Filichia Features: Calling All Ambitious Musicians!

Filichia Features: Calling All Ambitious Musicians!

Hear ye, hear ye, musicians who yearn to play in Broadway orchestras.

New York University now has a program where you can learn how to have that career: The Broadway Orchestra Initiative.

It's led by Ted Sperling and John Miller. The former is the music director for the current Broadway revival of My Fair Lady as well as the Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning orchestrator of The Light in the Piazza. The latter is a bassist who's been a music coordinator for more than 100 Broadway shows.

These two mentor students, lead workshops, coach inside the pit and teach scores that range from nineteenth-century operettas to contemporary rock. Some are musicals with which they were associated during the original Broadway runs.

Arguably best of all, Sperling and Miller offer advice on how to land a job.

Guest artists abound. At the recent session on the Dreamgirls score, students received coaching from Brian Brake, the original production's drummer.

It all started when Sperling and Miller shared lunch with Jonathan Haas, an NYU faculty member who's considered one of the world's greatest timpanists. Small talk became big once they mused about a course that would teach musicians Broadway practicalities.

The discussion also led to the NYU Broadway Orchestra that plays for the school's shows presented in its Frederick Loewe Theatre.

Although Sperling was a viola and harpsichord major at Juilliard before heading to Yale, his first Broadway job was playing synthesizer for Sunday in the Park with George.

"You'd expect a lot of synthesizer in Act Two because it takes place in modern times," he says. "But Act One, although set in the 19th century, uses a lot of synthesizer to replicate a harpsichord."

You may have wondered why musicians read from music in the pit. Why don't they memorize the way actors do with lines? Certain musicians have played the same long-run show for months, years or decades. They must know the music by now.

"No need for musicians to memorize unless they're the center of attention," says Sperling. "They do memorize music when they're going to be on stage in front of the audience ."

Sperling and his My Fair Lady orchestra have been experiencing just that for the last year. Director Bartlett Sher starts Act Two with The Embassy Ball (as the Oscar-winning film does), although the original production had it conclude Act One.

With the intermission there, Sperling and his orchestra have time to climb out of the pit and position themselves on stage. Once the curtain is raised, theatergoers oooh in delight at the unexpected sight of dozens of musicians portraying the ones that play the ball where Henry Higgins brings Eliza Doolittle.

(Do consider this when you do My Fair Lady.)

This isn't Sperling's first appearance on a Broadway stage. He originated Wallace Hartley, the bandmaster on the Titanic who was one of the casualties on the ill-fated maiden voyage.

"It's really something to be on stage and see everything from that vantage point," Sperling says. He urges musicians to do it, too.

Miller was onstage in the 1977 musical I Love My Wife. Although the show's libretto had him and three other musicians start the show as actual characters, it eventually used them solely as on-stage musicians.

"So we couldn't have music stands in full view," Miller remembers. "We had to memorize the score."

Their diligence paid off. "The Band" won that season's Drama Desk Award as Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

Sperling warns his students that the musical chain is as strong as its weakest link. "You can be the most brilliant player, but if the person next to you can't maneuver the music, then the entire orchestra will sound bad," he says.

Thus, he cautions musical directors to be very careful when hiring. Sperling says he's rarely fired anyone. "Whenever I have, though," he says, "I realized that letting someone go is easier in the early stages than in the late."

Then comes the mad dash for substitutes, who certainly need that music in front of them.

"As a rule, musicians don't have agents, so we are each other's agents," Miller says. "When we suddenly need a sub, we look to musicians for recommendations. If you're hard to work with or terminally late, they won't mention you. So be nice."

That's one of the best pieces of advice musicians will hear during their time with The Broadway Orchestra Initiative.

Read more Filichia Features .

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at . He can be heard most weeks of the year on