How To Downsize A Large Orchestra For Musical Theatre

09-07-22 11:35 AM By Kevin Lynch
 You're hired as a music director for a local theatre company. They're doing Disney's Beauty And The Beast, which is orchestrated for 19 pit musicians and a cast of 30+ performers. However, there's a catch. The budget for the musicians is low and the venue can only fit 6 players, plus you, comfortably in front of the stage. Now what?! 

All too often this is the case for a small theatre, education theatre, and community theatre productions. Though not always due to budget constraints, sometimes it's also a space/venue size issue that causes productions to downsize the orchestra and make changes. Here are a few recommendations for navigating the impossible task of assigning 19 instrument books to 6 players. 

One option is to see if the licensing company, in this instance it would be MTI (Music Theatre International), offers a backing track or performance track package with the licensing materials for the show. It's not the most ideal since performance tracks come with downsides such as: inflexible tempos, trouble determining vamps, vamps occurring too quickly or going on for too long, not employing live musicians, technical glitches with the streaming software, limited access for long rehearsal processes. On the plus side, you have the sound of a full orchestra at your fingertips. 

Hire Live Players
If you insist on the life and breath of real players (which I wholeheartedly recommend), I suggest starting with the rhythm section: drums, bass, and keyboard. This 3-piece combo is sufficient enough to hold together a show and support the performers by supplying a strong, steady beat. If you're playing out of a piano conductor score, you'll have the option to cover important melodic material that ordinarily would be played by the missing parts.

However, some shows do not require a rock or contemporary/pop music combo, therefore a 3-piece drums, bass, and keyboard are not ideal as a first resort. Into The Woods, for example, would be better suited to hire 2 strings, 2 woodwinds, and 2 brass players. It's subjective to the content and context of the show, but for this article, these recommendations are about Disney's Beauty And The Beast.

 After the 3-piece combo is hired, try to stick with 1 instrument family: all brass, all woodwinds, woodwinds + strings combo, etc. Often I see music directors hire one player from each section or build an ensemble that, when playing together, doesn't match or compliment each other's timber. For example 1 reed player, 1 trumpet player, 1 violin player. This causes a disjointed and less cohesive sounding pit. Not to mention the blend and ensemble sound of a reed player, trumpet and violin will sound out of place with more holes missing than if you stick with a more chamber orchestra ensemble.  

Instead, hire 3 reed players in addition to the 3-piece rhythm section. This will give the show a full sound with only 6 players + you. You can also give some of the trumpet solo parts to a reed player who plays in the same transposed key. You also have a second keyboard player who can cover some of the solo lines and fill out the missing parts enough. 

Recommend A Different Show
Not ideal, but recommend to your artistic director, venue, or production company to license shows that fit their budget and venue. Have you ever seen a black box version of Les Miserables? A 1,400-seat theatre produce Last 5 Years? A children's theatre performing Seussical (not the junior version)? Picking shows that do not fit your space or budget isn't recommended and can do the piece a disservice, create low morale for your performers, and give the theatre a poor quality of performance reputation by picking the wrong show. Pick a show that can highlight the strengths of your actors, community, talent, and theatre. Just because you fell in love with a show like West Side Story doesn't mean it should be in your hands to direct or mount on stage.

Of course, there's wiggle room for flexibility and interpretation and these decisions are a collaborative effort among the producers, director, music department, and artistic director. There are no one-shoe-size fits all approaches and these decisions are tough when everyone is so invested in the production.