Sunday, February 28, 2016

Cinderella's Pit

"Cinderella" February 16-28 at the Detroit Opera House

The orchestra pit for the national tour of Cinderella has become my home away from home these last two weeks. We’re in there for eight magical shows a week so most of us have carved out our own personal space amongst the music stands and lights, microphones and cables, video and audio monitors, cases and cameras. It can be a hazardous place to walk; it’s dark in the pit, there are wires and cables everywhere and we could hit our heads on the conductor’s camera hanging from under the stage. We have been very lucky so far, in part because the company has marked off some of these areas with bright green duct tape and, with only fourteen musicians in the pit, we have a lot more room than usual.

When you’re at work six days a week the tendency is to camp out in your space. It’s very clear where my space is. In addition to the flute stands for my various instruments (flute, piccolo and alto flute), I keep a water bottle and tea cup, heating pad for when the air conditioning is on, instrument cozies to keep the flutes warm and protected when I leave the pit, something to read, and a knitting bag. I also have a couple sweaters of different weights for the widely varying temperatures in the Detroit Opera House pit.

I like to arrive about 45-60 minutes before show time. It’s a good time to sit in my own little corner and play long tones, tune each instrument with the tuner, warm up with scales and other warm-up exercises, look over the music for the show and maybe bring something else to practice. By that time other musicians have arrived and we have a friendly chat or teasing banter, whatever the case may be. Lately there has been discussion about the presidential primaries and some predictions of who will win the nominations. I heard a rumor about a little town in Canada that’s losing population and is mounting an ad campaign to lure Americans in case Trump is elected (!). Tonight, I was informed of the difficulties and frustrations in finding a good clarinet reed. After catching up with my colleagues I’ll walk around, get a cup of tea, see if anyone brought yummy snacks to the orchestra room, return to the pit and settle in for the show.

A few nights ago almost everyone arrived early. A bad storm was predicted and we were warned to allow extra time. Sure enough, a portion of the highway was flooded and I had to find an alternate route. I still got there over an hour early. Of course, the show must go on and I’m sure the 400 or so audience members who decided to brave the storm were rewarded for their intrepidity.

It’s interesting to gauge the audience’s reactions to the show. They are quite predictable; at various points the audience always laughs. They sometimes applaud the prince when he stands up to his bullying advisor (but we can’t figure out why some audiences have no reaction at all). When the actors use funny voices, the children laugh. Children’s shows always throw in some adult humor as well. It’s best when you hear lines in context but I’ll give you a few that always get a laugh:

Cinderella after being told the nice man she just met is the future king: “That man a world leader? But he appears to have a heart, mind and soul!”

Fairy Godmother after she magically transforms from a beggar: “You’d be surprised how many beautiful gowns have crazy women in them.”

One of the stepsisters (the nice one) talking about her mother: “Madame isn’t always so terrible – sometimes she sleeps.”

Cinderella, who always has a kind word, commenting about her nice but goofy stepsister’s boyfriend: “He is a good man and seems angry for all the right reasons.”

The boyfriend to the stepsister when he picks her up for their date to go help out at the soup kitchen (!?!): “I much prefer you in this simple attire – you no longer look like a carnival attraction.”

As you can see, the production has been updated and modernized for today’s audiences. What you can’t see from this description is how the show as a whole comes across. It appeals to a wide demographic. I thought I would see primarily families with young children but, although every audience has its fair share of little girls wearing sparkly dresses and tiaras, there is a pretty good cross section of the general population at every performance. Last night as I was leaving the hall I saw a group of youngish to middle aged ladies posing for a picture on the sidewalk - they were all wearing tiaras.

What brings people to this show and what do they leave with? Well, joy for one thing. Everyone looks pretty joyful as they walk to the parking garage after the show. I sure am. Every night. The music is infectious, especially the dance sequences. The waltz at the end of the first act and the soft shoe number in the second act are just as fun in the pit as they are on stage. The conductor checks the metronome at every performance for some crucial numbers. At the right tempo the beautiful gowns at the ball look like jelly fish on the lifts and open up like parachutes when they come down. I have to take the conductor’s word for that because I can’t see a thing. I also can’t hear much of what is happening on stage when the band is playing and we are playing most of the time. In fact, I am so busy switching from piccolo to flute to alto flute and turning pages at the same time, I hardly have time to think of anything else but what is coming around the next corner.

A positive feeling is engendered throughout the production team of Cinderella. The theme of the show seems to cover kindness, compassion and forgiveness. The audience gets that from Cinderella’s character but what they don’t see is the character of the people in the pit. The musicians who travel with the show - a conductor, keyboard 1 and keyboard 2/assistant conductor – are still engaged after many months of touring in a different city every week or two by taking notes and discussing ways to improve the music.  They have traditions which they share with the home band - they mark the place and make a memory of each city by taking a band picture during intermission of the first Sunday matinee; they invite the local musicians to join them for bagels, cream cheese and coffee on Sunday; they also invite us to join in their tradition of wearing tiaras for the Sunday performances.

photos by David Ammer
It is a custom in touring companies on Friday nights to sell raffle tickets backstage for a 50/50 raffle. Half goes to the winner and the other half goes to a charity. The Cinderella team has decided to support The Trevor Project, a teen suicide prevention organization.

Another way in which the conductor engenders positive feelings is by handing out compliments generously. She tells us after every show, “Excellent show!” and occasionally approaches individual members to tell them something specific that she likes about their playing. She smiles at me when I play my favorite alto flute solo (I missed it one night because of a page turn gone wrong and she started singing my part), dances along to the music, reacts to things that happen on stage and talks to the audience during the exit music, even allowing a little tiara-wearing girl to conduct us after one performance! One more very thoughtful thing about this conductor is that she invites us, one at a time, during the only long dialog scene to stand by her podium to watch that little portion of the show.

I’ll miss Cinderella when it goes on to Fayetteville, Tulsa, Appleton and beyond . . . but it closes this May so if you want to see it, you’d better hurry! Now I’m off to buy my tiara.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, charming story, makes me want to come. :D I's like to see how it was updated and learn about the nice stepsister.