A detailed look at Broadway orchestrators (they earn $25 a measure!) focuses on cost-cutting trends, where shows try to get by with fewer and fewer musicians:
Downsizing is the norm these days, mostly because of space and economics. “We’re being asked to write for smaller and smaller bands all the time,” Mr. Starobin said. “Everybody’s oohing and aahing about ‘South Pacific,’ but nobody’s saying: ‘Hey! Let’s use big orchestras again.’ Producers don’t want to put money into the music; they’d rather spend $3 million on the scenery.”
Somehow I don’t think all those people raving about Mamma Mia were talking about the scenery.
Still, if a New York musician costs $100,000 a year, cutting from 25 to 15 musicians is $1 million a year.
Top shows bring in nearly $1.5 million a week, with overall attendance at 87%. You have to wonder if cheesing out on the musicians is like charging for water on the plane – sure it’s annoying, but people will still fill the seats.
Still, I haven’t truly enjoyed a Broadway musical in years. It’s distracting how the sound is produced so much like a rock concert that it becomes artificial. The orchestra is hidden, the singers are body-miked, and all the sound comes from speakers to the side, instead of actors on the stage.
There are no visual or audio cues to tell you that what you’re seeing is real, and at intermission couples in the drink line ask each other “is it lip-synced”?
Producers may suppose it’s not much of an issue. But sometimes it is.
With a bigger (and visible) orchestra, and turning down the amps so the singer’s voice is in the direction of the stage (and not the speaker behind you), the audience connects much better to the performance. We hear so much compressed digital music these days that live analog performance is becoming more valuable. Yet many musicals sound like a U2 playing in an arena.
It’s a musical, not a rock concert. The audience is not there to commune with each other while basking in the band’s glory. They are there to get swept up in the story and the music. Broadway producers would be smart to invest in the live music – get the musicians where we can see them, and build the emotional connection to the audience.