Working as a Sub on Broadway: A Survival Guide
Volume CIV, No. 2February, 2004
Imagine coming to New York City and looking for your first job as a professional musician. Ah, playing in a Broadway pit! That would be a great gig. But soon reality sets in: first, you’ve got to pay your dues by subbing.
Paradoxically described as a golden opportunity to show your stuff and as one of the most nerve-racking experiences one can go through, the opinions about subbing on a Broadway show are as varied as the people that do it. What it isn’t, however, is easy. Being a good sub in a Broadway pit requires more than simply playing well and knowing how to follow a conductor. There is a large amount of information to know about in order to make subbing a win-win situation for all.
For those unfamiliar with or new to Broadway subbing, the first system with which to become acquainted is the “governing hierarchy” of the orchestra pit.
The person you will hear about often but may never actually meet or speak with is the musical coordinator, also known as the contractor. Simply put, the contractor hires the regular members of the orchestra. Typically, the contractor doesn’t have any direct communication with subs. However, the contractor is the one who establishes a set of subbing protocols. These protocols can address, among other things, procedures for hiring subs, scheduling first performances and confirming dates when subbing out. (Of course, all of these protocols will be consistent with 802’s Broadway contract.)
On the other hand, the house contractor (not to be confused with the contractor, mentioned above) is someone with whom subs do indeed have a regular amount of contact. Upon auditing a show for the first time, the house contractor provides subs with W-4’s, I-9’s and other relevant forms. A salaried position, the house contractor’s job carries a tremendous amount of responsibility. The house contractor is the member of the orchestra who keeps track of who’s playing from performance to performance, and notifies the conductor accordingly. This person also submits the weekly payroll, distributes paychecks, apprises the orchestra of all pertinent matters (including schedule changes), and in general is the best source for information in the orchestra for any contractual concerns.
It’s a good idea to speak with the house contractor about payday, policies concerning check distribution, and how you can collect your wages if you’re not in very often.
Additionally, if you’re new to Broadway, be sure to get a copy of the current Broadway contract (available on the fifth floor at the union). While house contractors are very knowledgeable about the contract, it’s important to take the initiative to inform yourself of the terms under which you are agreeing to play. You should also make yourself aware of who are the orchestra’s theatre committee reps (there may be one or more). These musicians are elected by the orchestra to act as liaisons between the orchestra and the union. Do all of this before you begin subbing.
The music supervisor, if the production has one, is the individual who works with the music director and the composer (if still living) in rehearsals to shape and establish the sound, tone and feel of the score. In order to maintain consistency throughout the run of the production, the music supervisor may, on occasion, conduct several performances concurrently.
The next one may seem like a no-brainer, but it merits explanation. The conductor is the person with the stick (usually) who has the final word on which subs are approved.
The assistant and associate conductors are members of the orchestra (although in some rare cases are not) who fill in when the conductor is out.
GETTING THE GIG
While new subs typically – but not exclusively – get hired by way of referrals, there is no set formula for how one gets a gig subbing on Broadway. It usually involves a combination of networking, cold calling, persistence, knowing the right people, and in many (if not all) cases, being in the right place at the right time.
Whereas in the corporate world it is not uncommon to pursue a desired job with a certain amount of aggressiveness or hard-sell tactics, its parallel equivalent really doesn’t work in the Broadway scene. In fact, the musicians I interviewed who commented on this stated universally that such forceful strategies are considered poor form and do not bode well for any potential sub candidate. For example, turning up at the stage door as the show lets out to impress upon the cat you want to sub for that you’re the one and only one sub for him or her will more than likely not create the most positive of impressions. Resoluteness is one thing. Boorishness is another.
Because there are far more able-bodied musicians than gigs, it is essential as a sub to distinguish yourself from other would-be contenders. The musicians that chose to be interviewed for this article unanimously cited two qualities vital to being a good sub: preparedness and conscientiousness. It is not enough to rely on one’s sight-reading and playing abilities, no matter how exceptional they may be. In other words, being a phenomenal player doesn’t automatically make someone a good sub. Being a good sub goes beyond chops. It requires among other things, diligence, attention to detail, willingness to devote the hours necessary to fully absorb the music, keen observational skills (more on this later) and above all, respecting the chair you’re covering as if it were your own.
Once a regular player picks you to be a sub, you must still be approved by the conductor. According to the Broadway contract, the regular player submits a list of no more than five subs to the conductor, who in turn reviews the lists to determine whether each sub is acceptable. The conductor has the last word on all subs. Once the name of a sub has been proposed, the sub becomes subject to the conductor’s approval by virtue of the sub’s performance.
But first comes auditing. Auditing refers to sitting in the pit to study the music, watch the conductor and take notes.
AUDITING LEADS TO APPROVAL
The number of times a sub audits (or “watches the book” as it is often called) varies, depending on individual playing skills and the musical demands of the part. There is no language in the 802 Broadway contract that requires a minimum number of times a sub must come in and watch.
Also, once a sub begins auditing, the conductor can still nix you, even after you have the job.
Here’s how it works. After you’re done auditing, you play your first show. If the conductor likes what he or she hears, no problem.
But if the conductor doesn’t, any number of things could happen, including: the conductor telling the sub right on the spot not to come back; the conductor instructing the regular player to break the bad news; or the conductor telling the sub that certain things must improve in order to continue playing in that pit.
Finally, there are situations where a sub gets approved and enjoys a lengthy tenure on a show but then gets sacked when a new conductor comes in. Since subs essentially have no job security, there’s little, if any, recourse.
DIVERSE APPROACHES AMONG AFM LOCALS
In New York, you don’t get paid for auditing. However it’s different in Chicago.
Local 10-208’s “Broadway in Chicago” contract (which applies to the large theatres in the downtown Chicago area) requires that all subs must audit the show they intend to sub on at least one time prior to first performance. They receive the equivalent of a three-hour rehearsal pay fee (which is $100 and $110 for two of the theatres under this agreement) and are compensated by the regular player.
Thomas J. Beranek, vice president of Local 10-208, told me this took a long time to get into the agreement, but it has a great benefit. Its intention is to protect the musical integrity of the show by avoiding the risk of subs coming in and sight reading (and possibly crashing and burning) their first performance. This can often be done by instruments who are able to “hide” in a large section. Furthermore, because of the cost involved, it forces regular players to choose their subs wisely.
I think it’s a very interesting tidbit that demonstrates the diversity among the locals in the AFM and what they do to address various issues affecting them. Currently, there is some rumbling among some subs in 802 regarding this issue of compensation for auditing. Such information could pave the way for meaningful dialogue among the rank and file to possibly establish a new standard on this subject.
Before accepting any opportunity to sub, it is critical to find out if the style of the show you’re pursuing is within your abilities. For example, the most accomplished classical guitarist would probably not fare too well subbing on “The Full Monty” or “Swing,” but may do well with “Man of La Mancha.” Once that is sorted out and you begin auditing the show, take nothing for granted – no matter how seemingly minor. In short, take care of business.
Comb through the music with the regular player, cover every difficult and exposed passage, know all cues, articulations, page turns, musical and vocal “landmarks” during extended periods of rests, and memorize the spots where both eyes have to be on the conductor. If you’re playing an instrument that has a lot of patch changes, know them cold. If you intend to use any of the regular player’s instruments – particularly if you’re subbing for a drummer, percussionist, keyboardist or guitarist – make arrangements to go into the pit to familiarize yourself with what you’ll be playing on as often as necessary to feel comfortable. It’s in everyone’s best interest for you to succeed.
NUTS AND BOLTS OF SUBBING
Keen observational skills are a must. It is imperative to get a good sense of the vibe in the pit and blend in, especially if you’re new to the scene. Your chops are only part of it. There is nothing more disrespectful, irritating and distracting than to endure for two hours a sub that needlessly sticks out like a sore thumb by engaging in behavior that disturbs the established groove within the orchestra. (Actually, there is one thing more irritating: the sub who comes in and does a lousy job!)
Etiquette varies from pit to pit, but all share a common denominator. You don’t need to be a follower of B.F. Skinner’s personality theories to figure it out. Besides, to the best of my knowledge, no sub has ever been reprimanded or sacked for showing up, keeping a low profile, avoiding excessive blather, doing a good job and then going home.
Show up early, especially when it’s you’re first time in. Allow time in your schedule for unexpected delays on trains, buses and bridges. Take the extra time to be sure everything you need is in place and if necessary, to check with other players in your section or with the conductor about any remaining questions you may have. It is preferable to sort out all issues in advance rather than five minutes before downbeat, as it may be absolutely impossible to do so at that time. Afterward, be sure to leave the regular player’s equipment, locker, instruments, stand and music exactly as you found them.
A final piece of advice: once you agree to sub a show, make sure you show up! Subs occasionally do not show up for a gig. (Hint: that’s one way to ruin your career.) For that reason, some contractors require that once a sub is booked, the sub must confirm with the conductor 48 hours prior to performance. Other contractors require both a 48-hour confirmation and a 24-hour confirmation. These policies vary.
AN EXERCISE IN CONTRADICTIONS
As a sub, it is common to get feedback in the beginning of your tenure with a show, but that can vary. Some of the subs interviewed for this article (particularly those new to Broadway) remarked that often they go in to do a show and no one says more than “hello” or “good night” to them. Assuming these subs don’t have repugnant personalities or stomach-turning personal habits (the ones I interviewed certainly didn’t), the fact that you might not get much feedback lies with understanding the established vibe of the pit.
Some regular players may simply pack up and say goodbye to each other. Generally, they don’t congratulate each other afterwards. Some regular players say that when subs are very good they often forget the regular players are out. In other words, when a good sub is on the stand, the orchestra sounds like it does when all the regulars are in. So not hearing “Good job!” from the regulars is not a matter of disrespect. It’s often a matter of “no news is good news.”
The challenge – and contradiction – is to stand out as a good musician and as a good, reliable sub while blending in to the point of being “invisible” (“don’t wake anybody up,” as explained by one interviewee). For those unfamiliar with this scenario, it can be somewhat bewildering.
GETTING YOUR OWN SHOW
So how do you go from sub to becoming a regular player? The musicians that spoke about this said there is no set formula. Variations abound. Sometimes it can happen when the person you’re subbing for retires or leaves to do another show or project. Also, there are situations where a conductor may leave the show you’re subbing on to do another and asks if you would be interested in playing in that orchestra. In both of these cases the common denominator is the recommendation from a conductor. In the words of contractor and bass player John Miller, “the conductor is Buddha.”
Subs are vital and essential to all Broadway musicals. Without them, no conductor or regular player could ever take off, stay home when violently ill, tend to family emergencies, go away on holiday, or pursue other creative projects.
For subs, the benefits include opportunities to earn income while between shows, network and to play a wide variety of styles in many different playing environments.
This is part one of what will ideally be a series of articles for Allegro addressing all topics that affect subs, including what their rights are as defined by the Broadway agreement. It is my hope that many other 802 members will volunteer their ideas, comments and solutions in order to maximize the subbing experience and elevate it to the level that it rightly deserves in this industry.
I gratefully thank all the Broadway players, subs, house contractors and musical coordinators who contributed their time, advice, personal experiences and straight talk to the writing of this article.
Paul Molloy is a guitarist who has subbed on several Broadway and Off Broadway shows. Readers who want to get in touch with him with their comments about this article should e-mail him at email@example.com.
Broadway Subbing 101
The fine art of filling in for a regular player in a Broadway pit, sometimes at a moment’s notice.
Candidates must be: