When Jonathan Haas first arrived in New York in 1976, playing in a Broadway pit orchestra was, well, less than prestigious. “It was the last stop on the train,” he says. “It was not considered anything that would give you bragging rights.” But since then, the music world has changed its tune. “To be a Broadway musician [now] represents the highest level of musical excellence.”
This is why New York University, where Haas is the co-director of NYU Orchestras, added to its program earlier this fall with a new ensemble course: the Broadway Orchestra. Taught by longtime Broadway bass player and music coordinator-contractor-director-supervisor John Miller and Tony-winning music director, conductor, and vocal arranger Ted Sperling, the class will prepare students with the skills—musical and business—to help them forge a path to playing in a Broadway pit.
Of course, NYU and other schools like it have long offered degrees in instrumental performance. “What differentiates this is that it is a full-on study of—and the performance of—Broadway, both in practicum as well as in history,” says Haas.
Sperling and Miller’s curriculum teaches the breadth of style required of Broadway musicians, specific sight-reading and performance requirements unique to Broadway, as well as the logistics of landing a job in a freelance field.
The goal, musically, is for their students to be able to tackle the unique confluence of genres present in the Broadway repertoire—sometimes within a single score. “To succeed in this business, it’s really great if you can be a master of all of [these styles] and know how to play several different ones in the course of one evening,” says Sperling.
Plus, the duo is prepared to inform students of the distinct challenges within each instrumental section, and build their skillset to tackle them. For example, “Broadway has this long tradition of woodwind doublers, where each musician in the reed section plays three to five instruments. That’s pretty specific to Broadway,” says Sperling. More generally, “playing a stringed instrument in a Broadway orchestra is very different from playing it in a symphony. Playing in a rock band is very different from having to follow a conductor. And, playing in a jazz situation is very different from having to do something that’s reliable eight times a week but still feels free and jazzy. We’re trying to synthesize [all of this].”
Students will learn this hands on—plus the mechanics of playing a show and following a conductor—as they learn the scores to Guys & Dolls and (this spring) Anything Goes while performing as the orchestra for the two musicals put on by NYU Steinhardt School, in conjunction with the students in the school’s vocal performance program.
These young musicians will combine exploration of the musical theatre canon with the even-more necessary discipline of sight-reading. “For a lot of these younger people, the way into the business is by being a substitute for someone who has the permanent position on a show,” Sperling explains. “You don’t even get any rehearsal as a substitute; you have to leap in and just do a performance.”
But Broadway Orchestra is “not just a course in ‘how to sight-read’,” Sperling clarifies. It’s learning about the structure and history of Broadway music. “City of Angels, for example. What are the specific challenges of that score? What is it like to sight-read it? Then, how does it get better when we actually rehearse it? And what is it like to do just a plain orchestra rehearsal? What is it like when you add a singer to it? We'll invite some people who worked on the original production to talk to us about how things evolved, things that they learned they liked or didn't.”
On top of these artistic skills, Miller asserts that an advantage of his course is its focus on helping students actually get hired. “How to have people know of you, how you can best work on a website, how you can best network,” says Miller. “I wish I would have known this when I left University of Michigan.”
Unlike careers in classical orchestras, there is no procedure of sending in tapes and resumés, no protocol of blind auditions to earn your chair. “Broadway and freelance work has no such animal of auditions,” says Miller. “Part of this is to let [the students] know what it is that puts you in the category of people wanting to work with you.”
Who better to teach them than the perpetually employed stalwarts of the business: Miller and Sperling? “Our faculty, who are coming in with this incredible expertise that you can’t find most anyplace other than in New York City” is a main reason why NYU is the birthing ground for a formal program of this kind, according to Haas. “Being in New York City here at NYU is a real bonus because not only is [Broadway] an alternative, it can be a way of life for a musician. That’s why it belongs in a place like NYU, because that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.