Are live musicians always better?

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If you want to put a scowl on a musician’s face, bring up the issue of the increasingly frequent use of electronics to replace live musicians in music theater productions.  You’d better have your flame shields ready.

Who can blame them?  Playing music for pay is, to be tautological, the musician’s livelihood.  And to be no less obvious, decreased use of musicians means decreased opportunities for musicians.  No wonder that musicians have a bad attitude about this, and that their professional organizations speak out against it at every turn.

Just as obvious, of course, is why theater producers would consider such a practice: Costs.  Given the huge financial risks of live theater and already eye-popping ticket prices, who can blame them?  But oh, do they get paid back in ire and invective.  Sometimes, it gets so bad, with threats of ostracism and worse made against participating scabs — er, performers, that the whole production gets bagged.  That was the eventual outcome of a case I wrote about earlier this year.

So we know the position of the musicians, echoed by much of the musical press. After all, like the fans who demand that their favorite sports teams sign all the best free agent players, it’s not their money.  We know what the producers have on their mind, even if we don’t like it.  But how about we step out from the back of the house, take a seat in the audience, and listen with unprejudiced ears?  Sometimes, you might find, live musicians aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

One such instance was Lyric Stage Company of Boston‘s otherwise superb production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which The Wife and I attended on Sunday.  In his pre-curtain introduction, production director Spiro Veloudos made sure to congratulate his company for employing a real orchestra, and to invite the audience to applaud him, and themselves, for their enlightened stand on live musicians.  There was no question whose side the angels were on.  Then came the unseen conductor’s downbeat, and with it, a dose of reality.

For while the singing actors, all possessing fine, well-trained voices, performed with little or no amplification (what a treat!), they still overpowered the seven-piece instrumental ensemble, relegated to an offstage location due to Lyric’s very intimate performing space.  When you could hear the musicians, you heard some pretty scrawny and scrappy sounds, nowhere near weighty enough to provide the necessary oomph at climactic moments, of which the score has many.  And when the keyboards might have been expected to come to the rescue, as they often do in such situations, what we got was tinny, distorted and, frankly, unworthy of the professional level of the production.  I’m not assigning blame, I’m just describing what I heard.

Such an approach might barely have sufficed for a smaller-scale Sondheim show like “Company,” but for “Sweeney,” with its larger-than-life emotions and soaring, Puccini-esque vocal lines, it didn’t work at all.  (Remind me to tell you the story someday of how my late friend Fred Marks claimed to have introduced Puccini’s music to Sondheim, to whom Fred was distantly related.)

To my ears, some Plan B should have been considered, one that, while not busting the budget, would have done better justice to the show and to the paying audience.  Obviously, a full orchestra would have either broken the bank or launched ticket prices into the stratosphere — plus, there was nowhere to put it.  Maybe the seven-piece orchestration could have been better, but I don’t think that would made a decisive difference without additional instrumental firepower.  We were asked, practically commanded, to applaud Lyric Stage for its use of live musicians.  But in reality, the production did not make a very strong case for them.

So let me ask this modest question:  If at present, or in the future, a solution to the above dilemma could be found in better, smarter and cheaper electronic music technologies, and if it were to be found that they worked well and that audiences responded well to them, would musicians continue to stand in the way of such a solution?  That’s all I ask.

By the way, my next blog entry will probably be a review of new albums by electronic musicians Aphex Twin and Flying Lotus.  I hope I will not be besieged by angry emails from all the musicians put out of work by these brilliant artists’ use of electronics.

2 thoughts on “Are live musicians always better?

  1. Could better amplification of the orchestra served the purpose? I’ve worked many pits and there are always solutions. They’re not always used, but they are there. Sorry, I support using live musicians as a general rule.

    • Better amplification might just have made scrawny and scrappy sounds into scrawny, scrappy and louder sounds. What if the best solutions were to involve electronics? Can they be part of the conversation, or do they have to be ruled out for non-musical reasons? But you have nothing to be sorry for, Wendy. All things being equal, I also prefer live musicians. Alas, things are not always equal.

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