It’s not coincidence that I’ve yet to play in the pit for any of the really jazz-linked inter-war Broadway musicals (Gershwin, Hammerstein, Berlin etc.). If they have string parts at all, they are usually entirely dispensable or at least easily adequately covered by a keys 2 player; and in general (though perhaps not in the case of my recent pit work), the tendency is to am-dram societies being strapped for cash and finding ways of cutting their bands if possible, since they can’t usually get adequate players for free or much less than the current going rate.
So Calamity Jane is the nearest I’ve come to doing that style of show, and it was an interesting experience from a purely instrumental and ensemble point of view. The music mostly dates from the 1953 film, with the orchestration we were using for the stage version (almost certainly the original stage / pit adaptation or at least publication) copyrighted 1962. However, much of it felt like it could have dated from back in the 40s or earlier. The instrumentation was basically a medium-sized jazz band slightly expanded: two alto saxes (doubling clarinets) and one tenor (doubling flute); two trumpets, trombone; piano, string bass and drums (doubling various other percussion including timpani, xylophone and glockenspiel); and then a string section.
Initially, I was hired to replace someone who had pulled out of doing one of the three violin parts. However, the ‘viola’ in my email signature and CV gave the game away about doubling, and the MD and fixer then realised there was actually a full viola part in the set (this very unusual in more recent musicals certainly, and especially with violins A, B and C, unless as a double with the bottom violin part). The arrangement was arrived at that I would use both instruments, the MD selecting which part he felt was more important for a particular number as a whole. I was therefore spared the changes of instrument in a few bars’ rest so beloved of pit reed parts; but after experimenting with lots of photocopies, had to live with swapping between the two pads according to carefully prepared instructions as well as passing instruments and bows on and off my violin/viola stand (someday I must see if it’s possible to get a double stand, especially if I find myself doing more live doubling).
Some interesting things were revealed by this. Firstly, I am sure the MD’s judgment of musical importance was excellent; and he had me playing viola (which the original plan was not to bother with) for probably something like three-quarters of the show, only returning to the violin I was originally recruited for in relatively few numbers. Secondly, the single viola part actually contained implicit divisi, with numerous passages that could maybe be played as double stops but would certainly be inadvisable to try. The cellist (sat next to me) was faced with the same. This suggests, in the relative luxury of big professional theatres, big professional budgets before TV really put the squeeze on live entertainment, and conversely the absence of realistic pit miking, a string section of, I would think, at a minimum four violins (two on A, one each on B and C which are often in unison with each other but usually separate from A), two violas, two cellos and double bass (the swapping between double bass as lowest string part and as popular music bassline suggests a single player) – which then looks considerably more ‘orchestral’ than the usual present-day approach of one per part (or less!) and using amplification to fix the balance with the other instruments if necessary.
Musically, there is a lot of jazz-like music in Jane (not least, though far from only, in the several numbers which are performed within the action, and in which the 19th-century vaudeville for which the setting would naturally call seems to have been largely updated to 1920s jazz and hokum). However, the Wild West setting inevitably means a lot of country-ish music too (it isn’t really focused enough, and/or I’m not expert enough, to determine whether it’s supposed to ape old time, bluegrass or country & western – just lots of woodblock shuffle, the occasional rhythmic fiddle figure driving texture, and use of two or three chords!), which is a slightly curious mélange. Interestingly present: choice of keys clearly derived from the jazz tradition of picking based on Eb and Bb instruments, then favouring more ‘mellow’ flatter keys over ‘brighter’ sharp ones – over half the show must be in concert Eb or Ab. Interestingly absent: the frequent semitone rises in key (there was one I think!) and upward effectively unmeasured string runs to climaxes which I think of as hallmarks of American musical theatre writing, but had perhaps not yet become established by this date. Or were simply not wanted within this particular musical idiom (but I think probably the former).
The orchestration of the strings suggested a somewhat horn-centred approach, despite the size string section implied. There were several sections where the violas doubled the cellos an octave up (usually in prominent bass lines in the classical sense), seemingly for lack of a better idea; and a few where they doubled at pitch, which is a surprisingly arresting effect on first hearing, because the cello is inevitably therefore quite high in its range and the viola quite low, and so there is an impression of the cello playing above the viola even though this is not the case (it is a relatively common texture in chamber music of course). I’m not entirely sure the orchestrator put those passages in with an awareness of how the timbres would come out, however. Finally, several passages either had the same line moving from tenor sax to viola as horns and strings interchanged material, or in tuttis had them simply in unison. A certain amount of similarity between the instruments (certainly if the tenor is played a little less aggressively) had struck me before, but it’s interesting to find professional orchestration practice tending to bear it out. The concept of using string quintet (with two violas) in place of a normal big-band sax section (two altos, two tenors, bari) remains intriguing …