‘How do I get a gig on Broadway?’

Volume 112, No. 1January, 2012

Todd Bryant Weeks

Red Press

Carmel Dean

Jay Brandford

Jonathan Tunick

Alden Terry

Howard Joines

Ethyl Will

John Miller

Top Broadway professionals offered solid advice at Local 802’s annual Meet and Greet. You don’t want to miss these tips…

How do you get a gig in this town? That eternal question was once again tackled at Local 802’s annual Broadway Meet and Greet.

The event began several years ago as a means of reaching out to emerging performers in the theatre world and educating them about the union and the availability of union work. Broadway Rep Marisa Friedman spearheaded this year’s effort, which boasted a record-breaking turnout of over 250 musicians.

The 2011 panel included contractors John Miller and Red Press, conductors Carmel Dean and Ethyl Will, saxophonist Jay Brandford, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and copyist Alden Terry. It was moderated by Jan Mullen, co-chair of the Theatre Committee and violinist at “Phantom of the Opera.” Drummer and music coordinator Howard Joines was also invited but couldn’t attend this year; a statement of his was read out loud.

Red Press: From the time I was 13, I wanted to be a musician. It was the era of big bands and I wanted to become a big band player. I played with many bands, ultimately ending up with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. My mother never wanted me to be a musician; she wanted me to be an accountant. She was right to be concerned; it is hard to make a living as a musician.

To succeed in this business, you have to have an overwhelming passion that music is the only thing you want to do. What’s most important is to meet people and play anywhere. When I left the big bands, I was not known in New York. I had spent my time traveling. When I did come back, I played any place I could. I would play flute duets or trios with anyone. I played in a woodwind quintet; I played in a chamber orchestra. I didn’t care about pay; I cared about learning. You have to play in as many places as possible and meet as many people as you can. That’s how you’re going to succeed in this business. You don’t know where your opportunity is going to come from.

As for Broadway, it’s very difficult to break into. There is a large group of musicians who are very good and contractors already use them. But if you persevere, and if you’re talented, eventually you will succeed. There are new subs playing in shows all the time who become part of the Broadway scene. Keep trying.

Carmel Dean: I came to NYC from Australia. I worked up the courage to approach prominent Broadway musicians. I asked about work and was in the right place at the right time. I became an associate music director on “Elegies: A Song Cycle.” After that, I was willing to take any job. I thought, I’ll at least make contact and get paying work, and get out of debt. I was paying back my school loans during this time, which was one of my goals. I got a job working for the Gray Line Broadway Bus Tour. And I did this for a while and I began to meet other musicians and I began to realize that there was a small community of musicians who worked in this town. I survived by doing other work: teaching, working at TKTS. I was meeting people. I started subbing on “Gypsy.” Subbing is a very hard job – it’s a specific skill. One of the highest compliments you can get is, “Oh, that was you playing? I thought it was the regular.” Then I ended up working as the vocal arranger and associate conductor on “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and finally music director on “American Idiot.”

Jay Brandford: What would I say to someone starting out? Do you play your best at every gig? Are you business-like? Sounds like you’re ready for a break. I moved to NYC in the early 1990’s and it was then and remains a busy scene. Lots of different types of work. Jerome Richardson invited me to sub on “Ain’t Misbehavin’” but I didn’t understand what a serious break that could have been. Instead, I continued to drift around with various road bands. A few years later, John Miller called me to sub on very short notice when one of his musicians had a sudden family emergency. Again, I completely missed the importance of the opportunity and responded with, “Let me call you back later.” Wrong approach! Over the years I was “schooled” by some of the experienced cats in town. I took lessons from woodwind doublers, I asked lots of questions, I sat in and shadowed other Broadway musicians, I listened carefully to discussions in the pit. Eventually I was ready when Red Press called me for an Off Broadway show. The community is self supporting: we look after each other. Put yourself out there. Ask questions. Most will be helpful.

Jonathan Tunick: As a child, I was exposed to records such as “Tubby the Tuba” and “Peter and the Wolf.” I caused a scandal in my third grade class by being the only one to prefer Spike Jones to Tchaikowsky. Ironically, I am the only one in that class to become a professional musician. This early exposure to music, however, created in me a passion for musical instruments and the music that they play that has dominated my life.

You can’t succeed in music without this passion. You have to need it so badly that you’re willing to sacrifice a more secure living for it. Because we need music so badly, we’re easily taken advantage of. This is where the union comes in. It protects us from exploitation, and can play the bad guy for us in negotiation with our employers.

To succeed in the Broadway field, first you must be good! Diligent study, good technique, solid intonation and sight-reading are essential. For arrangers, perfect your counterpoint, voice-leading and harmony. Don’t hand in sloppy work!

Next, you must be able to work with others. If you’re assigned to second chair, don’t spend the gig auditioning for first! Be the best damn second player in the world! Russell Bennett used to say that at rehearsal you’ll notice flaws in the show; keep these to yourself, and fix the musical ones at home at your desk. Being a great drama critic or technical director won’t further your career a bit, as the people in charge of the show seem to take great stock in being accepted as they are by the music arranger.

Having a specialty can be a great help, although there’s the danger that it can pigeonhole you. I met a fine doubler in Chicago who in addition to saxophone, clarinet and flute, played beautiful oboe, and asked him if he had ever though of coming to New York. “If you do,” I told him, “you’ll work constantly, but only because of the oboe. You won’t be assigned a lead chair.” He came, he does, and he’s not.

The best additional advice I can give young arrangers is to cultivate up-and-coming composers of your own generation; they will be your employers in the future.

Alden Terry: I’m a copyist. No one goes into this business with the intention of becoming a copyist. I came as a student to NYC studying bass and cello. I had music copying experience but then as I got into it I realized there was a lot more that I needed to know to actually work in this business. I learned a lot from others. I learned Finale and Sibelius because it became clear that the computer skills were going to come in handy as they eventually replaced what people had for years been doing by hand. One of the things I also learned was to pay attention to phrasing and make sure that any one phrase actually makes sense to you on the page. If a show moves to Broadway, any copying work you do will be covered. You should always contact Local 802’s music prep supervisor Steve Danenberg in this case, and you can avoid battles later by contacting the union first – don’t check with the union after the fact. Learn to know what’s expected of you and what to expect.

As far as reaching out to other copyists to try and get work, I think the protocol is the same in this part of the business – always call ahead; don’t just show up. Also, be open to “arts and crafts,” by which I mean last-minute changes done by hand. Things get taken in and out all the time in this business, and you have to be open to it. Producers and composers need quick fixes. I think it’s good to also be open to accepting proofreading jobs. A new show needs to have those components that give it legs so that it will run for a while. We have to do the same thing when we are putting the sound of the show together; we have to create parts that have legs. These shows have the possibility of running eight shows a week for many years. Also, do yourself a favor and learn librarian skills. This is the last link in the chain, but an essential one. Good librarians are always in demand.

Howard Joines: I’m always eager to hear of talented newcomers, and I welcome e-mails (as opposed to phone calls!). I try to respond to everyone, but I’m not always able to do so. Still, I do save them all, and not a week goes by that I don’t refer to those e-mails. The most valuable information would be a bio or resume, and most important, the best references they can muster. New York music directors, supervisors, and other instrumentalists are the best references, but if someone is completely new to town, then local references or college professors are also helpful. My e-mail address is in the Local 802 directory.

Ethyl Will: My advice specifically to keyboard players is that since many of you are accustomed to playing alone, it is important to get experience playing in rhythm sections and ensembles. Many keyboard players will eventually be asked to conduct. Take lessons, study conducting, be prepared if the opportunity to conduct arises. Get comfortable with as many musical styles as possible. Learn to read changes and transpose at sight. For all musicians, work wherever and whenever possible. Who knows what small job may lead to something bigger. Get experience and make contacts with fellow musicians. Finally, when subbing on Broadway, you can’t be over-prepared. Know the music well so you can look up and make eye contact with the conductor.

John Miller: I just hired three musicians whom I’ve never met. I had no resumes; they never called me. How did they get hired? Simple: they were known by first-call players. I had called three people and they were not available. All three recommended the same person. It’s impossible for you to get work in this business if no one knows who you are.

Who do I look for? Great readers, consummate musicians, and people who are more comfortable correcting their position than protecting it.

Broadway used to be a stop on the road for many musicians. Broadway has become the destination. I’m not a fan of this concept. The goal should be simply to work. If you are a really good musician, you will be found. Go where you’re needed. Go where people want what you do. Go wherever you can get the work.

Regarding those who have worked Broadway for 10 to 25 years: you should know that Broadway is something that they are also doing. They are connected with symphonies if they are string players and if they are rhythm section players or wind players they are working with bands. In this way they have a full, rich musical life and the contractors from the New York Philharmonic to Broadway to the New York Pops all know these players.

Be brutally honest regarding your strengths and weaknesses. Notice what the people who work all the time are actually doing and you will notice why they work all the time. In other words, learn from the great Zen masters: “Fight your shame, learn all you can from others.” This is the secret to a successful life.