Tag Archives: pit

How to Conduct Magic on Broadway with ‘Wicked’ Musical Director Bryan Perri

What does it take to keep one of Broadway’s long-running hits sounding fresh? We talked to the man behind to baton to find out how he made it to the head of the orchestra pit — and why he thinks all aspiring conductors should raise chickens

By Garth Wingfield

When the audience members take their seats in the Gershwin Theatre and settle in to see Wicked, their eyes are locked on the stage. After all, that’s were a giant dragon roars, Glinda descends from the proscenium in a silver bubble and Elphaba rockets skyward by way of theatrical magic. There is a whole other show going on out of sight, though, in the orchestra pit. That’s where conductor Bryan Perri is leading a 23-member team of seasoned musicians who bring Stephen Schwartz’s score to life. Conducting one of Broadway’s biggest hits sounds pretty intense, and there’s so much more to Perri’s job than just signaling the first upbeat. The lifelong musician also fills the role of musical director, and works with everyone from new cast members to replacement orchestra members to ensure the sound is true – and that the audience is left in awe. He also has some pretty his philosophical advice on just what it takes to create art these days.

‘Wicked’ Musical Director Bryan Perri at the Gershwin Theatre (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

‘Wicked’ Musical Director Bryan Perri at the Gershwin Theatre (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

What made you fall in love with music?
I started playing piano at five. My aunt had a piano, and I’d play at her house. And then my parents started me on lessons. I did theater growing up. I sang in church. I actually got my undergraduate degree at NYU in voice. And I supported myself for many years playing the piano. I’ve always loved theater. I did lots of it in my undergrad life. But then I started auditioning for shows as an actor, and I realized that wasn’t what brought me joy. A voice teacher from NYU moved to the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music and told me about an assistantship there in theater and opera conducting. I applied and got in, earning my masters in orchestral conducting. It was amazing. I conducted Brigadoon with a 60-piece orchestra. It was a profoundly inspiring and life-changing experience. I was hooked.

So how did Wicked happen?
A lot of it is who you know. I had a connection to the first national tour of Wicked in 2005. I became an associate conductor on the tour, and then I took over as musical director. Then I took over the Los Angeles and San Francisco companies. I had a three-year break, where I did other shows. And then I took over the Broadway company as musical director and conductor two years ago. So I’ve been involved with Wicked on and off for the last 10 years.

Bryan Perri works with a new ‘Wicked’ performer (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Bryan Perri works with a new ‘Wicked’ performer (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

What’s a typical day like for you on this production?
The best thing about it is there’s no such thing as a typical day. Anything that’s musical in the show is my responsibility. So that means maintaining the production and conducting as well as working with new cast members and ensuring how the ensemble sounds. Today I was working with new company members. I had a half-hour music rehearsal, and then during the day, we were rehearsing staging in the theatre. There’s a put-in tomorrow [where a new actor rehearses with other company members before going on for the first time in front of an audience]. And then tonight, I’ll conduct the show at 8pm.

How do you work with a new principal performer who joins the production?
Sometimes they’ve done it on the road, but not always. We’ve had instances where people have auditioned and gotten the role on Broadway or as a standby. So, if say, it’s Elphaba. I — or someone on the staff of people who help me — will teach them the notes and the nuts and bolts of the song. Then I help shape the performance. We work on the intentions of the song. It’s all about fitting the song onto the performer. There are certain marks to hit, but it has to be unique to each person. It can’t be a cookie-cutter performance. We’re making sure the actors are truthful to themselves, or else the magic goes away. So we’re looking at the lyrics, understanding the story of the song. And of course, I’m making sure it sounds amazing, that it’s Broadway-quality. Plus, they have to be singing healthfully. The stage manager and I work closely together. The stage manager teaches the new actor the blocking. And then we combine all departments — dance, stage management, music. We work together to tell one story. There are a lot of people working for the common goal — show staff, an associate conductor, several assistant conductors, rehearsal pianists, voice teachers.

The orchestra pit is filled with monitors for the musicians (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

The orchestra pit is filled with monitors for the musicians (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Let’s talk about the orchestra. That’s your domain as well.
There are specific chairs in the orchestra. There are 24 total, including me. It’s each musicians responsibility to find subs if they’re out, which they’re completely allowed to do. I don’t audition the replacements, but I can approve them and give notes. The musicians take great care and pride in choosing who represents them. There’s also something called auditing. Broadway pits are interesting in that they’re spread out, with the string section tucked away in a corner or other sections only able to see me through a video monitor or hear me well by wearing headphones. So the person who is going to be subbing sits next to the player and watches the book. I’m there to answer questions. It’s complicated — some musicians play five or six different instruments, like bassoon, bass clarinet and piccolo. Some people audit for months before they feel comfortable enough to sub. And that’s fine. We want them to feel ready.

What’s your favorite part about this job?
Conducting the show is pretty amazing. Yes, it’s doing the same thing over and over, but I love the show, so it never gets old. “Defying Gravity” and the moment where Elphaba flies away is a huge thrill. I love turning around and seeing the audience. They’re crying or they have their mouths open in awe. It’s very satisfying. It takes people out of their lives for the moment. Part of this job is remembering that you constantly have to inspire excitement. Many people are seeing Wicked for the first time. There are kids growing up with this show and the cast album, but they’ve never actually seen the show, and they’re finally seeing it, and it’s a brand-new thing. We have to tell the story as if it’s the first time we’re telling it.

Seating in the ‘Wicked’ orchestra pit (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Seating in the ‘Wicked’ orchestra pit (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

What do you do if something goes wrong mid-performance?
I always try to stay very calm. If the show has to stop, I get on the phone and talk to the stage manager and ask, “Are we stopping?” You take care of it and start again. You can never look in the rear-view mirror. And a lot of things can happen. There can be actor injuries. Once we were doing the show, and the power went out. That felt like the universe was telling us to stop the show.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your tracks?
There isn’t one path. Listen to as much music as possible. See as much theater as possible. Put yourself in a position to meet people. People write me and ask if they can sit in the pit and observe, and I usually say yes. Training is a given, but that can happen lots of different ways. Some people have formal degrees, but others have created their own schooling by taking lessons or even dance classes. Whatever path you take, you should. I’m a fan of school, but if that’s not your thing, I honor that as well. In terms of being a conductor, if you’re not nurturing your whole self, it’s hard to nurture other people. So meditate, concentrate on your home life, garden, raise chickens. It’s easy to be consumed by music or your career, and then you’ve suddenly lost perspective. Maintain your whole self. Otherwise, how can you be a reflection of humanity, which is what I think the arts are.

Source: newyork.com

Orchestra Rehearsal Etiquette

By Liz Lambson

Rehearsal

Whether you’re in an orchestra for the first time or you’re an experienced orchestral performer, you’ll soon notice that there are some unwritten “rules” pertaining to your involvement and behavior during rehearsal. Conductors even have their own style and set of expectations for the musicians under their direction.

It’s understandable if you feel a little nervous when performing with a new ensemble for the first time. Too bad no one will hand you a copy of Rehearsal Etiquette for Dummies. So if you’re wondering what to do and how to act in rehearsal, here are a few tips to keep you in the know.

    • Arrive early—at least 15 minutes early, or with enough time to both get your instrument out and warm up. There is nothing more awkward than shuffling through a crowd of seated musicians in the middle of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn. If you are late (it happens), try to avoid taking your seat while the musicians are playing; if you can, wait for an appropriate break in the action to slip in.
    • Come prepared. This means two things:

1) Come having thoroughly practiced your music. Nothing is more frustrating to conductors than to waste time rehearsing passages that the orchestra members didn’t practice ahead of time.

2) Before you head to rehearsal, double check that you have your music, instrument, bow, rosin, reeds, and any necessary accessories. Be sure to note whether or not you need to bring your own stand to rehearsal or you’ll be scrambling without one. You might consider keeping a wire stand in your car (like a spare tire) just in case!

    • Bring a pencil. This one gets its own paragraph. Attending rehearsal without a pencil is like sitting through a university lecture without a taking notes. Even if you think you’ll be able to remember every direction the conductor gives, every dynamic change, every cut, and every ritardando, really, you probably won’t. Keep a couple pencils in your instrument case so they’re always on hand.
    • Don’t under- or over-mark the music. Certainly write down bowings and musical directions as instructed. But don’t ruin the sheet music by circling every last key change, accidental, and dynamic marking until your music is black with pencil. And if you’re sharing a stand, especially avoid slathering the music with your personal notes and fingerings; it’s unprofessional.
    • Be courteous to your colleagues. Position yourself so both you and your stand partner have enough arm and leg room and can see the music comfortably. Don’t be afraid to ask the people around or behind you if they can see the conductor or if you can move a little to give them more space.
    • Don’t tune loudly. Tune as softly as possible so the players around you can hear themselves as well as the tuning A.
    • Don’t chat. If you need to communicate something to your stand partner, do so inconspicuously and quietly. Save personal conversations for break time.
    • At the same time, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Approach your section leader during a break, or raise your hand with [appropriate] questions for the conductor for any clarifications.
    • Don’t tap your feet. The conductor is there to keep you in rhythm, and the tapping creates unnecessary noise.
    • If you’re sharing a stand, the inside player (or player further from the edge of the stage) turns the pages.
    • Pass down bowings or comments from the section leader. Don’t be the break in the chain.
    • Players on the outside (closest to the edge of the stage) play the top line of a divisi section while the inside player plays the bottom.
    • Leave your arrogance at home. Members of the orchestra are all equal; everyone is contributing. Don’t gloat if you have a solo, and don’t bust out personal solo concertos and performances pieces just to show off. Everyone will be more annoyed than impressed. Also, don’t practice another orchestra member’s solo to demonstrate that you can play it better.
    • If at all possible, don’t miss any rehearsals leading up to a concert. It is a sign of disrespect to both the conductor and your orchestra members if you’re prioritize getting your nails done over working as hard as everyone else in preparation for a performance. Be careful not to double book yourself.
    • If you’ve agreed to play a performance, don’t back out if you get another gig, even if it pays better. It’s bad form, and you may lose your opportunity to ever play with the initial ensemble again if the director deems you flaky.
    • Learn the art of the “hidden yawn.” Sometimes you just can’t avoid yawning, but you can hide it with a little creativity. Lean over to tie your shoe or pretend to scratch your nose to hide your gaping mouth. Don’t let the conductor catch you yawning. Ornery conductors may send you packing or never invite you back.
    • Treat your music with kindness. Most sheet music is rented or borrowed from a library. Only write markings lightly in pencil so the next player to use it doesn’t have to painfully scrub out markings with a massive rubber eraser. Try not to bend pages or tear them. Keep the music in a protective folder to keep it from getting crinkled in transit.
    • Don’t wear perfume or cologne. You’d be surprised by how many people are allergic or irritated by it.
    • TURN OFF YOUR PHONE. Enough said.
    • Stop when the conductor stops. If you keep playing, it’s a sign that you’re not paying attention. Also, don’t noodle around or practice while the conductor is talking. Personal practice and group rehearsal are two separate activities.
    • Don’t eat during rehearsal. Bottles of water with lids are okay.
    • Don’t question the conductor or treat him/her with disrespect.Trust in their artistic direction. Don’t argue with the conductor or you’ll likely find yourself packing up and sent on your way.
    • Don’t complain about where you sit. Even if you’ve had seating auditions and you think you can play better than other members in your section, graciously accept your position. Just because you sit in the back doesn’t mean you’re not a valuable player; in fact, being in the group to begin with is a privilege in itself. But don’t hesitate to practice your tail off in preparation for the next seating audition.
  • Lastly, enjoy the music! Don’t take rehearsal so seriously that you lose your connection with the piece or with your instrument. Playing music in an ensemble is a real treat; don’t forget that you’re taking part in a meaningful cultural tradition that will edify your audience.

Source: violinist.com

A Quick 5 with Robert Billig

Posted By: Elliot Lanes

BilligRobert Billig is currently back on the road as musical director for the current US tour of Chicago: The Musical, which recently played here in DC at the National Theatre. After being totally frozen in Buffalo NY last week, I am happy to report,  Robert is now enjoying the sun in Naples Florida before returning to Baltimore next week. Robert has been lucky enough to originate a number of shows in NY as a conductor and vocal arranger. A few of these include the original off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors and on Broadway with the Brian Stokes Mitchell revival of  Man of La Mancha, Never Gonna Dance, Miss Saigon, Les Misérables (North American Musical Supervisor for ten years as well,) Singin’ in the RainThe Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and its sequel, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. Other Broadway credits include conducting stints with Wicked and of course Chicago. His recent national tour credits include Young FrankensteinLes Misérables and The Drowsy Chaperone.

One of Robert’s most interesting credits (at least for us musical theatre geeks) is that he was a part of a musical that ended a tumultuous pre-Broadway tryout at the Kennedy Center. The musical was called The Baker’s Wife. It never did come to NY but a song from that show has become quite famous. Read on for the first hand account of how it almost flew away from the show.

Robert Billig has been around for a long time. After all, he was the associate conductor for the original Annie in 1977. Very few conductors from that time are still at it and even more so, you don’t see them conducting on the road very much. It’s a grueling schedule and while some tours carry the whole orchestra, Chicago: the Musical picks up most of the group in every city. That means Robert and his travelling core have to rehearse a new orchestra in every city they play in. As you will read, Robert Billig has an impressive list of credits but more than that, after all these years, he still loves what he does even if it’s a show he has conducted multiple times. You watch him on the podium and he is having a blast. When Robert Billig is associated with a production it is always a first class result. A great sounding orchestra and stellar vocals are things you come to expect when maestro Robert Billig takes to his podium in any orchestra pit, or with Chicago:The Musical, on any stage across the country. As the lyric goes, “It’s good, isn’t it grand, isn’t it great, isn’t it swell?” Yes it is.

Did you know growing up that you would on the musical end of things in the theatre?

I didn’t really consider either music or theater as a career until I was in college.  I began piano lessons when I was eight years old, but was very musical even before that.  I’m told I was able to plunk out a melody on the piano when I was barely tall enough to reach the keys.

When I was 12 years old, I auditioned for a local summer stock production where they needed children.  I got into the show and was fascinated watching the conductor in the pit.  Also, from our library I borrowed the orchestral score for Tchaikowsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.”  I listened to the record and followed along with the score.  The realization that what was printed on the page was exactly what I heard on the recording was a real eye-opener for me.  I think those two combined experiences lodged somewhere in the back of my mind, because, even as I entered college, I was a biology/pre-med major, with a music minor.  Half-way through college I realized that the pre-med program was not for me, and that my true passion would be musical theater.

You have been on a number of national tours over the years as Musical Director. Do you still enjoy touring and do you miss being able to go home at night after a performance?

There is something to be said about bringing musical theater to people who might not be able to get to see a show on Broadway.  Or even a national tour in a major city.  But truth be told, I much prefer to be working on Broadway and be able to go home after the show.  I toured a lot in the early years of my career (70s and early 80s).  Then I had a long string of Broadway and off-Broadway shows in the mid- to later 80s, 90s and early 2000s.  In the last 10 years I have been back on the road, as well as working in New York.  There are different levels of touring productions nowadays.  First class touring productions will sit in a city for an extended period of time – weeks or even months – and you can rent an apartment and settle into living there.  Other tours you might stay anywhere from 2 days to a couple of weeks.  Those are more difficult. You’re really living out of a suitcase.  Also, some of the tours that move more often carry the whole orchestra (usually around 15 players).  I much prefer that scenario rather than the tours where we have to rehearse a new orchestra in each city, especially when we’re only in a city for two performances.  The one aspect of touring that I do enjoy is being able to visit different cities across the country and, occasionally, cities outside of the USA.

Robert Billig on the podium with one of the orchestras from the current tour of Chicago.

Robert Billig on the podium with one of the orchestras from the current tour of Chicago.

With Chicago you are using the identical orchestra size that is used in NY plus one (breaking the bass and tuba parts up to two players), which is a rarity nowadays. You are only carrying the two piano chairs and the drummer while picking up everyone else in each city. Without being specific to locale, have you ever had a situation on one of your tours where after the first read through you were left saying “Boy, do I wish we were self contained?”

Yes, absolutely.  Chicago has played some very small cities where the quality of the musicians isn’t necessarily up to the challenges of the score.  Only once on this tour have I replaced a musician who just couldn’t cut it.  I wasn’t willing to sit through 8 performances of bad playing.  But, truth be told, I would prefer to carry the orchestra with us.  On the recent 25thanniversary tour of Les Misérables, we carried 14 musicians.  It made touring life so much more palatable because we didn’t have to rehearse a new orchestra in each city, AND we had a consistently great orchestra.  It was just better for the quality of the production.  By the way, the concept of a single musician playing both the bass and tuba is still the standard of the Chicago tour.  It’s just that in some cities, they can’t provide someone who is capable of playing both instruments equally well.  That’s why we split it up, adding one additional musician.

You were part of a musical that ended its tumultuous pre- Broadway tryout here in DC at Kennedy Center called The Baker’s Wife. The show never did come to NY.  The song “Meadowlark” is now kind of a standard for many singers but it almost didn’t stay in the show because of producer David Merrick. I have heard several accounts of what happened but I imagine you would know better than anyone what happened with this song. How do you recall the events leading up to the almost demise of “Meadowlark”?

I was completely unaware that Mr. Merrick had a problem with “Meadowlark.”  I loved the song.  It’s a very dramatic piece for the title character, coming at a very critical moment in the show – when she decides to leave her husband for a younger man.  The song is an allegory and has been criticized for being to long.

The Baker’s Wife had been through a long out-of-town tryout period with engagements in Los Angeles, San Francisco and St. Louis.  It was decided that the show would return to New York and go back into rehearsal for 2 weeks before continuing on to Boston and Washington, D.C.  I took over as music director when the show went back into rehearsal.  Songs were being replaced and Topol, who played the baker, was resisting learning new material. (But that’s a whole other story!)

The show finally opened in Boston and was having a good run there.  I can’t remember if it was the first or second week there, but we did have a mid-week matinee (Wednesday or Thursday).  Mr. Merrick was in the theater for that performance.  Before I had time to leave the orchestra pit at the end of the first act, the stage manager called me and asked me to collect all the orchestra parts for “Meadowlark” and to bring them to him onstage.  When I arrived onstage, Mr. Merrick took the music from me, placed it in his briefcase and left the theater.  I immediately called Stephen Schwartz to let him know what had transpired.  He told me not to worry, that if Merrick did not return the music, he would pull his score and shut down the entire production.  Needless to say, we had the music back the next day, but we still had to do that evening’s performance without the song and the dramatic music that ended the first act.  We somehow did a cut and paste job to try to make a smooth ending to the act, but it wasn’t very good.  I was very relieved to have the music back the next day.

There is an amusing anecdote that is told about the ‘blind bird song’ and how this little blind bird with a cane (the meadowlark) is outside the stage door of the Shubert Theater in Boston, trying to get back inside.

It is sad that the show was not successful.  The score was beautiful; Stephen Schwartz’s most ambitious score at that time.  We also went through three directors and three choreographers and two leading ladies.  Lots of drama!!!

You have been associated with Chicago for a long time conducting both on Broadway and on tour. What is it about the show that keeps you coming back to it?

I love Chicago!  I saw the original production with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach.  I was blown away by their performances, as well as the brilliant Kander and Ebb score and the Bob Fosse choreography.

I was also fortunate to have seen this revival production when it was originally staged as part of the City Center Encores series in New York in the spring of 1996.  It was such a minimalist approach but it worked like gangbusters.  It transferred to Broadway that November and became a huge hit.  The original music director, Rob Fisher, opened the show but needed to leave after three months to prepare for the next season of “Encores” shows.  He asked me to take over the show when he left.  Needless to say I was thrilled and said yes!  It was my great pleasure to work with Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton and Joel Grey, each brilliant in the portrayal of their character.  I stayed for 1-1/2 years and then left to do another project.  Three years later I was asked back and did another 11 months.  I filled in for the conductor on the tour for 5 weeks back in the spring of 2004 and have filled in for Leslie Stifelman, the current music director for the Broadway production, several times over the last 10 years.

I pretty much retired from touring back in 2012 after finishing up 2-1/2 years on the road (15 months with Young Frankenstein and 15 months with the ‘new’ Les Misérables).  I had had enough of the road.  After 2-1/2 years of leisure and traveling for fun, I start getting itchy to go back to work.  When I received a call asking if I’d be interested in conducting the tour ofChicago for a limited 6-month run, it was a no-brainer.  I love the music, the staging, the choreography.  I love hearing the audience reaction.  And I love being onstage with the orchestra (not buried in the pit). And I love the opportunity to interact with the stars of the show.  It’s a great job!!!

We have a wonderful company.  I love everyone that I work with; cast, crew, musicians, stage management and company management.  I have had a great time, but come April 12, I will be very happy to go home to NYC!

Source: mdtheatreguide.com