The music conductors who make Broadway sing - but won't get Tonys
Tonight, the Tony Awards – Broadway's highest honors – will be handed out at Radio City Music Hall, after the first full season following the COVID shutdown. But not everyone who works on Broadway is eligible for an award – like music directors.
In the good old days, music directors were easy to spot. You looked at the orchestra pit in front of the stage and saw a conductor waving a baton. But these days, the musicians can be placed anywhere – from a loft above the stage to a room in the basement of the theater.
"This is the state of things," says Rona Siddiqui, musical director of A Strange Loop, nominated for eleven Tonys, including best musical. "We have our own little pit in the basement and it's very comfortable."
The show, by Michael R. Jackson, is about a self-described Black, queer Broadway usher writing a musical about a Black, queer Broadway usher writing a musical. The cast of seven follows Siddiqui via video monitors on the balcony rails and on the sides of the stage, while she plays keyboards with five other musicians in the basement.
"Yes, I would rather be more connected to the actors and actually be in proximity with them and feel them and feel us vibrating together. But this is what it is," Siddiqui says, laughing.
Joel Fram, music director for the Tony-nominated revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company, conducts the show every night. "Often when you say music director, you mean someone who has taught the show, rehearsed the orchestra, and then conducts the show, works with the understudies."
Most music directors are involved from the very beginning of the production process – working with the composer, orchestrator, and director, and sometimes creating dance and vocal arrangements, consulting on casting.
"The music director is kind of like the hub," says A Strange Loop's Siddiqui, "because you've got the creatives on one prong and the cast on one prong and the band on one prong. And you're kind of the linchpin, I guess, that's kind of keeping the whole thing together. It's a lot."
And keeping things together changes from performance to performance, and actor to actor, says Company's Joel Fram: "If you start a number and it is clear that the person may want it to go a little faster, then you nudge the orchestra along in a way that nobody but you and that singer will notice."
Fram has been involved in this gender-swapped revival of Company since it was conceived in London back in 2017. Bobby, the male bachelor in the 1970 original, has become a 35-year-old woman worried about her biological clock in the revival, set today. In the original, Bobby's three girlfriends sang an Andrews Sisters type song. In the revival, Bobbie's boyfriends sing the song in a new vocal arrangement by Fram.
Fram says he worked on at least a dozen drafts of the vocal arrangement, which needed the late Stephen Sondheim's approval. In one draft, "I just changed the last note of the melody to move up instead of down, thinking that Steve would never notice," Fram recalls. "And Steve sent me an email back that said: 'May I remind you I am the greatest living composer/lyricist in the world. Perhaps we should try the melody I wrote instead of the melody you wrote.' And I quickly found another solution for that moment that honored his melody."
Fram conducts the orchestra from a loft above the stage – they call it the "Sky Pit" – which is sometimes illuminated, so the audience can see the players. "I have never done a show where so many people have come up to me and said, 'Oh my God, I loved watching you conduct," says Fram. "Oh, my God, watching the orchestra is amazing."
Julia Schade (pronounced "shady"), the music director of the Tony-nominated new musical, SIX, is onstage, playing keyboards with a small rock band. SIX is kind of like a rock concert, starring Henry VIII's six wives and the show's all-woman band is called "The Ladies in Waiting." Schade plays a character named Joan – based on an actual maid of honor in the English court. Everyone in the band wears costumes.
"Our outfits are so cool," Schade says. "There are these vinyl pants with laces laced up the front of them. We get these cool black boots that are studded out."
Because the music is in a variety of contemporary pop grooves, the band wears in-ear monitors with a click track. Schade says it's like playing with a metronome: "The click track really helps keep us all together."
All three of the shows got hit with Omicron, which meant performances were sometimes suspended or just as likely, that understudies and stand-bys went onstage, with subs in the pit. One of the music director's jobs is to maintain the integrity of the show, regardless of who's in it. "You cannot go on autopilot," says A Strange Loop's Siddiqui. "Your brain wants to go on autopilot because you've done it so many times. But you have to be responding to the actors and their energy, the audience and their energy, understudies and their energy."
And, Siddiqui adds, she knows it's been a really good show if a lot of the audience members stick around to hear the exit music after the curtain calls. "I always judge the audience by how much they applaud at the end of the exit music," Siddiqui says. "I'm like, 'Okay yeah, they're a good audience.'"
The Tony Awards will be presented in two parts – a pre-show at 7 p.m. EDT on the Paramount Plus streaming service, and the awards themselves on CBS from 8 to 11 p.m. EDT. Academy Award-winner, Ariana DeBose – a Broadway baby and former Tony nominee – will host the ceremonies.
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