Playing for a Broadway show is one of the most desirable union gigs in New York City. Members constantly ask us how to break into the field. Allegro interviews seven Broadway musicians to hear their stories. Their answers will surprise you, even if you’re a Broadway veteran…
If a fellow musician called you and asked you how to get a Broadway gig, what advice would you give?
Michael Aarons: There’s not really a hidden secret to this; a lot of the basics are similar to how you would approach any professional job. The prerequisite is to be a killer player. Resumes are nice and helpful, but having a degree in music or backing up a long list of artists doesn’t mean you will be easy to work with. But you would be surprised how much the simple basic skills go overlooked, like good people skills. You have to have these basic 101 skills of a professional and a good overall work ethic; get along with and respect other people, be on time, be detailed, organized, call people back, etc. There’s only approximately 400 Broadway musicians, so it’s a tight community. Everybody knows each other and works together, so word travels fast. If you possess all of these basic skills, you’d be surprised how fast you see results.
Jack Bashkow: First try to get established as a sub. How do you do that? Find out who is playing in each show. See if you know anyone in the pit, not just the person you want to sub for. And if you can somehow offer a gig to the person you want to sub for, they will probably put you in a slightly different mental category than somebody whom they don’t know. It can almost be the best thing to offer them a gig that they won’t want to do (like a $25 jazz gig, for instance), but still makes a nice gesture, especially if it involves some good players. After you offer them a gig (which shows that you yourself are reasonably in demand in whatever scene you are presently working in), you can then very reasonably ask them if you can watch their book, even if their sub list is already full. If they let you watch, ask to get a copy of the book and a recording before you even go in. Listen and play along with it way too many times. Then when you show up to watch, you can mainly watch the conductor, who is the guy who will eventually decide your fate. Consider watching more than once. And when you finally show up to play, bring everybody chocolate and they will love you no matter what happens.
Tony Kadleck: Most players holding down regular chairs on Broadway started by subbing. While sending resumes to contractors is sometimes done, chances are that the contractor will want to see that the player has some prior show experience. As a sub it never hurts to call regulars and ask if you can be on their sub list. Unfortunately those lists are often limited to five players so it’s sometimes difficult to get on them. Plus chairs on Broadway are dwindling. Things are much different now than they were 20 years ago.
Ray Marchica: Having your own Broadway chair has become very desirable. It’s becoming one of the only jobs in town for good steady work. You have to be a good player and a good reader who can play in all styles and all of the different eras of music: big band, Dixieland, orchestral, jazz, pop, funk, rock, Latin. It helps if you are a good doubler and you should really have some show experience under your belt either from school or regional theaters. You must know how to follow a conductor! If these criteria are met, I would tell a fellow musician to find a show where he could substitute; either Broadway or Off Broadway. This in itself could prove to be difficult, but keep trying. Talk to friends, or friends of friends who are already established. If you can’t get into one pit, keep trying for another. It will happen if you want it to. Be willing to go on the road with a show. You will get on-the-job training, show-playing experience, and it will afford you an opportunity to meet a lot of people who will eventually become major players on Broadway.
Warren Odze: I first want to say that my answers are based on my own experiences and viewpoint and I’m sure there are many ways to look at this other than my own. I would first ask them if they understood what playing on Broadway really means? Lots of people want to make the money but might be in denial about the real task. The ability to play at a concert level and give 150 percent for eight times a week playing the same music in the same venue might not be for everyone. It’s like a recording session where you never get a take but keep trying over and over again.
Keith O’Quinn: There is not really one specific answer to this question. Like all gigs that we get called for, a lot of it depends on your skills, word of mouth, and what the gig calls for. I would have to say that if you are new to the Broadway scene, probably the best way to eventually get your own show is by subbing for other people. If you go into a show as a sub and nail the part every time, word will make it back to the contractors in due time that you are a valuable commodity. They are always looking for someone they can trust to go into a gig and make the conductor happy. I don’t recommend making cold calls to the contractor as a general rule. They are busy people and rely more on what they hear from players they respect than from whatever resume you’re going to give them.
Walter Usiatynski: Chances are you get your break from a player and not the contractor. Most players start out subbing for a regular player. That’s how you’ll get noticed by the contractor. Get to know who is playing a show and ask to watch them in the pit. You have to network. Check out your friends who are playing on Broadway and visit them at their show.
How did you get your Broadway gig?
Michael Aarons: A combination of many avenues. Some of them were intentional and some of them by chance. I’ve been in NYC for over 15 years and did a good amount of recording, writing and touring. I worked outside the Broadway scene with some players that had gigs in shows, so I got into subbing this way through referrals. However, I did have some relationships with writers, musical directors and composers who through the years have developed some of these projects into workshops, readings, recordings and shows (Off Broadway and Broadway), so over the years, I found myself attached to ground-up projects and people in this way.
Tony Kadleck: I started by subbing for several years. My first regular show came at a time when many other trumpet players already had shows. The contractor asked a well known player in town if he wanted to move over to his new show. He turned it down but recommended me. It was a good thing he stayed put because this new show opened Thursday and closed Saturday after only four performances!
Ray Marchica: I got my current gig at “Mamma Mia” by playing with the orchestra as a substitute. When the original drummer left the show, I was asked to replace him. Originally, playing on Broadway started for me when I was about one year out of college. I was recommended by my college percussion teacher, Morris Lang, to the contractor Herbie Harris to go on the first national tour of “A Chorus Line.” I auditioned for it, and got the gig. When I came back to town I started subbing at the show in New York. The musical director, the legendary Don Pippin, liked my work, and asked me to be his drummer on his next four shows as well as special events that he worked on. It was from these gigs that I met contractors Mel Rodnin, Michael Keller, John Miller, Red Press, John Monaco, Bill Meade, and musical directors Paul Bogaev, David Chase, John McDaniel, Patrick Vaccariello and David Holcenberg who all hired me to be part of their shows.
Warren Odze: Everything is connected. This goes back a long way. I need to tell a little story to illustrate how far away from Broadway my Broadway career began. I was playing in a free jazz group with Kirk Nurock and also playing in Judy Collins’ band at the same time. Kirk wrote some arrangements for Judy and also became orchestrator for the show “The Three Musketeers” and recommended me for the show. Gordon Harrell was the conductor and he hired me for some things after that but many years went by before I was hired for another show. I was also one of those people asking, “How do you get into this scene?” Then out of the blue I got a call from John Miller to play in the orchestra for “The Life.” That got me started in the theatre. How did I get to “Come Fly Away”? The drum chair had opened up and I was invited by Russ Kassoff and Patrick Vaccariello, the conductor and music supervisor, to audition for Twyla Tharp. I’ve known and worked for Russ and Patrick for many years and with Twyla’s approval I was invited into the orchestra.
Keith O’Quinn: My first show was in the fall of 1981. I was mainly working as a studio musician at that time and playing jazz gigs and freelance concert work. The contractor that called me for that gig was a woodwind player and jingle contractor that I worked with. I got the call because he knew me and thought I would be good for the gig.
Walter Usiatynski: I started subbing on a few shows and the contractor became familiar with me and with my playing. He eventually gave me a show, which was a limited run. But from there he offered me the chair on “Hairspray” which ran for 6.5 years. It took a long time to get there. I had been subbing for quite a few years before I got my own show. There are only so many shows and a lot of great musicians.
What’s the best thing about playing on Broadway? Any funny stories come to mind?
Michael Aarons: The best thing to me about playing on Broadway are the other musicians you meet along the way and get the honor to play with every day.
Jack Bashkow: The best thing is being that oxymoron, a musician with a steady job! Banks will actually consider you for a mortgage, for some reason. Random people are able to understand what you do, not like having to explain how you work all the time as a freelance club dater. It is also amazing to have a job that you only really have to show up for half the time. For me it is also great to be able to ride a bicycle to work, which is just a short ways away.
Tony Kadleck: Steady work is always a great thing. Pension contributions and the ability to be on Plan A+ is a huge bonus.
Ray Marchica: What’s the best thing about playing on Broadway? I met my wife Nina Hennessey, who is a fantastic singer/actress/dancer. Any funny stories come to mind? I met my wife Nina Hennsessey, who is a fantastic singer/actress/dancer. O.K., seriously, I get to play with all of the great musicians living in NYC. The level of musicianship is very high on Broadway. Everyone who plays shows is a serious well-schooled musician. I think being part of a Broadway show is very prestigious. There are a lot of people in the audience paying a lot of money to see and hear first-rate entertainment. Being a part of that every day is something I am very proud of. Playing music, playing your instrument every night, giving it your best and getting paid for it is a gift. Playing on Broadway has other benefits as well. It is a union job with a great pension plan, health benefits, and it is steady work in town near my family. Funny stories? O.K, Joe Bongiorno and I were playing “Woman Of The Year” oh so long ago now, and he said to me after the overture, “Man, I didn’t have any dinner. I’m starving!” I knew I had about five minutes before my next cue. I ran out of the pit, out of the theater, around the corner, and got him two slices and a Coke all within that five minutes. He had dinner in the pit before intermission! It smelled really good too. (Please don’t try this nowadays!)
Warren Odze: Playing my instrument constantly is fantastic. It’s almost impossible to duplicate that feeling by practicing alone. And there is no better way to improve than to be on the front line interacting with other musicians. It also doesn’t hurt to have a steady paycheck.
Keith O’Quinn: The best thing about playing on Broadway is that it’s steady work and it pays well. You get health benefits and the pension contributions are very good on Broadway. The level of musicianship is also quite high and playing with good musicians makes any gig a lot more pleasurable. It’s also good to go to work with people that you like, and I work with a lot of people that are fun to be around.
Walter Usiatynski: It’s a great gig. Show up and do your job well and have fun. Your job doesn’t follow you home at night. The steady paycheck and union benefits are key. The camaraderie with your fellow musicians is priceless. You feel like a family. At “Hairspray,” I was next to the string room. During off times we would visit each other. On occasion, I would hit a clam (not very often, of course). To be reminded that it was indeed a clam, I would hear a little knock on the wall accompanied by a few giggles. Needless to say I would return the favor.
What’s the worst thing about playing on Broadway?
Michael Aarons: Sometimes it’s easy to forget that it is “live theater” and anything can happen. Let’s leave it at that.
Jack Bashkow: The worst thing is that just like any other job, you have to actually do it to get paid. One of the other worst things is having to continually brave the maddening Times Square crowds. Of course, the repetition as well. A famous story is when Cliff Carter went home during the intermission of “Hairspray” because he thought (wishfully thinking) that the gig was already over.
Tony Kadleck: I’m not sure that the human brain is wired to hear the same thing 8 times per week, over and over. I did the first 9.5 years of a show that ran for 13 years. That was enough.
Ray Marchica: I’ll answer this question in two parts: first as a regular member of the orchestra, and then as a substitute. (They are two different positions, and each has its own difficulties.)
In general, the worst thing about playing Broadway is becoming stale, and falling in the trap of just going through the motions. I think you should take off to play in other good musical situations while employed in a show in order to keep your skills sharp, and to give yourself a break from the daily grind of your steady show.
A specific thing that is difficult about playing Broadway is the disconnect between the stage and pit that can sometimes happen. We are physically far away from each other. The musicians in the pit might be playing one tempo, and the performers on stage might be feeling it somewhere else. It is the job of the conductor to keep it all together, and the rest of the band to follow. It can be frustrating to be in a groove, and have it altered because of the on-stage situation. But always keep in mind the big picture: it is a show, not a concert.
Subbing is very challenging, and your goal should be to sound as close as possible to the person you are subbing for. You are not there to express your own interpretation of the show. Expect to get notes, and suggestions, from the musical director.
I was subbing one night at a show that I had played at least eight to ten times. This particular night the conductor kept writing notes, and looking over at me during the first act. It seemed like he was really unhappy with what he was hearing from me. I kept playing and was really focused, but at the same time I was getting angry at why he seemed to be so unhappy. I said to myself while playing, “Oh well, this might not work out anymore after tonight; just keep giving it your best.”
He walked by me right after the first act and said: “Great job! I just have a few notes for you.”
My perspective was off. Don’t let the pressure of subbing get to you and affect your performance or your attitude.
Keith O’Quinn: Like anything else, when you’re doing the same thing over and over again it’s easy to get bored. You have to find ways to keep yourself focused. I have one friend that told me about doing the show one evening and at the intermission he flipped the book back to the overture for some reason. When they went back for the second act, while the rest of the band started the entr’acte, he began the overture again (which was in a different key and loud). It’s easy for things like that to happen on a long-running show. It can be hard to stay focused when you do the same thing over and over.
Walter Usiatynski: It’s rough if you have kids. There is not much time in the evening with them before you have to go to work. You’re also working holidays.
Did you start out by shadowing an active Broadway musician? What was that like? How did you do it?
Michael Aarons: My first subbing experience was many years back for Kevin Kuhn. I simply cold-called him after a friend of mine in the orchestra referred me to him. He was nice enough to give me a shot.
Ray Marchica: I learned the percussion book of “A Chorus Line” from Ben Herman. Later on, I learned the drum book from Hank Jaramillo. Ben and Hank are great players, and were fantastic mentors to me.
I sat next to Ben and watched him play a couple of shows. He would kind of guide me through what to look out for, how loud to play, which mallets to use, the best place to tune the timps, where the tricky tempo changes were, etc.
Around my third time watching, he let me play a few simple cues with him there to make sure I had the hang of it.
Learning the drum chair from Hank was quite an experience as well. Hank’s vibe was so relaxed. I sat be hind him a few times, and soaked it all in. He had great dynamics, and a great feel.
He used a calf skin on his snare drum. It was a great sound, and it required more tuning than a plastic head. He would tune it during the show, which was a whole art in itself!
Walter Usiatynski: A friend of mine was playing a show and he introduced me to the percussionist who gave me a shot. I think I watched him play the book like three times before I played my first show. One of those times was just watching the conductor. You have to know the music but you also have to know what the conductor is doing. You can practice the music at home but you can only watch the conductor in the pit. Some guys make videos of the conductor so that you can take them home with you.
How did you first start subbing? What was subbing like? Did you take the book home and learn the music first? How long did that take you?
Michael Aarons: My first time watching, I like to record the show myself that night. This way I can ensure that it is the most recent version I am hearing and practicing with. I get a copy of the book also the first night and make my own notes and markings on my copy. Never write in the player’s book!
I will usually watch up to three times. Depending on the show, and the player’s setup, I may completely dedicate one show to just watching the player. I pay attention to the obvious: pedal changes, switches and other details. I also try and hone in on certain technical or dynamic aspects of the player like what position they play chords in, how they are picking a pattern, how lightly they strum, or how they are tweaking the volume knob on the guitar.
Once I have the show under my fingers, I’ll dedicate one show to completely watching the conductor’s cues.
Subbing isn’t easy, but it can be fun and it can keep you on your toes. I actually like the challenge of learning new stuff and checking out how other great musicians play their show.
I usually bumper a three-to-four week window of time between the first time I watch and playing my first show. It’s tricky because if you are new on the scene, or inexperienced at subbing, you don’t want to watch too much, or take too long because the person you are subbing for may worry. But on the flip side, you don’t want to watch too little and not be thorough.
When I’m doing my own show, I feel it is important sometimes to give new players on the scene a chance, just like I was given a chance. If I get an opening in my list of subs, I will likely get a new player on the scene in to watch. There’s a lot of great players out there. First impressions are everything, and I usually learn a great deal about what to expect by the initial e-mail or phone call, which is why people skills are important!
Jack Bashkow: I first started subbing in the original production of “Big River” for Bob Steen, who was having trouble finding enough subs who could play English horn and bass clarinet, among other doubles. Subbing is nerve-wracking, especially the first time. Yeah, you take the book home and keep on working at it till you know what to play where. And can play (or fake) it really well. This can easily take a few days to do it right. And if you have to also memorize the dance moves and music for “Jersey Boys,” then this is a place where repetition is your friend.
Tony Kadleck: I played chamber music with someone who was nice enough to let me come and watch the book at his show. At that point there was no such thing as getting a copy of the book. You just watched it, then played. Standards were high but you were usually allowed a second chance if it didn’t go perfectly on the first shot. Today it’s even tougher. They expect near perfection right away.
Ray Marchica: Yes, I had the music at home with me along with a recording I made while watching. Learning “A Chorus Line” the first time took about a full week of really studying the tapes, and watching from the pit at least three times. Subbing at “A Chorus Line” in NYC was a great experience because I already knew the show from going on the road with it, and everyone in the pit dug how I played it.
Warren Odze: The first time I subbed was in the show “Irene.” My drum teacher, Al Pollick, was in the orchestra and I subbed for him as a percussionist. I was in college at the time and was in way over my head. I took the book home and practiced the parts for a week or so. It was scary but I was too young to know what could have gone wrong!
Subbing today is a whole other animal. Since pop music and sequencing have come into people’s consciousness, more exacting playing is required. I would take the book home and study it as much as possible. You can’t be too over-prepared for subbing. Unlike other gigs, there is no sound check and no warming up. Out of the gate you’re dealing with getting used to the sound, blend, pitch, and rhythm all at once. It’s like sitting in at a Christmas dinner with people you don’t know and they don’t realize you’re not in the family. Listening to the music nonstop helps as you will be reacting rather than thinking. If you’re not sure of what the next measure sounds like, it’s going to be a long night. You need to prepare as if it’s a recital.
Keith O’Quinn: The first Broadway sub I did in New York was in 1976. It was for a show called “Let My People Come” for trombonist Joe Petrizzo. The cast was all nude and the band was just off the side of the stage where the actors made their entrances from. I watched the show once (it was pretty hard to concentrate on the music with naked actors all around you) and played it the next day. There was no book to take home or tape of the music. Needless to say, it wasn’t the cleanest show I’ve ever played, but somehow I got through it and did the show a few more times before it closed. Most of the subbing I’ve done has been for friends of mine who were doing shows when I was out of work and at those shows I was able to take a book home and practice it with a tape of the show. It usually takes a few days to a couple of weeks to learn the show well enough that you feel confident about playing it. It all depends on how complicated the show is. My main concern is always to do my best to not let the guy who called me down. I want to do a good job for him so that it’s easy for him to call me again when he needs me.
Walter Usiatynski: Subbing is mercenary work. The first time you go in you have to play the show as well as the guy who’s been doing it for years. It has to be perfect. The second time you go in it’s worse because you haven’t been shedding it for a week like you did for the first time! You may not get called back for a while and then get a call to come in for that night. You have to be prepared every time. Multiply that by the number of shows you’re subbing on and that’s what it’s like to sub.
Do you have to be an excellent sight reader to be a Broadway player? What’s the tolerance level for mistakes?
Michael Aarons: Well, everyone knows the joke about how to get a guitar player to turn down. However, this is an interesting question from my perspective. The short answer is yes, you have to be an excellent reader and the tolerance is low for mistakes. But there’s a lot more to it than just notes on the page.
There are so many styles and genres today and for a rhythm section player, such as myself, there is a lot to be said for sight reading what’s not on the page. As a guitarist, there are so many variables. There are effects, amps, tons of different guitars for a gazillion different styles. A player must understand not only about the right gear but also how to achieve certain sounds from them. In addition to that, the player must be able to translate what an orchestrator, arranger or composer is looking for, and make the right musical decisions for the right moments. Sometimes the ink on the page will indicate one thing, but if you play the ink verbatim, the result will not work. This happens more often than not.
Sometimes it’s a real blank canvas. However, there may be something very specific the composer or orchestrator is trying to achieve, just isn’t communicating. Picking and choosing these moments in rehearsal, translating them and being able to make the right alterations on the spot both stylistically and technically go far beyond the notes on the page. These problems are sometimes unique to guitarists especially, but mostly rhythm section players.
I’d say 90 percent of the time when reading Broadway scores for guitar, the best books to play are the ones where the player finds those moments in the show, translates them to a more guitaristic language, and makes it their own, but without making it so complicated that it’s unmusical or where no one else can naturally play it (for your subs).
As far as “mistakes” – as in wrong notes – if you are subbing on a book for example and you hit a clam or two, a conductor will most likely let it slide if the player is really demonstrating the right feel, groove and stylistic intent of the things that are unwritten.
Jack Bashkow: Sight reading is always a good skill to have. There could be a new transposition of something in the book that day, for instance. And it makes you look good at the initial rehearsals if you can actually play everything correctly the first time or two, instead of saying, “I’ll have to go home and shed this first.” The tolerance level for mistakes is not particularly high in this end of the business. I mean, nobody’s perfect, but you only get a few chances at best as a sub, and then that’s it. And I can only imagine that both contractors and conductors do prefer the more consistent players.
Tony Kadleck: Sight reading is a very important skill but it doesn’t apply very much on Broadway. Tolerance for mistakes varies depending on the conductor. Some understand a “rough night” more than others. Hopefully, they all realize that we are human and are always trying to do a great job.
Ray Marchica: Yes, you do have to be a good sight reader, especially if you are part of the first rehearsal of a new production. You have to know what you’re doing that first day of rehearsal, because you will be heard by almost everyone involved in the creative process of the show: the composers, the musical supervisor, the musical director, the contractor, the orchestrator, the arranger, the director, the choreographer, the music preparation personnel and your fellow orchestra members.
There is some tolerance for mistakes in the above situation, because everything is brand new, and everyone is feeling each other out. It is like the first day of school.
Hopefully you were hired because you are the right person for the job, and well trained for the position.
If you are subbing for someone, you technically don’t have to be a great sight reader because you have time to take the music and a recording home to study it, but it sure as hell helps!
Warren Odze: To start a show, you need to be a studio-level musician. During the preview period there are lots of changes and you really need to be able to switch on a dime. You come into the show most nights and there is a list of changes that most likely will not get rehearsed, so you really need to pay attention. Once it gets going, the reading is not so important.
The conductor sets the bar for what is tolerable about mistakes. A mistake is different than poor musicianship. It’s never great to make mistakes but if a conductor knows your playing then a mistake is a mistake. Everyone makes them.
Keith O’Quinn: I think it’s important to be a good sight reader no matter what gig you’re doing. That’s a skill that every musician should strive for. You certainly won’t get called for any studio work or concert gigs if you can’t read. The tolerance level for mistakes on Broadway is pretty low. Everyone is going to make a mistake now and then, but conductors don’t have much patience for a lot of mistakes.
Bob Millikan told me about a show he was doing. The conductor told him that the number of clams in the trumpet section was unacceptable. Bob, as he’s known to do, asked, “Well, how many are acceptable”? The conductor answered, without a pause, “three.” Bob asked him, “Three clams per tune, per act or per show?” “Three per week” was the conductor’s answer. Bob said, “Gee, I can make that many on a downbeat!”
Walter Usiatynski: You have to be an excellent sight reader but you should have the music pretty well under your belt also. Once the show starts anything can happen so the better you know the music the better prepared you’ll be. Some conductors will let a few mistakes go by and some won’t. It’s better not to make a mistake.
What’s it like sitting in the pit and performing? Is it nerve-wracking or is it mellow?
Michael Aarons: Of course, if you are subbing and the show is difficult, it can be nerve-wracking. But that goes away the more you get comfortable. If it’s your chair it can be mellow. However, sometimes depending on your show, playing in the pit can be a bit surreal. With sound designers trying to control everything (and much to their detriment), especially in rock shows, players and equipment are more and more separated with baffling, instruments going direct, and players in separate isolation rooms sometimes on different floors. I am not a fan of this and quite frankly, I think it creates a very unnatural playing environment. So for me, these are the nerve-wracking and frustrating moments about playing shows because it is not something that I can control no matter how well I may perform.
Jack Bashkow: If you are a regular, it’s generally pretty mellow. If you are a first-time sub, it is pretty nerve-wracking. For others, it is in-between.
Tony Kadleck: The conductor dictates the vibe in the pit. Some pits are loose and some are uptight. The level of difficulty of the music is also a big factor.
Ray Marchica: As a regular member of an orchestra, I don’t find sitting in the pit to be nerve wracking. However, being a sub can be nerve wracking, especially your first performance. Always be prepared, and really know the music. Being over-prepared is better than being under-prepared. Believe me, I speak from experience!
Warren Odze: The mood is different for every pit. Some pits are very uptight and others are more relaxing. I believe that everyone comes to do the best they can and a more relaxed environment is conducive to better playing. I’m a jittery person and I’ve done my best playing for people that can create a relaxed mood. Playing in a hostile environment is like driving in a rain storm while someone is trying to burn you with a cigarette. I’m not sure why some people think that’s the best way to get results from musicians. You need to create your own “cone of calm.”
Keith O’Quinn: It can be stressful at times. Some shows are mellower than others. A lot depends on the conductor. I’ve worked with conductors who are forgiving and some that aren’t. It’s easier to play if you know that the conductor isn’t going to go postal on you if you clam a note, believe me. We all try to do our best to play a good show but sometimes the horn just won’t cooperate. If you feel like the conductor is mad at you, you tend to make more mistakes.
Walter Usiatynski: It depends on the show, the conductor and the other players around you. “Hairspray” was a total groove. Really talented musicians and great music by Marc Shaiman. We all had fun and the conductor was terrific. When I subbed on “Hair,” it was the same deal. It was a great band and a cool conductor. Once you do your homework it can be enjoyable.
Does it get mind-numbing to play the same music for years? How do you stay fresh?
Michael Aarons: I think the danger is the simple mindset of treating a show as monotonous. Live theater should stay consistent night to night, but part of what makes it exciting every night is the fact that it is “live.” This may not apply to every show or every instrument, but for me, sometimes, if the show allows, I may play a passage differently, or with a different feel. If it’s a large orchestra, I may try changing the mix in the monitor one night to hear what other sections are doing and really try and play off that. Sometimes, I close the book and try to play the show from memory. This was interesting because the simple act of getting my eyes off the page made it really interesting to play.
You have to be careful though, and remember you are playing with an orchestra and it’s not all about you. Making it interesting doesn’t mean noodling wildly. It means playing in a section and honing in on your role and finding new moments in the show. This means challenging yourself and keeping it fresh without clamming.
Jack Bashkow: I haven’t done any crazy-long runs myself, but I can tell you that there is some sort of cycle that one goes through with these things. It is mentally necessary to have at least some other gigs and other interests to help preserve whatever sanity you can muster. It also helps to have your own little area at the show as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. And it is hard to forget how lucky you are to be one of the chosen few to have a chair on Broadway! Believe it or not, it is often not quite as mind-numbing as one would imagine, what with it being live and all, with different subs in the pit, and on the podium, and stage. There are props, cues, and click tracks that sometimes fail, and there are audiences that are sometimes comical in themselves. I mean, have you ever heard them try to clap in time to the music?
Tony Kadleck: Taking off regularly can extend a player’s tolerance level. Other than that, I’ve found no remedy for the monotony.
Ray Marchica: I don’t find playing “Mamma Mia” to be mind-numbing at all. Everything about the scene at the show is great. We have an awesome musical supervisor, David Holcenberg. Our conductor Wendy Bobbitt Cavett is a wonderful leader, and fantastic pianist.
Everyone in the band is a really good player, gives 100 percent, and makes the show groove every night. I really love the music. The show is on click track, this works out perfect for the style of music we are playing.
I stay fresh by practicing and listening to all different styles of music. I go out to jazz clubs and concerts a couple of times a month and I play all kinds of freelance gigs.
Warren Odze: I haven’t done a run of a show that lasted more than two years. If you let it, the music can get mind-numbing. I’m not a fan of phoning it in and it is actually less mind-numbing to really get involved and try to play the best you can.
It’s really important to get out and play other music or just take a day off and do something unrelated. Also important is letting subs come in and play so they don’t get rusty. Part of the privilege of having the chair of a show is keeping the subs well oiled.
Keith O’Quinn: It can be mind-numbing. We are very fortunate that the contract allows for us to take off to do other work. You definitely come into the show with a fresher attitude if you have a chance to play some different music now and then. I think the show benefits from us being able to get out and have other musical experiences.
Walter Usiatynski: The biggest drag about “Hairspray” wasn’t playing the same music every night. The music was a gas.: 1960’s rock ‘n’ roll. The drag was being in a separate room from the rest of the pit. It felt more like a recording session than a show. You wear headphones and watch the conductor on a TV monitor. There is a real disconnect with the other players. I missed the interaction. There’s music lost when you separate the band. That was the real challenge. I am encouraged by shows that are putting the bands together again and on-stage. It is always the better choice musically for a show.
As for staying fresh, over time I would put myself in the audience’s position seeing the show for the first time. I would try to play the show as if it were the first time. Also, you have to take time off and do other projects. That helps to keep the show fresh for you.
What else would you say to musicians about getting a Broadway gig or playing on Broadway in general?
Michael Aarons: No matter how well you think you played, don’t be offended and be prepared to get notes. A good conductor’s job is to spend the time noting the show for the sole purpose of improving it and making it tighter.
Subbing a lot doesn’t necessarily mean you will get your own show: it means you are available to sub. It’s the people you meet and the opportunities you gain from being on the scene. Show up, do your job, be respectful of other musicians and respect the person in whose chair you are subbing. If you are subbing, leave the area the way you left it. Simple things like thanking the person when they give you dates goes a long way.
Try and get involved in projects from the ground up. Meet other people and be easy to work with and get along with. Use people skills to make friends with people who have projects in the pipeline.
Be yourself and believe in yourself, but there is a fine line between being confident and being cocky.
Jack Bashkow: Trying to get a Broadway gig is certainly not a trivial undertaking, and there is a lot of competition. But these days in particular, it is one of the best games in town. Good luck!
Tony Kadleck: Be a nice person. Everyone plays well, that’s a given. A contractor will not hire someone who is a drag to be around. Show up early and with everything that you might possibly need for that show. Be respectful.
Ray Marchica: The most important thing is to be really prepared. Don’t play the show for the first time until you really know it. You also have to know what the conductor is going to do at all times. If possible, get a video of the conductor. Go over the book with the person you are going to sub for, talk about all of the difficult sections in the score. Mark your copy of the music really well. Use red ink, white out, highlighters, whatever makes it easiest for you! Talk to the conductor before your first show, have a verbal rehearsal if you need one, or have a quick runthrough of difficult sections in the pit sometime before your first performance. It will relax you, and the conductor, and you’ll have a feel for what each of you is going to do.
If you already have a Broadway gig, take your job seriously. Be thankful for it. Show up on time. Give it your best every performance.
Try to get along with everyone in the theater. You are part of one big family. Don’t be difficult, don’t complain. If there is a problem in any area that affects you, don’t make it public. Talk to your musical director first. He or she is your boss.
Warren Odze: It’s not really just Broadway but getting a gig in general. We are our own best promotion people and agents. How we conduct ourselves and play is the best advertising we have.
Every part of the music business has its own language. Broadway is no different. It comes out of a symphonic mentality of following. It is a finely played game of cat and mouse between the conductor and the orchestra as when to lead and when to follow. You can’t learn this in music school and you can’t learn experience.
It’s very important to get out there and play music of all kinds in all kinds of situations. Like a film score, a Broadway show travels through all kinds of styles over the course of two hours. If a show has some big band music, it’s going to be hard to be convincing when playing that music in a show if you haven’t had those experiences in the outside world. Do you just do tune ups, or can you fix a car?
We all have to start somewhere. There is nothing wrong with contacting people and asking about subbing. But there is a fine line between making intentions known and being a pest.
There are more opportunities to get started by subbing in Off Broadway pits. The pay is not as good as Broadway so the need for subs is greater. These are the same people music directing and orchestrating as on Broadway and it’s a great chance to meet people and let them see what you can do.
More and more the hiring on Broadway is done by committee. The days of a music contractor putting together a full band are gone. The composer, orchestrator, conductor, and even the choreographer have a say.
One more thing: a positive attitude is everything.
Keith O’Quinn: Broadway is a good gig and it’s one of the main sources of work in NY at this point. Over the course of my career, I have had 19 Broadway shows. I feel fortunate that I’ve had that opportunity, but I’m also happy that I’ve been able to do a lot of other things, musically, besides Broadway. I would just remind people interested in working on Broadway to remember why you got into music in the first place. Hopefully it’s because you love to play music. Get every musical experience that you can. Play with as many musicians as you can. Play in some bands. Write your own music, put together a band. Do things that make you musically happy and don’t worry so much about having a show. New York has a lot to offer musically and when the time comes that you get called for your own show, it will be a lot more pleasurable if you’ve had a lot of great experiences outside of Broadway. It will make you a better player. The better player you become, the more opportunities you’ll have.
Walter Usiatynski: In general it’s a great way to make a living as a musician. Health benefits and pension become very important as you mature, and since it is a union job, working on Broadway provides both. Plus there are so many good musicians playing shows and many shows have good music to play. It’s a great base job to support what, for many of us, is a freelance profession. It allows you to take other gigs to keep your passions alive.
Please tell us a little bit about your musical background, including what show you are currently playing or subbing for, and what shows you have done in the recent past.
Michael Aarons: I currently play lead guitar at “American Idiot.” I was the guitar chair at “Memphis,” 9 To 5,” “Grease,” “High Fidelity” and “Laugh Whore.” I am also an arranger on “Next To Normal.” I have worked with Ray Charles, Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross, Michael McDonald, James Ingram, Liza Minnelli and Elton John, to name a few. As a composer, my music has been featured on Lifetime, Style Network and MTV. I co-wrote the theme song for the Style Network’s show “How Do I Look?”
Jack Bashkow: I am a woodwind doubler who used to do a ton of club dates, but somehow switched more to the Broadway team. Relatively recent shows and subbing: chairs for “Brooklyn the Musical” and “The Wedding Singer,” subbed and designated for the high double-reed chair at “Curtains” and both reed chairs at “Hairspray” and “Jersey Boys,” then got “Grease: You’re The One That I Want” and left to do “Shrek The Musical.” I am presently subbing on “Memphis” and “In The Heights,” doing club dates and whatever else comes along as well.
Tony Kadleck: I’ve been a freelancer in New York since 1986. Currently playing “The Addams Family.” Previous recent shows include “Shrek,” “Gypsy,” “Curtains,” and “Tarzan.”
Ray Marchica: I earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Brooklyn College where I studied with Morris Lang of the New York Philharmonic. I am the drummer for the Ed Palermo Big Band (specializing in the music of Frank Zappa), Mike Longo’s New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble, Gary Morgan’s PanAmericana Orchestra (an Afro-Cuban/Brazilian big band), Anita Brown (contemporary jazz big band) and Russ Kassoff’s Big Band. I do record dates, jingles and special concert events as well as my own project, the Ray Marchica Group (see RayMarchica.com). I have recorded with James Brown, Little Richard, Earl Klugh, Rodney Jones, Barbara Streisand, and played with Shirley Bassey, Keely Smith, Bernadette Peters, Tommy Tune, Michael Feinstein, and Jimmy Webb, to name a few. I was a member of the following orchestras in New York productions on Broadway: “A Broadway Musical,” “A Chorus Line,” Radio City Music Hall, “Woman of the Year,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “Starlight Express,” “The Will Rogers Follies,” “Damn Yankees,” “The Red Shoes,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Dance of the Vampires.” I was the drummer on the Rosie O’Donnell TV show for its entire run from 1996 to 2002. I subbed at many other shows including: “City of Angels,” “The Lion King,” “Gypsy,” “The Rocky Horror Show” and “42nd Street.” I am currently the drummer for the Broadway production of “Mamma Mia.”
Warren Odze: I graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in 1976 with a B.Mus. in percussion. I have played with Judy Collins, Peter Allen, Astrud Gilberto, Hank Jones, Johnny Hartman and many others. I’m currently in “Come Fly Away,” and some past shows I’ve played in are “Lennon,” “Shrek the Musical,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “The Wedding Singer.”
Keith O’Quinn: I’ve been in New York since 1975 and joined Local 802 shortly after moving here. I traveled with the bands of Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Bellson, Gerry Mulligan and Lionel Hampton among others. Shows I’ve done include “City of Angels,” “Will Rogers Follies,” “How to Succeed…,” “Titanic,” “Fosse” and “9 to 5.” I am currently doing “La Cage Aux Folles.”
Walter Usiatynski: I was the percussionist for “Hairspray” and Harry Connick’s “Thou Shalt Not.” I had subbed on “City of Angels,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “The Life,” “Footloose” and “Hair.” I am the chair of the Broadway Theatre Committee and serve on the Broadway negotiating committee.
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