To Help Save Live Music, Broadway Musicians Adopt New Strategies

News   To Help Save Live Music, Broadway Musicians Adopt New Strategies Should independent musicians and executives at Musicians Local 802 get together and discuss strategy, they might discover that they have more in common than just playing music.

Should independent musicians and executives at Musicians Local 802 get together and discuss strategy, they might discover that they have more in common than just playing music.

At a time when some say musical theatre should be redefined or allowed to fade away, and when the debate over the use of live musicians has involved at least two shows on the boards, Broadway musicians are adopting various new strategies to save live music.

The musicians union, Local 802, does this by organizing protests and trying to educate the public. While this has been done in a variety of ways over the years, Local 802 president Bill Moriarty says that teaching people about the inherent value of music in the Broadway experience has become a priority effort for his office.

"Our fight is for the experience of live music," Moriarty told Playbill On-Line. "We think there is something in the experience of live music than cannot be captured on a recording device, whether it has to do with emotions and feelings or something else. Unless you hear that difference, your life cannot be enriched by that experience."

Of course, enhancing the theatre experience with music is not the sole province of organized labor and, in some cases, focusing public attention on the value of music comes down to the magic of interpretation. By way of example, take the conductor and musical director for Footloose, Doug Katsaros. At the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Katsaros brings a new focus and years of live music experience to the Broadway podium and his interpretation playing live has helped redefined what patrons might expect of a Broadway show.

"This particular show has a lot to do with the emotions," Katsaros explained. "We are presenting pop songs theatrically, in a way that will enhance the show. I put as much energy into conducting as I would if I were part of the show."

The Katsaros model for conducting a Broadway orchestra pit is exceptionally unique: He plays keyboards with the performance energy of a rock musician and then segues to the level of a solo accompanist. His methodology may be unique on Broadway, but it supports Bill Moriarty's theory of the singular value of the live performance of music.

"When the show calls for a conducting mode," Katsaros says, "I try not to push the actors into a tempo that I'm trying to reach. Instead, I let them emote at their own pace, and I want the orchestra, as a whole, to become their accompanist. For the cast members who are under 25, I try to be a leader. I set the tempo and give them the feel."

Katsaros' work as a Broadway conductor comes down to making several elements work together live. "You need to be able to play like Van Cliburn but also be able to pound until the drums stop," he says.

At Footloose, which is certainly a nontraditional show, the fact that there is a lava lamp beneath the podium and that the musicians are not in tuxes might look strange until one considers the collected musical talent in the pit: Katsaros has written several musicals as well as the advertising jingle, "By Mennen," and even his substitute musicians play at the highest levels in pop music -- saxophonist for the evening Tim Reis plays with the Rolling Stones and substitute drummer Mike Braun plays with Hall and Oates. And if variety and spontanaiety do have a value in Broadway music, drummer Mike Braun said it best describing Katsaros' work on Footloose:
"This is very unusual for Broadway," Braun said.

-- By Murdoch McBride