Life in the orchestra pit of a musical

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.


  1. robert79 says

    I’ve played in the orchestra of a few amateur musicals, the only paid professional was the conductor. He also taught at the music school and conducted in some high profile performances. We rehearsed for a year, and then had shows for a week or two (we did manage to get fairly well filled theaters!) As is the case with amateur shows, the first theater shows sucked (thank you friends and family for still applauding!), then we gradually got better, and the last show actually got a good review in the local newspaper.

    By that time we were completely burnt out.

    At which point our conductor casually remarked that we’d reached the level where a professional group would just *start* their shows and milk it for several years until interest lapsed.

  2. jenorafeuer says

    I can believe it.

    I was part of an amateur theatre group at my University that put on a musical comedy production every year. Since we were running on University terms, the entire show from writing to casting to production had to be done in about three months so that it could all be done before people had to start worrying about exams. The show would only actually run for a week. Literally everybody who wanted a part would get one; there were always lots of parts with only a single brief scene to allow this, and if there weren’t enough people, somebody could have a multiple walk-on parts in different scenes.

    We didn’t actually have an orchestra, most of the music was done entirely a capella. Though we did use the orchestra pit one year in the production I was most involved with: the show was basically told as a murder prosecution case with multiple flashbacks to the actual events that led up to it. The ‘flashback’ scenes were done on the main stage, while the framing story was done in the orchestra pit, which would be raised up to stage level so they could do their bit while the main curtains were closed and the scenery was being rearranged backstage. For the last scene, where the court was watching a recording of events, the pit was kept raised up after the curtains opened so both stages were used at the same time.

    Even without an orchestra, just doing the same play for weeks of rehearsals and a week of full performances was draining on people who were also full-time University students. The female lead lost her voice halfway through the last show and had to be replaced by her understudy mid-show. (Which led to one of the other actors, after having checked with the writer and producers that they were okay with it,replacing his line about ‘and soandso’s girlfriend here…’ with ‘and soandso’s girlfriend’s understudy here…’ to added laughter from the audience.) I’ve done enough theatre work and choir tours to know just how repetitive it can get.

  3. consciousness razor says

    After awhile, it becomes robotic.

    A few months would probably do it for me. If you’ve got some interesting new material to work on, performing is great; if not, it can be a real grind. Practice, rehearse, perform, practice, rehearse, perform. Wash, rinse, repeat, every day, until you can’t get it wrong. But that’s just the beginning, like robert79 said above. Then, you keep doing it some more, as long as somebody’s still paying. The writing process can be repetitive in some ways too, but at least something is bound to be new for me with each new project.

    The same musical for thirty-two years sounds like hell. I get it though. At least the potential of long-term, reliable work is something people in many other professions take as a given, but it’s fairly uncommon in the music world. Getting a promotion isn’t really a thing either, unless you’ve got an academic position or something like that. However, being a music teacher/professor is really just a different type of career. It’s nice for some, but it’s very frustrating for others who’d rather focus on writing or playing music (if they can even find time to do it at all).

    Groups like The Rolling Stones and such are kind of in the same boat I guess, but they’re also absurdly rich and famous. It’s not like they’re playing all their greatest hits for every crowd because they need to pay the bills – they definitely have that covered. So I don’t really get how they do it. I suppose some also try out acting, starting a fashion line, political activism, or whatever they feel like I guess … maybe just taking lots of drugs.

  4. John Morales says

    Bah. I’ve actually done factory work, and this is nothing like as bad or repetitive.

    For a proper comparison, try playing the very same few notes over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over for 8 hours, with two 10-minute breaks and one 20-minute break (yes, 8:40 in total).

    For minimum wage. Can’t keep it up? You won’t be back the next day. Plenty of other people want to be abused for that minimum wage.

    So, please get some perspective.

  5. consciousness razor says

    John Morales:
    Mano didn’t say they’re “as bad or repetitive.” He talked about what sort of work is likely to come to mind for many people, saying it may be surprising to some (clearly not me) to hear that being a musician can be very repetitive and boring.

    I’ve actually done factory work, and this is nothing like as bad or repetitive.

    I have too. (Night shift. Don’t remember exactly, but it wasn’t much higher than minimum wage.)

    However, from the dismissive attitudes about all things artistic that you’ve expressed many times before, I gather that you haven’t been a professional musician. So it’s completely beyond me why you would try to base this on your own work experience, which lacks the other half of the comparison.

  6. says

    Sadly, for most musicians the life is flat out boring, playing the same songs week after week, but the perqs are thought to be worth the hassle (or so said my father who was a drummer playing in clubs Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays).

    I recall a Jimi Hendrix biopic that had a scene near the end where Jimi is playing in a small nightclub and someone from the back of the room calls out: “Play Purple Haze!” and Jimi replies: “I’m not a damn jukebox, man.”

    Such is the life of the entertainer.

  7. John Morales says


    He talked about what sort of work is likely to come to mind for many people, saying it may be surprising to some (clearly not me) to hear that being a musician can be very repetitive and boring.

    “The idea that well-paid professional musicians might have one of the most repetitive jobs would likely come as a surprise”

    (My emphasis)

    To venture a guess, I’d put that no higher than, um, the 7th decile or so of “most repetitive”. And it’s not exactly unskilled labour.
    So, if one includes that 3-decile band as part of the “most”, then I grant that.

    So it’s completely beyond me why you would try to base this on your own work experience, which lacks the other half of the comparison.

    It’s indicative of your acumen that it’s beyond you.

    I mean, I’ve never been a filthy-rich idle scion living a life of luxury with never a worry about the best medical care or indulging my appetites or even having any of my needs met, so I can’t possibly compare that life to mine, right?

    I’ve also never been a plantation slave, so obviously I can’t properly opine as to whether that’s any worse than being in my situation. Right?

    PS Night shift? Not too bad. I used to do rotating shifts — 6:15 am start, 2:15pm start, 10:15 pm start on weekly rotation, 12-hours on 12 off weekends once a month.

    One can get grouchy on such a regime.

  8. flex says

    Heh. I can understand the boredom, but my life in theater was very different. Probably because I was only once on stage.

    I spent ten years as the technical director and occasional scenic designer for a university Gilbert and Sullivan group. It was frantic and all my work was done after my normal working day at my day job except on the load-in week. Every evening there was a different set of challenges as well as an overall schedule to meet (which I devised) so that when the sets got to the theater everything was there. Boredom didn’t enter into it.

    I expect it would have been different had I been stage manager for more than a couple shows. The stage managers need to listen and pay attention to all the lines, cues, entrances, exits, props, sound effects, etc. If I had to do that job for years on end it would get tedious. But as technical director, once the show was running, I just had to be on hand to fix things which were broken. There was one exception. I had a scenic designer for a set for Gondoliers who designed an incredibly complex set. It took the entire intermission to make the set change and the whole thing needed to be done to a cadence with every step followed in order otherwise the first act set wouldn’t fit backstage. The first set change took 25 minutes, but by the end of the run we had it down to 15.

    #6, hyphenman, I was at a concert where Bobby McFarrin was playing a few years ago. It was a tour with Bobby and Chick Corea and a drummer who I can’t remember his name. It was a great concert, mainly because all three members of the trio were incredibly skilled and they also were having great fun improvising, riffing on each other, on stage. At one point one of the audience members shouted out, “Play -- Don’t Worry Be Happy.” And Booby shouted back, “You know the words! Sing it yourself!” The concern was great fun, not as good as when I saw Brubeck, but I’ve never been at a better show than with Brubeck.

  9. Holms says

    The standout for repetitiveness in music would have to be the cellist of a string quartet that does weddings.

  10. Khakaure Senusret says

    I think this fits in here.
    “Vexations” by Erik Satie, in which the same short piece of music, three lines, is repeated 840 times, the whole piece taking some 18 hours.

    John Cale. I’ve got a secret.

  11. woodsong says

    Hyphenman, flex, those stories remind me of one my husband told me. He used to know the members of a punk rock band (back in the late 70s or early 80s) who played regularly in a local bar every week. Every time they played, one of the patrons would yell “Play some Dylan!” at some point during the show. One week, the band members decided during practice that they’d actually do it. They worked up their own (punk rock style) version of “Like A Rolling Stone”, practiced it together, and agreed that the next time they heard that request they would drop whatever song they were playing, play the Dylan, and then go back to their own music.
    That week, the usual “Play some Dylan!” came up in the middle of one of their songs. They went into “Like A Rolling Stone” and back into their own piece, to the great amusement of most of the bar’s patrons, and the openmouthed shock of the person who requested it. They never heard him yell for some Dylan again.
    Holms, while a string quartet might look and sound repetitive, they do have more control of what they play and in what order than theatrical musicians. The cellist who wants to change things up a little only has three other people to negotiate the playlist with, and I’d expect that the quartet are all good enough friends to minimize the frictions. Sure, there will be some pieces that they play at every single performance, but they can rearrange them as they feel like, and explore variations in harmony (at least in practices).

  12. says

    As a writer I’ve contemplated the heaven and hell of writers like Sue Grafton (or much earlier, Arthur Conan Doyle) who have an early success with one character that becomes so popular that they’re doomed to make tons of money writing book after book about that one character.

  13. Holms says

    woodsong, what you might not know is string quartets that do wedding gigs *will* play Canon in D for their bread and butter, and the cello part in that is particularly wearying -- two bars of crotchets, repeated for the entire duration of that piece.

  14. mnb0 says

    @11 Woodsong: “I’d expect that the quartet are all good enough friends to minimize the frictions.”
    If they are not good enough friends the ensemble won’t last too long. I know, I’ve played the viola in a quintet. No, we never played at weddings.

    “they can rearrange them as they feel like”
    That’s generally not acceptable in classical music. However they can change repertoire (unlike their specialty is American weddings, apparently).

  15. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    Hi, former high school orchestra member here who also is in a bar band that was working before covid closed the bars. Most of the other working musicians have said the things I was thinking, leaving only this point for me to make.

    “Groups like The Rolling Stones and such are kind of in the same boat” isn’t exactly true. The orchestra is chained to the score of the show. They can’t change the playlist, or the order, or even the tempo. They are there to serve the show, and the people who can actually INTERACT with the audience are the ones on the stage and not in the pit.

    The performer who is ON the stage can change anything they want, and can see the audience’s reaction to it. Even with musical theater, the actors can ad lib and expect their castmates to help them carry it off. With a strictly music act, if bandmates are familiar with the material and are good enough (as the Stones certainly are), the audience will enjoy the variation from the recorded version even more. And everyone will get to feel the approval coming back from them, which is what most performers feed on. The orchestra in the pit only gets secondhand approval until the very end of the show.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *