This is a blog in praise of pit bands – all those hardworking talented musicians who lurk mostly out of sight in orchestra pits or are hidden away behind a curtain somewhere upstage. They make musical theatre work in all its forms, including opera and ballet. Without their excellent contribution there wouldn’t be a show.
Yet, they get very little credit compared with singers and dancers on stage. Their names are listed in the programme and the cast may wave an applause-directing arm towards the band at the end of the show but it’s a rather formulaic gesture. So is the Musical Director or conductor getting them to take a bow at the beginning of the second half.
These people work very hard indeed. They have practised for decades to reach the standard they need to be at in order to be able to freelance. Rates of pay are low and pits are hot, uncomfortable, cramped places to work in. And yet the band plays on expertly… and yes, that’s another thing. Some players will be working almost continually, depending on the score they’re playing, with barely a bar’s rest all evening. No singer, dancer or actor ever has to do that in musical theatre. There are always little breaks.
Last week I saw Working at Royal Academy of Music and Trinity Laban’s Betty Blue Eyes at Stratford Circus. Both were accompanied by outstandingly good bands of freelance instrumentalists which was what drove the show in both cases. No musical instrument is easy to learn and play. We should value these accomplished people far more than we do.
So what can we do to change attitudes? For a start we can encourage the children we take to the theatre to be aware of and take an interest in the band, I was really pleased to see teachers in the front stalls at Royal Opera House pointing things out in the pit to their pupils while we were all waiting for Swan Lake to start at the recent schools matinee I attended.
Second, how about more articles about bands, orchestras and players in programmes? And we usually get a mini biog for each actor and creative why not also for the musicians in the pit?
Third, I think anyone who really cares about musical theatre should stay and listen to the play-off at the end of the show. Then give those musicians – who finish their evening’s work ten minutes later than their colleagues in the cast – a resounding round of applause of their own.