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Life in the pit is a bowl of cherries for musicians

Life in the pit is a bowl of cherries for musicians

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The house goes dark. The music begins.

Musicians who play for musical theater are unsung heroes. Rarely seen, their performances support the actors and take a back seat to the scenery, but without them, the singers would be overexposed, and the play would be sadly diminished.

The orchestra helps move the action along, provides accompaniment for singers and rhythm for dancers.

Many theater-goers might never think about the orchestra — unless it hits a bad note — but David Lane, a local music director, keyboardist, composer and arranger, has started a podcast — “Life in the Pit!” — that is “devoted to the lives and experiences of instrumental musicians who play for musical theater.

“Listeners can hear the stories of what goes on in ‘the (orchestra) pit’ and aspiring musicians can learn what it takes to become a pit musician.”

As of this printing, Lane has produced seven podcasts and a bonus pod that explains 31 musical theater terms, such as overture, vamp, cut and tacet, read by a cast of 25 theater professionals. Others episodes include “You Can’t Have Too Many Guitars” with Allan Beck, guitarist, and “I Put the Quality of the Music First” with Daniel Bukin, a conductor, composer, keyboardist and graduate student at the University of New Mexico.

To begin with, the pit refers to the space under that stage where musicians who are playing for musical theater (and opera) traditionally sit. In reality, they might be anywhere, depending on the show and the venue.

In “Cabaret,” the band is on display. “Even the orchestra is beautiful,” the Emcee intones. In the Broadway shows “Hadestown” and “Come From Away” the band is onstage with the actors.

Most local theater venues are pretty small, but the producers of “Bricktop” found room on stage in Reynolds Place Theatre for a tight little jazz band during the 2019 National Black Theatre Festival.

“Directors prioritize for the actors, the set pieces and the props,” Lane said. “So there’s just a little space left for the musicians, and you’re like a puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit.”

Road to the pit

Lane’s own path into musical theater was long and winding. He moved to Winston-Salem from Florida to study film music composition at UNC School of the Arts with David McHugh and completed his master’s degree there in 1999.

He and his wife, Jennifer Lane, a violist and violinist, stayed in Winston-Salem and have made their home here.

In 2009, between teaching and being music director at his church, Lane and another local musician started sharing gigs. If one knew of a need but couldn’t fill it, he would pass that job off to the other.

“I used to fill in on French horn,” Lane said. “Or someone would need a Coldplay song rearranged for a wedding.”

One of those first passed-off gigs was with Jamie Lawson at the Winston-Salem Theatre Alliance. The show was “Christmas My Way.” Lane said that the book was too difficult to play, so he rewrote parts of it for the production.

“I thought I was coming in to play piano for a show,” Lane said. “I looked around and said, ‘Who’s the music director?’ and they looked at me and said, ‘You are.’

“I hadn’t even looked at the vocal parts. I was definitely thrown into the fire, and that was my first pit experience.”

Lane didn’t think it went that great. That could have been his first and last musical theater experience, but necessity is the mother of jobs.

“In 2011, I wasn’t getting a lot of gigs, so I emailed Jamie and asked if he needed somebody to help with music and he did,” Lane said. That year, they did “Evil Dead The Musical” and “GI Holiday Jukebox” together. In the spring of 2012, Lane did “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” with Lalenja Harrington.

He did three shows with Theatre Alliance in the 2012-2013 season: “Spring Awakening,” “Rocky Horror” and “Legally Blonde.” He’s been at it ever since.

Essential worker

Some of the things that music directors can be responsible for include hiring musicians — anywhere from one (keyboard or piano) to 20-30 for a big Broadway show — teaching singers their parts, and helping the director choose singers in auditions.

“The music director handles all the musicality of the show,” Lawson said. “Without one, you’re in big trouble. He’s responsible for the sound of the show, and that’s the first thing you hear. You can tell from the first notes, if it’s going to be good or bad.

“It’s not an easy job, and good ones are hard to come by.”

Lane looks out for his musicians, Lawson said.

“With ‘Always, Patsy Cline’ that we are starting to work on, David told me, ‘I want to make sure we can have cover (out of the sun) for the band,’” Lawson said. “I said, ‘David, the show is at 8 p.m.,’ and he said, ‘Yes, but there’s that one matinee.’”

“Always, Patsy Cline” will open Aug. 13.

When Lane agrees to music direct a show, he first researches the music and the orchestration.

“About half the time, you can’t afford the full orchestra, so you might opt for one trumpet instead of two, leave out the bassoon.

“I usually start with piano, bass and drums and build from there.”

Although the run-up to the show can be stressful and the pay is low, musical-theater work is rewarding, Lane said.

“In ‘Les Miserables’ in 2013 at SECCA, we had a 13-piece orchestra and the space was tight. I was playing keyboards and conducting,” he said. “It was stress, stress, stress until opening night.

“When Jaye Pierce sang Fantine’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream,’ she brought the house down, and the stress just melted away.”

Creativity on the hoof

Lane got the idea for his podcast during the forced inactivity of the novel coronavirus lockdown. Theaters from Spruce Street in Winston-Salem to Broadway in New York closed their doors in mid-March.

Locally, only Theatre Alliance is doing live shows and those only outside and with limited seating.

“I went for a walk one day, and I realized that there were no podcasts about pit musicians,” Lane said. “I thought it would be fun to interview a guitarist and find out what it’s like to play guitar in the orchestra or interview other musical directors.

“As soon as the first episode went out, I started getting messages from people from all over — New York, Australia. If I can keep getting people interested, I can keep this going for a while.” He has about 10 more unedited interviews and four or five weeks of edited interviews at the ready.

Lane uses special software, a condenser microphone with a pop filter, and headphones to create the podcasts.

“Not all podcasters take time for editing,” he said. “I don’t feel the pressure to get the work out so quickly, so I take the time to make it sound good.”

Lane was adamant that his show — and musical theater, in general — is not over anybody’s head.

“It’s not an elitist show,” he said. “And it’s not a strictly local show. I’m talking with people in other states.

“I really want to emphasize that musical theater is not an elitist art. It can be done on so many levels — from the meek to the mighty.”

In addition to Theatre Alliance, Lane has music directed for High Point Community Theatre, Community Theatre of Greensboro, Greensboro Day School, Little Theatre of Winston-Salem, Salem College, Kernersville Little Theatre and more.

“A fear that I had always had happened when I was music directing ‘Oklahoma!’ in High Point,” he said. “As I lifted my baton, it hit the bottom of my music stand. I lost the baton and kept conducting with my hand until the drummer handed me a drum stick, and I conducted with that.”

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