One of the most important components of a Broadway musical is always heard, but rarely seen: the pit orchestra. These musicians have no A Chorus Line to tell their story. But that story has drama, comedy, conflict, sometimes blood — and plenty of music.
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Tuesday night, 6:30 PM, 45th Street and Eighth Avenue: One thousand theatregoers file into Broadway's Al Hirschfeld Theatre, home of the Tony Award-winning musical Kinky Boots. Associate conductor Will Van Dyke (who plays Kinky Keyboard 2 when he's not conducting) makes his way through the crowd and into the stage door. He places his things down and readies for his first performance of the week. Down a few steps in the backstage area is the pit, a space underneath the stage where a dozen musicians bring to life an award-winning, pop-kissed score by music icon Cyndi Lauper night after night. Van Dyke sits next to a hydraulic lift, which shoots pairs of high-heeled Kinky Boots to stage level throughout the show, and to his right is a picture of the company. In front of him are screens (one that streams the live stage show; one of the conductor; and others that display the musical magic being created in the moment).
He pulls out his iPad, which has an electronic version of the Kinky score, and puts on a pair of headphones. Brian Usifer makes his way to the conductor's seat, directly in between the lip of the stage and the first row of the house, and the theatre is taken to the "Land of Lola." "I think it's surreal," says Van Dyke. "There's a moment at the end of the show — if I haven't felt it before — when the character of Don [says], ‘You change the world when you change your mind,' and the audience, without fail every night, claps. At that moment, I go, ‘Wow. I'm part of something that's always been my dream to do. This is really cool to have that effect on people by just playing music.' That moment happens at least once a day."
Directly underneath the sea of sparkles at the Hirschfeld is where Van Dyke, Usifer and the Broadway band spend their time. And, although they aren't the focal point of the evening — or signing autographs after the show — Broadway (literally) can't sing on without them. The theatre prides itself in live music and an experience unlike any other, where both the artists on stage and the artists behind the scenes join forces to produce the magic theatregoers take part in weekly. Without the score, the script and the instrumentalists, there'd certainly be no "sex" in Kinky's heel.
Look Down, Look Down
Meanwhile, across Eighth Avenue on the same block, musical director and conductor James Lowe is immersing himself in the world of 19th-century France set inside Broadway's Imperial Theatre. He's so up-close-and-personal with the Chain Gang in the current revival of the Tony-winning musical Les Misérables that sometimes he must look down himself.
"Most people wouldn't realize how — from my perspective — overwhelming some spots of Les Miz are," Lowe explains. "Because the way that they designed this production, I only have a few feet for me to stand. The set comes out over the pit, so I can reach up and touch the actors during much of the show. When we're in Act II in the barricade, and there are the battles with all the gunfire, I have to put my head down and just concentrate on the music because there's flashing lights and smoke and bombs going off, and the noise of it. They don't hear that down in the pit, the players. They hear a little of it, but they have no idea how loud it is right where I stand, plus I'm hearing the whole orchestra blaring away in my ear. There are moments that are almost like watching a movie on a huge surround system. It's pretty exciting. It's pretty crazy."
But, the players in the pit have no idea what actually happens directly above them. Yes, the music and the story run through their veins, but the only visual accompaniment they have is what they've created in their minds.
"The players get their own version of what these things are," says Lowe.
"They hear audiences laugh—maybe at a physical joke [in which] they don't hear a line, so they don't know what they're laughing at. If you ask them, they often have their own idea of what they think that joke is or what they think the staging is. In fact, just the other night—these things happen every now and then; things come into the pit that shouldn't come into the pit… "We have a net that will catch anything big, but the other night a player got a little bit of blood — not real blood, fake blood — from when Fantine bites Bamatabois' face. There's a blood pack, and it goes all over the place, and it hit this player, and she [asked], ‘What was that that hit me?' at intermission. I asked her where it happened in the show, and she told me, and I said that must have been the blood from when she bites his cheek, and she went, ‘What are you talking about? She bites his cheek?' And, I said, ‘Yeah, you didn't know that?' And, I realized they've been playing this show for a year now, and they had no idea."
Sometimes the Pit Is Onstage
For some band members, however, they're more than just close to the action—they're a part of it. At the Tony-winning revival Hedwig and the Angry Inch, drummer Pedro Yanowitz plays Schlatko, guitarist Tim Mislock plays Krzyzhtoff, music director and pianist Justin Craig plays Skszp, and bassist Matt Duncan plays Jacek. Not only do they play and perform on stage at the Belasco, but the foursome has become so close that their onstage camaraderie morphed into an offstage rock band, titled Tits of Clay—a lyrical nod to the song "Angry Inch."
"It's all gotten blurred — art imitating life, life imitating art — because we started rehearsing as a band to give the story and the feel that when you're watching Hedwig and the Angry Inch, you are actually watching a band perform," explains Mislock. "Now, we've done 370-someodd shows together and had some rehearsals in there. We definitely are a band for all intents and purposes."
Music director Craig says, "It was important to the show — to the sound of the band and the music — to make it a real thing. Rather than like coming into a gig [and] reading the notes off the page or whatever, we actually needed to feel like a real rock band."
And, rock band they are — with the inclusion of the more prominent players Hedwig and Yitzhak. When Tony-winner Neil Patrick Harris was enlisted to embody the fabulous glam rocker herself, the boys in the band took him out to play some of his first rock ‘n' roll gigs around the city.
"Some of our leads, who have never sung in a rock band or done that sort of thing, it's another way for them to experience this character," says Mislock. "[Hedwig] is supposed to be this punk-rock singer, who sang next to the salad bar at Sizzler for months and months, [so we have them] go to a grungy, Lower East Side venue and be a punk-rock singer."
Yanowitz adds, "Neil had never played a show in a rock club before we did with him…" Of the group, Craig says, "It's an adjustment for everybody, but we're such a tight-knit and small company that it's kind of fun to bring a new person in and add them to the family. Everybody's brought a different thing to the character, so it's fun for us on stage with that person, seeing the show in a different light in a little bit." The group relies heavily on one another, and every musical piece is crucial to the Broadway puzzle. Plus, the sassy six (Schlatko, Krzyzhtoff, Skszp, Jacek, Yitzhak and Hedwig) get to pull out all the stops every night on Broadway — receiving multiple standing ovations (including ones where the audience forgets to sit back down) throughout the evening. "It's a rock concert," says Yanowitz. "Having a real rock show on Broadway is what excites us." Rock 'n' roll aside, it's also a job. But, according to these guys, it's certainly by no means the pits.
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager of Playbill.com.