Back to the Basics

Kim Scharnberg Orchestrates an All-Acoustic Show

Volume CIV, No. 11November, 2004

Lynne Bond

You’re sitting in a Broadway theatre thumbing through your Playbill. The house lights fade out and you turn your eyes toward the stage anticipating the performance which will now begin. Then the music starts, sounding larger than life.

There was a time when that larger-than-life sound was purely unamplified music. That largeness in sound was due to the size of the orchestra.

But over the years the minimum number of musicians used in Broadway pits has decreased, and producers have tried to use technology to mask the diminishing of live music.

Sound designers create specific systems for each show to amplify the sound. Electronic keyboards and synthesizers often contribute mimicked sounds of other instruments to increase the orchestra’s size. Not to mention the threat of the virtual orchestra machine.

With all the technology available, it is refreshing when a show chooses to present a truly live production.

“Little Women,” a new Broadway musical which begins previews at the Virginia Theatre in December, will have a 12-piece orchestra comprised entirely of acoustic instruments.

I had the opportunity to speak with Kim Scharnberg, the show’s orchestrator about their decision to go all acoustic.

Kim Scharnberg has orchestrated on Broadway for the shows “Jekyll & Hyde,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” and “The Civil War.” He also orchestrated “Doctor Dolittle” in London. He has been an 802 member since 1995.

Lynne Bond: What is your concept for “Little Women”?

Kim Scharnberg: The composer Jason Howland, the music director Andy Wilder and I got together months ago to start talking about the concept and what the sound would be. Although I wouldn’t call this a period piece, it does have the sound of more traditional musicals.

LB: Why did you decide to use only acoustic instruments?

KS: We decided to go with all acoustic instruments to give the show more of a chamber music sound with lots of solos and interplay between the various instruments. Obviously they will be amplified just as the actors will be, but I think it will be a different sound that isn’t heard that much on Broadway these days.

LB: How is it different to orchestrate for only acoustic instruments?

KS: An orchestrator is often asked to make the orchestra sound huge by enhancing it with multiple keyboards. While electronic instruments can help fatten up more traditional-sounding orchestras, I think they’re best used in more contemporary shows. I don’t think synths can ever effectively replace the sound of acoustic instruments. But they can provide a very cool palette of sounds and textures that acoustic instruments can’t get. Synths just have to be used for good and not for evil and never to replace live musicians or reduce minimums.

LB: As an orchestrator, how do you feel the technological advances in our society have affected musical theatre?

KS: The technological advances can have a great and wonderful impact if used correctly, from automated mixing consoles to advancements in microphones to all of the cool new lighting that some shows can’t be without. All of this stuff is supposed to enhance the theatre-goers’ experience. When it comes right down to it, it’s really all about the story, the songs, the actors and the musicians. The rest is just peripheral.

LB: And on that note, 802 applauds the creative team and orchestra of “Little Women” for maintaining the artistic integrity of live musical theatre and celebrating the art of the musicians and their acoustic instruments.