Theatre From the Pit

Katie Ludlow

Have you ever been to a rehearsal where you aren’t needed and just sit in boredom? Ever had a director who is not very good at communicating where they’d like to start? Have you seen/heard someone mess up, and got really upset because that was your favorite part?

Welcome to the life of a pit orchestra member. Remember? We’re the ones that play music for you. We’re the group that frustrates so many people involved in theatre. We’re the ones that know the lines/lyrics better than the cast, and can recite the whole show word for word, despite the fact we’ve only actually seen half of the show (if that).

I hope that by writing this, I can help people understand what being in the pit orchestra is like. It’s one of the rewarding things (next to acting) I’ve ever done, and yet, one of the hardest. It’s a bitter-sweet experience that’s almost impossible to describe, but I’m going to take a shot at telling about a portion of our frustrations.

Obviously, as a pit member, we don’t really want to be in the limelight too much (that’s why we didn’t take the alternative route) but we would like to be given some credit for what we’ve done. Just a little recognition is all we ask for. Maybe a small gesture towards us during bows, or a “Let’s give a big hand to our pit orchestra before the show.”  I mean, without us, you wouldn’t have much of a show, would you? SOMETHING to make us feel accomplished - it’s very much appreciated. Thanks.

Speaking of “thanks”, we’d like to throw out a HUGE thank you to the directors who give measure numbers instead of lyrics as starting points. There are only two people (normally) who actually have lyrics written in their music: the pianist and the conductor. That means the rest of us get to sit in oblivion until we are finally given a measure to start at.

Something else directors (or whoever picks the show) should keep in mind is the capabilities of their orchestra. If your pit only has one trumpet, don’t pick a musical with five important trumpet parts. If the majority of your players are stringed instruments, don’t select a show with only brass instruments. In the last show I was in, the poor pit was given music with parts for about fifteen different brass and wind instruments, and no string parts… We had a trumpet, a french horn, a flute, a sax, and the rest was mostly strings. In the few weeks we had until performance, the conductor had to transpose probably six parts and figure out who should play what. They pulled it off very well, but those unfortunate pit members sure did suffer.

Sometimes we are given music, and we practice a million times before we are told about a cut or an added repeat. It’s not a huge deal, but a week before performance? We have a tendency to forget at that point…

There are some measures that we have to play over and over. And over. And over again, until our cue. These measures are some that we never ever forget. For example: I was in the pit orchestra for Shrek the Musical three and a half years ago, and there was one measure that I can still remember so vividly, I can see it in my head as I play it even now.

Often times, actors will place blame (guilty as charged), and in musicals especially, the tendency is to place that blame on the pit. Some of the more common blames I’ve heard are “The pit was too slow/fast”, “I didn’t get my cue note”, “The orchestra was off”, and my personal favorite, “They’re wrong!” (“How?”) “They just were!”

Despite all of these rough conditions, being a pit orchestra member has plenty of perks. Free viewings of the show for one. Being able to replay the show in your head for years to come is another...