7:45 PM: The Guillotine Software

News   7:45 PM: The Guillotine Software
There are 22 musicians and a conductor in the orchestra pit beneath the stage of the Minskoff Theatre.

There are 22 musicians and a conductor in the orchestra pit beneath the stage of the Minskoff Theatre.

But 30 or so yards away -- in a tiny room with fluorescent lighting -- are two additional orchestra members, Robert Gustafson and Andrew Wilder.

Normally they would be in the pit with the rest of the musicians (a third keyboard player, Wendy Bobbitt, is in fact in the pit), but for Pimpernel there is a space problem due to an onstage elevator.

Gustafson and Wilder perform on Kurzweil synthesizers and they get their cues from the conductor via closed-circuit television; two large black and white screens have been conveniently placed near the synthesizers.

A few minutes before curtain, Wilder -- who played piano as a child and has a degree in musical theatre composition from New York University -- talked about synthesizers and the role they play in helping to give The Scarlet Pimpernel a lush, full-bodied sound. "Bob [Gustafson] primarily reinforces the strings in the orchestra -- he can make the strings sound fuller -- and I play a lot of the harp sounds, do the special effects, and make the so-called 'synthesizer sounds,' " said Wilder.

"In addition, very often I'm called upon to play the second or third horn or second or third trumpet -- once again just to beef up the line. And sometimes I 'play' bass drum because the other two percussion guys are busy playing something else.

Wilder's synthesizer has also been programmed to make the unmistakable sliding sound of the plummeting guillotine blade. And there are several moments in the show where he makes three or more sounds in quick succession -- say a harp followed immediately by a trombone and the crash of a cymbal.

One of the perks of having their own room is that Wilder and Gustafson can get up and walk around, sometimes for as long as six or seven minutes between numbers. The other orchestra members have to wait until intermission, just like the rest of us.

How do you train to be a synthesizer player?

"Synthesizers are weird. There's no real formal training. You just sort of pick it up," says Wilder, who -- as rehearsal pianist for Scarlet Pimpernel -- has been with the show since August 4. (The other pit musicians didn't begin rehearsals until the end of September.)

"Synthesizers have come a long way in the past 10 years," says Wilder. "I remember the days when you had to make all the changes and punch them in by hand and put disks in and all that. Now everything is programmed."

Programmed the synthesizers may be, but Wilder still has to be on his toes throughout the show -- when someone onstage is getting his head chopped off, the guillotine noise must be there with split-second timing or it will be a bit like a badly dubbed foreign flick.

-- By Rebecca Paller

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