Ah, the joys of staffing a pit . .. during a pandemic

Like most theatre geeks and pit musicians, I have welcomed the decline of Covid and celebrated the reopening of locals theatres. I had the privilege this past year of MDing four shows, and we squeaked by with no issues until show number four, Godspell, in May 2022.

As you probably know, Covid’s Omnicron variant had mutated and surged during recent months. Just before tech week, one of my 3 guitar players (pit calls for 3!) tested positive, so couldn’t do the gig at all. I was able to find a replacement, but her couldn’t do all of the dates (3 rehearsals, 6 performances). As we started tech week, our producer and one of our sound guys tested positive. They were mildly sick, and we were able to proceed with tech and my pit. On the morning of opening night, my bass player tested positive. After hours of working the network, I was able to find someone to sit in that night and the whole first weekend. No rehearsal time. He did fine.

But, Miss ‘Rona wasn’t through with us. Sunday morning of the first weekend, one of the main actors tested positive. We canceled that day’s matinee. The next day, another actor tested positive and then another on Wednesday. We postponed the next/final weekend to the following weekend. Of course, I lost my very excellent drummer due to other bookings, and my guitar players shrank by the day. Turned out that my “new” bass player also plays drums, so he took over that book, while my original bass player, recovered from Covid, came back.

The show must go on, though, and on it did, and the audiences loved it.

What if a pit musician is not working out?

This is a very delicate and challenging situation. Say you hire someone you don’t know or don’t know very well to play in your pit, and it becomes pretty clear pretty fast that they are not up to the task. As Music Director, what should you do? I’ve encountered this situation twice, and while I have no one to blame but myself, I’ve learned a lot from these situations:

  • As soon as you realize the problem is not going to improve, act immediately. Network quietly to find a replacement, and once found, release the original player. Be sure to pay the player for the work they have already done. And be kind; this will hurt.
  • Set a minimum of experience you are willing to work with. For instance, unless it is a school production, I will hire graduate-school level at a minimum, with significant pit experience.
  • Always reach out to players you have played with before and who are excellent. And remember, you want nice people in your pit, so all things being equal, go with the person that is a personal as well as professional asset to the pit.
  • If you are hiring based on referrals, give preference for people referred by others you have personally played with. They know you and the other person, and won’t recommend someone they wouldn’t be willing to play with themselves.

I hope this doesn’t happen to you, but if it does and you want any advice, please feel free to contact me!

Technology is a Wonderful Thing . . Until it’s Not

One of the terrific things about playing keyboard for shows these days is the introduction of Apple’s Mainstage product. Through the use of very inexpensive software and a Mac laptop, players can use their keyboards to generate hundreds of unique instrument sounds, particularly when budget limits the size of the pit one can hire. (On a more controversial note, programmed keyboard parts have become the norm in newer Broadway shows, which has led to the hiring of few professional musicians – not a great development.)

I’ve been integrating Mainstage into my shows as needed, often doing the programming and handing off the playing to another pit member. However, recently I had a need to play my own programming while also conducting my small but mighty pit. And of course, near-disaster stuck. Somehow, in the middle of a song, the programming simply stopped working, and no sound came out of my keyboard. (You have to shut off your keyboard’s local control in order to generate the sounds via the Mainstage setup.) I managed to somehow quickly switch my keyboard back to piano mode so I could continue playing, while also trying to check the connections at the same time. Turns out it was human error after all. My power adapter cable simply wasn’t fully plugged in, and the laptop’s battery was fully drained. Intermission was just around the corner, so I was able to discover and remedy the problem.

What pit pitfalls have you encountered? Feel free to comment below!

Where are the cymbals??

. . . Or how a disastrously late principal actor allowed me to solve an unforeseen percussion calamity.

The production was Side Show, a show with contemporary-style music, reliant on solid traditional drum kit to anchor the pit. Mind you, the pit was only four or five players total. My drummer had engaged a sub for one performance, which I was comfortable with. However, he hadn’t told me that he would be taking his cymbals with him for his night off. I learned then that this was not unheard of, and many drummers bring their cymbals with them, given the high value drummers place on fine cymbals. But, he hadn’t told me. The sub showed up, and he was clearly not in the category of cymbal protectors, surprised and dismayed to see a nice drum kit with empty cymbal stands.

That night, one of our principal actors was driving back from an out-of-state trip and ran into a delay. We literally could not start the show without him. While the producer explained the situation to the audience (and opened up the bar!), I remembered that a childhood friend of my sons, an accomplished drummer then in high school, lived five minutes away. I called his parents and arranged to borrow his cymbals. After a 45-minute delay the actor arrived, and we were able to start the show. The audience was none the wiser and definitely in a forgiving mood, thanks to the extra bar time!