BradHathaway.com

I Hear Music And There's No One There
A Brief History of the Orchestra Pit

Show Music Magazine​​​​​



Winter, 2000-2001


​For 15 years (1975-1990), Marvin Roth was at the very center of a Broadway phenomenon. He was in the pit at 225 West 44th Street for all of the then-longest run of a Broadway musical - the musical about a musical: A Chorus Line. Day after day, month after month, year after year, he played baritone saxophone, regular and contrabass clarinets, bassoon and flute in the 33 foot by 7 foot, two inch world of the Shubert Theatre's pit. 

Not one of the millions of the people in the audience over the years would recognize him because they never saw him. The show's creator, Michael Bennett didn't want people to know there was an orchestra down there - after all, the show was about an audition, and there wouldn't have been an orchestra at an audition. Bennett had the pit covered with cloth that was "acoustically transparent" but would shield the musicians from view.

In a way, hiding the musicians may have been something of a visual return to the origins of theatre in early Greece. When public ceremonials first made the transition from events people participated in to events they watched, there was no separation of music maker and actor. Theatre space began as circular areas (called an orchestra) surrounded by wooden stands for the audience. Legendary designer Joseph Urban wrote that "in the classical theatre, both Greek and Roman, there was alway one first and supreme law - to hear well and see well." Even in the digital age, that struggle continues.

Orchestras accompanying singers in shows that tell stories (which is, after all, what we now think of as "musicals") began with the development of opera in the early 1600s. At first, performances simply had a handful of musicians who were up on the stage with the performers. Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, which may actually be the first opera, probably had 40 or so musicians sitting on the stage in a hall that had an audience of about 200 when it first premiered in Mantua in 1607.

As performances moved from royal palaces to public theatres, the musicians were taken off the elevated stage and placed in "the orchestra" - the main floor of the theatre.  The placement of the musicans in the front of orchestra seats may well be the reason we call the band an "orchestra" today. 

By 1728, plays using song to tell stories had become accepted by all segments of society, not just courtiers. "Ballad opera" became the rage in London when John Gay's The Beggar's Opera used popular song forms to tell the story of Polly Peachum and Macheath. When, in 1753, the first permanent playhouse in New York opened its doors, The Beggar's Opera was one of the plays offered.

Setting aside a separate area for the musicians may have been an act of protection for the musicians. Patrons could be quite demanding and threatening. A 1796 newspaper headlined "Disturbance at the Theatre. Audience versus Orchestre," and musicians in Boston printed a notice asking the "thoughtless or ill-disposed not to throw apples, stones and other missiles into the orchestra." Sometimes the musicians had to be separated from the audience by a rail topped with iron spikes and provided with their own entrance doors. Washington Irving wrote of the "worthy gentlemen" of the orchestra "crawling out of their holes" and tuning their instruments, a process he believed could just as well have been done "in the cavern under the stage." 

Things may not have changed a lot over the centuries - Michael Bennett didn't want the musicians for A Chorus Line to tune up in the pit, either. 

Shortly after the Civil War, the proprietors of Niblo's gardens at New York's Broadway and Prince Street took the town by storm with The Black Crook when it combined a stranded touring ballet troupe with a spectacle play. The ladies danced to the music of an orchestra in a pit that must have been not much more than 20-25 feet wide and six feet deep. The Black Crook is now viewed as the first "American Musical," but its success probably had less to do with its combination of music and story than with another innovation, the scantiness of the chorus girls' clothing.

The musician's world was fundamentally changed in 1876 when Richard Wagner's Bayreuth Festspielhouse opened in Germany with a radically different orchestra pit. The musicians were hidden from the eyes - but not the ears - of the audience. They sat on three receding levels:  brass and percussion below and behind the woodwinds who were below and behind the strings. The seats for the musicians receded below the stage itself. A curving hood of wood and leather hid the "oscillating back view" of the conductor and the "mechanics of music-making" which was deemed an "aggressive nuisance."

While the conductor and a third of the musicians were at stage level, the placement of that hood was such that no one in the audience could see them. However, the conductor could see the entire stage, and everyone on it could see him. The curving hood also directed the sound of the orchestra toward the stage so performers could hear, while the amount of orchestra volume to the audience was reduced. This helped maintain the balance between the singers and the musicians, which was important given the size of the orchestra Wagner used: 95 to 105 musicians put out a grate volume of sound. 

The impact of these design innovations can be seen today, although it took time for them to take hold.Today in modern musical houses, the pit sometimes extends under the front edge of the stage "to avoid encroaching too much on auditorium seating." This is not necessarily an acoustic disadvantage, especially with large orchestras, as it can focus the emerging sound and help to improve the balance between orchestral sound and the voices from the stage.

Then, too, the importance of the conductor being able to see and be seen from the entire stage began to be acknowledged. Before the 1880s, conductors and producers set the arrangement of the pit in many ways.  The conductor might stand or sit, as Arthur Sullivan did when he conducted the American premiere of The Pirates of Penzance at New York's Fifth Avenue Theatre.  He might face the stage or be between the musicians and the stage facing toward the audience. The musicians might sit facing in or out or even toward each other.

Theatre Acoustician Russell Johnson gave voice to the modern view of the importance of the conductor's visibility for the performers on stage as well as the musicians in the orchestra. In 1977, he wrote that "The key to control of a … production is the baton. All the singers onstage, both the principals and the chorus, must see the baton, both the conductor's hands and, because he also transmits many instructions with facial gestures - scowls, looks of pleasure, approval or painful expressions - his face." His words were addressed to opera, however, and ignore some more modern trends on Broadway where television monitors have been introduced to replace direct sight lines .. but more on this later.

The concept of a pit with the musicians facing toward the center of the house and the conductor looking over them toward the stage began to be something of a standard as the theatre-building craze of the last half of the 19th century progressed. That craze was driven in part by the fact that theatres burned down a lot. Theatre architect and design consultant Robert Davis has calculated that the average life span of the New York City theatres of the 1880s was 28 years. While some ended their useful theatrical lives due to changes in the economy or a shift in the location of of the theatre district, "the largest single reason was fire: mostly gas fires." With a lot of theatre building going on, innovations took less time to become standard.

One reaction to the frequent theatre fires that was to have a great impact on the world of the orchestra pit was the development of building codes imposing extraordinary fire separation standards between the audience hall and the backstage working world. They limited the openings in the fire barrier and one of those limits applied to the access door for the orchestra pit. A 21-square-foot opening was allowed for this purpose, which meant a door three feet by seven feet.

By the turn of the 20th century, then, the orchestra pit had begun to take on the characteristics that seemed to fit the name. They may have been wide from side to side, but they didn't intrude into the audience further than absolutely necessary. They were beginning to be sunken below the level of the audience seating to avoid the "aggressive nuisance (of) the visibility of the mechanics of music-making" that so bothered Wagner, and they were receding under the lip of the stage either to help focus the sound into the audience chamber or to conserve space for revenue-producing seats.

Until about the time of World War II, Davis points out, the pit was considered part of the audience experience area: Musicians dressed up - as did the audience. Marvin Roth never had to dress up for A Chorus Line because he was never visible to the audience. Then, of course, audiences no longer seem to dress up as much for theatre anymore.

As the pit has become more isolated from the audience chamber of a theatre, it has come to feel more and more claustrophobic for the musicians who inhabit it. Guidelines for the amount of space per player are generally vague. The American Theatre Planning Board simply says "the orchestra pit size should be adequate for complete orchestral instrumentation anticipated." But working architects tend to look for about 15 or 16 square feet per player - a space equal to a three-by-five-foot oblong or a four-by-four-foot square. While this may be all the space needed just to hold an instrument, musicians feel it ignores both the need for the maneuvering space and acoustical space to separate them from their neighbors. A clarinet player may not need more room to manipulate his instrument, but he may find the trumpet next to his ear a problem. A violinist may need more room to bow. And don't even talk to the timpanist!

Placing the orchestra partially under the stage, not to mention covering the pit, has increased the sense of isolation for some of the musicians. Ed Joffe has made a living playing for Broadway shows for decades. He was in the pit in 1986 when Me and My Girl was the inaugural musical at the Marquis Theatre. (He recalls that the designers neglected to provide steps to get into the pit.) Now he is playing in Fosse at the Broadhurst. Joffe feels that "there is another damage done by hiding the players out of sight of the audience: Being exposed makes you play better. It makes you constantly aware that you are playing for somebody."

By and large, modern Broadway theatres aren't all that modern. When Cats closed at the 90-year-old Winter Garden in September, only five of the 21 remaining musicals on Broadway were playing in houses built since 1929. However, as these buildings have undergone renovations and, indeed, as shows come and go, the pits undergo changes and evolve. Frequently, when a major renovation is underway, layers of previous alterations are discovered. "Sort of an archeology of the pit," says Davis. These evolutions tell something of a history of the musical theatre, at least at the Broadway level.

The pit in the Winter Garden is now about to return to life after being covered up and unused for the 18-year run of Cats. Ironically, the house had just undergone a major renovation and its pit had been refurbished before Cats came in. It is now being revealed to be as commodious as any, measuring 45 feet by 14 feet with a floor that is 11 feet below the stage level and nine feet below the house floor.

Paul Gemignani has conducted in almost all the pits on Broadway and cites the pit at the Broadway Theatre as "a gem" because of its spaciousness. It measures 44 feet by eight feet seven inches, but it extends back under the stage by almost six feet. It was built as one of the premier houses of the silent movie age, when the films were accompanied by "concert orchestras" for their first runs in great movie palaces.

As the jazz oriented shows of the 1920s and 30s came in, the sound emanating from Broadway's pits took on a new swing. Over at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon), the George and Ira Gershwin show Girl Crazy held forth with more legendary names in the pit than on the stage. Yes, the cast included both Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman. But the orchestra in the pit included Red Nichols as first trumpet, Glenn Miller as first trombone, Benny Goodman as first clarinet (doubling on saxophone), and Gene Krupa on drums. Just imagine with it must have been like on those nights when George Gershwin decided to conduct his own music with that band in a pit that was very open to the audience!

"Of course," Gemignani says "They probably complained about the cramped quarters then, too. But the acoustic problem today is really a function of the closed area of the pit. The pit for Girl Crazy would have been a step down from the orchestra seats and probably the entire band would be visible. No one would be blowing into a wall. There was probably a six-inch platform for the conductor rather than a five-foot box like I stand on today." 

In 1940, electronically amplified sound arrived on Broadway, but it didn't make its way into the pit. Earl Carroll's Vanities transferred from Carroll's Los Angeles nightclub to the St. James Theatre. Carroll's revue featured vocalists singing into microphones, but the band in the pit was not miked.

Although in 1964 Carol Channing was wearing a wireless mike in Hello, Dolly!, it wasn't until 1968 with Promises, Promises that the pit got microphones - at least for the singers who were placed down there to augment the orchestra.

The job title "sound designer" was introduced in 1971. Jesus Christ Superstar called in Abe Jacob to help solve sound problems discovered in previews (Jacob had previously worked rock concerts). The first to hire him to design sound from the start was Bob Fosse for Pippin in 1972.

Jacob also designed sound for A Chorus Line, but the pit that Roth entered in 1975 at the Shubert, as dark and tight as it was, had five hanging mikes - but the singer's booth, unlike that of Promises, Promises, was off-stage where the singers could see the action onstage. Other electronics had invaded that pit. Since it was covered, conductor Don Pippin had a small black and white television monitor on which he would see the show. There was no camera on him, and the cast couldn't see him at all. So much for Russell Johnson's "the key to control of a … production is the baton." Things were so tight in the pit that Pippin had special short batons built so he wouldn't keep poking the cover over his head.

The danger of long-term hearing loss for the denizens of the deep pit is becoming a real concern. Joffe points out that, in addition to the volume of sound produced by the instruments playing in the confined space of a pit, there are now also monitor speakers in may instances so the singers onstage can hear the orchestra sound. Instruments today are louder than their predecessors as well. The modern wide-bore trombone, for example, is substantially louder than the narrow-bore version popular in the days of Gilbert and Sullivan or even early Kern.

The most recent newly constructed pit on Broadway is that of the Ford Center where Ragtime opened nearly three years ago. David Loud conducted that show and says it is "just such a lavish space with access doors on both sides and even an elevator for handicapped musicians." He says that that is quite a change from the Richard Rodgers where he conducted Steel Pier. The pit there "is so tight it took most of the intermission just to get the musicians out for their break. It required real choreography and careful chair placement so musicians could get in and out over the cables and mike stands."

Acoustically, Loud says the Ford Center pit is a delight. "It isn't that deep and, so, it gets a little more acoustic sound into the house, although we did have it partially covered to accommodate the raked floor installed for the stage. We had to have a TV monitor for the timpanist, who at one point had to face the wall and needed the monitor to see my hand. We also had mesh over the top to protect against 'incoming' props and things falling from the stage. The most frequent 'incoming' was the plastic vegetables from Mother's garden." 

Asked about microphones in the pit, Loud said that there were "too many - they were everywhere." This has become a frequent complaint of musicians and conductors. In 1996, Dave Brown was playing trumpet for Big at the Shubert, just as he had for Crazy for You in 1992. He had a piece of plexiglas between himself and the trombone that was "literally eight inches from (his) ear." Over at the Broadhurst, Fosse woodwind player Ed Joffe pointed out that he has two mikes just for his instruments. Of the total of 92 mikes the touring version of that show carries, 54 are just for the musicians. 

While new theatres with new pits is something of a rarity on Broadway, there has been quite a building boom around the country and around the world for the past three decades, especially for multi-purpose performing arts centers designed to accommodate operas, concerts, plays, and musicals. This has led to innovations in the design of the pit area. Many of the innovations are actually refinements of features that have long been in use. 

Elevator lifts go back almost as far as mechanical stagecraft. The pit at Radio City Music Hall has long been able to do with the call the "around the world" routine where the band onstage would roll forward, be lowered into the pit, be rolled backward and be lifted back on to the stage, all while the band continued playing. Lifts are now used to rearrange the pit area to fit the needs of a particular production, with everything from a modified "Bayreuth pit" to only the slightest depression to preserve sight lines.

Protective netting over the pit has been in use for a long time as well. But today's new houses are being designed with the netting grommets being standard equipment. 

Gemignani is now conducting Kiss Me, Kate in what he calls "the extremely comfortable pit" at the Martin Beck. One reason he likes that pit is that it has wooden walls. The material of the walls is important not only for the sound the audience hears but also because the more typical cement covered with an absorbent material is brutal on the musicians' ears. Gemignani also likes that the pit isn't too deep for the sound to get to the audience. "From the first 12 rows or so of the orchestra you really are hearing mostly just acoustically" he says.  

One of the newest innovations is a reversible baffle for walls in the pit. At the new Sam Nang Hall in Seoul, Korea, even the front wall of the pit is equipped with panels that can be placed with an acoustically reflective surface either exposed or rotated to expose an absorptive surface. There are also velour drapes that can be arranged in a variety of position to control the type of sound projection into the audience.

And not all new theatrical spaces are new construction. As local and regional theatre has grown in the later part of the 20th century, many buildings originally constructed for other purposes have been turned into theatres. In Virginia, Signature Theatre has just presented the Broadway tryout of the Chad Beguelin / Matthew Sklar musical The Rhythm Club in a black box space that used to be a foundry. Other companies have converted churches, warehouses, storefronts and even artists' studios into performance spaces. Many have no place to put a pit. The location of the musicians for a musical can be as varied as any other element of design.

Even on Broadway, the musicians are not always relegated to the area in front of the stage. At the Plymouth, Robin Phillips chose to put the orchestra for Jekyll & Hyde on an elevated platform over the wings. At the Nederlander, the musicians for Rent are part of the set onstage, as is the Cabaret band at Studio 54.

So where will the musicians of the next half-century play for musical theatre? Will they even be physically present for the show they are part of? In the digital age, with amplification and synthesized music, augmentation and sampling, will the sound audiences hear come from musicians they can see? 

Gemignani says, "The future will really depend on the creativity of the people who write for the new Broadway. Tastes in sound may be a reflection of what a generation hears early. My generation grew up on jazz, but a lot of the younger ones now working the street grew up on rock. Broadway will take some of that. It will add some of what the next generation hears. It will be interesting to see … and hear … what they come up with."

Marvin Roth retired after the 15-year run of his 24th Broadway show. He had been at the epicenter of a revolution in the world of the pit as it went from the exclusively acoustical world he entered for his first show, As the Girls Go at the Winter Garden in 1948, to the electronically assisted world at the Shubert for A Chorus Line. Where will it lead from here? As Gemignani says, "It will be interesting to see … and hear."