Have you ever turned up to a musical and thought, where’s the band? Perhaps there was an empty pit, or no pit at all? No appearance on stage? They are probably in a cramped room somewhere in the realms of the theatre, or maybe even not in the theatre at all.

Live music is an essential element to musical theatre – it is a key factor in the theatrical experience and audience enjoyment. I am glad to say that a lot of producers feel the same way, and so if there is not enough space for the band in the usual spots they find or build a space rather than putting on a backing track.

Let me give you some examples: when Matilda the Musical first ran in Stratford, the band were visible to the whole audience on a special platform, and composer Tim Minchin insisted that a real grand piano be used, “because my score was pretty piano heavy, and I wanted the depth of tone and dynamic range that only an acoustic instrument can provide”, but in the West End version the band has to be “acoustically isolated”, playing under the stage and then taking their final bow on stage. The Spamalot UK tour is another example – normally the band would play on the back of the stage, however in one venue where there was not enough room for this, the band played in a portacabin just outside the theatre. This provided many problems, including instruments – and musicians! – becoming too cold. Similarly, for one performance of Blood Brothers many years ago, the band played in the pub across the road…

This situation leaves many people thinking, so why not just play a backing track? Well the benefits come not only to the musical community providing much-needed employment, but to the show as well. A show should always be conducted by a live Musical Director, as without this timings throughout the show could be sketchy, and standards could slip over time. Also, it is important for musicians to be continually employed in theatre; the risk of  extinction will always be a factor if non-live MDs (i.e. a click track for the cast or pre-recorded cues) are used.

However, there are also cons to using a remote band, the most obvious one being that the musicians don’t get their full due as they are not on show for the duration of the performance for their hard work to be seen. Another is that sometimes it can sound like a backing track; you don’t get the raw, live feel to the music. While this can also be a positive thing, as in smaller theatres you don’t get overpowering acoustic drum kits or deafening trumpets if you’re near the front of the theatre. As Minchin notes, “the advantages of a real piano are lost – in fact it leads to a lot of variables that are annoying – microphone type and position, spill of other instruments into the piano mics, and – most annoyingly – needing a tuner every day”. From a musician’s perspective, playing remotely can be very annoying as you are away from the action and this provides problems with communication links.

In the end, however, it comes down to this: it is better to use bands, wherever they are located, than switching to using tracks. Remote bands are becoming more and more used in theatre, so next time you go and you can’t see the band think of the musos playing their hearts out in a cramped room.

Image by quimby.