Playing over their heads

Musicians: The audience will get a rare peek at the Toby's Dinner Theatre musicians during "42nd Street."

June 08, 2000|By Nelson Pressley | Nelson Pressley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Usually when you go to see a musical, you'll find the orchestra - where else? - in the orchestra pit. At Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, however, the orchestra sits in a homemade loft, tucked high behind a wall, just under the roof. Usually, the audience never gets so much as a glimpse of the musicians.

The orchestra's invisibility - but not its position - will change slightly for "42nd Street," the sprightly musical comedy and legendary Broadway fable that begins performances tonight at Toby's. Music director Douglas Lawler has a speaking line or two, so he will poke his head out of the rectangular window cut high into one of the theater's four walls. (The seating at Toby's is in-the-round.)

The small orchestra - usually six musicians, anchored by Lawler at the keyboards - plays in a 10-by-10-foot room that has brown carpeting and walls to help dampen sound. A small window-unit air conditioner is built into the wall; between the summer sun beating on the roof and the heat from the theater lights,, Lawler says, "It can really bake in here."

Lawler can be seen only by the actors from one or two spots on the stage, so he can't do one of the key things a musical director and conductor typically does: cue the singers for musical entrances and cutoffs. "It's a special challenge," says the 31-year-old Lawler, "one that we're aware of when we're starting, when I'm teaching all the music."

Because visual communication is all but impossible, he and the orchestra listen to the singers (who wear body microphones) through a monitoring system. The singers are on their honor to listen closely to the instrumentalists and to be precise about singing and stopping on the beat.

Keeping a fine balance between the singers and the orchestra is another challenge. For years, the rectangular window looking over the theater was covered with Plexiglas to keep the musicians from overwhelming the singers. Recently, that has been taken down, letting more "live" sound filter to the audience. A sound operator sits on a platform over one of the four entrances to the theater, mixing the amplified sound and making sure that the audience hears the actors above all else.

Lawler's duties include handling the orchestrations for each musical. That means Lawler, who teaches composition and arranging at the Baltimore County Community College's Essex campus, has to figure out how six musicians can play scores that are generally written for 24 or more players. The difficulty of that task varies tremendously from show to show."`Follies'was huge," Lawler says of the Stephen Sondheim musical that recalls the heyday of revue extravaganzas. "42nd Street" is simpler: "It's a straight big band score - no strings, nice big sax section, a little brass section with French horn, and a basic rhythm section."

As a youngster, Lawler was less than thrilled with the isolation that came with piano practice.

"I started playing for choirs, and that just perked it right up for me," Lawler recalls. That hasn't changed: "Working with singers, I have to say, is my main attraction to musical theater."

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