Photo: Louise Owen
Pit Players: Meet The Musicians Behind Broadway's Biggest Shows
The stage door opens onto 44th Street and a smiling face invites me inside. We begin to expertly navigate the intricate backstage hallways of New York City's Broadhurst Theatre when he says, "Musicians always know where to go. They go down."
The welcoming man behind the smiling face is Rick Heckman, a long-time Broadway pit musician. Heckman currently covers six different instruments, including oboe, saxophone and flute, as part of the band for "Anastasia."
"People of my generation didn't usually set out to become Broadway musicians," says Heckman. "When I started it was studio work, concerts, whatever … but Broadway is obviously a big industry here in New York, so that's where I ended up. I still do all those other things but Broadway is my primary source of income."
The Broadway "pit" is usually located beneath the stage, either open to the theater or in a separate room, and is actually a great place for musicians to make a living — if they can cut it. Cenovia Cummins, an accomplished violinist and current concertmaster for the Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Carousel," says she was initially attracted to Broadway for "the stability of a weekly paycheck, health benefits and pension."
Despite their obstructed view, the musicians that play in the pit on Broadway surely provide the soundtrack to some of the biggest — and highest grossing — live shows on earth. In fact, Broadway box offices brought in a robust $1.6 billion in 2017.
"Musicians are crucial to the success of any Broadway musical," says Kathy Sommer, composer, conductor, music director, player, and veteran of many hit Broadway shows. "Live music helps to create the universe where the drama can exist fully, giving added dimension and heightening the emotional stakes of the piece."
The bands creating that live energy consist of some of New York's most talented and accomplished musicians, like Larry Lelli, a drummer who has not only done over 40 Broadway productions but professionally performed in almost any musical style and format you can name. While each instrument in the pit brings its own challenges, the band's feel often hinges on the drums.
"A drummer on Broadway must give the impression and illusion that they are in charge, but in reality they are following the music director/conductor measure by measure, translating their instructions and cues into intelligible musical choices applied to the drum set," Lelli says, "which then inform and inspire the rest of the orchestra on their performance."
Cellist Emily Brausa, a Julliard School grad who currently plays on "SpongeBob SquarePants," confirms that Broadway brings a special emphasis to playing on the beat that can be challenging for even master musicians.
"I came from a classical background," says Brausa, "and I always listened to all types of music, but what was new for me was how on the beat it is. At classical concerts, you'll notice it doesn't seem like the sound is coming at the same time as the conductor's motions. There's a little bit more breathing room. There's so many things at play [on Broadway] — the choreography, a click track … so everything is right on the beat, which was a learning [experience] for me."
"I think the number one thing is being a solid player – knowing the different styles you're working in, having good time, and being a good collaborator." — Ben Cohn
If executing "the book," as the music for a Broadway play is called, isn't hard enough, there's a lot more to playing in the pit than just playing.
"At '[Book Of] Mormon' for instance, there's electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and nylon string guitar, I'm playing all three in the same show — sometimes in the same song," says guitarist Aurélien Budynek. "You have to learn the parts and how to navigate your way through the charts, the music, the dynamics, all that stuff. But you also have to learn at what moment to turn on the overdrive and turn it off. And the flanger, then the chorus, the wah pedal, then put away the electric guitar and grab the acoustic … this is almost like choreography for me."
Once these proficient players get down the music and the mechanics of all the transitions, playing a show can become second nature, which introduces a new obstacle.
"The challenge is how to keep that music entirely fresh and energetic, just as it was on opening night," says Lelli. "You don't really have the energy of the audience to feed off of any longer, as most orchestras are hidden in a mostly covered orchestra pit on most shows, these days, if not hidden from the audience view entirely. But those 1,500 people who are coming to see that show for the very first time, and paid a lot of money to do so, deserve to hear that score performed with the energy and excitement of opening night. They don't care if you have played it 3,000 times by now."
You read that right. A total of 3,000 shows is not unheard of due to Broadway's breakneck schedule.
"I show up to the pit and love to create live theater so much, and I bring my joy to that orchestra pit every single show. I never phone it in. And that's the trick to playing on Broadway." — Larry Lelli
"We have eight shows, that's a normal Broadway week," explains Heckman. "We have two shows on Wednesday and Saturday, Monday off, and Sunday matinee but no evening show. We take off personal days, and we take off days to do other gigs."
In fact, taking days off and the substitute system is an integral part of the Broadway scene, serving not only to protect musicians from going stale but to foster up-and-coming players and create networking opportunities.
"The path a lot of people take is you start subbing," says Brausa. "Most of the [shows] you don't audition for — it's word-of-mouth. Does this person show up on time? Does this person play well? Is this person pleasant to be around? I probably subbed for six years before I got my own show."
"We've all been subs at one time or another, and will be again," adds Heckman. "When somebody asks you to sub, they'll send you a PDF copy of the book, you also get a pit recording of the show … and sometimes they'll make a conductor video, so this way the sub can really practice at home, and it's like they've done the show already by the time they've gotten here."
While it's not uncommon for players to sub on multiple shows at once, the real trick is maintaining consistency as the band's lineup changes.
"The four shows I subbed on last week were 'School Of Rock,' 'Dear Evan Hansen,' 'Book Of Mormon,' and 'Hamilton,'" says Budynek. "When you're a sub, it's not about your personality. You have to copy the personality of the player you're subbing for, because the band and the actors do the show eight times a week and they're used to hearing something very specific and if you take too many liberties it might throw them off."
"I love being a part of something bigger, a show, where it's not just an orchestra sitting onstage that you're watching. You're contributing to something more theatrical." — Emily Brausa
The concept of bouncing from show to show may seem daunting, but according to keyboardist and conductor Ben Cohn, who spent 10 years on "Wicked" before landing the gig as conductor for "Dear Evan Hansen," the sub system is really about support and growth.
"The band is responsible for bringing in their own subs, training them, and making sure they're 100% ready for the show," explains Cohn. "I've made it clear to the band that I don't want 'Dear Evan Hansen' to be the kind of situation where the sub comes in and they're on trial when they're here. We do everything we can to support them and make them feel comfortable and be helpful … we give them every opportunity to fit in and do a great job."
Ultimately, with so many talented players lurking in the Big Apple, working on Broadway as a pit musician comes down to the intangibles, such as personality.
"The contractors and music directors want to hire people who are professional, respectful and generally want to be there and get along easily with other people," says Lelli. "No one teaches you that kind of stuff in school."
No doubt, the diverse set of talented personalities that are required to produce a Broadway show — from actors to production hands on down to the musicians — can be likened to that of a film project. But what truly sets the Broadway experience apart from other forms of entertainment is the immediacy in the room, the power of the narrative coming to life, and the electricity of a live performance — something Hollywood can't replicate in the movies.
"The level of focus is so high on all the Broadway shows I've done," says Budynek. "Once it starts it feels like there's nothing more important than the show we're about to play, and we've got to give it 500 percent. [It's] inspiring to be a part of that and in that circle of like-minded people and take pride in what you do."
"Pit musicians do an extraordinarily precise and specialized job," says Sommer, who is also vice president of the Recording Academy New York Chapter board and chair of its musical theater Chapter Committee. "What's good for theater is good for the musicians. We're all part of the same community."