This article is an addendum to the 5-part series How I Became a Broadway Musician.
2011 was a prosperous year for my career, as it marked not only the first time I played as a musician on Broadway, but also the first time I acquired my own chair on a Broadway show.
What does it mean to have a “chair”?
Having my own “chair” on Broadway means that I have a full time job on a show. I have 3 subs that I can call to play for me on my days off (the union contract allows Broadway musicians to sub out up to 50% of the shows in any month), but the position is mine. A chair on a Broadway show is a difficult thing to get, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have one.
Acquiring a chair on Broadway is a different process for keyboard players, conductors and MDs than it is for instrumentalists. If you are an instrumentalist, being hired for a chair is a little more straight forward, and (perhaps) even more difficult. When a show is ready to hire an orchestra for a new show, the music department and producers hire a music contractor to handle the hiring and personnel issues. Big name contractors in the Broadway scene include John Miller, Michael Keller, Howie Joines, “Red” Press and others.
But don’t call the contractors if you want a job. You’ll never get a job that way. The contractors are under enormous pressure to hire not just the best of the best, but also to hire orchestras that will work well together in the cramped, underground chambers of New York’s Broadway pits. As such, it’s very unlikely that they will hire someone who has not already proven that they can be successful in this situation. The contractors will want to hire someone that has already played in Broadway pits – either someone who has had their own chair before or has subbed regularly (and successfully) on Broadway for a long time. So the best way to get your name in front of a contractor is to sub regularly on the other shows that they contract.
Straight from the source
Another thing I want to add, and I know this is counterintuitive, is this: if you want to be a Broadway instrumentalist I recommend against emphasizing your theatre experience to the people in the scene. Whether its true or not, Broadway music is largely seen as a derivative art form among the Broadway musician community. Look at shows like Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, In the Heights – these shows showcase rock n roll, country, hip hop and salsa – none of which originated on Broadway.
The last thing you want to say, therefore, is that you learned to play R’n'B by playing a summerstock version of Dream Girls. Broadway wants authentic players that have learned music styles from the source, not from itself. If you want to get into the Broadway scene, I advise emphasizing your close-to-source experience in addition to (or more than) your theatre experience.
Back to keyboard players and conductors. The Broadway scene for keyboard players is a lot more robust than it is for other instrumentalists. There are many more job opportunities for pianists – playing auditions, accompanying classes and lessons, vocal coaching, vocal directing, music directing, etc. And then the are jobs than often come from these jobs – arranging, copying, orchestrating, sequencing, programming, conducting, etc. There is a rich scene in the Broadway community for smart, talented and resourceful pianists.
And for that reason, the keyboard spots on Broadway shows often sprout from this scene – as it did for me. In my case, I was working my way through the standard jobs – first as an audition accompanist, then as a classroom accompanist, then as a copyist for new shows, then as a keyboard programmer for new shows – and in the process I made friends with other keyboard players.
Specifically, I made friends with Jeff, who I mentioned before in the 5-part series. If you read the series, you may remember that Jeff gave me my first subbing opportunity on his show.
Jeff is very good at his job and in high demand inside our scene. He is in such high demand, in fact, that he can’t possible do all of the opportunities that come his way. Such was the case when he was asked to be the assistant music director for the workshop of a new musical in the summer of 2010. The show was a revival with (as yet) no Broadway plans, and the workshop was 4 weeks long.
Jeff was busy with other projects and was unable to commit a full 4 weeks to the workshop. The management asked him for a recommendation, and he gave them my name and a few others.
Eventually I got the job. I worked on two workshops for the show, mostly performing as a copyist for the score and the pianist for dance rehearsals. A year later the show picked up a celebrity star and a Broadway run was announced.
Because I proved myself valuable during the workshops, and because of the dedication I showed to the team, the conductor asked me to be his associate conductor and pianist for the Broadway run. And that’s how I became the associate conductor to a Broadway show.
I should note, however, how incredibly lucky and unlikely my story is. There are hundreds of new shows being workshopped in New York every year and the vast majority of them do not make it to Broadway. It’s almost impossible to guess which ones will and won’t make it and the workshops often pay poorly and require a huge amount of work for the music teams. Yet music directors like myself almost always say yes to the job – because you never know if the next one is going to make it all the way to the top and take you with it.
You can see, of course, how lucky I am to have this job.
Interested in playing on Broadway?
If you are interested in working in the Broadway scene in New York City, my advice is to move to NYC and get as involved in the scene as you can. Ask people like me out for coffee, ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening. Make (authentic) friendships and do your best on every single gig. If you re humble and help others as much as you can, you’ll soon find that people will help you as well. As you’re working your way into the scene try to find a source of income that gives you some stability but does not interfere with your goals.
If you are a music director, be sure to join the Theatre Music Directors Facebook group and get involved in their discussions in a positive way. There a many, many wonderful keyboard players from around the world in that group, and they give wonderful advice.
Best of luck!