The instrumentation of Broadway pit orchestras grows ever more extravagantly diverse. Gone is the traditional symphonic assembly for many new Broadway musicals. In fact, it seemed a coup when On The Town invested in its 28-piece band to accommodate the original orchestrations (the largest on Broadway at that time) and a luxury for last year’s Sunset Boulevard’s 40-piece orchestra (the largest in Broadway history).
Reduced in size and moved onstage—blended as part of the performing cast or resettled into corners above the stage, like urban loft dwellers—the contemporary Broadway pit band increasingly boasts exotic instruments rarely, if ever, before heard on Broadway.
Authenticity is the objective for much of this innovative instrumentation, an authenticity of musical style underscoring a dramatized environment; be it regional, ethnic, or digital.
This season’s The Band’s Visit is the most obvious example. A bittersweet fairy tale about an Egyptian police orchestra’s accidental visit to an Israeli desert town, and the music—sonic and otherwise—they make there, the show is all about the band, which is present onstage in virtuosic bursts throughout the show.
Ossama Farouk, on darbouka and riq, and Harvey Valdes, on oud (and guitar), stand out with their quintessentially Arabic instruments. In tandem with Garo Yellin on cello, George Abud on violin, Sam Sadigursky blowing a blazing clarinet, and a supporting offstage ensemble of more conventional keyboards, bass, and drums (including an array of Arabic percussion), they create a Middle Eastern groove unique in the annals of the Broadway musical.
“What you’re hearing is my past with this music and my passion for it,” says David Yazbek, the show’s composer and lyricist, whose father is of Lebanese descent. “I wanted to bring the thrill that I get from what they call Arabic classical music to a theatre audience, not as a piece of exotica but as a direct expression of what this show is about: union, connection. The process of hearing these instruments and connecting to them is the process of connecting with the Middle East itself.”
Come From Away is another musical that offers instrumental authenticity as the sound of a place. Newfoundland, in this case, home to Gander, the tiny town that hosted planeloads of people from all over the world pulled out of the sky when American airspace was suddenly closed on 9/11.
Composer-lyricists Irene Sankoff and David Hein conjure an instrumental Newfoundland comprised of accordion, harmonium, an Irish flute, whistles and Uilleann pipes, various fiddles and guitars, and even an “Ugly Stick,” played onstage by Romano DiNillo, a native-born Newfoundlander.
“Newfoundland music is primarily Irish folk music, mixed with British, Scottish and French,” DiNillo explains. “The Ugly Stick is a traditional Newfoundland folk instrument made from (usually) an upside down mop stuck in a boot. Bottle caps, a tin can, and other found sounds can be nailed to the handle to embellish the sound quality or increase its rugged good looks. Sometimes it has a face painted on the tin can. Usually it becomes the life of the party.”
While Come From Away uses one found-object instrument, the current revival of Once On This Island relies on a cacophony of them. The production of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s musical reimagines the Caribbean environment of this show in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Dispensing with many of the original production’s Broadway orchestral trappings, every actor, but one, plays some kind of “found instrument” onstage, from broken plates and old tubes to tuned bottles and pieces of Styrofoam, in service to a more authentic “found” sound.
“Initially, our idea was to put much of the original orchestration into the vocals, which our new orchestrator, AnnMarie Milazzo, was working on,” acknowledges the show’s director Michael Arden. “Then the original orchestrator, Michael Starobin, suggested that we instead try to create sound onstage with instruments made from refuse and trash. With the help of a guy named John Bertles and his company, Bash the Trash, that’s exactly what we did.”
Then there is Dear Evan Hansen, with its score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The above-the-stage pit band possesses a fairly basic contemporary instrumental configuration: keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, and strings. There is another unseen component, however: the show’s musical embodiment of the digital.
“We use Ableton, which is a piece of software that plays loops and sound effects and things that can’t really be replicated by human beings,” says Alex Lacamoire, Dear Evan Hansen’s orchestrator, who also famously orchestrated Hamilton. “I’m very wary of using synthesizers to replace people. I don’t love the sound of sampled horns or sampled strings. There are no sampled strings in Hamilton, for example; if you hear a string sound it’s being made by a string instrument. Computers, though, can be cool. Digital elements interspersed with live elements can make a really beautiful hybrid that sounds contemporary and modern. That sound is the perfect environment for Dear Evan Hansen.”
In the end, Yazbek suggests, the instrumental goal of such authenticity is ultimately more transcendent. “Musicians work towards something in the music that I call truth,” he maintains. “It doesn’t have to do with technical stuff. It’s a sense of honesty, a deeper truth that is shared by everybody who’s playing it. No matter the instrument.”