Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman/Sweeney Todd
Even as controversy erupted on Broadway over the use of pre-recorded music in David Byrne’s upcoming musical, Here lies loveaudiences at some of the musicals last season are noticing the return of something once familiar to them: big bands.
When Sweeney Todd premiered in 1979, composer Jonathan Tunick orchestrated it for 26 musicians. But in each subsequent Broadway appearance, he’s used a smaller orchestra…until now. The new cover, featuring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, includes the full ensemble of strings, woodwinds, brass, harp and percussion.
“It’s normal to work with such a big set,” Tunick said with a laugh. In the 1970s, he orchestrated Sondheim’s massive score in three and a half weeks and has since done 13 different versions, written for everything from chamber ensembles to a full-scale symphonic accompaniment on Tim Burton’s film.
Tunick said the audience could feel the weight of the 26-piece opening number. The orchestra is quiet at first, but then “the brass enters for the first time in support of the choir, with the exception of the bass instruments. We hold them back until the second bar.” He demonstrated by singing, “Swing your razor wide – BOOM – Sweeney!”
“It’s so rare to have so many coins under you,” said Annaleigh Ashford, who plays Ms. Lovett. “It’s quite overwhelming and spectacular.”
Jenny Anderson/Sweeney Todd
Ashford has appeared in numerous musicals – she won a Tony for Naughty boots – but Sweeney Todd This is the first time she has worked with a pit orchestra of this size. “I don’t think anyone who’s been in American musical theater for the past 20 years hasn’t had the opportunity to sing with such a large orchestra,” she said. “It’s frankly impossible from a financial perspective.”
Finances aren’t the only reason orchestras are small
In fact, many producers have reduced the size of orchestras playing classic shows, citing finances. Broadway was closed by a musician’s strike 20 years ago because of this problem.
However, finances are not the only reason to keep an orchestra small. “I think the style of music is changing,” said Alex Lacamoire, who Sweeney Toddmusical director of. He orchestrated and conducted 10 musicians in hamilton. “hamilton didn’t need 26 musicians.”
Jeffrey Seller, who is a producer on both hamilton And Sweeney Todd says that Sweeney is a different case, precisely because it has been relaunched so many times on so many different stages. “It felt like one of the main reasons for doing this production was to give the audience the full experience of sound, of orchestrating music as Sondheim and his orchestrator Tunick had envisioned it,” said he declared.
A large orchestra allows the audience to have a “creepy experience”, he said. The size of the orchestra was part of the revival’s marketing strategy.
“I thought we could do it responsibly so that we could make a modest profit for our investors,” Seller says. “A murder? No way. A modest profit? Of course. Is it worth 26 musicians? You bet.”
Golden Age Orchestras Meant Balanced Acoustic Sound
In Broadway’s golden age, large orchestras were commonplace. Orchestra members and actors rarely used microphones, so orchestrators had to think about how to balance the sound so that the singers weren’t overwhelmed.
Tricia Baron/Lincoln Center Theater
Kimberly Grigsby, who leads the 30-piece orchestra for the current revival of Camelotsaid the two original orchestrators of the show, Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang, “get out of the way of the voice. If we play what’s on the page and play the dynamic that’s given, nobody has to be at the back of the house, [using the sound board and] lower the orchestra or push the orchestra.”
In fact, at a time when most musicians listen in the pit with in-ear monitors, she suggested that the set should simply be listened to acoustically. “I encourage you to listen to the room,” she told the orchestra, “listen to the singer, listen to each other. Let’s make music together.”
Phillipa Soo, who plays Guinevere in the show, said she felt supported by the big orchestra, not just musically, but dramatically. “I feel so lucky that we can have them with us, basically being the ground under our feet. And it’s such a beautiful relationship that we have with the musicians in our storytelling.”
Joan Marcus Theater/Lincoln Center
Camelot is at the Lincoln Center Theater, which is a non-profit organization. He has the means to present old shows with great ensembles – they produced my lovely lady, The king and me And South Pacific full. But new shows are risky and expensive, so musical ensembles are usually discounted. Some musicals, like Six, only have a group of four.
A world of magic
Some like it hotwith a jazz score set during Prohibition, is at the higher end of the spectrum, with 17 musicians, said Charlie Rosen, who co-orchestrated the show with Bryan Carter.
Chad Kraus /Some like it hot
“Outside of reruns, it’s incredibly rare for a new musical to have such a big pit,” Rosen said. it’s like the minimum you can get away with. And we’re on the small side for that. We only have three strings and they start in there!”
Ashford, starring in Sweeney Todd, said she had a suggestion for people who see musicals on Broadway, especially those who come to a show with one of those rare “luxurious” big bands: “Just take a moment and look into the pit before you leave the house, because it’s just a world of magic out there,” she said.
And then, she said, they should stick around after the encore to hear the orchestra play the exit music — and lend the musicians a hand.