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Strike Up the Band

During the Broadway musicians' strike, Filichia got his theater fix at a Wild Party in Cincinnati. logo

Angel Reda and Eric Daniel Santagata
in The Wild Party at CCM
(Photo: © Mark Lyons)
With virtually no musicals playing on Broadway this past weekend, where could I see a musical just as good? In Cincinnati, of course, at the Conservatory of Music, where Aubrey Berg and Diane Lala -- who have respectively directed and choreographed many astonishing productions over the years -- surpassed even their previous achievements with their version of Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party.

They ordered a turntable set that afforded views of the living room, bedroom, bathroom, and fireplace exterior of the apartment shared by Queenie and Burrs. On it, 19 extraordinary kids performed this astonishingly difficult show. As Queenie, Angel Reda made Sally Bowles look like Maria Von Trapp. Eric Daniel Santagata as Burrs, the sad, desperate, pathetic, and crazy clown, mixed-and-matched each of the those four adjectives into a Rubik's cube of combinations. Kearran Giovanni, as Kate, sang such a riveting "Look at Me Now" that no one would ever care to do anything else. As Black, J. Michael Kinsey sang as smoothly as Johnny Walker Black. And as Madelaine True, Lindsay Pier was smart and talented enough to do "An Old-Fashioned Love Song" (read: "Lesbian Love Story") without a single one of Alix Korey's marvelous intonations because she knew she could come up with just as many marvelous ones of her own. You may have missed these performers in this show, but you'll have plenty of opportunities to see them in years to come.

The show was a smash hit at the box-office, too, and here's an example of how the movie of Chicago is helping musical theater: When patrons who were understandably unfamiliar with The Wild Party called the theater to ask "What is this show?" and heard "It's a little like Chicago," they signed up in droves. You know, the two shows do share one identical line of dialogue: "I gotta pee" -- except when Roxie says it she runs off-stage, and when Kate says it she pulls down her panties, gets comfy on the throne, and lets it rip. How far we came in the 26 years between Chicago's debut and that of The Wild Party!

Given what was happening on Broadway this past weekend -- or, rather, what was not happening on Broadway this past weekend -- I concentrated a great deal on the 11-member orchestra, two more than the number that accompanied this show during its all too brief run Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2001. In Cincinnati, under Greg Anthony's expert musical direction, the band really played, and I mean played. As Reda reached the powerful B-section of her big 11 o'clock number "How Did We Come to This?" the orchestra swelled with passion. That reminded me that musicians are performers, too. Not quite actors, true -- even though their minimum salaries are actually higher than that of Broadway performers! But the Wild Party band sure performed and turned it up more than a notch when they got to that B-section.

That set me to wondering about this compromise of having only 18 or 19 musicians in the pit, as opposed to 24 to 26, in the larger Broadway houses. Sure, I was impressed by the sound made by "only" 11 musicians; but the Patricia Corbett Theatre is less than half the size of a theater where the typical Broadway musical plays, and I suspect that 11 musicians would have sounded anemic in a Main Stem house. Also, I'm positive that I would have been even more moved if Greg Anthony's pit had 24 to 26 players. I want as many people in the pit as possible: The bigger the band, the bigger the sound, and the bigger the experience for theatergoers. Most every other kind of popular music has been reduced to a few musicians. Must the Broadway musical follow suit?

As it is, I've had to watch Broadway orchestras shrink over the years. In the '60s, I'd see a harpist in every pit; now, I no longer do. We've lost a unique sound from a unique instrument. I wonder what will be the next instruments to go with the reduction of the minimums. And what will happen after we've reluctantly become accustomed to the new, reduced sound and they move to reduce it again?

This may seem like a strange analogy, but I'm reminded of a class reunion where an old pal who had became a drug enforcement official told me, "We can't allow marijuana to be legalized because then some people will lobby for the next barrier -- the cocaine barrier -- to be broken. As long as we keep marijuana illegal, cocaine has no chance of being legalized." I would have liked to have seen that 24 to 26 number sustained because, as long as it was, 18 or 19 wasn't possible at most houses. Now that the union has given in to lower musician minimums, they may have to give in to more later.

And while the issue wasn't quite "live music vs. canned music," a virtual orchestra was mentioned, so I'll mention it by way of saying that stage musicals just have to have live music. To quote Stephen Sondheim, "There is no other way." Oh, sure, shows could be done without it, but shows could also be done without live actors. They are, in fact, and those things are called movies and TV shows. If we're going to bother to do a show on stage, let's do it right -- without a virtual orchestra.

Another scene from CCM’s Wild Party
(Photo: © Mark Lyons)
I learned the pitfalls of such a device on October 26, 1977 at an Off-Broadway musical called Only a Woman, about suffragette Lucy Stone. As a fully orchestrated tape played over the sound system, I felt that you can keep your fiddles and your bows if they're artificial; give me a p-i-a-n-o, a real one that makes a better impression than a whole bunch of canned instruments. Technocrats will tell me that those were the dark ages of sound and that a low-budget, 1977 Off-Off-Broadway show's virtual orchestra can't be compared to the one that would be carted to Broadway today. But how would a virtual orchestra swell with passion when it had to play the B-section of "How Did We Come to This?" (This was also the point when CCM conductor Anthony stabbed the air to let his leading lady know that it was time to deliver. The audience could see and feel his excitement, which they wouldn't have done with a virtual orchestra.)

The thought of another machine entering a live medium saddens me. Some weeks ago, after I reported how impressed I was at the long note that Michael Crawford held in Dance of the Vampires, people who worked on the show wrote to tell me that he'd taped it. Yet another reason to hate Dance of the Vampires!

By the way, for those who think that a virtual orchestra means one made of synthesizers, be apprised that this is not usually the case. Most virtual orchestras are created by having real musicians show up at a recording studio for two or three sessions where they play every conceivable note in the scale, so that each can be recorded. A programmer then comes in and arranges the sounds. So, you see, musicians only have themselves to blame for the existence of this technology.

Well, I hope the new Broadway minimums at least keep ticket prices at bay. While in Cincinnati, I saw a TV commercial for some sort of event where ludicrously oversized cars with even more oversized tires were in some sort of competition where one monster car could try to destroy the other. The commercial made a point of saying how this was an ideal attraction for the entire family, because kids would be admitted for only $5. Parents can perhaps be pardoned for wanting to take their kids to such an event 20 times instead of bringing them to one Broadway musical, but what kind of a society will that lead to?


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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