Where’s the Orchestra?

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Julie Malloy directs the South Pacific orchestra behind the stage in the shop at the Players Guild of Dearborn.

During the run of South Pacific we’ve had lots of comments and questions about the orchestra. Some patrons have thought the music was canned. Others thought the orchestra might be in the wings. Still other knew the players were in the shop, but wondered why.

Over the years, the Guild has experimented with various settings for the orchestra. In front of the stage. In the stage left wings. In the stage right wings. On stage with the actors. On stage on a platform at the back of the stage. In the shop. All of these have advantages and disadvantages.

Many times, when the orchestra is in front of the stage, they over-power some of the performers and song lyrics can’t be heard. The same thing is true with the orchestra in either of the wings, but we have very limited wing space for things like scenery and props. On stage on a platform works well, although there are orchestra members and directors who don’t like being “up there.” The shop works very well for sound balance, but the audience can’t see the orchestra playing. Many New York venues are taking away the front pit in order to get more seats. We do it to get better sound.

5 Comments
  1. When I saw the show from the audience, there is a crispness of instrumental music that is lost, and volume levels were out of whack. I lost some dialogue in musical vamps and preludes. Even though we knew the orchestra was backstage, both my wife and I thought it sounded canned and “tinny”. Having worked backstage, onstage and listening from the audience, the contrast is easy to pick out. Backstage, the music is overwhelming loud, but crisp. You leave the show with a headache, but the sound is good. Onstage, there is unpredictable interference, transmitting delays, and often an imbalance of sound for the singers. This leads to a visual delay on the song ques and visual pickups delay vocal start by a half a beat or sometimes even a whole beat. When learning a song, counting and hearing is more critical than seeing, in my opinion, and when you are used to a specific count and hearing one beat that is delayed or otherwise interfered, it throws the whole song off. From row P in the audience – it doesn’t translate well. These flaws are unavoidable when sound is transmitted through electronics. I know it wasn’t in the budget, but when we redid the auditorium, a pit, even a shallow pit, should have been included in the floor remodeling. Since we did not, the only ways to correct this misconception, in my opinion, are to 1) hire a sound engineer to be in the audience to balance and manipulate the electronic signatures during shows, 2) revamp the entire sound system to compliment a hidden orchestra, 3) place the orchestra back in front and mike the singers, 4) or keep this new method and get earpieces for the singers and noise cancellation equipment for those of us who are assaulted backstage. Any or all of these would help immensely.

  2. I hope I am not offending anyone, but I believe you need to do a major re-think on this. The “shop” does not work well because it sounds like a recording. That is what I heard when I saw the show. A recording. It sounded like a recording because it was being played through speakers — possibly outdated speakers — mounted on the ceiling. The speakers obviously popped when the percussion got loud. There is no getting around this fundamental flaw and it made no difference to me to learn that the music was actually live. I also missed seeing the orchestra and hearing them warm up. Watching the orchestra and their contributions to the show is a great and important part of musical theater. It’s also fun to walk down and talk to the musicians after a show. Why not just put microphones on the leads? Certainly the chorus/ensemble can sing over the orchestra. It makes zero sense to me to mic the orchestra as opposed to actors.

  3. I agree with the above. Having been a long time patron of the guild, it was very disappointing to not see the orchestra. I understand that in New York, you also do not “see” the orchestra, but they are at least heard. I agree that there should have been a pit installed and if not, then they should invest in microphones. Yes, the space is small, but even with the orchestra in the back, sometimes it is difficult to hear the cast members on stage. I think the best resolution would be to get body mics for your actors and put the orchestra back in the front of the stage. Everyone loves a loud, strong orchestra and audible singers.

  4. we saw the show on Saturday 29th. The whole first half, the music seemed amplified, and totally over powered the voices. The second half, the problem was solved and a nice balance was restored. It was clear that someone knew how to fix the problem….. I only wish that in this case, they would have paused the show, and corrected it sooner, so we could have enjoyed more of the performance. Of all my experiences with the guild’s performances, this was the most unfortunate. For the second half, the orchestra’s placement and sound was fine.

  5. We saw the show on the 21st. The loud and continued chattering I observed during the opening (and second act) overtures that evening reflected what I feel is the limited respect that canned music garners. Something worth considering.
    It is fortunate when a community theatre can support a musical with the talents of live performing musicians. Unseen, my enjoyment is diminished. While I certainly want to hear the actors, I would prefer that it be accomplished by amplifying voices that cannot project, rather than expect an audience to appreciate musical accompaniment they cannot see. If live music is considered unnecessary to be seen, the next step will be to save funds with soundtracks.
    My opinion, thank you for allowing comment.

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