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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: confrontation between art and technology
(1969)

McNeely, Jerry
[Book reviews: a view from the pit],   pp. [244]-248 PDF (4.7 MB)


Page 247

lyrics over a brass section or muttered
disdainfully about the "bad
orchestrations" in the 46th Street
Theater (all you can hear is trumpet,
piccolo and drums) should be fascinated by
his discussion of theater acoustics
and instrumentation.
He notes the astonishing lack of
acoustical concern in theatrical buildings-
partly because most of the New York
houses are quite old, but also because
of uninformed architectural planning.
Prior to leaving on the pre-Broadway
tour of Goldilocks, Mr. Engel was asked by
the producer to inspect the pit of
the new Lunt-Fontanne Theater, where
the production would be playing
in New York. He discovered that the pit
would accomodate all of ten
musicians, whereas the minimum employed
in any show is twenty-five. Major
reconstruction was necessary in the
brand new, almost completed
theater before it could be used.
The problem is actually many problems:
the first few rows of patrons can
hear only orchestra; the rest of
the main floor hears almost
no orchestra at all; the balconies range
between good and bad sound, high and low
volume, depending upon exactly
where one sits. Mr. Engel notes that
experienced producers pay absolutely no
attention to letters protesting
bad sound balance, on the theory
that there is no solution.
On the contrary, Mr. Engel proposes a most
logical one. He notes that
singers are all electronically amplified
today; why not go the rest of the way
and control all sound, including the
orchestra? His notion is to put the
musicians in a sound-proof pit
and the conductor in a glass bubble, large
enough to allow him to move, see the
stage and be seen both by performers
and players. The orchestra could then
be "mixed" with the vocal
performance, just as is done for
recordings and television shows. Placement
of auditorium speakers could guarantee
a uniform distribution throughout the house.
Several recent shows, notably I Do, I Do
and the Lincoln Center revival of
South Pacific, have experimented with
putting the orchestra behind the singer-
moving it onstage behind a cyclorama
and having the conductor follow
the performance via closed-circuit
television. The obvious problem here is that
the conductor ceases to be a conductor;
and even when his singers are the
rare kind who can feel and lead
the pace of a performance, he is still
unable to drive and inspire the
proceedings onstage as good conductors
can and should do. Mr. Engel's
solution seems quite obviously superior.
He also gives us an illuminating chapter on
the pre-Broadway tour and concludes
with a most persuasive argument
for its abolishment. The out-of-town tryout,
in theory, permits a show's creators
to have the benefit of professional
criticism, audience reaction and
out-of-the-spotlight time in which to revise.
In truth, says Mr. Engel, the criticism
is often contradictory and almost
never really helpful, the audiences are no
more instructive and the proximity of major
tryout cities to New York means
that the sought-after seclusion is a total
fiction. In addition, touring means
the show loses valuable days in
packing and travel, logs enormous
unnecessary expense and is forced at each
move to struggle with new acoustics,
musicians, stage crews, etc.
His advice is to stay in New York and
work on the show through a
series of reduced-price previews. More and
more, non-musicals are now following
this plan; and it seems reasonable
to expect that musical shows, with their
much greater size and expense,
will surely find its logic soon.
Mr. Engel is understandably depressed
about the state of the musical
theater in recent years. He believes that
the prime requisite for a lasting
musical is feeling and that this is missing
in recent successes. Rather, producers
have exploited attractive stars, splashy
production and mindlessly hummable tunes
into box-office successes like Hello,
Dolly, Funny Girl and Maine! He does not
expect these shows to
survive past their initial bonanza.
He feels that this is a transition period and
that musicals of quality will begin to
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