Two weeks ago, on the afternoon of the opening night of Wicked, the cast arrived at the Fox Theatre for a sound-check rehearsal with the new band. Carol Kane, who's best known for her comedic roles in movies like Annie Hall and The Princess Bride, elicited an appreciative laugh from the local musicians when she peered into the orchestra pit and announced, "I'm the one that can't sing in the company, so don't get upset."
The stop-and-start rehearsal began at the top of the show. The citizens of Oz sang "No One Mourns the Wicked." Kendra Kassebaum, who plays the good witch Glinda, made her celebrated entrance floating through air in a steel bubble. The moment there was a pause in the action, from her perch suspended high above the stage Kassebaum spontaneously enthused, "Sounds great, the orchestra!"
The Fox Theatre orchestra always sounds great. There are two key reasons for that. The first is that the 76-year-old Fox has an old-fashioned orchestra pit that allows the sound to pour out into the house. This is in stark contrast to the Broadway Wicked, where the Gershwin Theatre orchestra pit is almost completely covered.
"Every theater has different acoustics," Wicked conductor Robert Billig explains. "Some theaters have great reverberation. Other theaters, the sound just goes out and it's dead. In cities where the stage is built out over the orchestra pit, the sound is basically canned; it's all amplified. This is our eighth city. In Houston the theater was partially covered, Denver was partially covered, Los Angeles was a mess. In LA the entire orchestra was under the stage. Because of the space configuration at the Pantages Theatre, there were actually players who were behind me, under the first couple of rows of seats. But here at the Fox the pit is so wide-open, all the sound comes right out. Especially if you're sitting upstairs, the sound is great. And it's great for the cast too, because they can actually hear the entire orchestra live rather than through monitors."
It's the responsibility of head audio engineer Douglas Graves to make sure that the audience also can hear the show. Graves, a native of Kansas City, has been with Wicked since its pre-Broadway tryout in San Francisco. "In New York the harpist and the percussion are in isolation rooms," he says. "They wear headphones and watch the conductor on a TV monitor. Here at the Fox the musicians are all exposed, though we do carry a drum booth for the drummer. If we didn't, the sound of the drums would be thunderous."
But Graves, who spent 1999 and 2000 as assistant sound designer for the Muny in Forest Park, offers a second reason for why musicals sound so good at the Fox. It has to do with the personnel, not the pit. "The majority of these musicians are from the Muny," he says. "I think you have to look at the Muny as a guerrilla training ground. Those musicians are subjected to an enormous range of music. When I was there, one week we were doing Cole Porter and the next week we did Grease. That is a bonus for us, because Wicked needs players who can swing back and forth. This score is very difficult. There are different time signatures, different meters, different keys and modulations. It has aspects of a pop-rock musical, yet the orchestrations are traditional theater. This is not a score that a musician can come in and sight-read."
And it all has to come together very quickly. As soon as Wicked's St. Louis appearance was announced in April, conductor Billig spoke with Bob Ceccarini, who for twenty years has been the local orchestra contractor for the Fox, the Muny and the Rep. Ceccarini received the final instrumentation in July and immediately contracted the thirteen musicians he needed. "St. Louis has a pool of about 950 union musicians," Ceccarini says. "But that includes all kinds of disciplines blues, jazz, reggae. But show scores are very specialized. A woodwind player, for instance, might have to double on flute, clarinet, bassoon, sax and oboe all on the same evening. So we have a small pool to draw from. But some of these musicians have been playing the Fox for twenty years. There's no substitute for experience."
After they were contracted, most of the musicians purchased the Wicked CD to familiarize themselves with the score. As soon as the show opened in Houston, Ceccarini received practice music (which in turn was sent on to the next stop, Hartford, as soon as Wicked opened here). "Most of the musicians have spent 30 to 40 hours rehearsing on their own," Ceccarini estimates. "Which is really important, because once we begin to rehearse with the conductor, there are always surprises. And especially in this show. Much of this score is like a puzzle with very intricate time patterns. Most shows are written one-two, one-two, one-two-three, one-two-three. This show is written one-and-two-and, one-two-three-four-five, one-and-two-and, one-two-three-four-five-six, one-and-two-and. It's all over the place. Wicked challenges you in a way that The Sound of Music does not."
The day before Wicked opened, Billig held an intense six-hour rehearsal in the Fox Theatre lobby. It was here that the St. Louis players met the four traveling musicians (two keyboard players, guitarist and drummer) for the first time. Inexplicably, the Fox Theatre playbills do not include the names of the local musicians, yet Billig arrived at the rehearsal already having learned all their names. "I think you get better results if you address people as Mike and Stan and Elsie rather than 'woodwinds,'" he says. Perhaps so, because the musicians didn't seem to mind when Billig kept them playing through their scheduled break. "The hard thing about this show," he says, "is that you can rehearse all you want, but a musician doesn't really get a sense of how quickly one sequence leads into another, and then the next into the next into the next, until you play it. So for the musicians, that first performance is like being shot out of the cannon."
At the end of the first week, how are the St. Louis musicians faring? "This whole orchestra is really solid," Billig replies. "From city to city, some players are stronger than others. In Houston I had to fire the bass player. The St. Louis bass player [Jay Hungerford] is terrific. In the last three cities I had terrible trumpet players. But Andy [Tichenor] is incredible. This group is really good."
Will their sound change between opening night and the final performance on December 4? "It'll be tighter," Billig says. "Everybody will be more familiar with what they're playing." As that occurs, sound designer Graves will be the first to know. "As the players get more familiar with the score," he says, "they become more comfortable, so they start playing a little bit louder. Then I'll be making constant adjustments to turn down their microphones. The way you mix a show like this is one microphone up at only one time. It's a constant turn on-turn off of microphones for dialogue and singing, and orchestra pushes and pulls. I've told my parents, 'You thought I wasted all that time playing video games. This soundboard is one giant video game that I play night after night after night."
For Billig the nightly task is to get the most he can out of proficient musicians who nevertheless are still learning the intricacies of the score. "Wicked is not a rhythm show where you get it started and basically the band can play itself," he says. "This is contemporary pop music, and it's tough. For instance, we work the percussionist really hard. Jerry [Bolen] is not a young kid. But he has great spirit and energy. He apologizes when he makes mistakes. 'But I'll get it, I'll work it out.' I love the fact that he's up for the challenge."
All the musicians seem to relish the challenge. "I've been looking forward to Wicked as much as any show I've ever played," says Ceccarini, who in addition to contracting the orchestra also plays second trumpet. "Now that it's here, every single sold-out performance has been exciting. Even though it can get a little loud down there in the pit, I often feel we have the best seats in the house."