Art for Art’s Sake

A 30-piece orchestra for ‘South Pacific’

Volume CVIII, No. 4April, 2008

Tino Gagliardi
Click for larger image.
The “South Pacific” Orchestra (in alphabetical order): Shelagh Abate, David Blinn, Mike Boschen, Robert Carlisle, David Creswell, Dominic Derasse, Matt Dine, Charles Du Chateau (assistant conductor), Wayne DuMaine, Gareth Flowers, Shari Hoffman, Rena Isbin, Karl Kawahara, Chris Komer, David Lai (contractor), Bill Lanham, Fred Lassen (associate conductor), Katherine Livolsi-Landau, Liz Mann, Lisa Matricardi, Michael Nicholas, Caryl Paisner, Todd Palmer, Grace Paradise, Mark Patterson, Damian Primis, Marcus Rojas, Peter Sachon, Antoine Silverman, Ted Sperling (conductor), Lisa Stokes-Chin, James Tsao, Belinda Whitney (concertmaster). Photo by Ben Strothmann.

What’s that sound emanating from Lincoln Center these days? Could it be? It is! A 30-piece theatre orchestra performing “South Pacific” in the pit of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.

A valued treasure on the endangered species list is actually showing itself and sounding as beautifully as ever: 14 strings, five woodwinds, nine brass, percussion and harp. This is what most of us in the past referred to as a Broadway theatre orchestra.

Thanks to the commitment of Lincoln Center General Manager Adam Siegel and the creative input of Musical Director Ted Sperling, the sound of the lush orchestration of Robert Russell Bennett will once again bring to life Richard Rodgers’ classic score.

Mark Patterson, trombone player for the show, is thrilled with the opportunity to be part of this grand ensemble. He told Allegro, “The section writing has a lot of color and richness because of the larger sections. The lack of a synthesizer gives the blend an all-acoustic and natural quality to the sound.”

Patterson added, “The sound engineer has not been given the impossible task of balancing acoustic instruments with electronic ones and is therefore able to get the orchestral sound through minimal miking.”

Imagine if you will, dynamic control in the hands of the orchestra and the conductor once again!

Some of you may recall Ted Sperling’s involvement in the successful run of “Light in the Piazza” at Lincoln Center a few years back. It is important to note that it was the commitment to the quality of sound that expanded Piazza’s orchestra by adding six strings.

It is absolutely thrilling to see this same commitment by Sperling and Siegel and the entire creative and production team repeated for “South Pacific.”

Mary Donovan, Local 802’s principal Off Broadway rep, recently visited a rehearsal of the orchestra.

Donovan said, “The sound of the full orchestra was incredible. Lincoln Center is to be commended for thinking of the artistry of the music and not just the bottom line. I hope this production of ‘South Pacific’ has an effect on other producers and that it has a very long run.” 

One major aspect of this production is the retractable stage that the producers constructed in order to offer the audience a full view of the orchestra. This occurs four times: during the overture, at the end of act I, during the entr’acte, and at the end of act II. Musicians having to wear formal black and tuxes in this case seems a small price to pay for such great exposure.

Ted Sperling, the musical director, told Allegro that “I’m hoping that the time is right for a full orchestra to be an equally important attraction for an audience as lavish sets and costumes. We are doing musicals, after all!”

Sperling added, “At a time when even TV and film scoring is more and more synthesized, I can tell that the audience at ‘South Pacific’ is relishing the opportunity to hear the immediacy and authenticity of live, acoustic music-making.”

Additional kudos are warranted for the agreement offered to musicians. Local 802 and Lincoln Center were able to agree upon full Broadway parity for this production. This includes retroactivity for all rehearsal and audition musicians all the way back to Feb. 8, 2007, adding up to a year’s worth of wages and benefits.

Whether this production might be the beginning of a healthy trend in the New York musical theatre remains to be seen. Still, it is a shining example of the triumph of aesthetics and quality over expedience and cost cutting.

The producers, the creative staff, and Local 802 all deserve the admiration and gratitude of lovers of musical theatre and every professional musician in New York. “South Pacific” runs through June 22. 

Tino Gagliardi is chair of the Broadway Theatre Committee.