Well, it would have been had the orchestra pit been real rather than nominal …
If you’ve noticed last week was a quiet one for blogging (some people have commented on it), it was a busy one for playing. I played on seven consecutive days for one booking (how long for varied, of course): pit band for the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which was being staged by Harpenden Light Operatic Society (time taken by daily, or nightly, commute from west London to the far side of St Albans may have had something to do with not finding energy to write too).
I’m not going to try and summarise the show or the plot (it’s based on a film with the same title; there’s a Broadway cast recording on Spotify; you can do your own research if you’re interested). It seems to be very popular with the amateur circuit at the moment; I suspect the copyright owners haven’t long started permitting amateur productions, but conversely now seem to be letting almost anyone who asks do it (a good friend of mine is playing bass for another production in Windsor this week!) – and perhaps more importantly it’s funny, has risqué moments and the music is mostly in a fresh-sounding heavily jazz-oriented idiom, with tongue-in-cheek excursions including country, Viennese waltz and excessive power ballad.
The musical work somewhat reflects this. There are the usual (for pit band) massive doubling of instruments required of ‘reed’ (woodwind) players – only three of them but each had at least four instruments in front of them, despite the double reed lines having been transferred to other instruments. Two trumpets and trombone as well as French horn allow for a smallish big band (so to speak) when required, with twin keyboards, guitar, bass and percussion supplying rhythm section and extra colour from assorted synth/sample patches (including accordion, harpsichord and tuba in keys 2!).
Strings are rarely dispensed with altogether in modern musicals, though it does happen. Scoundrels calls for a string quartet in effect, though the viola player spends more time doubling on violin 3, and violin 1 spends perhaps half the show playing electric violin for solos on more equal terms with clarinet and saxes. However, the bands are often ad hoc reduced in amateur performances, due to pressure of space or cost or recruitment difficulties, and on this occasion the cello was dispensed with altogether (any really essential lines cued into another part), and the violin parts (fortunately all printed together) slapped in front of – me.
Like much use of strings in an essentially popular idiom, the majority of the string writing is non-essential colour and texture that is not really missed, especially if one of the lines is present at all times. However, the orchestrator (at least at some points, the original conceptions of the composer) calls for an unusually large number of violin leads and solos, even if several of them are brief as melodic material is handed round between the cast and band; these were the most essential part of my job, the more energetic numbers being taken on electric violin. And they certainly kept me on my toes; the classic American musical affectation of key changes by rising semitones inevitably means a lot of material in extreme keys; some of the tempi are whirlwind (I was very glad not to have to actually improvise the Stephane Grappelli-esque jazz waltz near the beginning, though also quite glad to have the liberty of ‘it says solo!’ to paraphrase the odd figure around the chord symbols; you can make your own assumptions as to whether for my musical satisfaction or ease of playing); and stylistic tradition, again, places violin melodies in much of this material in a high register if not doubled in octaves.
The skills required are virtually those of a chamber opera, then; following changes and dialogue-dependent timing; playing one to a part, indeed with no section to lean on in my case; and, with musical director playing keys 1, limited (though far from none) conducting. All put together on two rehearsals.
Besides being a fairly thorough workout for many of my violin skills, this was also an excellent proving-ground for the electric violin away from rock gig territory, and for the mini-PA unit that acts as a cleaner, more acoustic-sounding equivalent to an amp when playing gigs with that instrument but no PA. Both acquitted themselves very well, once good levels had been established (the speaker is rather more directional than an acoustic violin, and of course not sat under my ear; it requires some additional thought to get balance right!).
All in all, while I definitely worked for my keep, I think I can honestly say this was a fairly challenging job that I dealt with successfully. And the next time I find myself in the pit (hoping I can add this to my portfolio of lines of business), it’s on average likely to be a less white-knuckle ride!