More Musicians, Better Reviews

When Broadway Ups the Minimums, Critics Take Notice

Volume CIV, No. 3March, 2004

Joe Delia

Since the conclusion of the Broadway strike last spring, there have been two developments that point to the centrality of the live musical experience in the theatre.

One is the fact that five shows have come in well above the house minimums at their respective theatres.

For example, “Gypsy” at the Shubert theatre has 24 musicians (the minimum is 18), “Wonderful Town” at the Al Hirschfield has 24 players (the minimum is 14), “Wicked” has 24 musicians at the Gershwin (the minimum is 18), “Boy from Oz” has 24 musicians at the Imperial (the minimum is 18) and “Never Gonna Dance” features 19 players at the Broadhurst (the minimum is 12).

The second development is that all these shows have received positive reviews, with many of the reviewers specifically highlighting the sounds of the orchestra.

For example, a musician from “Wonderful Town” — a musical which showcases the orchestra on stage — compiled clippings from 14 different reviews that specifically mentioned the orchestra. Some of those reviews characterized the orchestra as one of the “stars” of the show.

The New York Times wrote, “The superb orchestra, which gives glittering life to Bernstein’s ebullient score under the direction of Rob Fisher, is Ms. Murphy’s true co-star here.”

The Wall Street Journal pointed to the “100 percent live, synthesizer-free 24-piece orchestra” and the Bergen Record suggested that, “When you hear the overture, richly played by a big 24-piece orchestra — it makes most of Broadway’s current economy-sized orchestras sound puny — you’re in musical heaven.”

In a Wall Street Journal review of “Gypsy,” the critic went out of his way to talk up the orchestra, calling it “terrific” and singled out first trumpet Chris Jaudes who “gets a well-deserved credit in the program for his raucous take-it-all-off solos.”

Not only are many critics commenting on the sounds of the orchestras, but many pit musicians have remarked that the audiences are more enthusiastic than usual in expressing their appreciation. Many of the audiences have given the orchestras an unusual amount of sustained applause at the end of the show.

These developments certainly open up questions about the future of the new contractual minimums. After such a contentious contract negotiation with the reduction of minimums being at the heart of the struggle, why would the producers bring in shows at above the minimums? Could it be that none of the producers want to be involved in the first production that orchestrates at the new minimum for fear of the reviewers’ and audiences’ negative reactions? Could it be that the producers (reluctantly) realize what many of us have realized all along: that large, full orchestras can and often do contribute to the success of a show and add the necessary ingredient that is so integral to the true Broadway experience?

One outcome of the Broadway strike seems clear: the public relations campaign that 802 waged during the strike seems to have empowered the musical creative team (composers, orchestrators, arrangers, and musical directors) to successfully argue for large orchestras. This is an important shift from the producers’ “bottom line” mentality regarding the orchestra size to one that pieces an orchestra together based on artistic and musical concerns.

It may be too premature to identify a genuine trend in shows coming in above the minimums. But there may be a message that the general public, the critics and the musical creative team are sending: large orchestras are an important ingredient to the success of the Broadway musical.