Standing on a bona fide Broadway stage gives me an excited feeling, even though I’m just a visitor and not a cast member of the show. Sitting below a Broadway stage while the show is in progress can be an even more exhilarating experience.
When Thom Hallock invited Mountain Lake Journal viewers this month to revisit the interview I conducted with opera singer Renée Fleming in 2011, it reminded me of some more recent experiences I had involving the soprano superstar over the summer.
She was performing in her first Broadway musical, the 2018 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, in the role of Nettie Fowler, the kind and insightful aunt. Her vocals sounded light as a spring breeze during “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” and profound and powerful during her solo, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Carousel happens to be my mother’s favorite Broadway musical. For a birthday present, I took her to the show. Afterwards, our good friend Kristina the violinist, who has made a career out of playing in Broadway orchestras, took us backstage and onstage. Stepping onto that beautiful stage, I noticed something I hadn’t seen from my seat in the audience. It had painted stars on it, thematic to the heavenly theme of the show. Viewers in the balcony and anyone looking down at the stage might notice the yellow stars, but no one in the auditorium looking up at the stage would have seen them.
Standing on the stage of the Imperial Theatre made me reflect on who else stood on that very spot, entertaining a full house: theatre legend Mary Martin, Hollywood icon Montgomery Clift, Hugh Jackman, Matthew Broderick, and Danny Kaye, to name just a few. Classics such as Oliver!,Fiddler on the Roof and Dreamgirls all made their Broadway debuts in the same historic venue.
A few weeks later, Kristina invited me to do something that had never once occurred to me to do, sit in the orchestra pit among the musicians during a performance. I excitedly accepted the invitation.
I took my seat right near her in the string section. It was a tiny space, and a viola player and I humorously worked it out so that I would not sit too close to her as to be hit by her bow. When the houselights went down, the audience fell silent, and the orchestra surrounded me with the first chord of the opening piece, The Carousel Waltz, I immediately knew this experience would be even more incredible than I’d imagined. Not only am I sitting in the middle of an orchestra, but the musicians are playing some of the most magical, beautiful music ever composed by theatre giants Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein.
Seated against the wall of the pit, not only did my eyes wander from musician to musician, but if I looked up, I could also catch glimpses of brilliant stagecraft if the performers came close to the edge of the stage, the twirl of a dress, a flash of brilliant choreography, big smiles on the faces of people who a realizing their dream of performing on the Broadway stage. Then back my eyes would go to the musicians, whose captivating music drowned out the singing and the dialogue above.
One singer I did strain to hear was Renée Fleming, whose “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sounded amazing, even from the pit below the stage.
Before that enchanting number, however, I should have covered my ears. I saw the conductor do it, and I ought to have followed his example. After his hands went to his ears, a LOUD gunshot startled me. I’d remembered it from having seen the show, but indeed it was louder from the orchestra pit. I then noticed some of the musicians looking at me and smiling, as though they had been waiting for my surprised reaction to that moment, and I delivered one.
Doing a show eight times a week can feel repetitive for the musicians. They keep themselves entertained with little games they play. At one point when the music swells, they hilariously rise from their seats to the rhythm with the score. One thing I did not expect, but I suppose I should have, is when musicians have a long stretch without playing anything, on go the smartphones. Texts are sent, the web gets surfed, and restaurant reservations get booked, all while the show is in progress. Some read books. One violinist even texted a fellow musician to fill his spot for the evening performance, and succeeded in finding a sub, all during a few pauses in the music throughout the matinee
For the second act, I moved closer to the brass instruments and drums. The percussionist joked with me a little during the show, as he and I are both fans of the TV series Hannibal. He asked if I wanted to look through his Hannibal cookbook. Normally I would, but I was having too much fun watching how all this exquisite music was being made to care much about how Hannibal the cannibal crafted his elaborately grotesque meals.
At one point, I had to stand up and step aside for two of the cast members who enter the orchestra pit to climb up on the stage. One of them and I gave each other a big smile. I am not sure whether he recognized me in the dim lighting, but I’d had the pleasure of interviewing him a few years earlier.
Sitting in the pit, I got to observe things I would never have known or even thought about as an audience member, such as the fact that the man playing the accordion also plays the twinkling notes on the celeste. At two moments in the show, closing the two acts, all the lights went out in the auditorium and on stage. This includes the orchestra pit. Suddenly, the music stand lights go off and we’re sitting in pitch darkness for a few seconds. Again, this makes sense to me now. If all the lights go off except in the pit, people in the balcony would suddenly notice the lights on below the stage.
At the end of the musical, I could see the audience members in front rise for a standing ovation. Seeing that kind of celebratory acknowledgement from a new perspective moved me in a way I hadn’t expected. It was a day full of wonderful surprise. I am so grateful to my gifted friend Kristina for offering me a transcendent experience with this glorious music.