Tales from The Pit

“The Pit.”

The colloquial abbreviation for “pit orchestra,” or the oft-preferred alternative, “orch dorks.” Contrary to what the title may lead you to believe, “The Pit” is neither a body locale in need of antiperspirant (though, that remains to be seen) nor the most recent installment of Tales from the Crypt.

Many things it is not, yet The Pit perseveres.

I just completed my second musical theater pit stint. Perhaps a little foresight on my part might have sent me screaming in the opposite direction. Instead, I stayed and endured the most difficult music I have ever directed in my life. Even the piano/vocal reduction of Bach’s B minor Mass isn’t 600 pages. I kid you not, I got a whopping four opportunities to down my water and pull my wedgies, because the rest of the time, we were on. Never before has every facet of my degree(s) been put to the test. If you’re considering producing Legally Blonde the musical, make sure your music director has tits of steel (or balls, as the case may be), a conducting gesture that doesn’t quit, and a penchant for self-punishment. It also wouldn’t hurt to substitute a light saber for a baton because that would make shit more real.

It was during these conflicting six weeks that I came to understand what The Pit really means to me.

Pits are dark, dingy, often dirty and unvacuumed, cramped, seldom climate-controlled, and let’s be honest, sometimes in Sibera. I was lucky this go around to be in the townhouse of pits: relatively spacious, solid builder-grade quality, but generally lacking in the charm department and missing some fairly important fixtures, like a video monitor that didn’t get set up until the day before we opened (type-A response alert: 10). We did, however, have oodles of elbow space, which is more than I can say for 99% of pits, yet this caused me to feel strangely distanced from my Pit family, toward whom I am used to making subtle faces and having them overly read-into, resulting in a kind of strange, under-played presence from my musicians at times. At least my players feel comfortable enough to tell me when my face scares them into submission. My response to that was the phrase “please, just come back to your pit mother,” which was met with a few lukewarm laughs. Once again, pit purgatory: where the cockroaches are numerous and the chuckles are awkward.

On opening night, armed with my baton, I took my bow before the audience before descending into The Pit. Then in my frisky new conductor’s dress (pink, in honor of the lead character), I kicked off my heels and awkwardly stumble-sat upon my director’s tuffet: a 4-foot high wooden stool with no padding and a circumference area that just barely accommodated my 140-pound frame, and, after 2.5-4 hours a night, caused a severe case of bleacher-butt (where your derriere goes numb and you don’t feel the bruises until the next day, when you attempt to ride a bike and then decide maybe not so much). All that is to say I actually failed my first attempt to saddle that horse, so instead of gracefully remounting, I audibly said the words “shit balls” in an otherwise silent house. Nobody but the pit heard me, and they stifled laughs, but still. Shake it off.

The curse words flow freely in The Pit. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, you’ll end up saying (or, at the very least, nodding appreciatively toward) some pretty colorful statements. A normally composed academic said “why does what I’m playing sound like absolute shit?” or delightful high-schoolers witnessing in horror the phrase “sex up that wah-wah pedal some. Think pornographic, not victorian.” Or, the oft-repeated “I missed that mother-licking key change again.” I love it in the pit, because I feel like we have our own neolithic language, consisting primarily of dirty adjectives and expletives. It’s like therapy for conductors and players, and it really works.

What do you do when an actor skips an entire section of a song? You violently attempt to communicate a measure number to thirteen people who are all looking different directions and inevitably counting different numbers (sometimes out loud, rarely correctly). You do this one of a few ways: actual sign language, which only works for the 3% of the music in which the measures are actually labeled with alphabet letters (wtf, composers?) and for the one person in the pit who understands fingerspelling. Other times, you physically stand up and begin exaggerating your gestures like an overexcited mime because for god’s sake, none of us are in the same place! But then you’re stuck there until you have a moment to re-mount your Throne of Despair, where the feet fall asleep and the muscles atrophy. Sometimes you tap into your adolescent gorilla and sign measure numbers in your non-dominant hand, but this only works for numbers five and under, and for someone who knows sign language quite well, you get strange looks for how you sign the number three, because what the general public perceives as the sign for three is actually sign language for six, and then we’re all fucked. I’d make a killing patenting a digital measure display attached to a clicker, for use in pits. Someone make that happen and send me my royalty check kthxbai.

Sometimes the Pit just makes up music. Because it isn’t musical theater unless there’s five sharps or flats (or sometimes both), eighteen key changes (in one song), and made up tempo notation, as is the recent trend, and who can keep up with all that, really?

This is not really a tempo marking, but nice try.
I get the sentiment, but this is not really a tempo marking. Nice try.
Excuse me, but only I am allowed to make up words that don't exist.
Excuse me, but only I am allowed to make up words that don’t exist.
Thanks for painting us that picture. Also, re: key - blow me.
Thanks for painting us that picture. Also, re: key – blow me.
No, YOU strut. Nobody tells me what to do.
No, YOU strut. Nobody tells me what to do.
Fat? We are all God's creatures.  Also, Bb minor? REALLY?! That's one-half step away from A minor, so maybe try again in a real key.
Fat? We are all God’s creatures.
Also, Bb minor? That’s one-half step away from a real key, so try again.

Instead, we just make it up. Like when my grip was too loose on my baton and it went flying in the drummer’s face on my two-count, and he managed to get ahold of it and put it between his teeth without missing a beat.  Seriously, I just looked over there and it was in his mouth, like a bone, and he just kept playing. I don’t know if he actually caught it in his mouth, or what…

Other times, we create strange, politically incorrect label-names for certain areas in the music. For instance, “lesbian bass line” or “Kyle’s bootylicious saunter,” or “the gay parade.” Still other times, the only way we can remotely figure out what’s going on is to listen to what’s happening onstage and write singers’  cue lines in our scores, which is more often than not something obscure and ridiculous, like “he left while we were shaking junk,” or “wake him up with your red hot booty.” If you know the show at all, all of this will make sense to you. If you don’t, you’re left deliciously contemplating what this could possibly mean.

Throughout all this, The Pit endures. They don’t even usually get to see the show they’re playing for. They are often under-appreciated, under-paid (if paid at all) professionals or quasi-professionals who are continually asked to “play softer, dammit” and sit through relentless tech rehearsals where they might play one song, in total, in three and a half hours. Yet, they surface from the caverns at intermission with only slightly broken dreams, and they usually obey their master follow their conductor. Which is why I always buy them sandwiches and cookies, and if I really have my shit together, a hand-written thank-you card and some candy.

And you should, too.


These are tales from my Pit. What are yours?

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