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‘Oh, look honey…there’s an orchestra down there!’

YES, IT’S LIVE MUSIC: Peering up from his orchestra pit at “Groundhog Day” is woodwind player Greg Thymius. Photo: Deborah Avery

It happened again the other day. A couple walked by the edge of the orchestra pit, looked down at the end of the show, and one half declared to the other, “Oh, there’s an orchestra down there! Look, honey! I could have sworn it was a recording!” Then there are the questions about how those musicians earn their livings. (“Do you have a real job, too?” is a personal favorite.)

These are called teachable moments by educators, and few among us working on Broadway and Off Broadway would squander the opportunity to set the record straight. Most people genuinely don’t understand how our lives work and how we make a living. And they really want to know.

However, the most recent Broadway contract negotiations made it clear that producers would be more than happy to see our numbers in the pits dwindle, if not disappear altogether. The exploitation of public ignorance of the importance of live musicians and the necessity of their craftsmanship and artistry to the production of a musical would make it that much easier to sell the idea of smaller orchestras, or no orchestras at all. The producers of “American Psycho” even tried putting a further spin on their nearly musician-free production by calling it “Broadway’s first all-electronic score!” until President Tino Gagliardi insisted that this advertising angle be stopped immediately. Clearly, the time has come for us to step up our efforts to answer those questions in ways that reach a greater amount of people than those who we encounter individually.

One easy way to get the message out about who we are, collectively and individually, is the web site www.broadwaymusicians.com. On it, the musicians from every Broadway show running are represented. All a visitor has to do is click on the name of a given show, and at the very least will see the roster of musicians. This doesn’t tell our story nearly as effectively, however, as when the musicians of an orchestra submit photos of themselves, along with individual biographies. The bios don’t have to be long or elaborate, but obviously, the more information the better. It not only puts a face on us as musicians, but also lets the theatre-going public understand that there is far more to us than what they are hearing at the theatre.  Indeed, what they’re hearing at the theatre is a direct result of the sum total of our experiences. How else could we wear so many musical hats, often within a single show? A visitor reading about a musician who has also played with the New York Philharmonic, or with Sinatra, or Lady Gaga, or perhaps all of them and more, would be less apt to insist on justification for our demand and need for a living wage. In addition to biographical information at www.broadwaymusicians.com, one can provide links to personal web sites and current projects. Photos of an orchestra on the job and behind the scenes are also appreciated by visitors. Web traffic at the site has been good, but will certainly increase as more orchestras participate. Submitting materials should be a priority early in a show’s run, most likely gathered by an orchestra’s theatre committee representative.

Another forum available to us is the talkback. A talkback is a prearranged meeting between company members and a group or groups from the audience, for a fee that is donated to Broadway Cares. It is most often moderated by a stage, company or house manager, and the audience is usually – but not always – made up of students or teachers of the theatre and other performing arts, as well as groups of theatre enthusiasts.

Simply showing up to a talkback, dressed in black, awkward as it may feel, can go a long way to putting a face on the orchestra, engendering goodwill by being available for questions, and to ameliorate the “Look, Honey…” scenario to those who didn’t come down to the pit railing during the show. Even seasoned theatre-goers, particularly those from outside the New York area, do not assume that the music is live. There are many opportunities to speak, even if the questions are directed mostly to the cast. Questions such as, “How do you keep it fresh eight times a week?” “What’s an audition like?” “What is your day like? are very much the norm. Our answers will be quite different from those of the actors – and don’t be surprised if our actor friends are just as interested in our answers as the audience! Audiences are interested to learn that we are freelancers, that we don’t audition, that our subbing out is actually good for the show, that we must practice and maintain our chops and continue to grow musically outside of the show, and that we must be comfortable in many styles of music. On many occasions, actors are asked about what happens when lines are flubbed or lyrics forgotten, and in answering they will express gratitude about how the orchestra can “catch” them by vamping or making a jump, something only possible with a live orchestra of skilled musicians accompanying them.

We know that the oft-repeated adage that the amateur plays for love but the professional for money, isn’t true. If we didn’t love music as we do, we wouldn’t have dedicated our lives to it. But in order to do so, we need to earn a living wage. As to the art of theatre itself, those involved in its execution understand why the orchestra needs to be there, but we cannot assume for a moment that the general public understands it.

We cannot afford to take this work for granted, and our involvement in its preservation is essential.

Woodwind player Greg Thymius has been a member of Local 802 since 1987. His current show on Broadway is “Groundhog Day.”

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