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How to Watch Music

Musicians trade the pit for the Broadway stage

If you go to a Broadway musical these days, you’re just as likely to see a band onstage as you are in the pit. This isn’t a first in theatre history, but there’s currently a bumper crop of onstage musicians in shows like Next to Normal, Rock of Ages, Everyday Rapture, Fela!, Chicago, American Idiot, and Memphis.

“I think that in more traditional shows, the orchestra is designed to be an element of the invisible theatrical magic—a mystical enhancement of what’s happening onstage that’s felt but not seen,” says Charlie Alterman, music director/pianist for Next to Normal. “But as the forms and structures of musicals are changing, I think the role of the orchestra is often changing with it.”

In some shows, especially rock musicals, onstage bands enhance the theatrical experience. Rock of Ages, for instance, takes place on the Sunset Strip in the 1980s, and one of the characters, Stacee Jaxx, is the lead singer of the band Arsenal. His bandmates are represented by the show’s musicians—all dressed like hair metal gods—which essentially makes them characters in the show.

“Acting is maybe a strong term for what we do up there, but it does help if you have the right stage presence,” says Joel Hoekstra, guitarist for both Rock of Ages and the band Night Ranger, whose hit “Sister Christian” just happens to be featured in his Broadway gig.

Rock of Ages encourages audience participation, and more than “actor,” Hoekstra sees “cheerleader” as part of his role. “You can almost let the audience know that it’s okay to yell and scream by being animated and giving them the go-ahead,” he says.

With its themes of mental illness and domestic trauma, Next to Normal is a different animal than Rock of Ages, but Alterman also feels like he’s participating in scenes. “The music is so integral to the way story is told, and [being onstage] really integrates us into the action of the show,” he says. “The other thing that’s great is that there are times when the music rocks out, and it’s exciting to see the band, but there are other times when you want to really be able to focus on the action onstage. The brilliance of the way the set and the lights are designed [is that] we can be very visible at times, and we can also kind of disappear when we need to.”

Meanwhile, the arrangement of the band—the six musicians are split up in different sections of the three-tiered set, which Alterman jokingly compares to Hollywood Squares—visually suggests the story of a woman whose fractured mind leaves her family in pieces.

Some musicians might get tired of being in the spotlight this way, but it’s telling that Alterman has been with Next to Normal since the Washington D.C. run in winter 2008 and Hoekstra has been with Rock of Ages since its Off-Broadway run in fall 2008. Both say they still feel connected to the material.

“The show is so unbelievably intense and demands your constant focus,” Alterman says. “It’s such an emotional story, and it’s never quite the same night after night. Not to mention, it’s wall-to-wall music.” Discussing Tom Kitt’s Tony-winning score, he adds, “To go from thrasher rock to Mozart in one score and have all of it feel unbelievably appropriate, to me that’s the most exciting thing.”

Hoekstra gets a similar rush. “We feel really proud to be a part of something that is bringing hard rock to Broadway,” he says. “I don’t know how many other shows I necessarily fit in, being a rock guitar player. I know it’s kind of headed in that direction, but after Rock of Ages, we’re kind of spoiled.”

Linda Buchwald is an assistant editor at Scholastic. She blogs for StageGrade and her own blog, Pataphysical Science.

Photo credit: The musicians of “Next to Normal”

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