I am intensely passionate about attending live theatre, mainly because of its immense power. It makes reality melt away, drawing me within a into a world different than my own for a few hours, playing my emotional keys through sentimental ballads and show stopping soliloquies, and provoking thought and subsequent change. Due to the fact that I myself aspire to become a professional performer (especially a musical theatre performer), I swell with the admiration I feel towards the extraordinary people I see gracing the stage. I adore the fact that when I attend a Broadway musical, I am able to exit the theatre directly after the curtain call and approach the stage door in the hopes of meeting one of these exceptional performers.
I love being able to join other excited fans and eagerly await the arrival of the show’s stars. When the stage door finally swings open and they step out to greet us sans costumes and makeup, it is as if the stage door is a portal that has transported the actors I idolized from the world of the show back to life in the real world, and it feels incredibly surreal to see them as entities separate from that other world.
However, both before and after the stars’ arrival, people dressed in black from head to toe often trickle out the stage door, and most of the time, they go unnoticed. Since their jobs are inconspicuous and invisible, more often than not, no one bothers to acknowledge their presence. When a thespian is around, no one wants a pit musician’s autograph.
To be perfectly honest, I used to be one of the people who took the pit musicians for granted. As an actress, I would get so caught up in raving about the performers, passing them my silver Sharpie and Playbill and snapping their picture, that I’d end up completely overlooking the people without whom the show could not go on. However, a certain special experience I had this past January completely changed my perspective. I had won two passes to attend a performance of Wicked, not as an audience member, but rather as a spectator sitting alongside the orchestra members for the duration of the show.
On January 7th at 6:45 pm, my boyfriend and I met up with Paul Loesel, who has been a keyboardist in Wicked’s orchestra for twelve years (ever since the show’s Broadway opening in 2003), at the Gershwin Theatre stage door, located at 242 West 51st Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. The itinerary for the evening was observing Wicked from within the orchestra pit, then taking a tour of the Gershwin, and lastly meeting Caroline Bowman (Wicked’s current Elphaba) in her dressing room. Paul was extremely kind and hospitable, giving us a quick overview of the Gershwin’s layout, showing us the actors’ Green Room, complete with a fridge and television, and allowing us to walk around backstage (within certain boundary lines, of course) for a bit before places were called. He then handed me a black robe to put on over my clothes in order to adhere to the all-black attire rule that orchestra members abide by in the pit, and Paul, Ty and I carefully climbed down the short, narrow set of stairs that led to the pit of the Gershwin Theatre to get ready for the start of the show.
Even though the space felt cramped and uncomfortable for me to navigate at first, Paul informed us that compared to other Broadway pits, the pit of the Gershwin is a massive one, and I was incredulous. I couldn’t believe that for six days a week, he and his fellow orchestra members somehow managed to sit in such a narrow space and play through every song of Wicked’s tremendous score. As I cautiously made my way past the orchestra members warming up their instruments, I noticed that dozens and dozens of stickers outlined the walls of the pit. I asked Paul about them, and he told me that in order to personalize the space they worked in eight times per week, he and the other pit members had decided to decorate it. I noticed that Kenny from South Park was among the stickers that adorned the wall, and Paul beamed widely when I excitedly told him that South Park is one of my favorite TV shows. I started to pair the names of the orchestra members that are listed in the Wicked Playbill with faces, personalities, and different tastes in stickers, and began to think of them as individuals rather than parts of a seemingly indistinguishable group.
For the first half of Wicked, I sat beside Paul as he played his keyboard, and Ty sat beside the orchestra’s other keyboardist; with Paul’s permission, we decided we would switch spots at intermission so that we could each experience the pit from both perspectives. Before the show began, Paul showed me a collection of green feathers that he keeps clipped to his music stand, and explained that during every show, without fail, feathers from the Ensemble members’ costumes (as Ozians) fall off and usually flutter into the pit. Whenever they do, he collects them during Intermission, and adds them to the collection on his stand, keeping them there for good luck and sentimentality. A slow smile spread across Paul’s face as he asked me, “Do you want to keep one?” I could hardly control the volume in my voice as I rapidly nodded my head and replied with a thrilled yes, and have kept that feather safe to this very day. It dawned on me that amiable and generous people like Paul probably exist within every Broadway orchestra, and I had never met any of them before.
Paul then passed me a set of headphones, attached to a device that listed every instrument within Wicked’s orchestra: guitars, reeds, brass, percussion, strings, you name it. It also listed vocals among the instruments. He then instructed me on the use of the device. “You can use this to personalize your own mix as you listen to the show, and can increase or decrease the volume of any instrument at any point. For example, if you want to turn up Guitar 2 in order to hear it better, increase Guitar 2’s volume and decrease the overall volume,” gesturing to various buttons and switches as he spoke. Throughout Act 1, I experimented with the device, eager to listen and learn more about the beautiful music I previously believed I had committed to memory by listening to Wicked’s soundtrack in my room at home hundreds of times. That device allowed me to hear gorgeous phrases of music that I had never thought to pay attention to before. Ominous-sounding strings foreshadowed the Wizard’s ironically wicked nature early on in the score, complex bass lines thrummed and kept the foundation of each song steady, and delicate flutes carried harmonies that I didn’t even know existed. As a singer trying to imitate Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth on the original Broadway cast soundtrack, I had only appreciated the melody and vocal parts of Wicked’s score, but after listening to each and every instrumental part by utilizing the mixing device, I realized that there is so much more to it than that.
It is unbelievable to me how well the orchestra members of Wicked know the score. Some do not rely on their sheet music whatsoever; in fact, I noticed that the second keyboardist has been playing in the show for so long that he no longer bothers to glance at his sheet music. In fact, he reads his Kindle as he plays through the score perfectly, and Paul reads The New Yorker during and in between songs. When I noticed this, I was completely in awe.
As the end of ‘Defying Gravity” approached (which marks the end of Act 1), I saw stage hands helping actors dressed as guards prepare for their entrance. As the actors ran onstage, some of the fog that floods the stage as the guards frantically attempt to capture the soaring Elphaba bled into the pit, despite the fact that (as Paul had previously explained to us) there are specialized fans installed around the edge of the stage specifically to prevent this from happening. My heart began to race and I looked around wildly, concerned that the orchestra would be unable to continue playing and one of the most iconic songs in Wicked’s score would be abruptly interrupted. However, my concerns were for naught, for the orchestra members did not react to the fog whatsoever. They wore the same calm expressions as they had throughout the show thus far, and simply continued to play their parts without a single hiccup. I was absolutely astounded by how well they know the score and how prepared they were to continue playing no matter what went wrong; “the show must go on” motto doesn’t just apply to performers.
At Intermission, Paul confided to Ty and me that he and a few of the other orchestra members who have been part of the Wicked orchestra for twelve years have stuck around for so long because “we don’t want to give up work we know will be steady, since Wicked isn’t going anywhere for a while and you can’t say that about many Broadway shows.” However, some orchestra members do leave the show to pursue other endeavors. According to Paul, their replacements, who fill in for the sick or those who have left the show, initially act as observers, just as Ty and I had. They sit in the pit, listen to the show once using the mixing device, and soon after, jump in to play the show as they are needed. I cannot imagine the amount of skill that is required to play through an entire Broadway score with zero prior rehearsal, and when Paul told us that this is a regular occurrence for Wicked replacements, I was thoroughly amazed.
The next time you attend a Broadway show and wait at the stage door, PLEASE be sure to greet the pit musicians. Just because they are not visible during the show doesn’t mean they should be treated like they are invisible after it ends. They possess a monumental level of skill and talent, and they are the foundation, the unshakeable core, of every musical on Broadway. Without them, the show simply CANNOT go on. Show them some love, theatre spectators. Make their day. Ask one for their autograph.