Over the weekend I saw a local, community theatre production of a fairly recent popular musical. There were several of my current and (recently) former students involved. I’m glad I saw the show. It sparked several things I want to write about over the next few weeks.
The theatre where I saw the show has not used a live band for years (or at least that’s what was explained to me). Typically they use (according to some in the know) some sort of click track — sometimes locally produced with a full orchestra, or a small combo (pre-recorded) or MIDI/Synthesizer tracks
The show used tracks from a company called the MT Pit, which provides this service. On one hand, these tracks were some of the best backing tracks I have ever heard. The orchestra sounded very professional, they had a nice swing, and a good tone and sound.
That said, the lack of a live orchestra hurts a musical so much. I used to think, “well the tracks aren’t very good, but if they were….” However, this showed me, that no matter how high quality the tracks, it sucks some of the life out of a show. The recording can’t vamp while the audience laughs (or move ahead when they don’t). The recording can’t feel when the performer wants a little ritardando or accellerando or whatever the performer needs to connect with that specific audience on that specific night. The fact that theatre is live is what makes it magical. Taking away the live musicians hurts a show so much.
The flip side, theatre is so expensive to produce. Rights, physical production, staff, insurance, advertising etc. all cost a lot (and those costs are rising constantly). I understand while theatres look at the orchestra and think it is a needless expense — or at least where the cost doesn’t equal the benefits. Click tracks, especially beautifully sounding tracks tempt producers to think this is better. I’d rather hear a small combo, or even piano only so long as it is live, and there, and present with the actors. Those few musicians make such a difference.
In educational theatre, while my over all opinion holds, if given the choice between students not learning about musical theatre, or doing theatre with a click track, I guess I would choose the click track — but really, I can’t imagine that the click track is cheaper than a small combo.
It was so frustrating in the theatre — great tracks backing the singers, but they were still tracks, plodding on at the predetermined tempo. A machine trying to do the job of an artist. It ends up being disappointing.