Local unions supply musicians for touring shows
As a percussionist, Kathy Lowery can be called upon to play some unconventional instruments when big touring productions come through Proctors.
Over the 27 years that the Schenectady native has worked shows at Proctors through the Schenectady-Amsterdam Musical Union, Local 85-133, she has had to go to local businesses to acquire items ranging from brake drums to large metal thunder sheets to a cricket — a small, hand-held instrument that reproduces the sound of its namesake insect. When the Broadway show “Wicked” came to Proctors in 2009, Lowery was given a list of 59 instruments to perform on.
“The conductors usually know what sound they want, and my job is to truck a bunch of stuff in,” she said.
“And as a percussionist, it’s kind of hard to hold your head high when you’re asked to play shapes, like a triangle — other musicians are coming in with violins, and I have a shape to play. I’m asked to beat on things with different forms of wood; I have instruments that most people have hanging on their front porch, wind chimes. . . . For ‘Wicked,’ I was hanging things over my head, I had things around my neck. When I finished the setup, every crevice was just filled with some instrument.”
Lowery is one of many local musicians who are regularly called upon to perform with big touring productions — everything from Broadway shows to rock and pop musicians — that come through the Capital Region. These shows often do not travel with every musician they need for the show, and will contract musicians through local unions in the American Federation of Musicians — around here, that includes the Schenectady-Amsterdam chapter, the Albany Musicians’ Association (Local 14) and the Saratoga Musical Union (Local 506).
Not common knowledge
“I think the public doesn’t realize that — even though they put it in the print, in the show bulletins they put out — the music is played by local musicians,” said Mark Anthony, president of the Schenectady-Amsterdam Musical Union, which currently has a three-year contract for Proctors shows. “It’s not an easy job; it requires a lot of skill. We’re really proud of the guys who are able to do it — we do such a good job on it.”
For musicians, playing with myriad groups requires an ability to be able to quickly sight-read and perform music. Although in recent years, touring productions have been sending out more advance music and even DVDs or CDs of the music more often, it’s still a fast turnaround — often local musicians are only rehearsing with the productions on the day of the show.
“In the old days, or what I call the old days, maybe 20 years ago or 15 years ago, you were expected to sight-read — meaning, look at the music at first sight, and play it pretty perfectly,” said Nat Fossner, the union musical contractor for Proctors, and also a woodwind player.
“Then in rehearsal, you figure out the ensemble issues, but you’re expected to pretty much play the music at sight. In recent years, big touring shows will send advance books, which we’ll usually get at least two weeks in advance, sometimes more. Our particular Capital District — I say surprisingly; it might be surprising to outsiders — has a lot of really skilled musicians who are able to play this music at a very high level.”
Fossner has been the musical contractor for Proctors for about six years now, and has been a member of the union for 40 years. He has also contracted shows for the old Starlite Music Theatre in Latham, and the Palace Theatre in Albany.
The process begins when the theater contracts a show to perform at the venue. The show will provide a music rider, which details what the production will need from local musicians, specifying instruments to be played — trumpet, trombone, woodwinds and percussion are among the most commonly needed instruments.
More often than not, a musician is expected to perform multiple instruments in any one given show.
“I play woodwinds, and the interesting thing about the kind of shows that I’m talking about require what’s called doubling — musicians have to play more than one instrument,” Fossner said.
“Brass players, like trumpet players, don’t have to double too much. String players are hired for just violin, viola, cello or bass. Woodwinds, when you’re hired, you’re expected to play, depending on which chair you’re in, flutes, clarinets, saxophones or double reed [instruments], and the lead woodwind part. . . . We have a lot of players in the area who can do all those certain things, and I’ve gone through all those seats. Depending on what the particular need of the show is, we hire accordingly.”
Scotia musician Tom Gerbino, the principal clarinetist with the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra, has been playing touring productions at venues such as Proctors, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the Palace Theatre for more than 20 years, and has been a member of the union since he was a teenager. Although clarinet is his main instrument, he can play anything from piccolo to bassoon to all kinds of saxophones — he’s even played recorder at some shows.
“When I was in high school, I became more and more curious about other instruments than the clarinet — my school had an oboe, and then I just started buying saxophones,” he said.
“I guess it was just intellectual curiosity — I probably had a knack for it, like speaking languages. The first one you learn is a bit difficult, but the others you get sort of drawn into how to learn to speak languages, and that’s really what playing instruments is.”
Gerbino has performed in productions of “A Chorus Line” and “West Side Story,” and will be in a number of upcoming Proctors shows, including “Mary Poppins” from Oct. 2-7, and “Wicked,” Nov. 7-25. He’s also worked in backing bands for George Burns, Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Mathis and Red Skelton, among others. And although these contracts are usually settled in advance, Gerbino has been called at the last minute to step in for someone at a show.
“One evening I was home, quite a while ago, and the flutist or piccolo player with the New York City Opera became ill,” Gerbino said. “The theater [Proctors] knew I lived five minutes away, so they called me and said, ‘Grab your instrument.’ And I had to sight-read ‘La Boheme.’ ”
But in most instances, good preparation before the show is key — and with more shows sending advance music, this is possible now.
“The shows are getting more complicated,” said Cathy Sheridan, who has been playing trumpet in touring productions for more than 15 years — she’s done everything from “Wicked” to Aretha Franklin. “I don’t think it was the case with [musicals] in the past, but the newer ones are pretty complicated. I think some of it is because of the reduced orchestra — each person is responsible for playing so much more now. Instead of 20 people playing in the orchestra, now it may be reduced to 10 with synthesizers filling in the gaps.”
Lowery, a native of Schenectady, first became involved with music, and eventually performing for union contracted shows, through her father, jazz vibist Tom Brown, who also worked with touring acts — Lowery remembers her father bringing Johnny Mathis’ musicians home for dinner after a show. Over the years, she has found an increasing demand for more and more unusual instruments in shows.
“I’ve seen through 27 years the way percussionists have gone, and within the last decade even more so, maybe because of the Internet — everybody hears all these sounds from all over the world, and it influences everything in the sound,” she said.
“Things have come through asking for Tibetan boat bells, singing bowls, all these different sounds. It’s fun; the reason I like it is that the composers are just amazing. . . . They’re beautiful writers, so it’s fun to hear where they put this in.”
Touring shows are a bit simpler for Monica Wilson-Roach, a cello player with the Albany union. When she gets called for gigs at The Egg, the Times Union Center, the Palace Theatre and other venues, she’s only asked to play one instrument. But usually that means she’s the only cellist in the show, requiring her to be playing almost nonstop.
“Sometimes the parts can be kind of intense, and oftentimes with the older shows, the parts are intended for multiple string players,” she said. “Cellists, nowadays, there’s usually one per show, or occasionally two. Years and years ago there used to be up to five cellists, but now they can mic you. In some ways it’s a tough thing.”
Wilson-Roach has been playing these kinds of gigs for almost 20 years now in the Capital Region, but before that she worked Broadway shows in New York City. She prefers the spontaneity of performing for touring musicals and pop musicians.
“What I learned on Broadway was the repetitive nature of the job, which doesn’t mix well with my personality,” she said. “I like to have something new. . . . When you play these shows, especially the ones that come through locally, they’re well-paid, which is a big plus for musicians, and it doesn’t get boring — you don’t have enough time for it to get boring.”
These days there are more and more shows that are self-contained, coming to town with all the musicians they need.
“Nowadays as far as theater music goes at big venues, there may be two to seven weeks of employment that need a local orchestra for a touring company,” Fossner said. “The other times our musicians are playing for community theaters, Schenectady Light Opera, high-school productions, college productions for this kind of music.”
Naturally, with the short preparation times, these gigs can be high-stress, and require a high level of expertise on a particular instrument (or instruments), as well as an ability to blend in with multiple styles of music.
“Musicians enjoy it immensely — performing musicians really see it as a lifelong profession, and something that you’re constantly working on even when you’re not doing a show,” Fossner said. “You’re practicing all the time. Playing an instrument is something that you have to keep up, while you’re waiting for bands, for shows.”