Red Press, who plays flute, piccolo, sax and clarinet, began his musical career in the 1950’s playing first sax with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. He recorded with Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne, Leonard Bernstein, Itzhak Pearlman and Placida Domingo. In 1957 he played his first Broadway show, and since then has been involved in more than 100 shows. He’s also performed on movie and TV soundtracks. He’s been contracting in the theatre world since 1971. He is the music coordinator of City Center’s “Encores!” series and won City Center’s Leonard Harris award last year. Press has been a member of Local 802 since 1942 and is an honor member.
Allegro editor Mikael Elsila: How did you first become a contractor?
Red Press: I first became a contractor in the theatre world by accident. It was during the time when each theatre had its own contractor attached to it. There were four “house men” in each theatre who went with every show. At that time, the Local 802 Broadway contract had a stipulation that if you had four house men in your theatre, your scale was less than in theatres that didn’t hire four house men. So all the big theatres had four house men, and usually they were string players.
ME: What were the “house men”?
RP: One was the contractor; the other three were just players. They were in each theatre that was a contracted house. If a musical came in, there would also be a “producer’s contractor,” the same as today. But what you call now the “playing contractor” was then a house contractor; he came with the theatre. I was doing a show called “Applause” at the Palace Theatre in 1970. And somewhere around 1971, the house contractor, Mel Rodnon, quit, and asked me if I would like to take over. Mel was one of the busy contractors; later he did all of the British shows that came over, like “Cats,” “Miss Saigon” and “Phantom.” He was a woodwind player and I was a woodwind player, and we were friends. So I became the house contractor at the Palace. I was there for four or five years. That’s where I made the connections to become the producer’s contractor. The managers who were at the Palace became independent producers, and they hired me to contract their Broadway shows. It was about that time that the 802 Broadway contract eliminated all house musicians.
ME: Do you think that the contractor system has its advantages over auditions? Basically, what do you think of contracting compared to auditions?
RP: First of all, you have to ask who would be doing auditions. Let’s say it’s the producer. Does the producer have the competence to pick good musicians? No. So he would hire someone in a musical capacity to judge those musicians – and that would be a contractor. Somewhere along the line it’s got to be a musician hiring other musicians. Now it could be the conductor. The conductor could hold auditions, if he wanted to take the time. Actually, the way I function, the conductor has a lot to say about who sits in each orchestra.
ME: On that note, what can you tell me about the relationship between the conductor and the contractor?
RP: I see the relationship between the conductor and me as a partnership. I respect the conductor’s opinion: it’s ultimately his orchestra, it’s ultimately people he has to live with. So when I enter a production, one of the first things I do is have a meeting with the conductor and orchestrator. And we sit around a table, have lunch and talk about the musical needs and the orchestrations. And I’ll get recommendations from both of them – they are usually very concerned about who is going to be playing their music. And the only time I would object was if I knew someone was absolutely wrong to play in the orchestra. But you have to respect the conductor’s wishes. Sometimes you’re in trouble, but most of the time if the conductor asks for someone in particular, it’s O.K. I can only think of two situations in my whole career where I said to a conductor, “No – I don’t want them.” Usually, it would not have to do with their playing.
ME: In that case, how important do you think a person’s personality is compared to their musicianship?
RP: That’s a tough question. It’s hard to assign values to either. You have to start from the beginning. It’s an orchestra and you’ve got to start with music. Music is number one. Musicians have to be able to play the parts and they have to be able to play them well, and the conductor has to feel that I got the best orchestra available. You have to start with music.
ME: Could someone be a great musician but because of their personality not be able to make it in your orchestra?
RP: Of course, of course. People who don’t get along, you have a problem with.
ME: How do you assess that?
RP: Because of history. The situation that I’m talking about where I flatly refused to hire somebody was because he kept getting into fights with people – even physical fights! Although he was a wonderful player, I told the conductor, “I won’t have him – he won’t be in my orchestra.” You do a show that runs for seven or eight years – personalities start to come out that you didn’t know were there when these people were hired. It’s different for shorter-term shows. So personality is a factor. You try to get compatible people. But music is the most important.
ME: Musicians who are new to New York call the union all the time and ask us, “How do I get a gig?” What advice would you give to these people?
RP: Musicians call me all the time. The union gives them my phone number. And I try to speak to them. I’m not going to say anything different than any other contractor about this. Musicians are going to get work through friends and through doing every possible thing they can do to play, anyplace. When I was trying to break into Broadway, I already had a reputation as a swing band player, having played with Benny Goodman. But I still played in rehearsal bands, I played in chamber orchestras, I played wherever I could play, wherever I could meet people, wherever I could form a new social contact with other musicians so that I could then get in and get recommended by them, because that’s how it works. You can’t judge a person by a resume or a phone call. I don’t object to the phone calls. I try very hard to be gracious on phone calls with people, but I say to them what I’m saying to you: there’s very little I can assess. Yes, there have been times when I did audition people, and that’s usually for the road. Because most of the players who work for me in New York City won’t go on the road. So you get to take in new musicians when they agree to go on the road for you. I can tell you that in of the shows I did on the road, I hired a trumpet player, and he became my assistant contractor for years and years on Broadway.
ME: So let’s say a musician arrives in New York, is an excellent musician with a great personality, does everything right, meets lots of people, and plays everywhere he or she can. How does this musician get noticed by you?
RP: They get sent in to sub on shows by people they make contact with. Or, when the Broadway scene is hot and it’s the new season, and you’re looking around for players, you call someone whom you trust, who may recommend someone who hasn’t been that busy before to come in. It’s other good musicians whom you trust who are going to recommend players to you, and you will accept without hearing them.
ME: So is it rare that you’re actually going to hear a new player? You’re always going to go with a recommendation? No one is going to come to your house and play for you?
RP: I wouldn’t say never, but very rarely has that happened. I have auditioned players for Broadway, but not very many and it’s been years and years since I’ve done that. Once I had a specific kind of show where I needed a specific rock-and-roll tenor sound. So I listened to players. Then there was one where it was a doubling show and there was no one around who I was comfortable with in terms of playing the flute, the sax and the clarinet, and I had people come out and play for me – and it was on Broadway. So I’ve done it. And, by the way, I myself auditioned when I was starting in theatre.
ME: For a contractor?
RP: No, a conductor.
ME: So at that point, conductors were still doing auditions?
RP: Some of them may still do.