Is canned music really all that bad?

Broward Stage Door Theatre's current show, "A Light in the Piazza," uses a prerecorded synthesizer track instead of a live orchestra.

‘Is it real or is it Memorex’ went the old commercial for recording tape, a reference to whether people could tell the difference between live sound and recorded sound.

The truth was that it was, in fact, pretty easy to tell canned music from live ”a decade or more before digital recording.

But the increased quality of sound reproduction, coupled with reduced technical expense and higher personnel expense, have revived the argument over theaters utilizing digitized orchestras instead of the real thing for musicals.

While there is a continuing controversy in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles about using recorded sound instead of breathing musicians, it seems temporarily settled in favor of maintaining live music ‘ although the size of a Broadway pit band is considerably smaller than it used to be. This pervasive downsizing became clear in its absence; when Lincoln Center brought in a 30-piece orchestra a few years ago for its revival of’South Pacific and floored younger patrons with the fullness of the sound.

The real battle is being fought here in the regional theaters. Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables and Maltz Jupiter Theater have the financing to pay for a modest pit band. The Maltz’s current’Crazy for You has nine musicians including the music director.

But what has caught everyone’s attention over the past couple of seasons is Broward Stage Door in Coral Springs. They have mounted productions of’A Little Night Music, The Drowsy Chaperone and, as we speak,’The Light in the Piazza all substituting a sophisticated multi-track digital recording of electronically-produced music instead of hiring an orchestra.

Stage Door has mounted some musicals with only a piano or a trio, usually headed by the skilled hands of David Nagy or Eric Alsford. But often, the lush complex sound was conspicuously missing.’Night Music, Drowsy and’Piazza would be impossible limited to those resources.

Nothing but nothing can replace live musicians when it comes to the quality of the sound, let alone the alchemical magic that comes from live performance. That goes for a couple of pianos backing up’The Fantasticks as well as the recent Boston Pops concert at the Arsht that ran through the Cole Porter musical theater songbook as it was played in the 1930s.

But here’s the question for debate among ourselves, and it’s not rhetorical: Do we simply not do these shows if we can’t afford a live band? Stage Door and others simply could not afford to hire enough skilled musicians; almost no one can.

Back in the day, community theaters and low-budget companies used tape recordings and even 33 rpm records leased by the licensing company. They were awful. I recall a Wichita production of’My Fair Lady during the 1980s in which the 33 rpm record was played at 45 rpm, turning’On The Street Where You Liveinto a march tempo. Freddy Eynsford Hill could barely keep up.

Furthermore, Stage Door used to put together some pretty miserable canned music. I remember a’1776 that, with no access to a harpsichord, substituted a horrible sound like the’Tubular Bells score for’The Exorcist. Really.

That said, Stage Door’s pre-recorded tracks are pretty amazing these days. Most of them are done by David Cohen, the Hollywood Hills High grad, who moved with his actress wife, Christy Mauro-Cohen to a suburb of the other Hollywood.

In an email interview, Cohen wrote, ‘I’ve heard the concerns about replacing musicians in the pit and I do feel for them’. I think musicians know the situation nowadays with budget restraints and though it’s not ideal, it’s a fact that the landscape is changed and we sorta gotta do what we need to pay the bills.’

He fell into it unasked. ‘My wife was doing shows at the Stage Door and the tracks being used, in my opinion, weren’t very good. Without my soliciting,'(producer) Dee (Bunn) asked if I would make tracks for the next show. I realized other musicians were not gonna work there, but the ball was already in motion and I figured the tracks should be well done so people didn’t get too turned off by the fact that there was no orchestra.’

Cohen, who has a degree from the Berklee College of Music, plays the different parts on different keyboards over three weeks. ‘I like the strings on one keyboard, the oboe on another, etc.

‘I’d like to record the tracks with acoustic instruments. But because the tracks need to be tweaked, sometimes up to the last minute before opening, I find it easier to accommodate the director and the singers’ needs if I can quickly adjust things such as tempos and keys. It’s quicker if I re-record the parts using my digital’equipment.’

The result, I contend, is a full-blooded, sophisticated work as convincing as anything you’ll hear on a CD. Not live, but better than Memorex.

Stage Door, whose staff must get tired of hearing busloads of ‘What? I didn’t hear that!’, does compensate by pumping the volume past what other theaters might do.

Cohen would probably agree that nothing is better than live, but would you prefer never seeing these shows performed again?

‘I figure if the tracks are decent, even a musician may appreciate that someone cared about the music and tried to bring some feeling to tracks,’ he wrote. ‘I mean the instruments may not be real, but the guy playing them is — at least until I’m not needed and then I’ll have a whole different perspective. Scary.’

So, what do you think?

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