Making a Musical at Ford's Theatre

In my tenure at Ford’s as Program Operations and Music Manager, I’ve worked on the music side of things for 25 musicals, annual galas and more. But I actually jumped up and down when I heard that our spring 2019 musical would be Into the Woods.

I love classical music and musical theatre and I love fairy tales. I owned the complete Brothers Grimm at age 10 and, later, an annotated copy. So, it goes without saying that I fell in love with Into the Woods the first time I saw it at age seven. My dad and I tracked down whatever memorabilia we could about the Original Broadway production, and it is the only recording that I have owned on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray.

Three actors stand at microphones in the middle of a rehearsal room. A band featuring reed, string and brass instruments, a keyboard and drums is behind them.
In the rehearsal room with "Into the Woods" band and cast. Photo by Sarah Hewitt.

The Making of a Musical at Ford’s

My work for a Ford’s musical starts quite early, typically about 18 months from performances or, right after we’ve secured the rights and a musical has been programmed. After the music director for the show is brought on board, they and I look at what orchestrations exist through the license company and whether we need to do a reduction from the original number of players the score includes to what our pit can accommodate. You might not guess that Ford’s can only fit eight musicians in our 1860s-style band pit. While we occasionally put the band on stage (as we did in Ragtime), that is the exception, not the rule.

For Into the Woods, Music Director/Conductor William Yanesh and I got together to get an initial sense of where we wanted this production’s music to go. Bill’s previously done a fair amount of Sondheim at Signature Theatre in Arlington and both of us greatly respect and admire Sondheim’s work. We knew preserving Sondheim’s sound would be key. That is not without its challenges with an eight-player set up, especially if one player (Bill) is also conducting.

Bill’s and my initial conversations with Ford’s Theatre Associate Artists Kim Scharnberg, Chris Youstra and our AFM contractor Craig Taylor help us hammer out what instruments would be in the score and what players would be capable of handling the reduction best. We also discuss how to plan synthesized parts to cover musical instruments that are missing.

For Into the Woods, it was especially challenging to reduce three Reeds books or parts (Piccolo/Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon). Ultimately, we walked away with seven instruments and homework for Kim to figure out whether we needed a second Reeds book or an Acoustic Bass book. The homework for Craig was to hire the musicians that had been discussed.

The orchestra pit at Ford's Theatre sits just below the stage.
Photo by Gary Erskine.

Where the Musicians Sit

The Ford’s pit (or the canoe, as the musicians affectionately call it) is a bit of an anomaly in today’s theatres. It can be accessed only by crawling over the front wall down five feet. At its widest, is the pit is five feet across. Our Keyboard 2 player (or the Synth book) must be located directly to the Conductor/Keyboard 1’s left, as that is the only place the keyboard can fit horizontally. We discovered this during our 2014 production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Three months before a show opens, I ensure the printed music is arranged and organized in a readable manner for the musicians (or, if we hire an orchestrator, we do this work in tandem). At Ford’s, we use Finale for this work, which I documented on Twitter throughout Kim’s and my work on Ragtime.

Once the electronic files are ready and made available to our players, the physical books are created to practice and make notes. I’ve learned that wind and string players prefer parts in a traditional sheet music style, which we prepare on card stock to assist with handling, while the keyboards prefer music in binders. Anticipating how each musician approaches music changes makes their work easier. Just ask any instrumentalist who has struggled with bad page turns!

Music Director William Yanesh addresses the cast at first rehearsal for "Into the Woods."
Music Director William Yanesh discusses music for Into the Woods at the first rehearsal with cast. Photo by Gary Erskine.

Rehearsals

On the day of first rehearsal, our full cast and staff has a meet and greet and read-through of the musical. If they’re available, the band can sit in so they, too, can see the musical’s set and costume design concepts and hear about what will be happening outside of the pit. Other than this first rehearsal, the band doesn’t typically get an opportunity to see the work of which they are an integral part.

The next few weeks are filled with communicating with the band about any music or schedule changes. For this show, Keys 2 had to program more than 400 patches (or changes), an unusually high number.

Three musicians sit behind drums and keyboards in a theatre rehearsal studio.
Victor Simonson (associate music director), Danny Villanueva (percussion) and Greg Watkins (bass) during Sitzprobe for "Into the Woods." Photo by Sarah Hewitt.

This year, on the day of our first band rehearsal, the Keyboard 2’s computer, that we programmed those 400 patches into, lagged to such an extent that switching between the patches made the part unplayable. While the rest of the band rehearsals went well with the band coming together to form a cohesive ensemble with the actors, the keyboard fix could not happen until a day off for both the band and the programmer. So, our Keys 2 player rehearsed as if he had one hand tied behind his back!

Sitzprobe and Tech Rehearsals

One of the most exciting days during a musical’s rehearsal period is the sitzprobe— the first time that the band and the actors come together to work through the show music. The energy felt by all in the room is effervescent every time. Typically we do this the week that technical rehearsals begin, or a little more than a week before our performances begin.

Six days before performances begin for the public, band seating and sound check happens in our pit at the theatre. We essentially take an hour to set each of the band members so that they have access to what they need to perform each night: enough room to play and maneuver, room for water, and room to see the conductor and the right mix of the other instruments in their individual monitors, so they hear the cues necessary throughout the show.

By this time, the band’s rehearsal calls and process integrate with the full company’s rehearsal schedule. We continue to tech through the performance and give notes regarding music tweaks – be it an orchestration adjustment or timing issues as we progress to running through the entire show. When we get to opening, everyone is excited and happy to be there, as well as realistically looking forward to getting some sleep following several weeks of long days and late nights.

Showtime!

As we go through the production’s run, I’ll sit in on a performance once a week to check in how the show continues to sound, and keep in contact with Craig, Bill and the rest of the band. For Into the Woods, this has been a pleasure, given my love for the show and how amazingly talented our musicians are. Additionally, as band members need to substitute out, we’ll coordinate with their replacements, so they are prepared to step in. Various small issues may arise, but our goal is to solve them to ensure a successful run.

Sarah Robinson Hewitt is Program Operations and Music Manager at Ford’s Theatre. In her free time, she plays bassoon and contrabassoon and dances with her newborn son, Tommy. Follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahrhewitt.