Art Beats Money? It Can Happen

"Light in the Piazza" Increases its Sound...the Right Way

Volume CV, No. 6June, 2005

Lynne Bond

In the beginning there was music, and it was good. At times though, the music was lonely. So music found theatre and they intertwined, sharing their unique styles of expression to become a new manner of storytelling. The contemporary art of the musical had so much promise. And yet, as with all artistic endeavors, the merging with commerce changed its essence. When music and theatre also became a business, the balancing of two very distinct missions presented a challenge. This balancing act has been a struggle from the beginning…

What prevails: the artistic expression or the almighty dollar? So often, in the current climate of commercialized entertainment, box office receipts (or “what the audiences want”) are the driving force behind all works of expression.

When it comes to cost cutting, the music and the musicians often suffer more than most. The 2003 negotiations between Local 802 and the League were contentious and bloody. Theatre minimums were cut, and while the producers’ pockets bulged a little more, the integrity of one of America’s original art forms was diminished.

So who decided that box office receipts were dependent upon a recognizable show title and marketing alone? Who decided that what was good artistically for the show would be bad financially for the bottom line?

Well apparently, the production team of “The Light in the Piazza,” currently running at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, saw the fallacious logic of that argument.

Red Press, the show’s music coordinator, began putting together the orchestra in the first few weeks of November 2004. The plan for the New York debut was a nine-piece band — piano, cello, violin, harp, bass, two woodwinds, guitar and percussion. The budget was set and everything was moving forward as planned. Then in mid-February of 2005, the musicians were rehearsing for the recording of a commercial to promote the production.

It was during this rehearsal that something remarkable began to unfold. The creative team — composer and co-orchestrator Adam Guettel, music director and co-orchestrator Ted Sperling, director Bartlett Sher and musical stager Jonathan Butterell — realized that the sound of the music, which has as much of an emotional life as any of the characters in the show, had grown artistically and dramaturgically beyond even a nine-piece band.

“The Light in the Piazza” needed a larger, lusher string section.

Mary Donovan, 802’s principal theatre rep, received a phone call from Red Press. The show wanted to hire six additional string players for one rehearsal only. Why? While the creative team felt the show needed a larger complement of strings, the producers needed to hear the difference before committing the money.

So five violinists and one cellist were hired for the rehearsal. It only took 24 hours for Lincoln Center to make its recommendation. “The Light in the Piazza” would indeed have a 15-piece orchestra — the original nine plus the new six-piece string section.

And why was this decision made? Ted Sperling expressed the reason behind the decision eloquently, “It wasn’t literally more volume but appropriateness of gesture.”

But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there? The Lincoln Center production added a six-piece string section, which is unheard of in this day and age of electronic music. Why not just add a synthesizer? That’s what is happening on Broadway. The minimums go down, the string sections are cut, and then are replaced by synthesized, sampled sounds.

Adam Guettel told me, “We could have gotten the sound of six extra string players by using a Kurtzweil and a lush chamber string sample, but my strong intuition about that choice is that you are opening yourself up to not only an artificiality but also an inconsistency over the life of a show and its various productions and incarnations. Everybody would have saved a ton of money, but it’s not good for the piece.”

Given these developments, the union having achieved a ban on the virtual orchestra machine in this contract became even more significant.

From the beginning, Guettel has been committed to this show being performed with an acoustic orchestra. That means no synthesizers in any incarnation. The original conception for the show was to score it for a piano trio — piano, cello and violin — which was used in the earliest workshops.

For the world premiere of the show at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, a harp was added to the original trio, but it became clear during rehearsals there to both Guettel and Sperling that the orchestra needed an upright bass. The Intiman Theatre found the money to add the musician, and so the show increased in size — for the first time — to five.

And most recently, six violinists, two cellists, one bass and another percussionist were added for the recording of the original cast album.

Christian Hebel, currently the concertmaster and the original violinist for the early workshops and Seattle production, said, “The additions have allowed the music to come to its full fruition through the grandness of sound. It’s been so great to play such beautiful music, so close to classical and away from the Broadway pop sound.”

Guettel plans on releasing three separate orchestrations for the show, which he hopes will “avoid, if possible, that kind of synthesizer takeover”: (1) a piano trio (for low budget productions), (2) the five-piece orchestration and (3) the current Lincoln Center orchestration of fifteen.

With all the politics muddying up the water between the union and the producers, the issues often get boiled down to a simplistic argument over the number of jobs. And yet it’s never that simple.

Local 802 is a union of talented and professional musicians who chose this life of hard work, diligence and perseverance to become professionals because of a love of music. The decreasing of orchestra sizes does affect musicians’ financial livelihood, but it also diminishes the quality of the music — their artistic livelihood.

So, in this rare moment, art has won out over commerce. But does it follow that commerce lost? The theatre community is in the midst of its awards season. In spite of a slight veneer of being about artistry, producers know that nominations and awards mean ticket sales. As Allegro goes to press, the Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and of course, Tony nominations have all been made. “The Light in the Piazza” garnered 11 nominations from each organization for a total of 33, surpassed only by “Spamalot,” the Broadway blockbuster, with a total of 34.

In addition, the show is planning on extending its run at the Vivian Beaumont through Sept. 4th, three months past its original closing date.

Apparently when art wins, so too can commerce.