A live band!

FAME orchestra pit in Wuhan at the HuBei Theatre

The leader of a dance band I used to play in told a great story on  himself. His wife dragged him to the Lyric Opera one time. At intermission, he idly wandered toward the stage, noticed the instruments in the pit, and called out to his wife, “Hey Honey! They’ve got a live band!” Apparently he had assumed, since he saw no “band,” that the singers were backed by a recording. And apparently he didn’t care. He played trumpet ;-)


For years now, Broadway producers have hoped, and perhaps assumed, that the audience will neither know nor care where the instrumental accompaniments are coming from. They have had scores reorchestrated to require fewer people, and more and more they have replaced the orchestra with a synthesizer player or even canned music. After all, live musicians require salary and benefits. They have to rehearse.  They occasionally make mistakes in a show. They have egos. They get sick. If the audience doesn’t know or care if there is a live band, a synthesizer, or a sound track behind the singers, why bother with the expense?

Management has always been that way from the first time musical theater became commercial. Italian dukes and other rulers basically invented modern musical theater when they started having musical entertainments performed between the acts of comedies. They presented comedies and intermedii for basically two reasons: to entertain themselves and to impress invited guests with their splendor and power. Money was no object.

These extravaganzas began to get old after about a century, and some top Florentine singers decided to create a new, simpler entertainment without all the elaborate stage effects and political trappings. We call it opera. It caught on, and some of the rulers started using these more realistic and dramatic works alongside or instead of the old comedy with intermedii. As long as operas remained court entertainments, at least some of them (Monteverdi’s Orfeo being the best-known example today) continued to use wind instruments.

As soon as the first commercial opera theater opened (Venice, 1637), the orchestra was reduced to strings and continuo. There are lots of reasons for that, but basically, the audience cared about hearing great singing and great stage machinery. It didn’t care a bit about the instrumental accompaniment. If the paying audience had wanted colorful instrumentation, that would have been enough to overcome any of the other reasons for the spare string orchestra.

Little by little, of course, the wind instruments rejoined operatic orchestras–not that the audience noticed or cared. Ample documentation exists portraying the audience as people who would stop and listen to the principal singers and perhaps to other parts of the opera if the composer introduced some novel effect, but otherwise talk or play cards all through the performance.

Nowadays, most of the audience at any kind of public entertainment have a hostile attitude toward those who talk loudly during the performance. At a Broadway musical, they really do want to watch and listen to the entire  performance. Still, there must be many who care much more about the spectacle on stage–the singers, the sets, and the machinery–than they do about who or what is in the pit.

My former band leader was surprised and impressed that the Lyric Opera had a live band. If someone wanders toward the stage at intermission on Broadway, what do they expect? Hopefully, significant numbers of those who pay for tickets really do expect a live band and would find its lack disturbing and disappointing.

The conductor of a live performance guides all the singers and instrumentalists into a single ensemble of people who respond to what the others are doing. A sound track won’t adjust to anyone, making the singers to all the adjusting in order to achieve exactly the same timing every night. If you patronize Broadway and want to save live music there, or know someone who does, please follow that last link and sign the petition.

Photo credit: ©Toby Simkin

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