Déjà entendu

A few weeks ago I played the Keyboard 1 book at the Broadway production of Les Miserables for the first time…for the third time.

I’ve been subbing in Broadway pit orchestras for twenty years now; I’ve played for about twenty-five shows. The original production of Les Mis was one of the first I played for, back in 1997 when it was still three hours and twenty minutes long. In 2007 I learned the Keyboard 2 book for the first Broadway revival, with its new orchestration. And now I’m on the sub roster for Les Mis 3.0.

So playing Les Mis is a pretty familiar experience—hence the title of this post, déjà entendu, already heard(by analogy with the more frequently used déjà vu, already seen). What’s interesting, though, is how different it is this time.

Tempos  and pacing are different. The orchestrations are based on those from the 2007 revival, I am given to understand, but not the same. Because the physical layout of the orchestra is different, my experience of those orchestrations is different. In 2007 I was playing Keyboard 2, and could barely hear Keyboard 1; now I’m playing Keyboard 1 and can barely hear Keyboard 2. The conducting styles are different (I’ve played the show under nine different conductors now). When subs are in, you can hear very plainly how playing styles differ from player to player.

This has got me thinking about how the same music can be different to us at different times in our lives. I have grown very fond of Les Mis over the years, from my sporadic perch in the middle of the pit, and I always enjoy playing the show now, although I vividly recall it being a chore to be gotten through twenty years ago. I played a regional production of The Fantasticks this spring, a score whose record album I nearly wore out as a child (those being the days when recorded music had a physical medium), and which I’d played two previous productions of more than twenty-five years ago; the experience was like a kind of double vision.  I was simultaneously experiencing the show as a child, to whom the music was sheer magic, and as an adult and professional musician, who knew how the trick was done.

Sometimes one’s life simply takes you to places where music has different meanings. I wrote a lullaby for soprano Karen Jolicoeur for her CD “The Dream That You Wish,” recorded shortly after her first child was born. My own son was a few years old at the time. She did a lovely job with the song on her CD—but I heard her sing it again a few years later, when her son was about the age mine had been when I wrote the song. The piece obviously meant something completely different to her than it had when she’d recorded it; the performance was transcendent.

Thus far I’ve been talking about the experience of performing music; what about simply listening to it? (As if there were such a thing as “simply listening.”) For me, anyway, the question only applies to music that you know inside and out—that you’ve worn out the record of, whether literally or figuratively—and then for some reason not heard for several years. Sometimes it turns out your memory is wrong, and that’s not how it goes. (A literary digression—I reread Watership Down after a hiatus of decades, and one of the scenes I remembered most vividly was simply not there. WTF?) Sometimes you’ve simply outgrown a piece; in my case, a lot of the Beethoven piano sonatas I  loved as a kid seem overwrought and/or sentimental to me now. And sometimes the memories of liking the music get in the way of actually listening to it again. Human beings are complicated.

The difference between playing music over and over and listening to music over and over is that I’ve never had anyone offer to pay me to listen to the same music repeatedly. For that you have to be a sound board operator; maybe that’s why they turn everything up so loud…

7 Responses to Déjà entendu

  • Sebastian says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    How much time do you need to study and rehearse a keyboard score? Is the expectation that a sub can sightread through a live show or are you given the score in advance (weeks, days?).

    I play piano and interested subbing at a local theatre as keyboard 2-3.

  • David says:

    Sebastian, typically you’ll sit in the pit next to the regular player during a show, make a recording, and receive a copy of the part. You’ll then take it home and learn it, and come back and watch the show from the pit a couple more times before making your debut. I’ve taken as little as two weeks to learn a show and as many as six, depending on the difficulty of the part and the complexity of the show.

  • S S says:

    That’s pretty fast, two weeks!

    What I plan to do is to take a score of a show that I know will be coming up in a couple of months in one of the little theaters here and start learning it, just to put me through the paces.

    When I have it down I can see if I can sub for it (I actually think they may just have a single keyboard, so I can offer to play keyboard 2). Worst case I learned a show and don’t get to play it for real…

    Any tips other than looking for YouTube shows / midi files / recordings and playing along, and just practice x3? One thing that you don’t train this way is the ‘live’ aspect of interacting with actors on timing etc. or ‘when things go wrong’…

  • David says:

    Learning to play the score is not necessarily the same thing as learning to play a keyboard part! I would get in touch with the music directors of the musicals you have in mind, and see if they think they will need someone. For a small production, they may indeed just need one keyboard. In any case, it’s the conductor/music director’s job to interact with the actors; your job as a side musician is to follow the conductor.

  • S S says:

    Good point on the interaction, it would be with the conductor instead.

    So, are you saying that learning from a Piano / Conductor score is not a good prep? I know there are significant differences between keyboard 1-3 but thought that if you can play the piano score, switching to keyboard 2 would be a step down in difficulty.

    I will get in touch with the MDs, although I want to make sure first I have the capabilities to play the parts by pushing myself through a PC score or KB1-3…

  • David says:

    It’s not that learning the piano/conductor score isn’t good prep, it’s that a lot of it will be wasted effort toward the goal of subbing in the pit. Depending on the size of the orchestration, the part may have very little resemblance. But on the other hand, the better you know the show the more prepared you’ll be to play it. So I wouldn’t discourage you from learning the score; just realize that it’s a lot of effort that might be put more directly toward learning a part. Good luck!

  • S S says:

    I see, yes, its a lot of work learning the P/C score and some of it will be wasted. I may get my hand on a Keyboard 2-3 score and go with that.

    Thanks for sharing your insights!

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