As Durham anticipates the bright lights and big names coming to its new $45.8 million Durham Performing Arts Center, a small group of people who thrive in the shadows is anticipating a lot of fun and a little extra money: pit musicians.
"The thing I'm most happy about in this is one more opportunity to play shows, which is my favorite thing to do; that and the fact I don't have to drive to Raleigh to do it," says Lisa Randolph, a Durham resident who has played violin and viola in area pit orchestras for 14 years. "It's really wonderful. I can be home in 10 minutes after a show."
To date, only two of the five Broadway shows at DPAC this season will require local pit musicians. And the money ain't great. A rate sheet from Local 500 of the American Federation of Musicians shows Triangle pit musicians earn $120 per show and up.
But more work in future seasons should be on the way thanks to the center's contract with Broadway powerhouse Nederlander. There is talk of at least one show next year running for four weeks, which would translate into 32 performances, if local musicians are used.
"That could be pretty sweet," says Wayne Leechford, a pit musician who was hired as the center's musical contractor in mid-September. Musicians could pocket almost $4,000 each for a four-week run.
The trickle down to musicians is a very small part of the economic impact of the state's newest, largest and technologically slickest theater. Reyn Bowman of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau projects DPAC's impact at $5 million for the local hospitality industry in the first year.
While the pit musicians aren't running from the small increase in paychecks, trombonist Steve Wilfong, 50, says it's about more than money.
"It's something I really enjoy," says the manager of technology education for Duke University Health System. When Wilfong, a graduate in performance from Illinois Wesleyan University, heard that DPAC would have pit jobs, he had one question: Who's doing the hiring?
That would be Leechford. For the past 10 years, he has worked in the small world of 30 to 50 people who play in Triangle pit orchestras. He knows who can soar high and pretty, who blends in well and who improvises smoothly.The chooser
Leechford's hires must please the visiting conductor, and he in turn must keep the musicians happy. He is, by his own admission, in a "very political" position. "I make the call based on people I know and based on reputation," he says.
An outgoing reeds player who has a business administration degree from N.C. State University, Leechford also earned a performance degree in saxophone from N.C. School of the Arts. He offers this inside look at area pit orchestras.
The number of musicians needed for a show varies. Some shows, such as DPAC's "Rent" (Jan. 20-25) and "Fiddler on the Roof" (March 17-22) are self-contained with their own pit orchestra.
More typically, a core rhythm/percussion section travels with a show. Locals are hired to man the winds, brass and strings, which is the case with "Legally Blonde" (April 14-19) and "The Color Purple" (May 12-17).
The contract for "The Color Purple" is standard. It calls for 11 musicians and is broken down like this: three reed players; two trumpet players; one trombonist; four string players (two violins, one viola, one cello); and an upright bass player, who must also handle electric bass and draw the twangy pulsations out of a mouth harp.
The divergent demands on the bass player in "The Color Purple" are what pit musicians are all about: versatility.
Reed players must double up on at least a second instrument. A clarinetist, for example, needs to play the bass clarinet. If a player is really good, he learns the saxophone siblings: soprano, alto, tenor and baritone.
The flutist also learns the piccolo. A good trombonist handles the straight tenor trombone along with a trombone with an F-attachment and the bass trombone.
Leechford over the years has become proficient with eight instruments (clarinet, bass clarinet, all four saxophones, flute and piccolo). He is going against tradition of single-reed players by learning the double-reed bassoon. His heap of instruments translate into a $30,000 insurance policy.A need to be versatile
Life in the pit can be hectic. Sometimes the sheet music arrives a week before the show, which places a premium on sight reading. Frequently, there is only one rehearsal before a show.
"None of the theater books I've ever played has been easy," Leechford says. "It's always challenging. Your sight reading has to be excellent."
The more instruments a musician plays, the better his chances are of being hired. The paycheck increases according to the number of instruments a musician plays in a show.
Until DPAC's arrival on the scene, area musicians drew from the same sources for pit orchestra work: North Carolina Theatre, Broadway Series South and Raleigh Little Theatre in Raleigh, Playmakers in Chapel Hill, Theater Previews at Duke and community theater productions. Each musician's lifestyle varies to meet the demands of making music and a living.
Leechford figures he has worked about 30 different shows over the past 10 years. He also plays in a seven-piece funk bank and an 11-piece salsa band between performing jazz and chamber music. Teaching responsibilities take up to 40 hours a week. He and his wife have no children but hone parenting skills on four cats, one dog and a parrot.
Wilfong, who has a steady income from his job at Duke, has played in area pit orchestras for 10 to 12 years. He already has 50 pit dates lined up through May next year and expects a few more. He plays the euphonium and four types of trombone: alto, tenor, F-attachment and bass. "It's a good thing for most of us," Wilfong says of the work offered by DPAC's shows.
Randolph, a 1990 UNC-Chapel Hill music graduate, has a mixed bag. She works three hours a week in a Ninth Street shop where she teaches knitting and crocheting classes several nights a month between selling her free-form knitting and crocheting. Suzuki instruction takes 15 hours a week. In any one year she performs at a dozen weddings and at four or five church services along with her pit orchestra work. She is married without children.
Two years ago "The Lion King" ran in Raleigh for 45 shows. "I did all of them," Randolph says. "It was so much fun. If it came back, I would do it again. You're part of something that's really quite big. If you like show music, it's wonderful."