For 52 years, the annual Tony Awards ceremony has been broadcast from New York City into the homes of millions of Americans nationwide. On that Sunday night in June, from the minute the green light flicks on until the very last notes of the outro music, a full house orchestra of Local 802 musicians sits listening, waiting for cues, and ensuring that the music on Broadway’s biggest night is performed flawlessly. The story of this legendary house orchestra has rarely been told…until now. This June, we visited the orchestra in rehearsal at the DiMenna Center to talk all things Tony Award.
“It’s a ball! You spend your whole life in music, and here’s the chance to conduct and you have on the stage in front of you all the great people of the American theater. It’s an experience that you never get over.” – Elliot Lawrence
You can’t tell the history of the Tonys house orchestra without the Lawrence family. While the first Tony Awards dinner was presented from the Waldorf Astoria hotel on April 6, 1947, it took another 20 years for the ceremony to be broadcast nationwide. The Broadway League – then called the League of New York Theatres – tapped Alexander Cohen to produce the show. In turn, Cohen tapped renowned conductor, pianist and bandleader Elliot Lawrence, a member of Local 802 since 1951.
“I was a good friend of Alexander Cohen,” said Elliot. “I had been conducting for him on television and he said, ‘I want to do the Tonys on national television.’ So I conducted the first Tony Awards on national television in 1967.”
That fateful first broadcast would mark the beginning of a decades-long family tradition. “I did it every year after that until I retired,” remembered Elliot. “Not only was Alexander Cohen the producer, but there were four or five producers since him and I happily continued to conduct it.”
Roughly 25 years ago, Elliot’s son began working on the Tony Awards alongside his father. Jamie Lawrence – a pianist, music director, composer, producer, and member of Local 802 since 1981 – started out composing and playing on the broadcast, first working under the direction of his father and then under the direction of Patrick Vaccariello.
“When I was conducting, Jamie was the keyboard player I could trust to play jazz, rock, and the sort of classical music stuff,” Elliot explained. “There are a lot of fantastic piano players in New York, but they can’t all do those various kinds of shows equally well.”
Patrick Vaccariello has been the music director since 2014 but for the 2019 awards, the MD title was turned over to Jamie when Patrick was on the road conducting for Hugh Jackman. “Jamie was absolutely the perfect choice,” said Elliot, who has watched every ceremony from home since retiring.
PREPPING FOR THEATRE’S BIG NIGHT
Alongside Kim Wertz, the long-time music coordinator of the Tony Awards, the music director is tasked with assembling an orchestra of musicians who can master the diversity of musical genres featured on Broadway
“We try to find people who can play all the different styles we encounter and can sight-read like crazy,” Jamie explained. “We like the band to really swing hard, but we also need it to produce a world-class classical sound and a driving R&B groove within moments.”
Elliot always considered assembling the band to be one of the best parts of working on the Tonys. “Each year you can choose the 25 musicians you would love to work with to be in the orchestra,” he said. “It was a joy to have some of the best musicians you could think of from this great pool of musicians we have in New York.”
As Broadway has evolved and expanded, the need for versatile musicians has only grown, and the Lawrences attribute much of their success in finding the right musicians to Kim Wertz.
“Broadway used to be much more standard in terms of orchestration and now all sorts of crazy guitar doubles come in and amplifiers come in and percussion and ethnic percussion,” Jamie said. “Kim deals with all of that and makes sure we don’t drop the ball.”
Once the roster of musicians has been assembled, they’re in for a busy couple of weeks. “You really have eight musical numbers from eight shows, an opening number, and all kinds of background music, so every minute is taken up in rehearsal,” said Elliot.
Every piece of music that we hear in the broadcast – Jamie estimates about 150 pieces total – must be copied and rehearsed, and some pieces pre-recorded. Every music team from the nominated musicals comes in to rehearse our band. The orchestrators and copyists from all over Broadway – led by Emily Grishman, Alden Terry and Roy Williams – work overtime to make every note look and sound perfect.
“Since the shows are in a variety of styles, I try to be ready for anything,” said trumpet player Tony Kadleck, who has been performing in the Tonys orchestra for 13 years. “Some are classical, some jazz, some Latin…you have to be ready to put on several different hats each day. We start recording at 9 a.m., but I like to get there by 8 a.m. to warm up.”
For reed players like Dave Noland, who has been playing in the orchestra for three years, this can be an even more complicated dance.
“It’s pretty intense. You have to be awake, attentive, and ready to record constantly,” he said. “As a multiple woodwind player, you’re not only expected to cover different genres, but different instruments as well. One minute you’re playing a 1st clarinet part in an orchestral setting, to playing 2nd alto in a big band setting.”
Conrad Korsch, a bassist who has performed twice previously at the Tonys, appreciates “the challenge of sight-reading all of the different styles of music and employing a variety of techniques while attempting to interpret all of the different conductors and orchestrators.“
Korsch added, “It reminds me of why I spent so many years studying and shedding, and is one of the rare situations where you really have to tap into such a variety of skills.”
The process also involves musicians from Tony-nominated Broadway shows coming in to record alongside the house orchestra. Violinist and concertmaster Robin Zeh, a nine-year Tonys orchestra veteran, considers this a favorite part of the gig. “One of the great pleasures is to encounter all the creative musical teams with new shows that have opened this season,” she said. “The composers, orchestrators, musical directors, and copyists all work directly with each year’s Tony orchestra. You feel you are witnessing the pulse of this year’s Broadway creativity.”
Steve Kenyon, a reed player who has been performing in the Tonys orchestra for five years, also appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with so many different musicians during this intense process. “A lot of great orchestrators and composers come through during the two weeks,” he said. “It’s fun to see people you may not have otherwise worked with in a while.”
This year, the musicians in each Tony-nominated show visited the Tonys orchestra in the DiMenna Center, where they rehearsed, recorded and performed on the night of the broadcast. “‘Ain’t Too Proud’ brought 24 people into the studio!” Jamie said, laughing. “Everyone has a great attitude. This year we had two shows that brought in to our studio a lot of super talented musicians who had never worked on Broadway before – that was exciting to see.”
On the Sunday of the Tony Awards broadcast, musicians report for an 8:30 a.m. call time to play the dress rehearsal and stay until the final notes of the broadcast, typically after 11 p.m. with an afternoon break. “Since most of the large production numbers are pre-recorded, the day of the show is actually not too taxing. But for the things that we play live, the stakes are obviously much higher,” said Kadleck.
Once the show begins, the musicians must be ready for any last-minute changes. For some of the Tonys musicians, this is one of the most exciting aspects of the gig. “I enjoy the random insanity of live TV and having to make split-second changes at the last minute. Call me crazy,” bassist Conrad Korsch said.
“It’s just a matter of keeping focused, keeping your eyes glued to the conductor, and giving 100 percent,” said bass trombonist George Flynn, who played the Tonys for the first time this year.
Last-minute changes aside, the Tonys house orchestra is also responsible for playing the winner music – and playing off winners who take a little too long on the mic.
“My favorite part of the show is playing the winner music,” said Robin Zeh. “This is the one moment when anything could happen; the winner is announced, we have several fragments of music to go with each show on our stand, and the conductor calls out the corresponding number and we begin.”
Zeh added, “I can’t think of any other comparable moment in my musical life, when neither you nor the conductor know in advance what music you are about to play. We spend a fair amount of time making sure we can anticipate each tempo in advance. It’s nerve-wracking and exciting at once!”
Robert Kondor agreed. “We don’t know the winners before they are announced, and neither does our conductor,” he said. “So that moment where you have about half a millisecond to decide which chart to look at, which synth patch – if any – and where to put your hands, watch for the conductor’s downbeat…it’s a singular experience, to say the least.”
And for the orchestra, the actual live show also serves as a satisfying culmination of two weeks of intense recording and rehearsal. “It’s fun to hear the reaction of the audience,” Kadleck said. “We’ve been playing this music for a few weeks, but you never know how it will be received until the show goes live.”
ANOTHER TONY AWARDS SHOW IN THE BOOKS
For the 2019 ceremony, the house orchestra was broadcast via fiber-optic cable from the DiMenna Center for the first time. Traditionally, the musicians played from the orchestra pit, and in recent years they have appeared onstage. “While it is wonderful to be in Radio City, the upside of the DiMenna Center is the musicians have more room to play comfortably, although it’s not as fun as being onstage,” said Jamie. “If they hire a big orchestra, we are happy – they can put us anywhere they want!”
This year’s ceremony also showed how far the Tony Awards have come since Elliot conducted that first broadcast from a Broadway theater in 1967.
“In 2019, we had eight casts perform in the opening number and then most of them got bused back to their respective theaters before returning an hour or two later to do their number,“ Jamie explained. “There are a lot of moving parts; sometimes the production shoots live on the street or in the basement, sets fly in, music cues are called out, and special effects explode. Everyone – all the departments – are really on edge to pull off this huge production without a hitch.”
And in the end, this year’s show did go off without a hitch. “Everything went well,” said reeds player Dave Young, speaking from six years of experience in the orchestra. “It always amazes me that It can be totally chaotic up until the moment the show starts and then it’s like magic, the way it all just works!”
For French horn player Shelagh Abate, who was performing in the orchestra for the very first time, the performance was especially sentimental. “I was honored and proud to have been part of it,” Shelagh said. “I’ve been watching the Tony awards with my family – particularly my father – my entire life. He and I went to the invited dress rehearsals at Radio City a few times before he passed away in 2010. Being a part of the show was incredibly moving and special to me.”
Rock on, Tonys Orchestra!
And the winner for best host is…
Local 802 musicians who regularly perform in the Tonys house orchestra have gotten a chance to work with a number of different hosts over the years. Who came out on top?
“The hosts are always fantastic, otherwise they wouldn’t be hosts, but my sentimental favorite would have to be the Angela Lansbury-Bea Arthur duo, who did it for a couple of shows in the late 80’s. – Birch Johnson, trombone player, member of the orchestra on and off since 1983
“All the hosts have been excellent, but James Corden and Hugh Jackman stand out as guys who are very appreciative of the musicians in the orchestra.” – Steve Kenyon, reeds player, five years in the orchestra
“James Corden was just amazing. He waltzed in to rehearse and he was just SO prepared. Kicked so much ass. I knew that day that the opening number would be really special. It was thrilling, truly.” – Shelagh Abate, French horn player, first year in the orchestra
“It’s difficult to pick one, but I enjoyed Neil Patrick Harris, James Corden, and Whoopi Goldberg. They were all quite funny!” – Tony Kadleck, trumpet player, 13 years in the orchestra
“My favorite is Hugh Jackman. He always has great charts to play and he’s a great guy! Coming in second, I love James Corden.” – Dave Young, reeds player, six years in the orchestra
“One year Hugh Jackman was the host. The band was very present on stage. I wasn’t a member of the band at that time, but I was called as a last-minute sub to cover the dress rehearsal. The director counted us off and the second we started playing, Hugh Jackman runs up to me and asks, ‘Hey man, can I have a drink?’ Thinking he was in need of water, I reached down and grabbed an unopened bottle of water (not realizing it was part of his bit). When I looked up to hand it to him, he was already clear on the other side of the stage dancing with the string section.” – Dave Noland, reeds player, three years in the orchestra