How South Florida Musicians Fuse In One Day To Play In Broadway Tour Pit Bands

The pit band for Evita's opening at the Arsht Center practices during a sound check. / Staff photo

The pit band for Evita’s opening at the Arsht Center practices during a sound check. / Staff photo

By Bill Hirschman

It’s 8:04 p.m. May 27 in the dim orchestra pit of the Adrienne Arsht Center and a glitch on a keyboard’s television monitor is holding up opening night of the musical Evita.

Eighteen musicians are keeping their cool, but Jeff Carswell’s fingers are primed to caress the upright bass, Alfredo Oliva has his bow in hand to draw across his violin, and Jeff Kievit’s trumpet is in his lap ready to blow.

Finally at 8:08 p.m. conductor William Waldrop raises his reed-like baton and hits the downbeat. The ocean swell of Evita’s opening requiem drowns out the audience’s murmurs. And they are off.

Miraculously, they sound note-perfect. The miracle is that, like most orchestras playing Broadway Across America tours, almost all the members are a temporary pick-up band from South Florida. Some are strangers to each other and most are strangers to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s fiendishly difficult sung-through score with its ever-changing tempi, keys and styles that rarely stop other than intermission.

But a layman can’t tell. Laser focused, these 18 individuals are as well-oiled a musical machine as anyone can imagine. It’s as if the travelling circus hired local trapeze aerialists that morning to work without a net and without years of practicing together.

This hard-won achievement began more than 12 hours earlier. Or two weeks if you look at it another way. Or 40 years ago if you look at it another.

Prelude

It’s 7:30 a.m. earlier the same day. Most of the band members have been awake an hour or two trying to shake the grogginess out of their system.

Over the next half-hour, they wander into a low-ceilinged utilitarian room in the basement of the Arsht Center. Some mildly grumble that the rehearsal call of 8 a.m. is at least an hour earlier than usual.

But Evita has far more music than a Rodgers and Hammerstein show broken up by stretches of dialogue. They will need time to polish this musical marathon.

Most of the musicians are men, most over 40 years old and several have 10 years or more on that. They wear blue jeans, T-shirts, battered running shoes and they tote backpacks and water bottles along with their instruments.

Chit-chat while wolfing down coffee and sweet rolls indicate that a handful know each other from previous gigs – it’s a small world at this level of skill — but none seem like close friends.

Most unpack their instruments in the semi-circle arced around a conductor’s music stand. Newcomers slip in among a cramped forest of music stands, equipment and wires. A few musicians only have a couple of instruments like Kievit who sets up his horns, mutes and other equipment within arm’s reach. But George Mazzeo, the percussionist must ensure that his body knows the exact location of a dozen instruments arrayed around him including a marimba, xylophone, triangle, field drum, bongos, conga, bass marching band drum and tympani. Carswell works out precisely where to place his acoustic stand-up bass, his electric bass and the pedal that will switch live feeds between them.

Concertmaster and lead violinist Susan French, who travels with the show, hands out books of sheet music to each player. David Sawicki and Christian Regul, keyboard players who also travel with the company, are the most laid-back, grinning, doing fist bumps. But those three plus travel drummer Adam Wolfe are the solid spine of the band. And all, including Waldrop, are at least 10 years younger than the Florida contingent, some of whom were playing in professional bands before the visitors were in kindergarten.

Each player stretches the physical muscles required to play their instrument and sharpen the crucial mental focus. Each player toys with phrases they already know are going to be difficult.

They become aware of Waldrop, a tall, handsome man with a warm smile and a relaxed air that belies unquestioned leadership and competence. He has been assistant musical director on this edition since before it opened on Broadway in 2012 with Ricky Martin and then became full musical director when the tour began last year.

When he arrives in a new city, he assumes that he’s working with pros who have invested their own time learning the score cold. He has only six hours to ensure they learn the more subtle dynamics, balance and phrasing. Their coming together this morning is also the first time they will see how their part fits in the indefinable totality of the score.

Like any leader, he looks for strengths and weaknesses in this ad hoc family. “I can tell within ten minutes of rehearsal how the group will be and how I will direct certain people.”

Susan French gives him the conductor’s copy of the score, a book the length and width of an old world atlas, but three times as thick.

He smiles broadly and asks. “How many of you have played Evita before?” Only one person and that was 30 years ago. Some have heard the original cast recording from 1983. It doesn’t matter. These are new orchestrations by Webber and David Cullen for the London revival in 2005 and the New York version in 2012.

Waldrop doesn’t tap a baton on the edge of the music stand. The crew is already ready. He simply gestures. The first scene is a tidal dirge as the people of Argentina mourn the passing of their beloved icon, Evita Peron.

For civilians accustomed to hearing the score on the album or on stage, it is a startling sound. There is no loud commanding vocal, so sometimes the melody is present and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the melody line is handed off in mid-stanza from one instrument to another. Waldrop often sings along softly in a high reedy tenor just to give the musicians some sense of how their part fits in with the performers. Sometimes pianist Sawicki also chimes in on crucial harmonies. But it’s akin to hearing a song on a stereo with one channel missing.

Another evident aspect is the musicians’ focus. There are a few yawns, but it’s the hour, not the job. Their concentration is almost visible in the air between their eyes and the sheet music. Yet they keep a half of an eye on Waldrop. Their manner combines instinctual artistry and a craft almost mathematical in its precision.

The score slides into the pulse-pounding dance number “Buenos Aires.” The energy level amps up. Kievit’s head nods. Oliva’s foot taps the rhythm. Carswell standing up with his bass now physically bops with the beat. Immediately, the horns are muscular, the strings seductive or skitteringly neurotic, the percussion crisp and infectious. The band sounds as smooth and tight as if they had been playing together all day long.

Waldrop must think so, too. He vigorously applauds. “That’s fantastic!” and without taking a breath. “Let’s keep going.”

On they go. Waldrop knows every note and how it should sound. With the low ceiling, he can discern every note, good and bad, even from the unamplified instruments when everyone is playing at once. “Is one of those wood blocks loose?” he asks Mazzeo.

It’s 9:15 and union rules dictate a break. Time for more coffee, a bathroom stop, a trip upstairs where there’s cellphone reception. But there’s hours ahead to test their skill and discipline.

Intermezzo

This confluence of talent and technique is not accidental, but the result of specific choices by Bob Persi, the man hired by Broadway Across America to choose musicians for Miami, Broward and Orlando tour stops.

The former reed player knows darn near everyone up to the challenge in the region, having contracted musicians since 1972 when impresario Zev Buffman began importing Broadway shows.

Carswell, one of Persi’s frequent choices, said, “There’s a lot of great players around but you’ve got to really be able to jump into what is required for that particular show. It’s a real different animal than doing a bar mitzvah or a wedding, a concert, a recording. It’s a mixture of all of that, really thinking on your feet.”

Persi gets a detailed list of needs for the orchestra. It’s not just “can he or she play a saxophone,” but what kind of saxophone, can they hit a particular note.

While players in a classical orchestra often specialize in one instrument, local tour players have to be able to play several for both economic and space concerns. Persi has chosen Elissa Lakofsky because she can play the standard flute, the alto flute and piccolo. Richard Hancock can play two types of clarinet plus a tenor sax.

John Kricker, Jeff Carswell, Bryan Stanley and Jeff Kievit

John Kricker, Jeff Carswell, Bryan Stanley and Jeff Kievit

The toughest assignment may be Carswell’s. “It’s choreography,” he explained about playing the two basses. “You have to put one down, get the other up, and there are times that you may be playing notes on the electric while picking up the string bass, or switch pretty quickly without smashing yourself up. There’s a little dancing involved.” Plus press a pedal to switch the live microphone feed. He laughs. “It’s just 30 or 40 years’ experience.”

Of course, a highly-developed ability to sight read a chart like it’s a Bible is a given, said Oliva.

But the musicians also must be able to play many genres, no matter how good they are in, say, just jazz, rock or classical. This is especially true for Evita, which spans many styles. In one show, you may “one moment play gypsy-style, then a hoedown,” Oliva said, who indeed faced that challenge playing in the Broadway production of The Producers.

Flexibility also extends to adapting to changes on the fly. Anything including the way an instrument is fingered can change without notice. This time, it’s discovered that Richard Hancock’s tenor sax simply does not have a note low enough on the instrument. Waldrop asks John Kricker if he can cover it with a blast of his tenor trombone.

The upside, Kievit said, is “I get to play with some the finest players I’ve ever played with.” The downside is there is no room for individualism. “Many times, local musicians come in and think, ‘Let me dress it up and give my interpretation’; but that is a huge no-no. They don’t want to hear your interpretation; they want to hear it the way they’ve heard it” before.

Out of the pit, some are teachers in schools or give private lessons. Kievit travels between here and New York where he’s a relief pitcher on Broadway, most recently in Rocky. Oliva is assistant concertmaster and a contractor for the Florida Grand Opera.

The common thread of the 12 locals is that they embody that phrase “a consummate professional” – experienced, disciplined. “It’s like a factory. It’s like a roller coaster. It’s a ride… it’s a challenge, every time.” Oliva said.

Allegro Con Brio

Everybody is back in place at 9:30 a.m. with no prompting. Back to Act One. Waldrop stops occasionally to focus on a passage. The pros from South Florida don’t take personally being singled out. This is tough material and they want it to be perfect as well. In fact, when they have mastered the musical equivalent of a hairpin turn, they exchange looks that say, “Okay, now I’ve got it. Come and get me.”

Waldrop keeps fine-tuning. “It’s meant to be a kind of funeral mariachi sound….. Maybe two percent softer. Mezzoforte,” He isn’t going to see these people a week from now, but he already has their names down. “Hector, make sure the slurs are there on 76.”

It’s closing in on the noon break but the group is savoring the big Act One finale, the rousing revolutionary march “A New Argentina.”

Waldrop is beaming. “Beautiful. So well prepared.”

Preparation is crucial, even if the players are familiar with the show from previous recordings or gigs, Waldrop said. “This is a really difficult score… also it’s a new orchestration and it’s very Andrew (Lloyd Webber) and… it’s very soloist heavy chamber music, so it has a lot of pitfalls and traps to maneuver.”

Persi sends out sheet music to the musicians two or three weeks before the gig and relies on them to practice it. But playing by yourself is far different than the teamwork required playing with a group.

Worse, the sheet music they practiced with are not the charts they will play in performance. The real sheet music travels with the show and each is covered with penciled changes added by a dozen previous performers to conform with the conductor’s particular vision.

Additionally, every conductor has his own style or approach expressed in a hundred subtleties. This production takes the unusual step of filming Waldrop conducting the entire show so that each musician gets a DVD to study at home.

All this pays off. For instance, Kievit knows well in advance, almost instinctively when he must reach for his mute to stick it in the bell of his trumpet. Carswell has practiced his “choreography.”

But only a few musicians are able to memorize the score. Most are sight reading every bar. Still, there are warhorse shows that some know by heart. Oliva has played the perennial Chicago so many times on so many visits that it’s ingrained in his synapses.

Allegro Con Spirito

Once again, everyone is in place at 1:15 p.m. Waldrop pulls out the second separate huge tome for the second act score.

The second act is more challenging especially in the last few scenes as Evita’s physical condition deteriorates and the increasingly discordant music reflects her fragmented mental state.

The musicians ask more questions about specific notes and passages. One thing that becomes clear is that the penciled in notations from the previous user of the chart still may not be quite what Waldrop wants. The musicians aren’t second guessing Waldrop; they just need to know what he wants. “Hold that note a shade longer” regardless of what the sheet music says. “Give it a little more ‘jus.”

Waldrop appreciates their efforts, patience and skill. They are doing in six hours what he normally has three or four days to do with a Broadway-based orchestra.

He calls out a specific bar and the orchestra magically jumps back in precisely with the exact same level of vigor, as if they were an Ipod that simply had been paused.

Waldrop asks percussionist Mazzeo if he can switch from drum mallets to xylophone hammers virtually in mid-phrase. Mazzeo gives a tiny start. “It’s impossible.” Then he laughs. “But I’ll do it.” He does.

Then they clean up particularly troublesome passages. But not as many as anyone expects. Not even Waldrop. He stops at 2:30 rather than the scheduled 3 p.m.

Waldrop beams. “I’m very impressed.” He dismisses them until their sound check at 5:30 p.m.

Overture

Some live close enough to go home. A few go out for a snack. A few eat a meal they brought with them. Several lounge outside the north side of the building by the stage door checking cellphones, smoking a cigarette, trading war stories.

As they do, the Arsht stage crew moves their equipment down the hall to the orchestra pit on the same basement floor. The players’ positions are crammed together as if there is no room, but the pit has plenty of space on the left and right sides – the opera squeezes three times that many players down there. The drummer’s trap set is ensconced behind a wall of Plexiglass and then under a heavy black cloth tent to keep his sound from overwhelming his colleagues.

The musicians, many still in street clothes, appear before the 5:30 deadline. Once again, they work out the ergonomics of where their instruments are, where are the music stands, where are their accessories. Can they clearly see the raised platform where Waldrop will be leading them, or at least one of the small television monitors attached to their music stands that will show him clearly.

The pit is eight feet deep. For most, their view of the auditorium is blocked by the floor of the stage overhead and the solid front railing of the pit. A few can see the upper tiers of the balconies. No one but Waldrop can see what’s happening on stage. It’s less the feeling of a pit than standing inside the mouth of a cave.

Sound technicians set up overhead microphones and attach other microphones to the instruments, using gaffers tape to secure the snaking wires to the floor. Meanwhile, the musicians continue to noodle around portions of their parts. No one wants to mess up opening night.

Waldrop calls out to an unseen sound supervisor, “Max.” Over a loudspeaker, her disembodied voice asks each musician individually to play every one of their instruments – which for the percussionists takes some time. For each instrument, she adjusts the volume and balance being pumped into the house.

Almost forgotten until now, actors appear on stage. The musicians cannot see them. They almost never see or interact with the cast. But this is a reminder that Waldrop has an entire other part of his job as music director: to work as carefully with the cast as he does with the orchestra. Every principal singer and the chorus run through numbers as the sound techs do their work. By the time it’s all done, it’s past 6:30 and the musicians get one last break.

Curtain is supposed to be at 8 p.m. and the musicians have to be in place around 7:45, but again, most of the locals show up around 7:30 or so. Now each is clad in black shirt and pants, a couple defiantly adding a colorful accent like collar linings and interior shirt cuffs.

They can hear over the lip of the pit that unique audience murmur punctuated by high-pitched laughs as someone shoots a selfie. In turn, each flirts with runs up and down a series of notes. That quintessential cacophony is the equivalent of an athlete’s warmup of his muscles or one last polish on the challenging bits.

Waldrop shows up a few minutes before the deadline like a network news anchor slipping behind his desk a minute before going on air. He greets his troops, joking with them one on one. But a problem has arisen. The TV monitor used by a keyboard player to see Waldrop, working far above his head and out of his line of sight, isn’t working. As the 8 p.m. start time passes, two techs are under the keyboard like auto mechanics trying to diagnose an undercarriage.

Staying unflappable is the hallmark of an experienced musician. But it is opening night; and it has been a very long day already, and there are hours of work yet before they can go home.

Downbeat

Finally, 8:07 and the techs are gone. The house lights lower. A red light from the stage manager cues Waldrop. The South Floridians lift their instruments once more for the hometown crowd. Waldrop, now using a baton for visibility, has climbed to his perch and he gives the signal at 8:08.

The musicians won’t see much, if any, of the show. The requisite attention to the books in front of them and to Waldrop will rule out enjoying the life-and-death histrionics a few feet over their heads. Ask Kievit how good is Rocky which he has been subbing in for months. He says he has no idea. He can’t see any of it because of the way the pit is constructed and he isn’t going to spend his hard-earned money seeing it from the house.

Besides, no one gets more than a minute’s respite playing this score. It’s just enough of a break for Kievit to clean the spit out of the tubing in a horn or for a colleague to massage a muscle. In many Broadway pits, even many symphonic orchestras, you can see musicians have brought E-books or crossword puzzles or some other diversion. Not possible here.

Concentration suffuses their faces illuminated solely from the light bouncing off their sheet music. “The music stand lights are burning so dimly that it makes seeing the music extremely difficult… The show’s ‘lighting concerns’ take precedence,” Kievit wrote in an email a few days later.

9:02 p.m. The Perons have maneuvered themselves to power and intermission arrives. The audience heads up the aisles to get a drink at the bar; the band drifts down the hallway to guzzle a bottle of water.

Entr’acte

It’s a good gig. Reliable. Interesting. The chance to playing with talented colleagues.

The pay is decent. Local 655 of the American Federation of Musicians reports base pay is $1,038 for the week, plus an extra $130 for an extra performance or rehearsal. Principal players are paid more. People who play more than one instrument get a little extra. There’s a pension plan.

At one time, this end of the business was not especially prestigious or sought after – it was what folks did at the end of their careers.

“I think in my era… it’s pretty safe that very few of us got into it to play Broadway shows,” Kievit said. “When we were coming up into the business, it was Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Anthony Newley, Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick, a list as long as your arm….. But those pretty don’t much exist. With Broadway shows, there is a check every week, 8 shows a week, 52 weeks a year. If you are looking for a way to make a living, it’s just a gig, but it gets very seductive.”

At the same time, the theater world has changed, especially the business end of show business. Few tours are orchestrated to have the size of orchestras you find on Broadway, and few Broadway pits have the same number of players they held a decade ago.

That amps up the pressure on the individual player, Oliva said. You really have to be good because “there’s nowhere to hide. Sometimes it’s just you and the synthesizer, and (the audience has to) think it’s a symphony out there.”

A sore spot is that producers make up for fewer players by using synthesizers and samplers, especially replacing or bolstering the sound of horns and strings, Oliva said. Evita uses electronics to stand in for a harp, an organ and an accordion among other instruments.

Worse, Kievit notes, some shows travel with self-contained bands. It gives the musical director a consistent sound and one less headache, but it cuts deeply into opportunities for local musicians to make a living.

“It’s a sad state of affairs since there are wonderful, qualified musician in every major city in this country and these jobs are disappearing or become so rare that the musicians are bailing out to find other forms of income,” he said.

Reprise

When the musicians return, a dozen audience members are peering over the front wall of the pit. The civilians look a little like folks at the rail of a ship looking at the scenery. Or as one of travelling musicians quips, “watching the animals at the zoo.”

The clock ticks 9:20 and the red cue light switches on.

In the pit, a score sounds different from what is heard in the auditorium. The acoustics are all different. The French Horn drowns out almost everything and the normally dominant bass, channeled into wires, can only be heard once-removed as the sound spills in from speakers in the auditorium.

Still, a layman cannot discern a dropped note or a missed cue. There almost certainly are errors (Kievit says it takes three or four performances sometimes to get it perfect) but only the musicians could tell. Infallibility is not one of the required skills – no one can ensure that. It’s how they cope with a mistake. “A lot of times playing something is all about recovery. If you flub a note, you go ‘darn.’ But the thing is moving; it’s not stopping,” Carswell said.

Finale Ultimo

The play finally ends, but the score continues on through the curtain calls as the Florida audience races for the exits before the bows are finished. Even then, as 99 percent of the crowd is heading up the aisles, the orchestra is still working, playing the exit music.

But a score of audience members drift toward the pit, lean over and watch as the band finishes up the last pages of tonight’s job. When the last chords ring out, the patrons render a final round of applause.

The musicians pack up their instruments for the night. No one suggests they go up the street for a celebratory drink. For most, it will have been an 18-hour day from alarm clock to lights out.

Besides, the core musicians have a put-in rehearsal with a new actor tomorrow afternoon. And the regulars know that the most mistakes are made on the second night when people relax their guard.

So it’s a few perfunctory “tomorrow”s and “later”s.

It may seem that the locals are treating it like another day at the office. But not really, Kievit said.

People “ask how you can play the same thing night after night. I never really looked at it that way. I’m entirely into personal performance and to play well is hard work. It requires more focus than you can imagine… We all want to play well. Everybody shows up to give their absolute best.”

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One Response to How South Florida Musicians Fuse In One Day To Play In Broadway Tour Pit Bands

  1. Bob Persi says:

    Bill Hirschman, thank you for your spot-on article describing day one of Evita’s production at the Arsht Center. Your words were a like seeing a video of that day’s activity. Again, thank you for your great article.

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