In The Pits
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust from the fluorescent glare of backstage to the intimate gloom of the orchestra pit. It's like entering a fortune teller's parlor—hushed and candlelit. All that's missing is the incense, though the pit has its own distinctive aroma, an enigmatic cocktail infused with old coffee and stale sweat. Our musical world lies here, under the boards. Actors prance and sing on the effulgent stage above. Musicians conjure our magic unseen, dressed in black, our bodies melting into the inky darkness of our surroundings.
I wend my way to my corner of the pit, wary of the tangle of power, lighting, and audio cables crisscrossing the carpeted floor. It's between shows during the six-week run of “The Lion King” at Chicago's Cadillac Playhouse in 2015. I've come down here to inspect my arrangement of basses (upright, 5-string and fretless electrics), volume pedals, instrument stands, and cables in the wake of a near-disaster that occurred during the matinee.
Like most musicals, the bass book for “The Lion King” has several treacherous spots where there's only a few seconds to switch from one bass to another. One number calls for upright for the first third, then a quick change to electric for the remainder. During this afternoon's performance, my upright's endpin (that slender metal shaft protruding from the bottom of basses and cellos) got caught on something as I tried to ditch it in its stand while switching to bass guitar. There was no time to think; my next entrance was a breath away. I set the bass down gingerly atop the confusion of cables and pedals strewn at my feet and made a wild grab for the electric. I got it strapped on just in time to play the next passage. Phew.
Working in the orchestra pit for a Broadway show is lucrative, but the hefty paycheck comes with strings attached: We're expected to perform flawlessly, show after show. A momentary lapse in attention, an instant’s loss of precise control of a finger muscle, a sudden equipment failure—the incentive to avoid these kinds of pitfalls is formidable.
Yet, when you play eight shows a week there's ample opportunities to make mistakes. As one keyboard player friend of mine bemoans, “It seems like every show I find new ways to fuck up.” Musicians, as well as members of the cast and crew, depend upon one another to be rock solid every performance. Surprises are anathema in this business, as it's all too easy to upset the finely tuned engine that keeps a Broadway show humming along legato.
This pressure to perform perfectly makes my gut clench. My catastrophizing mind worries that there’s a queue of bass players waiting in the wings, ready to snap up my gig if I mess things up one too many times. Today's gaffe threatened to shove me over the cliff into the abyss of panic. Doom loomed imminent when my bass got stuck because I couldn’t see a damn thing down there at floor level.
Black lamps, covered by dark blue gels and clipped to each player's stand, are the only sources of illumination in the pit. We have to be able to see the music, yes, but anything beyond that is considered gratuitous. The areas under and behind my stool are hidden from view. If I drop anything into that Bermuda Triangle, it's probably gone forever. I imagine there being a vast unseen repository, perhaps in a different dimension, for all the yellow pencils, pink erasers, cough drops, oboe reeds, pocket change, tissues, post-it notes, reading glasses, flip phones, quill pens, cracker crumbs, tampons, emery boards, rosary beads, and other miscellany musicians have lost in orchestra pits throughout many millenia.
Not only is it dark in the pit, it's dead quiet as well. The floor is carpeted, the walls and ceiling are made of sound-absorbing materials, and there are plexiglass shields separating the strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion sections from one another. Each instrument is individually miked, giving the sound engineer absolute control over what's heard through the theater's PA system.
This show's many voices (soloists and chorus) and our pit orchestra (plus two percussionists playing African instruments from the rafters) must be artfully balanced. However, the advantages of managing the audio electronically are offset by the loss of the pure unamplified timbres of our instruments. Theatergoers are denied the pleasure of hearing the subtle acoustic properties of horsehair pulling the steel-wound gut string of a violin or the buzzing of lips transformed into the lush fog of a trombone. Or, in my case, the overtone-rich rumblings wrought by my upright bass.
The acoustically dry environment makes it necessary for us to use headphones and a miniature sound mixing device called an Aviom. Each player dials in the blend of instruments they prefer. The sound in the pit is so dead that one person often can't hear another who may be just a few feet away. Sometimes I can't even hear myself, except through my headphones, which seems just plain crazy.
Theater musicians are in show business but we're rarely shown. We're only acknowledged in the final seconds of the curtain call—and then by proxy. The conductor, perched high above the proletarian players, enjoys a brief moment in the spotlight. After taking a curt bow, he (it's usually a man but not always) will gesture vaguely in our direction while the audience cranes its collective neck to see what the commotion is about. This well paid anonymity suits me just fine.
Why would anyone choose this underworld life? Why spend thousands of hours hacking away in a practice room, honing one's craft as a performer, only to hide the results of those efforts in a subterranean orchestra pit? For some musicians it's a dream fulfilled, perhaps the result of a childhood spent reveling in Broadway scores by Lerner and Lowe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Stephen Sondheim. For others it's a tacit admission of failure, the Plan B for an imagined career as a concert artist or a member of a major symphony orchestra that never materialized. For me it was a blend of happenstance and compromise.
During my time at DePaul University ('79-'81), I realized that I possessed neither the desire nor the chops to land an orchestra job. And solo concert careers for double bassists are about as rare as Bigfoot sightings. From the moment jazz bassists like Paul Chambers and Charles Mingus grabbed me by the ears in high school, swinging a walking bass line was all I wanted to do. Sure, I'd read about the hardscrabble lives of my jazz heroes—the poverty, the constant travel, the drug addiction, the shady record labels and shyster club owners.
But somehow I didn't think any of that would apply to me. To a middle class white kid, it all seemed so romantic—until I dropped out of Northwestern to don a metaphorical beret and join the subversive subculture of jazz artistes. At the ends of too many subsequent months, those nickel and dime jazz gigs in clubs failed to generate enough scratch to pay the rent, fuel the car, or fill the cupboard.
When I received a call inviting me to play 8 weeks of “Bye Bye Birdie” at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in the fall of 1981, I jumped on the opportunity like a drowning man finding a life raft in the middle of the Atlantic. Those weeks turned into 9 months and voilà, my theater career had begun. It wasn't jazz—there'd be opportunities for that later—but it was a doorway into the musical life I yearned for.
Sometimes a pit isn't really a pit. The orchestra for the shows I played at Candlelight accompanied the cast from the mezzanine opposite the stage. Instead of lurking in the darkness below we were hidden in plain sight, directly above and behind the audience. The folks in the seats had to twist their heads all the way around, Exorcist-style, to see us.
Ten years later, I played shows from inside a glass cage. At the Lincolnshire Marriott Theater, the orchestra was cooped up in a soundproof glass booth situated behind the seats on one side of that black box theater. The enclosure was so constricted that players had to enter in a prescribed order. Once people nearest the door were seated there was no room to maneuver around them to get anywhere else inside the box. It wasn't an ideal place to work if, like me, you happen to be claustrophobic.
My least favorite pit was essentially a dungeon, minus the leg irons. The brave and underpaid musicians who played “The Three Musketeers” at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in 2006-07 were crammed into the trap room below the stage. That's an area normally used either for storage or for some special effect (like a trap door) if one is needed for a particular production. This musty, dim, low-ceilinged room featured vertical support beams, which blocked our view of the conductor and one another. Between the physical conditions, the fakakta conductor, and the overwritten score, this show was the nadir of my musical theater life.
In the pit, your sound is your signature, your calling card, your meal ticket. Down there in the murk it's the only thing that truly matters. Classical artists and pop stars entertain audiences visually as well as musically. People tend to listen more with their eyes than their ears, which is the reason for the tuxedoes and ball gowns in the concert hall as well as the glitter, ball caps, spiked hair, platform shoes, hoodies, or whatever accoutrements are favored by each genre.
Popular musicians of whatever ilk have to be exceptional performers—that's a given. For some artists, though, stagecraft plays as much of a role as the music. Exotic settings, spectacular light shows, multimedia effects, complex choreography, and frequent costume changes are de rigueur at many popular music shows. Can you imagine Michael Jackson without the dancing or Lady Gaga without the outrageous outfits? K-Pop may be the prime example of this “music for the eyes” phenomenon.
In stark contrast, theater musicians are heard but not seen. We can't lean on our looks to impress audiences (a blessing for some of us). We dress democratically in basic black. There's no room for choreography or strobe lights in the pit. The criteria for success are 95% musical. Do you play with good intonation, phrasing, dynamics, and rhythm? Can you follow the conductor? Are you able to blend your sound with the ensemble?
In the pits, there are no visual distractions; no way to hide from the aural truth.
The smell of fresh coffee snaps me back into the present. A few of my colleagues have trickled back to the pit to warm up; I hear them tooting and noodling. I root around my area using the powerful industrial flashlight I borrowed from the sound department. It looks as though my upright bass's endpin must have gotten entangled with one of the nearby cables. A couple of those wily snakes have wriggled loose from their duct-taped moorings on the floor. I should have been paying closer attention to the upkeep of my equipment. I've got to be more vigilant if I want to reduce the chances of future near-catastrophes.
I secure all the cables with a double layer of tape and check to make sure all my other tools—bass stands, volume pedals, music stand, Aviom—are firmly anchored in their proper spots. I replace the batteries in both electric basses (I learned that lesson years ago) and check to see that all the cables are connected to their respective pieces of gear. I step back for a final once-over. Everything looks good to go.
Peeking at my phone, I see that the downbeat for the evening performance is 20 minutes from now. Excellent. That's just enough time to grab a coffee from the café next door.
Bill Harrison is a psychotherapist and former professional musician living in Chicago with his poet/therapist wife and a very ill-behaved Bengal. His work is published or forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree, Sledgehammer Lit, PerformInk, and Counseling Today.