You're looking through your Playbill before a show. You see the names of the actors, writers, director and designers. You probably know what these titles entail, but if you keep reading, you'll see the names of people who perform jobs that might have you helplessly scanning your theatrical dictionary. We spoke to some of these lesser-known professionals to find out exactly what they do.
Vocal arranger: Most musicals have one. "It's assigning who sings what, where they sing it, and how it's accompanied [and harmonized] vocally," says Steve Sidwell, who did vocal arrangements and orchestrations for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Sometimes, the vocal arranger and orchestrator (the person who takes the composer's basic score and adds instrumentation, style and tone) are different people, but it depends on the show. Sidwell, a third-generation musician, started as a trumpet player and then progressed to arranging.
Most of the songs in Beautiful were written by two sets of writers—Carole King and Gerry Goffin and Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann—and made famous by other artists, such as The Shirelles. "There was a challenge to be faithful to the songs and the way they were sung and also to the story of the show itself," says Sidwell.
Without the vocal arranger, Sidwell says, people would have to sing the songs as written. "Beautiful is very much a show about the music-making process as well as being a love story and a story of someone's life and struggles," Sidwell says. "There are also many part of the shows where they allude to the vocal group situation and if it were not organized, I think it would be a little chaotic, despite the skills of everyone involved."
For the most part, the vocal arrangements are set. But, for a show like Beautiful that is on Broadway, in the West End and on a national tour, Sidwell might make adjustments for different actors, such as a key change.
Music coordinator: Just as actors are carefully cast for musicals, so are musicians. A music coordinator hires the orchestra members, working in conjunction with the director, music supervisor and composer. A music coordinator is sometimes called a music contractor, but the role goes beyond hiring musicians. The coordinator is involved with managing budgets, finding rehearsal rooms, transporting instruments and overseeing special performances outside of the show, such as filming commercials.
Most music coordinators start as house contractors, someone hired by the coordinator to complete payroll for the orchestra, keep attendance etc., says Howard Joines, the music coordinator for Allegiance, Finding Neverland and Matilda The Musical. Joines is also a musician and conductor and currently plays percussion in the pit of Matilda. "I think everything plays into each other, at least for me," he says. "Finding the players as a music contractor is much easier because I might have played beside them as a drummer or percussionist. Or, even better, I've actually conducted them from the podium, so I know how they react to the conductor's stick and how they play with an ensemble."
The American Federation of Musicians, Local 802, does not allow auditions for musical theatre, so Joines relies on his knowledge of approximately 400 musicians working regularly in theatre as well as trusted recommendations. "We look very closely at personalities both musical and otherwise and make sure that the fit in the pit works well," he says.
Each show requires specific instrumentation. Because Allegiance is a multi-generational story set during the Japanese-American internment of World War II, orchestrator/arranger Lynne Shankel wanted the sound to be genuine for the time period of the '40s and have an authentic Japanese influence without feeling stereotypical. For Joines, that meant finding a woodwind player who could play traditional bamboo flutes and a flute called a shinobue and a first violinist who could play the shamisen, similar to a banjo.
Music supervisor: Shankel is also Allegiance's music supervisor—someone who oversees the whole show musically, including the cast and orchestra. "It's being an interface with the creative team to make sure that the musical vision of the show makes sense from top to bottom," she says
Shankel establishes a strong musical arc by teaching the music to the cast and working closely with the composer and lyricist (for Allegiance, Jay Kuo) to make sure their vision is realized. Once the show opens, she keeps the cast and orchestra from getting sloppy and oversees the understudies and orchestra subs so that everything runs smoothly.
Not all musicals have a music supervisor, but it's becoming more common. Shankel says it used to be more popular in London, but in the last ten years especially, it's become prevalent on Broadway. "I think that more and more shows are finding the value in having a set of eyes and ears that are not occupied conducting the show because when you're conducting the show, your brain has to be in the moment and ready for the next cue," she says. "When you're supervising, you have the opportunity to look at each moment, but then you can get a better view of the whole as far as what needs to be fixed."
Air sculptor: There is only one show that includes an air sculptor on its roster: Finding Neverland. In fact, Daniel Wurtzel is the only air sculptor in the world. Wurtzel worked as a sculptor with many traditional materials, but he created a new form when he saw a maple leaf floating above a subway grate. "That was one of the most beautiful things that I ever saw and I thought, 'How hard could it be to do that?'" he says. He started working with airflow and lightweight materials that fly, figuring out how to keep objects suspended in air.
He got involved with Finding Neverland because he previously worked with director Diane Paulus on the Cirque de Soleil show Amaluna. For Finding Neverland, about how J.M. Barrie was inspired by the Llewelyn Davies family to write Peter Pan, Wurtzel needed to create an effect that could be performed night after night.
Using a stable, invisible and continuous pattern of air, he found a way to represent [SPOILER ALERT!] Sylvia Llewelyn Davies's death, by enveloping her in a tornado of glitter. She leaves behind a scarf, floating amidst the glitter. "This moment in the show is terribly sad. She transitions into Neverland and she's been so brave throughout the whole show, but then this glitter in the air adds this magic that makes her passing seem OK," Wurtzel says." I think the audience walks away feeling even though she dies, there's a sense of uplift and optimism and poetry to her death."
Finding Neverland may be the first, but don't be surprised if you see an air sculptor credited in the future. "It's very versatile and I do many different effects," Wurtzel says. "I've been talking with some other directors. We'll see what happens.