This is my blog, insight and experience while playing in the Broadway produced musical, “Hairspray”. I was asked tons of questions about it – from playing the pit, to off-stage happenings and everything in between. Hopefully this answers them.
Before The Show:
I was referred to by local guitar virtuoso, Steve Marchena. Steve played at the Cape Playhouse last summer but was already booked doing another theater gig.
Once signed on, I bought as much “Hairspray” goodies I could: the original movie, its remake, the music, etc. I spent a lot of time brushing up on my reading skills, music theory and chord harmony. A major focus was on transposing music which is the ability to read music in one musical key while playing it in another (the equivalent of reading a speech in English but having to narrate it in Spanish). The cast began rehearsals in NYC 2 weeks prior to opening night. They rehearsed with the musical director, Jesse Vargas (who also doubles as Clay Aiken’s musical director), who also accompanied them on piano. The band received their books and accompanying CD 1 week prior to opening night. The book and CD had 2 guitar parts that I combined into one. We were sent “cut sheets” later that week (cut sheets show which parts will be skipped: the Broadway production’s cast was larger than ours so we “cut” longer sections out).
The band had 1 4-hour rehearsal the day prior to opening night. We consisted of bass, drums, guitar, 2 keyboards, 2 brass and 2 woodwind players (half had played at the Playhouse prior). We ran through the easy pieces first and then went over the more complex section again. The following day we were scheduled to do a dry run a few hours before opening that night but due to last minute changes/ tweaks/ unforeseen issues, we only rehearsed part of the 2nd act.
This pit was located in front of the stage, below the front row. When looking at the stage, it consisted of 3 areas: the rhythm section on the left (drums, guitar, bass), the musical director/ conductor/ keyboardist raised to audience level in the middle (so the cast and band can see him) and the other keyboard player and horn section on the right. Unless a scene took place near the edge of the stage or in the far right hand corner of the stage, I couldn’t see anything.
The show (3-week run):
Opening night went well considering that a good portion of it came together within 24 hours. The first couple of shows were spent getting familiar with everything/ one. Although we had a different conductor and keyboard player for the 3rd week, everything went smoothly. Here’s a quick summary of factors that the musicians had to consider that you may not have seen:
Cues: Some cues happen almost immediately without much notice while others have a full “1-2-3-4” count-in before playing. For quick cues, I’d write a note to myself about what dialog will happen before the next song. For example, when I heard, “Oh my God, I’m going to kill myself!”, I knew “The Nicest Kids (Reprise)” was about to happen. The cue for that song was a head nod upwards and we’d start playing on the downward nod.
Volume: Because I sat directly in front of my amp, I didn’t have a gauge on how loud/ soft I was playing. More often than not, a guitarist is asked (begged?) to turn down but the musical director wanted more volume so I was more than happy to turn it up. For certain songs he’d also call for “more gain” which sometimes can be misleading. More gain in a theater setting usually means make the sound more distorted not necessarily louder whereas in at a club gig, it usually means play heavier (ie more heavy-metal sounding – louder, dirtier and more aggressive).
Note/ Rhythm Selection: For the first few shows, I tried to stick as close to what was written in the book as possible. Some books tell you what to play note-for-note/ rhythm-for-rhythm and others have basic outlines and it’s up to you to fill in the blanks. For example, one book may not only tell you to play a C Major chord but in what order the notes of that chord should be played. My book left a lot of the parts open to interpretation but made sure to spell out particular parts.
Safeties: In musicals, there are certain parts of the play that don’t have a certain time duration because they vary from night to night. For that reason, the music has certain “safety” sections. Safeties are repeated music patterns (of various lengths) that the band repeats until told otherwise. In “Without Love”, this safety at 2:00 – 3:00 consists of various key changes and lots of open space for the guitar. My focus was on nailing the key changes, controlling my volume and waiting for each cue as the length of that part varied from night to night.
Schedule: The show ran a typical theater schedule: 8 shows per week – one day off (Sunday). There was always a show at 8pm Monday – Saturday. Depending on the week, there was a 4pm Saturday show and/ or 2pm show on either/ both Wednesday and Thursday. After the 2pm Wednesday shows, the cast came out for a Q&A session with the audience. I worked part-time through the show – I’d be out of the house at 7.15am and back after 12am. I’d take an hour ride train into Boston and back for work, then drive 75 miles to Cape Cod and back. I wasn’t immune to Cape traffic either which definitely resulted in some close calls. Eating dinner in my car on the way wasn’t unusual and if I got there earlier enough, I was able to take a nap in my car. Glamorous, huh?
Page Turns: This is a under-appreciated art form, in my opinion. Page turns rarely happened at the bottom of each page. More often than not, I’d turn the page before I needed to in order to not miss a beat (literally!). I’d also write at the bottom of the page was happening next so I could play through a certain section, then turn the page where I’d see arrows pointing showing where I should be in the music. Case and point: In 2:57 of “You Can’t Stop The Beat”, I had a page turn. To get through, I actually wrote that part at the bottom of the page to get through it and then turned the page at 03:06 and play on through.
The Music: Honestly, I dug all the tunes. Infectious grooves, interesting chord changes and lots of up-tempo numbers. The opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore”, is a favorite. Great song, great introduction to the musical. Trying to solo like Chuck Berry in “The Nicest Kids In Town” was a blast. “Welcome To The 60’s” is a great song. “It Takes Two” was a blast. “Without Love” and the jazz, swing songs were probably the hardest due to constant chord changes and trying to gel w/ the other instruments.
The Cast: Unfortunately, my interaction with the cast was minimal. Aside from heading backstage to get water before/ during/ after the show, I kept mostly to myself. It was an all-NYC cast and production which came from Broadway and several had starred in “Hairspray” before. I did see a few of them in/ around the Playhouse but out of costume, I couldn’t place them and wouldn’t realize it until afterward. Regardless, every night they earned their standing ovations.
The Venue: The Cape Playhouse is America’s oldest professional summer theater. The NY Times billed it as the venue where Broadway goes for the summer. It’s 84 years old and seats 600 people. Because it’s an old, wooden theater, I needed to factor volume and reverb when setting up my sound. It was the first time in theater’s history that a production ran for a 3rd week.
Miscellaneous: It wasn’t until the 2nd week that I realized the random light peltings I received on my back were hairpins from the wigs that actors were wearing… Our dress code was all black… A lot of people came back in week 3 to sit closer and view what happened in the pit (I heard a few “I’m here to help w/ the page turning” jokes)… There were rumblings that the costumes stank and I’m told costume designers dip them in vodka to cure the odor… It seemed the first ones out of the theater was the cast, then the audience, then the band… Most cast and crew stayed in either a motel or in a rented house… The actors’ microphones were found on their foreheads wired under their wigs.