Most people’s jobs involve some repetition. If asked to imagine some of the most repetitive and boring jobs, working on an assembly line or in a garment factory sweatshop would likely come to mind. The idea that well-paid professional musicians might have one of the most repetitive jobs would likely come as a surprise, because playing music is seen as a quintessentially creative endeavor and being creative is surely the opposite of boring.
And yet this episode of the radio program This American Life describes what it is like to be in the orchestra pit of the wildly successful musical The Phantom of the Opera that has run on Broadway for 32 years. It says that the musicians who got the job had no idea that it would run this long. They occupy a very cramped space in front to the stage where they sit cheek by jowl with others and play the same thing night after night after night. After awhile, it becomes robotic. Not only that, they all go through the same routine before and after every show. Many of the players have been there from the beginning of the play’s run (and some have died) and naturally start getting on each other’s nerves because of all manner of annoying little tics and mannerisms they begin to notice and some begin to hate each other. Since they are not playing all the time during a performance, some of them do other things in the gaps, like learn new languages or run a side business on their laptop.
The musicians do not want to leave the play because it pays well and steady music jobs are hard to get and the radio show’s narrator talks to many of them about the conflicts and how they deal with the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the music. The pandemic abruptly ended the run and the musicians, like pretty much all performers in the theater world, now have no income. While the players dreamed of a life freed from the repetition of this play, this was not how they envisaged it would end.
I once acted in the play Homebody Kabul by Tony Kushner produced by the Dobama Company, a regional professional theater company in Cleveland. The play ran over a couple of months, though just from Thursdays through Sundays. I even got paid for it, which enables me to occasionally say in conversation with my children, “I recall from my days in the theater …” which elicit eye rolls and groans. It was an interesting experience and it gave me an insight into what it was like to do the same thing over and over again. One has to concentrate and really get into the character before going on stage for each scene so that one’s mind does not go into autopilot mode and the performance becomes flat. I now have a much greater appreciation for those actors who can make it look fresh and spontaneous with each performance.