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From Tuning To Bows: A Retrospective on the Pit Orchestra

Pit orchestras accompany musicals, operas, ballets, and other live performances.
Pit orchestras accompany musicals, operas, ballets, and other live performances. By Julia Do
By Aiden J. Bowers, Crimson Staff Writer

After the lights dim and the idle chatter of the audience dies down to a mere murmur, the first taste of a Broadway performance is not the set, the actors, nor the lights, but the tuning of the orchestra. More often than not, the first few notes of the overture set the tone for the rest of the musical, giving the viewer a preview of what is to come.

Live music is an integral part of the performance experience. The uplifting power of a pit orchestra plays a crucial role in giving Broadway musicals a polished, perfected feel. Rich melodies and thrilling orchestration elevate the talented actors and singers on-stage; a good pit provides the foundation for a great production.

Since the creation of opera, ballet, and eventually musical theater, orchestras have been a vital part of the production. Today, they are known as “pit orchestras,” which comes from their typical location during a performance: the orchestra pit, a lowered area in front of the stage. The term “pit orchestra” did not come about until the late 19th century, when the orchestra pit was invented.

Historically, orchestras were seated on stage along with the actors. As orchestras and casts — typically for operas, at this time — became larger and more complex, the orchestra’s presence became a burden on the stage. As a quick fix, orchestras were typically moved to the floor level of the theater. This brought a new set of obstacles, namely the safety of the musicians, who could be easily reached — by projectiles or otherwise — by a rowdy heckler or upset crowd. At the same time, placing the musicians in front of the stage, rather than on it, proved more difficult for actors to hear. A change needed to be made, and soon, the orchestra pit was introduced.

This reformation is accredited to Richard Wagner, composer of masterpieces such as “The Valkyrie” and “Siegfried.” In 1876, he led the reconstruction of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre in Germany, adding an orchestra pit that shielded the musicians from the audience and directed sound toward the performers with its curved design. This trend quickly caught on for its effectiveness and its quality-of-life improvements for all the performers. To this day, many theaters are designed with orchestra pits.

In the modern day, production teams are shaking up the pit orchestra scene with a return to roots: Many pit orchestras are once again being placed on the stage. From performances in venues without a pit to intentional choices in staging, placing the pit orchestra on stage adds flair to a theatrical performance. Broadway shows like “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Waitress,” and “Come From Away” all feature pits on stage. There’s an immersive aspect to an on-stage pit, where cast and orchestra size allow. This set-up helps to give the show a more intimate feel, as well as baring it all for the audience, allowing them to see the inner workings of the show’s audio profile.

Yet from the musician’s perspective, this method has its pros and cons. Aside from creating a space issue onstage, the exposure can make pit musicianship more challenging. The added expectation of costumes, a clear space, and a physical performance aspect aside from the music can complicate a pit experience. Plus, communication is more limited than in a typical concealed pit, where whispers and nonverbal communication are generally permissible without disturbing the performance. When the audience can see even small gestures, a pit generally needs to be more cohesive and attentive. Sometimes, this comes with the added expectation of reacting to what is happening on stage, giving more responsibility to the pit musicians.

Other productions have actors onstage doubling as pit musicians or augmenting the pit. A perfect example of this is “The Band’s Visit,” which includes an off-stage pit that is supported by actors playing instruments on stage, culminating in a finale concert. Broadway and West End revivals of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” directed by John Doyle, featured minimalist casting and technical elements, including doubling of cast and pit orchestra. The added layer of musicianship to the main cast allows for increased dramatic expression, at the expense of limiting casting choices — every actor must also be able to play an instrument in the orchestration.

Whether the pit is characterized by a more traditional orchestration — like those resembling a symphony orchestra — or a rock-band style arrangement, the pit orchestra is a staple of the musical theater experience. From within the pit, musicians have the unique opportunity to underscore actors, dancers, and vocalists in real-time on stage. The emotive power of music drives the experience for the audience and cast alike, providing an opportunity for the interdisciplinary cohesion of artists’ voices. The best pits are able to support the actors while entertaining in their own regard, preserving the magic of theater from the first tuning “A” to the last note of bows.

—Staff writer Aiden J. Bowers can be reached at aiden.bowers@thecrimson.com.

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