care. They turned him around and forced his hands behind his back. His pants fell down around his ankles to the screaming delight of over 700 elementary school children. Cowboys really shouldn't wear polka dot boxer shorts.

This weekend we are not in the pit, but we are staging a Valentine's pops show full of Richard Rodger's greatest hits. It should be an enchanted evening full of great music. And, hopefully, no fiascos.

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