[This article was written by award-winning songwriter and frequent musical theatre performer Justin Jude.]
Writing songs and playing in bands feeling a little too … familiar? Looking to expand your creative horizons? You could be overlooking a great way to gain new experience: musical theatre jobs.
Work in musical theater bands and orchestras can expand your skill set. Musical theatre pit jobs can be reliable work, an additional source of income, a way to refine chops, and a ton of fun.
A theatre pit is not a bar gig. It’s somewhere between a club show and an evening with the philharmonic. You may follow a conductor, and you’ll be expected play with precision as part of an ensemble, support the actors and in many cases read music.
These jobs run from solo accompanist in a small-scale show, a rock band on the stage, or serving in an orchestra complete with strings and percussion. Whatever the gig, musical theatre work is guaranteed to make you a more polished musician.
Recently I returned to theatre work after years in the singer-songwriter world. Here’s a few things I’ve learned about making musical theatre work as valuable as it can be.
Some bands thrive on improvisation, jamming through songs and cueing changes by head nod.
Musical theater pits are the opposite. Precision rules the day. You’ll be called upon to reproduce the same performance show after show, exactly as written and conducted. For those of us attracted to live music for its looser qualities, this can be an adjustment.
For example, in my current role as pit guitarist for CATS at the Broadway Rose Theatre, I’m called upon to play super-precise passages, shifting wildly between time signatures and single-picking, fingerstyle, and complicated rhythms. 13/8 time, anyone? For this show, there’s no wiggle room — it needs to be played as written.
The good news is that this is an awesome exercise in perfecting our craft. When writing our own work, there can be a human-nature tendency not to push ourselves past what we can already do. “Yeah, I’d like triplets at 160 bpm in this section … but that would take practice.”
When we’re forced to do something, we make more progress than we would on our own.
Reading music is not an absolute requirement for all musical theater jobs. But it sure helps.
Even so, there are situations where it isn’t a dealbreaker. In general, it depends on the scale of the production.
Smaller-scale productions may use a small band or solo accompanist. In these cases, it may be possible to learn the score by ear. Or the production may be a brand-new original, and you may be working from charts or helping the composer flesh out arrangements.
For example, for the workshop piece Ribbons of War, I helped the music director arrange songs for the stage from an existing album by The Extraordinaires. We created charts and fleshed out arrangements from the recording. Then we performed them live as a duo for the show.
More commonly, you’ll be asked to learn the music from a score. If reading music isn’t your strongest skill, you can always supplement by listening to recordings of the score. For most Broadway shows, there are multiple versions available on streaming services like Spotify, on digital music providers, and on YouTube. For example, for my role as Bandleader in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the guitar score had some inconsistencies. By listening to the original cast recording I was able to fill in some gaps, and get a sense of the style and rhythm of the original guitarist (who also co-wrote the music).
Have Piano Skillz, Have Work
There are big opportunities for pianists out there, simply because theaters need accompanists during rehearsal.
For most musicals, the band comes in at the end of the rehearsal process. When the actors are ready for dress rehearsal, the band has its first read-through, then hits the ground running with the cast. You might have only two to three dress rehearsals with the cast before opening night.
But casts need piano accompaniment throughout the rehearsal period. Pianists with chops can score 6-8 weeks of work rather than 3-4 weeks. Since killer accompanists don’t grow on trees, one or two jobs can quickly lead to a series of more.
It’s pretty simple: Know the music. Show up on time. Be flexible.
Like I said above, the band or orchestra is typically brought in at the end of the rehearsal cycle. That means that unlike the actors, you’re not learning your parts as an ensemble for three or four weeks. You need to show up ready to play. A few tips:
– Get the score early. Give yourself a few weeks to learn your part. If you don’t read music, find an experienced teacher or peer to help you break it down. And listen to the Broadway recording.
– Show up on time. There are dozens of moving pieces to a theatre show, and one late individual can jam up the whole works. Trust me, you do not want to run afoul of the stage manager or company director; these folks have long memories. Be where you need to be. If you need to set up amps and other gear, show up early.
– Be flexible. The musical director may take passages differently than you expect, or ask you to adjust your style. The right answer is always “Yes.” Conduct yourself as someone always willing to do what’s best for the show, even if you don’t agree. When you act like a professional, you’ll get hired again.
Pay scales and schedules will vary by theatre and city. Established theatre companies will usually pay per service — a fee for each rehearsal or performance you play in. In Portland you often see about $60-75/service.
Smaller theatre companies on tighter budgets may offer a single fee. It’s your call what you’re willing to play for, keeping in mind that theatre productions are very time-intensive; 4-5 shows per week for 3-4 weeks is typical.
Nevertheless, my feeling is that every opportunity to play in a theatre performance is a valuable learning experience. I play for less than I want, if the work helps me grow as a performer.
But! If you’re asked to pay to play, always be suspicious. There are very few legit reasons why a musician should be asked to pony up to accompany a show. Pass on those.
How To Get Connected
Wherever you are in the country or world, there are theater companies putting on musicals. Or plays with music. Or performance art.
My approach is to set up informational interviews with artistic directors, production managers, or even production assistants of companies you want to work with. Get the names of music directors and do the same.
Like any networking, it’s about making yourself and your skills known. Get your name out there through meetings. Having a polished CV with your music experience and honors is a good move, too.
One successful job tends to breed another. Theater directors like working with people they know, or on recommendation from their peers. So work your way in, be a pro, work hard, and more jobs will show up.
Good luck exploring the musical theatre map! It’s a wild ride, from South Pacific to Sweeney Todd — rewarding, lucrative, and helping you grow as an artist.
Justin Jude is an award-winning singer-songwriter, music director, teacher, multi-instrumentalist, and occasional blogger for CD Baby based in Portland, OR. He recently played the role of Bandleader in Portland Playhouse’s production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and is currently the pit guitarist for the Broadway Rose Theatre’s production of CATS. Next up he will music-direct A Christmas Carol at Portland Playhouse. Among his awards are “Oregon’s Best Singer-Songwriter” (2007), “Finalist, Songwriter of the Year” (Portland Songwriters Association, 2009) and a coffee mug that says “Best Dad Ever.” Find him at www.justinjude.com or email him at email@example.com.
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[Stage image from Shutterstock.]