The Orchestra Pit is a world of its own

- Paul Garment wants to see "The Woman in White." -

He likes the music. He's heard interesting things about the production and its use of projection as opposed to an actual set. He knows the show's leading lady, Maria Friedman, recently had breast cancer surgery but still made it back for the musical's opening night on Broadway.

There's just one problem: He's working during every performance. But he isn't toiling in an office somewhere. He's playing the clarinet and bass clarinet in the orchestra for the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

In one of the singular circumstances that make the world of the orchestra pit such a curiosity, the musicians who spend their time providing the backbone of the performance often never see what's actually happening on stage. (There are stories of musicians who have been in the orchestra for "The Phantom of the Opera" for years but have yet to actually see the musical.) After all, as some of "The Woman in White" musicians say, who wants to spend their days off going to work?

But if a recent matinee performance of the new musical is any indication, there's plenty of action going on in the orchestra pit at the Marquis Theatre.

To begin with, there is musical supervisor Simon Lee, who conducted the 15-member orchestra through the previews and the show's Nov. 17 opening night. His associate, Kristin Blodgette, took over the conducting duties after that for the lavish musical based on a Victorian mystery novel and starring Friedman and Michael Ball.

A thin Englishman dressed in black - as are all the musicians in order to cut down on any possible visual distraction for the audience or cast - Lee is a polite and dryly funny man. He has been working with Lloyd Webber for the past 10 years or so, having recently been the music supervisor for "The Woman in White" in London, and the music supervisor and conductor for the film version of "The Phantom of the Opera."

He has an easy manner with the musicians in his orchestra. When technical difficulties involving the set projection delayed the start of a recent performance, he used it as a source of levity.

"I thought we'd start with scene seven," he said as he took his position in the pit.

"Isn't that where we already are by this point?" one of the musicians replied.

Once the show begins, however, it becomes obvious why the first word that comes to Lee's mind when he describes the un-air-conditioned pit is "sweaty." The conductor becomes a whirling dervish, constantly moving and bouncing around but always managing to stay in control. He smiles frequently and, at times, seems on the verge of laughter.

Several small fans hang on the dark, wooden walls. None were going during a recent performance, however, and it didn't take long before perspiration pooled on the faces of many of the musicians.

The pit is aptly named. It is a sunken space located at the base of the stage, just in front of the audience. With 15 musicians and their instruments crowded in, there isn't much room to maneuver. There also isn't much illumination, besides that generated by the stage and the small lights above each musician's music stand.

Orchestra members sit in rows of two that are perpendicular to the stage, except for the three keyboardists - two face away from the stage almost directly in front of the conductor and the other sits perpendicular to the stage. Stackable chairs provide the seats and there are two or three small video monitors that allow orchestra members with obstructed views to follow the conductor. Two larger monitors are hung on the front of the theater's balcony, so the actors can clearly see Lee.

"The Woman in White" is sung through, meaning music is almost constantly playing during the performance - whether as part of an actual song or as background to set a mood.

It also means that Lee is standing for almost all the show, getting only three or four chances to sit down, for about a minute or less each time. It's just enough time for him to wipe off his face with a towel and catch his breath before standing up again. He is even moving at intermission, when he bolts from the pit to smoke a cigarette.

"This show is lots of work, in a good way," he said, citing not only the amount of music involved but also the complexity of the score.

It's no less demanding for the musicians. Although not all instruments are always needed during the show, there is precious little chance for the players to relax. Some prefer that to having frequent stops for short periods of time.

"It's better to have none or a big chunk," said Garment, who also likes a little down time to rest.

And that is just how most of the musicians seem to use their extra time. Sure, one of the orchestra members has a sudoko puzzle that he plays from time to time during the performance - although only enough to plug in a number or two before returning to his instrument - and another steals a couple of quick glimpses during the second act at an instructional book about how to play poker. But for the most part, musicians use their breaks to catch their breath, take a drink of water or Snapple, or clean their instruments.

It's nothing like some musicals where orchestra members can have breaks of 15 minutes or longer, leaving them with plenty of time to fill. "That's when you can really get your reading done," keyboardist and associate conductor Milton Granger said jokingly.

Meanwhile, a camaraderie can develop in the pit during breaks, as when Shelagh Abate helps fellow French horn player Russ Rizner clean his brass instrument because he has a cast on his right hand.

For some shows, especially those that need bigger orchestras, some musicians are placed in separate rooms from the actual stage and the music is piped in through speakers. That isn't the case for "The Woman in White," although the use of several keyboards in the pit helps to augment the sound of the orchestra without adding more musicians to an already crowded space.

In fact, the height of the pit has been raised so that some acoustic sound can be better projected. Still, the musicians remain obscured from most of the audience. The only seats visible from inside the pit are those in the balcony, though the conductor can see the stage.

The raising does allow some of the musicians a vantage point from which they can manage to see a small part of the musical. A few times during the show, musicians seated closest to the audience lean to one side to catch glimpses of the actors, frequently smiling at the performances. Ball, who plays the villainous Count Fosco, drew some chuckles from orchestra members who were able to see him.

Following along with the play's plot or hearing much of the dialogue is virtually impossible from the pit, however. There's simply too much music. When snippets of dialogue are able to be heard, some musicians jot them down in their music books as cues.

Beyond some whispered comments to each other and some smiles and nods of appreciation after certain pieces of music are played, the atmosphere is quite businesslike in the pit. It's almost easy to forget that there's a live audience sitting just a few feet away from the musicians.

At the end of the performance, though, some audience members lean over to look into the pit and applaud the orchestra members.

Then, while the actors head backstage to get out of costume and the audience exits the theater, the musicians quietly pack up their instruments. And Lee quickly leaves the pit for a post-performance cigarette.

It's been about 2 1/2 hours since the show began, and many of the musicians are clammy and hungry. But they also seem satisfied with a job well done.

"There's nothing wrong with a little hard work," said Lee.

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