In the professional theatre, ticket buyers are voters. The way they spend their dollars has a genuine effect on what producers will bring to Broadway and the road in years to come. After several years where producers assured themselves that audiences didn't give a hoot about smaller orchestras, this past season saw audiences paying happily to see productions with full size orchestras -- and mind you, those musicians were placed in the spotlight for all to see as well as hear. Gypsy brought its full size orchestra straight from its run at the City Center Encores series, with the band on the St. James Theatre stage in all its glory. Uptown at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center actually peels the stage back so the audience can see the thirty pieces packing the expanded pit at South Pacific -- a dramatic gesture that wins cheers at every performance.
Synthesizers have their place, but it seems that musical theatre audiences really do want a full orchestra -- a reasonable desire at $120 a ticket. In recent years, the folks at Roundabout have subjected us to tiny orchestras for revivals of classic Sondheim musicals -- and the results were mediocre. Follies done with a 14 piece band sounded as cheap as it look -- and that was very cheap indeed. The recent revival of Sunday in the Park had much to admire, but with only a handful of musicians shove into a side box, the score simply did not sound right. I was shocked that Sondheim would allow such an embarrassment -- but he did, all in the name of economy.
Well, this past season proves that Broadway's economy requires a full size orchestra in the pit -- and thousands of people are lustily agreeing with me at every performance of Gypsy and South Pacific. Scores that aim for a more pop-based sound are welcome to their rock-sized bands, but real musicals deserve real orchestras, as do the audiences that pay to see them.