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8 Secrets to Breaking Into Broadway as a Musician

Category Broadway

|by Garth Wingfield |

The audience can’t see them, but there is a whole team of musicians tucked under the Broadway stage and they’re the best in the business. Here’s how to become one of them

One of the most amazing things about Broadway musicals is that you’re hearing live orchestrations played by skilled musicians at every single performance. This is nothing to take for granted. In 2003, Broadway musicians went on strike when recorded tracks threatened to push them out, basically shutting down the Great White Way. Then-mayor Michael Bloomberg intervened, and after three days a deal was reached and the musicians were back in the pit. So how does one become a Broadway musician? It takes more than just a cello and a dream. Unlike actors, where there are auditions and callbacks, musicians have a very different route. We got expert advice from seasoned pros who talked with us about training, subbing and the importance of a great personality.

Illustration: Mary-Louise Price Foss

Illustration: Mary-Louise Price Foss

A higher degree helps
Some musicians are self-taught or arrange for advanced private training, but having a sheepskin diploma from a respected university is a great way to have a door opened for you. A higher degree proves you’ve done the work and can also provide contacts and connetions, just like in other industries. “It’s rare to play with someone who doesn’t have a masters — some of them even have a doctorate,” says Alisa Horn, a cellist at An American in Paris. This is a relatively new phenomenon. “If you’re 15 years older, those people didn’t have to do that,” says Horn. “And they’re still playing, of course.”

Join the union – but not so fast
Unlike Actors’ Equity Association, where you have to land an Equity job before you can get into the union, any musician can join Local 802 at any time (and you must be a member to play in a Broadway pit). You’ll get excellent support when it comes to contracts and salary minimums, and you can get referrals when people come looking to book a musician. But there’s a catch — you can’t take non-union gigs once you’re in, so you need to make sure you’re ready to take your career to the next level. “It can take seven to 10 years before it happens for you in New York as a musician,” says Brian Usifer, the conductor and musical director at Kinky Boots, referring to the time it takes to make connections before you’re ready to go pro. And you never know when those connections will come in handy. “I had a second degree in classical piano. I was working with singers. And then Carmel Dean, who was the associate conductor on The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and who knew me from Barrington Stage, said, ‘Why don’t we have Brian sub [on the Broadway production]?'”

Don’t stress about auditioning
While actors go through grueling rounds of tryouts, it’s against union rules for musicians to audition. That’s where contractors come in. These specialists function much like casting directors. They know everyone in the business, and they consult with the musical supervisor, conductor and composer and suggest various names for each chair in the orchestra. “We’re doing a symphonic piece with only 19 players,” says Todd Ellison, the conductor and musical supervisor at An American in Paris. “When the contractor was putting together our orchestra, we looked for people who could handle that. There are some very challenging numbers, like ‘Concerto in F.’ These players have to have the chops and stamina to get through the show.” Run-of-show offers are made, without even as much as an interview. So your reputation is a major calling card.

Network with conductors and musicians
Getting an opportunity to sit in the pit during a performance is the number one way to get yourself noticed — as long as you do it right. “I get emails all the time from young people, and I answer them all,” says conductor Usifer. “I find it’s really helpful if they’re specific. I really respond to a specific passion. What kind of music do they want to do? Is it something likeKinky Boots, or is it more like Phantom?” Reaching out to specific musicians is also an option. “Find out who the players are and call them,” advises An American in Paris‘ Ellison. “Ask, ‘Can I sit in the pit and watch the book while you play?’ with no intent to sub. If you go in without intention, people don’t feel like you want to push them off the piano bench and take over. You go and observe as a learning experience, and you never know.”

Subbing is everything
It’s up to the person with the chair in a pit to find a replacement if they need to take time off for any reason. Being prepared and available for subbing is how wannabe musicians prove their mettle with conductors and fellow Broadway musicians. It is an intense process though — when you sub, there is no dress rehearsal. You are able to sit in the pit and follow “the book” (that player’s line in the score) for as many performances as you like until you feel you’re ready, but even then it’s hugely daunting. “It’s a baptism by fire,” says Chris Fenwick, the conductor and musical director of Fun Home. “My first job on Broadway was as a sub, and I remember sitting there before the show and thinking, ‘This is a completely insane thing I’m about to do.'”

Sitting in the pit isn’t the only time you should spend preparing
“Subbing is the hardest thing to do,” says An American in Paris‘ Horn. “It keeps you on your toes.” And that’s why preparation is key. Modern technology gives musicians an assist here, since a video is made of the conductor during the show.”You can watch it on your computer or TV [at home] and play to it like you’re playing the show,” says Horn. And the hard work you put into preparation shows (though no one’s perfect). “When people haven’t prepared, it’s so obvious,” says Ellison, the conductor at An American in Paris. “I can forgive wrong notes or laugh if a trombone comes in early, but I do get upset when people haven’t put in the time to prepare and play their part.”

Personality is key – even in your music
When you sub, you’re joining a family. This is a closely knit group of musicians who have worked together, often for years. So you need to step it up every single time. “It’s all about consistency and attitude,” says Horn. “The more I subbed, the more it became clear to me that the most successful musicians are people who have great personalities, are easy to be around and are great musicians.” But it’s also important to be yourself, says Fun Home‘s Fenwick. “I’m always amazed at the different musical personalities and how a sub will bring out a line I don’t usually hear, and that’s great.”

Remember that it’s never too late
While there is talk of ageism in acting, orchestra work is a profession that rewards hard work, skill and dedication. “I got into it later than most,” says musician Paul Davis. “I started playing the drums again and started doing shows, mostly Off-Broadway.” But then he started subbing and was hired to play in the original orchestra of Newsies during the shows pre-Broadway tryout at the Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. This led to a long-running gig when the show transferred to Broadway (he’s also banked impressive credits like Altar BoysXanaduand Cry-Baby). The key is to never stop putting yourself out there. “You have to take every opportunity and do your best, because you have no idea who’s listening to you,” says Horn. “It shocked me that people were hearing me randomly, even from small gigs. You have to care about every little thing you do.”

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