When Curtain Call Players’ production of Titanic sails into Fairview Library Theatre on April 1 for a two-week run, you will have a great opportunity to hear Maury Yeston’s sweeping score in all its majesty and beauty. You had a similar opportunity four years ago, when Civic Light Opera presented the show in the same theatre, but there is one crucial difference this time around: whereas CLOC used a full 18-piece orchestra, in the Curtain Call production there won’t be a live musician in sight – or out of sight either, for that matter.
Every community theatre group has choices to make regarding the music itself whenever it stages a musical, and the issues aren’t necessarily simple. What type of show is it? What size show will it be? What’s the orchestration? Are reduced versions available? What shape and size is the theatre space, especially the backstage facilities? What’s the orchestra budget? How many players can you afford? How good are they? How tough is the score?
Generally speaking, there are four options. Go with the original orchestration, or, if it’s too large, with as many players as you can accommodate and/or afford. Go with a reduced orchestration, if there is one. Use a small combo, with just the critical instruments covered, keyboard only. Use a pre-recorded track, usually synthesizer
This last option has always been viewed by virtually everyone – and not just the musicians – as quite literally the last choice. Apart from the huge issue of sound quality, the major problems have been always been the lack of atmosphere and – most crucially – the inflexibility of the recorded track. A singer misses a verse? Tough. You want the tempo to pick up when the show is really jumping? Sorry. Need an emergency vamp for a few bars? Nope.
With the huge developments in music technology over the past few decades, especially in the professional Broadway and West End theatres, it was surely only a matter of time before the community theatre world was forced to address the issue of pre-recorded show scores. Sound and lighting have embraced computer technology, so why should the orchestra pit be considered sacrosanct?
Is this really the way of the future, though? Are theatre musicians really a doomed species, dinosaurs waiting for the technological asteroid to crash into their planet and change their world for ever? A production of Titanic seemed the perfect invitation to explore the issue – after all, the eight musicians on the original ship played on to the very end, despite the knowledge that they were almost certainly doomed.
For Keith O’Connell, founder and artistic director of Curtain Call Players, the cost of a full orchestra, perhaps surprisingly, was not the major consideration – in fact, he will be spending more on the music by not having one. His production values for this show are high, with a two-level 40-foot wide set that uses hydraulics to tilt 6 feet in the second act, and it wouldn’t have been possible to put a full orchestra either on stage or in the wings.
Moreover, he didn’t want to. Maintaining the integrity of the set and the score were key considerations, and while a big orchestra would also have been wrong for the period, a small orchestra would have been unable to do justice to the score.
The solution? Sinfonia!
Sinfonia, which CCP also used for their recent production of Cats, is a technology developed by Realtime Music Solutions of New York, and provides either full orchestra or orchestra enhancement capability for all levels of music theatre. It runs the gamut from the top-of-the-line Sinfonia Grande (for professional touring productions and theatres) through Sinfonia Molto (for smaller spaces) and Sinfonia Mezzo (for regional and community theatre) to Sinfonia Piccolo, which offers lap-top orchestra enhancement for amateur and community groups.
What is so hugely significant about it, though, is that it has apparently solved all of the problems associated with pre-recorded music: it sounds great; it’s flexible; it will vamp on the fly; it will jump back to a certain bar number; it will transpose; you can use live musicians with it and mute or unmute instruments of your choice; it has tempo variation and control, and can follow a conductor and the constantly-changing nuance during a live performance.
Two of the three major rights organizations have warmly embraced the new technology, both Music Theatre International and the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization now have alliances with RMS, and their own specialized systems. MTI currently offers OrchExtra for 20 of their shows, while R&H have AccompanEase for rehearsal/practice purposes, and InstrumentEase as a performance enhancement tool for a whole range of top shows, including most of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classics.
Ironically, the only one of the three organizations that apparently has no interest in pre-recorded music of any description being used in their shows is Tams-Witmark – the rights holder for Titanic! The orchestration is already available on Sinfonia, however, with composer Maury Yeston’s full approval, and after checking with Yeston Tams-Witmark agreed to make an exception and allow CCP to use the system in their upcoming production.
Not that it is saving O’Connell any money: not only will CCP be paying over $3,000 for the Sinfonia system rental, but they will also still have to pay Tams-Witmark for the orchestral parts rental even though, says O’Connell, “We won’t even get to open the box!”
It’s difficult to see live music completely disappearing from the community stage – apart from anything else, pre-recorded systems are clearly not going to save anyone any money in the short run – but groups are obviously now going to have more options when it comes to the sound of the music they present to their audiences.
If you have the chance, go and see Titanic at Fairview: you will hear Yeston’s score in all its glory, and it may well be a sneak peak at the future of community musical theatre as well. Curtain Call Players production of Titanic runs April 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9 & 10 at Fairview Library Theatre; tickets are $24 from (416)703-6181 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Terry Robins is a musician and musical theatre enthusiast. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.