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The Music Department

Originally Published in THE DRAMATIST, January 2016

For many people who aren’t musicians, the fact that there is music happening during a Broadway musical feels like magic. It is mysterious– all of those people down in the pit, the conductor waving his or her arms, the emotional swell that sneaks up on you at just the right moment in the play. How did it happen? In a way, Broadway music IS magic, yet another trick of the theater. But in truth, it’s the culmination of many craftspeople, many years of music education, and many different line items in a producer’s budget.

Welcome to the music department.

COMPOSER

In the beginning, someone has an idea for a show. It might be a producer, or it might be a playwright, or it might be a composer or a lyricist or the cousin of your next-door-neighbor. But someone says, “Hey, this should be a musical!” and that’s when the composer begins. In my experience, writing a musical usually starts with either a rough outline of an idea or even a rough draft of a script (from a playwright), and the composer starts collaborating on how music will function as part of the storytelling. What is the style of music? How will the songs work? Who sings? What style of singing is appropriate to these characters? For this work, the composer becomes an author of the piece of theater, and the tradition in musical theater is that the authorship of the show is divided equally in three parts: one third to the composer, one third to the lyricist, and one third to the bookwriter– unless the work is based on a pre-existing work (novel, film, short story, etc.) and there is an underlying rights holder, in which case there would be four equal parts instead of three. In truth, this is a starting point for negotiations, and there are many other ways deals can be made manifest. Sometimes the composer/lyricist is the same person. Sometimes the bookwriter/lyricist is the same person. Sometimes a team of two people agrees to split everything 50/50 for simplicity and equity. Sometimes a partner of higher prestige will get a bigger piece of the pie. And sometimes a director will take a piece of the author’s share off the top, leaving the writers to divvy up the rest. All of these points are negotiable, but a very fair place to start a negotiation is with the assumption that the person who composed the music is entitled to a third (or quarter) of the authorship of the show. Authors earn almost entirely royalty-based payments. An author may or may not receive an option payment or a commission (i.e, a fee or an advance against royalty income, if or when the show is produced), but rarely would an author receive a weekly salary during rehearsals or performances. It is assumed that the authors’ payment comes on the back end, in the form of royalties. An author’s property can earn her income for the rest of her life – and beyond – and that is the reward of authorship or, in fact, copyright ownership. Indeed, this is why theater authors are members of a guild and not a union. Beyond a commissioning fee, if the author is engaged to write a play (or given an advance if the play already exists) and a producer acquires an option to produce it, the composer begins receiving paychecks as soon as the paying audience arrives. And then when the songs go on to have their own lives, on recordings or in printed sheet music or as telephone ring tones or on a TV show, the authors of the songs are paid a licensing fee for each use. Music written for an unsuccessful show can actually cost the author more than she earns (in the form of lost income, un-recouped demo expenses and, yes, years of unpaid labor), but music written for a successful show can generate considerable income for ages.

ARRANGER

And now here’s where things begin to get tricky. What is a composer supposed to deliver, fixed in a tangible medium of expression, in return for that piece of the authorship? Some composers write at the piano and work out elaborate piano accompaniments. Others compose on the guitar and generate lead sheets with vocal lines and chord symbols. Others don’t read or write music, but can deliver elaborate recordings or sequenced files to be transcribed and arranged. Legend has it that several of our historic Broadway musicals were composed by authors singing into a tape recorder and then handing off the cassette to a team of arrangers. The bottom line is, sometimes composers need help.

It is pretty standard in the Broadway music community to understand that the making of a score involves the COMPOSER, and then also 1) the VOCAL ARRANGER who writes all of the vocal harmonies and vocal countermelodies and textures, 2) the DANCE MUSIC ARRANGER who works in conjunction with the choreographer to build the dances based on the composer’s themes, and 3) the INCIDENTAL MUSIC ARRANGER who works out all of the underscoring and scene change music, overtures, entr’actes and exit music. Each of these jobs is fee-based, but arrangers customarily also negotiate for a weekly royalty, because they do not own their work. Sometimes the composer does all of this work himself (and is thereby entitled to the fee and royalty), but sometimes there is a different person for each arranging job. Sometimes even the music director does all of the arranging, perhaps working at night to notate on paper something that was improvised during the day’s rehearsal. And sometimes, the arranging is actually done by the orchestrator.

ORCHESTRATOR

So, the composer and the arranger(s) have come up with a score that gets you into rehearsal. The pianist can play it, and maybe there’s even a pianist and a drummer. (Especially for dance rehearsals, there’s often a drummer in the rehearsal room). Or maybe it’s piano and guitar, but it’s not the entire orchestra in rehearsal every day, and there are many reasons for that. Orchestras are big and expensive, so nobody pays for them until they absolutely have to. Orchestra size is, in fact, one of the points of conversation a music team has with a producer very early in the process. In accordance with the agreement between the American Federation of Musicians and the Broadway League, Broadway theaters require a minimum number of musicians determined by the size of the theater (the “house”). (Debating between musicians and producers about the cost and value of orchestra minimums circles around every few years as the musicians’ contracts come up for renewal.) Also, things change quickly in the rehearsal room, and sometimes in a few minutes of rehearsal, a song’s sheet music might be ripped apart, re-ordered, re-structured, put into a new key, given a bigger ending, etc. Those changes take a few minutes to notate in a rehearsal pianist’s book, but they take hours to change for a whole orchestra. An orchestrator’s job is to expand the score from its rehearsal room state into a bigger score for a larger instrumental ensemble. The orchestrator is the person who decides, along with the composer, which instruments will be used and what notes each instrumentalist will play. For example: “If the clarinet player has the melody here, I will give him/her the harmony over here.” OR: “I don’t want the harpist sitting there with nothing to do, so let me find a way to include harp in the texture of this song.” OR: “I need to keep the groove going through this section of underscoring, but drums will be too loud. I will put rhythm into the strings, but I will have them pluck their strings instead of bowing, because that will be quieter.” These are an orchestrator’s tools, and for that he gets paid a fee and, again, customarily a weekly royalty (either in a fixed amount or a percentage of box office or operating profits of the production). Orchestrators are members of the musicians’ union, and their fees are based on the number of measures of music in the score and the number of instruments playing. A pretty basic starting assumption is that there will be four measures of music on a page of orchestral score, and the union scale lists minimum dollar figures depending on how many instruments, or lines of music, an orchestrator will need. That figure is called a “page rate,” so an orchestrator’s fee is calculated by determining how many measures of music there are in the show, divided by four and multiplied by the orchestrator’s page rate. It’s all very straightforward until you learn that many highly-lauded orchestrators can command a page rate above union scale. Indeed, everything above scale is negotiable, including the issue of who owns the orchestrations at the end of the day. Sometimes it’s the producer and sometimes it’s the composer. It’s unusual for an orchestrator to retain ownership of the orchestrations unless he has specifically negotiated to do so. By and large, the orchestrations are paid for by the production and then either owned by the production or by the composer, who may, in fact, have ‘bought them back’ from the producers. 

MUSIC COPYIST

You thought we were done, didn’t you? Because now we’ve got the music composed, arranged, and orchestrated — what else could there be? Well, we’ve got to get the music OFF the orchestral paper and onto the individual music stands for the players, and that’s a job for a copyist. Like orchestrators, copyists are paid by the page, and their general price list is determined by the union. You’re paying for their knowledge of music notation but also for many other skills – proofreading the work of the composer and the arranger/orchestrators, knowledge of the instruments and their capabilities and limitations, awareness of layout and considerate placing of page turns. In some cases, copyists have developed their own fonts and symbols to incorporate the markings players usually hand-write into their scores. A well-copied score is publishable. A well-copied score saves rehearsal time and, in effect, money.

It is worth noting that copyists are not traditionally entitled to royalties for their work, though orchestrators often are. Additionally, orchestrator and copyist fees are determined based on the USAGE of the work, so if, say, a copyist is paid to generate parts for a Broadway pit, those parts cannot then be used for another purpose without a “re-use” payment to the copyist, as per their union agreement. Similarly, a fee paid to an orchestrator for a score created for live performance is not inclusive if that same orchestration is used in a new category. For example, when a cast album is made, both orchestrator and copyist get a re-use fee. Or if a number from a Broadway show gets performed on TV or on a radio jingle or in a concert hall, the orchestrator and copyist will each get a re-use fee.  As the show goes on to have a life beyond Broadway, the orchestrations are often included in stock and amateur licensing, and they are the only design element that remains with the show in perpetuity. For that, the orchestrators often receive a one-time fee, essentially a buyout, at a rate determined by their union.

MUSIC DIRECTORS

So. Who’s the boss? It’s a good question. In some cases, the composer might seem like Top Dog, but it’s pretty rare that the composer is in the room making the day-to-day detailed decisions about the musical performances. That person is the MUSIC DIRECTOR, or in some cases, it’s the MUSIC SUPERVISOR. When a production employs a music supervisor, that person is the head honcho, and she oversees everyone in the music department. A music supervisor is part of the creative team, and she has often been involved in the hiring of the appropriate arrangers, orchestrators, copyists, pit musicians, actors and sometimes even the sound designer, without whom you wouldn’t be able to hear anything anyway. The music supervisor will be the person who supervises the future music departments for additional companies if the show goes on to a life beyond its initial incarnation – that includes hiring and casting tours and international productions and ensuring they have the same quality as the original. If there is no music supervisor, the MUSIC DIRECTOR takes on those supervisory responsibilities, but his primary job is as an interpreter of the score. The music director actually directs the music, telling the singers, for example: “cut off on beat three,” or “take a breath on the comma, not in the middle of the word” or “we’re not all singing the same A-vowel here; let’s fix that.” The CONDUCTOR is the one with the baton, actually driving the bus and making sure everyone plays/sings at the same time and at the same tempo and with the same zeal. These days, it’s not uncommon for the conductor even to be conducting from the piano (or keyboard), using head nods to communicate tempo and details like entrances and cutoffs. There is usually a camera capturing video of the conductor’s face and upper body, and this video is projected onto monitors all around the theater – for the actors, for the musicians who may have limited sight lines, and even for the stage manager calling the show. Sometimes the MD and CONDUCTOR are the same person, but sometimes the job is broken down into its two distinct parts. Often on a big production there is also an ASSOCIATE MUSIC DIRECTOR and then an ASSISTANT MUSIC DIRECTOR and even a MUSIC ASSISTANT. All of these people report to the MUSIC SUPERVISOR (or the MUSIC DIRECTOR, as the case may be), and together they handle the musical duties of several simultaneous rehearsals and maintaining a score in constant flux. The associates are usually doing double duty as REHEARSAL PIANISTS but sometimes there is need for an extra pianist just to show up and play. Lucky music departments even have MUSIC INTERNS. I was one once. I made $75/week. 

PLAYERS

And finally, there is the orchestra. On Broadway, an orchestra pit might employ a minimum of anywhere between 4 (Longacre, Nederlander) and 19 (Broadway, Minskoff, St. James, Marquis) musicians in the pit, though there are indeed cases where orchestra size exceeds the minimum. Players get paid per show based on an 8-show week, and there are several union perks and bonuses if they do something special like play more than one instrument or wear a silly hat during the show. Most of the players also have SUBS, who learn the book and fill in when the players aren’t available. (Think of them as orchestral understudies.) Many of the community’s best subs are prepared to play several Broadway shows within any given week. The person who hires them all is called the MUSIC CONTRACTOR or MUSIC COORDINATOR, and he gets a weekly fee and sometimes even a royalty to keep up with all of the payroll paperwork and necessary union reporting. I’ve heard stories about sub musicians in midtown Manhattan getting an emergency call after 7:30 pm to show up and play an 8:00 downbeat. It’s not pretty, but it does happen. What it is they say? Oh, yes – the show must go on.

Magic? Nah, it’s just a bunch of music majors meeting every night in the basement of a Broadway theater, doing what they spent their lives learning how to do. When they all create music at the same time, musicians guide the energy of the show and lead the audience down the author’s desired emotional paths. If they’re really effective, you can’t imagine seeing a Broadway musical without them. Next time you’re at a Broadway musical, stick around for the exit music and then give the conductor an extra round of applause. The music department is having quite a party.

Special thanks to my colleagues whose comments contributed to this article:

Doug Besterman
Jason Robert Brown
Mary Mitchell Campbell
Sean Patrick Flahaven
Lindsay Jones
Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf
Stephen Flaherty
Christian Hebel
Mark Sendroff


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