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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Now, a story that sounds like a musician's nightmare. Stuck in the same theater night after night playing the same notes over and over for 20 years. But ask the players who've been in the pit for "Phantom of the Opera" since it opened on Broadway in 1988, and they say it's a dream.

Here's independent producer David Schulman.

DAVID SCHULMAN: Sarah Brightman and the other original stars of "Phantom of the Opera" are long gone. In the orchestra pit though, things are different. Thirteen musicians in the orchestra have been on the job since day one. Trumpeter Lowell Hershey and French horn player Peter Reit are original members. They've been down in the pit more than 20 years. They've had their parts memorized for 19 of them.

Mr. PETER REIT (Musician): For me the thing is and I think for a lot of us is like we don't want these songs running through our heads outside the show. We don't want to be waking up in the morning and by mistake start singing in the shower "Phantom of the Opera." And I've never had that.

Mr. LOWELL HERSHEY (Musician): Well, I did.

Mr. REIT: Yeah.

Mr. HERSHEY: When the show first started, the melodies just were constantly going through my head and I would wake up in the middle of the night and I would hear some tunes.

(Soundbite of song "The Phantom of the Opera")

Mr. HERSHEY: My son loved the music so much, it was playing on the radio every time I went home and I had to ask him not to play it. But then after a few weeks I got to the point where if somebody asked me to sing something from the show I couldn't even do it. Somehow my brain just repressed it.

Mr. HENRY FANELLI (Musician): I have been playing "The Phantom of the Opera" since opening night January 26th, 1988.

SCHULMAN: That's Henry Fanelli, the harp player. The first time I called his cell phone he picked up from Fire Island. Where are you, I asked. He said, sitting on the deck of the beach house the "Phantom of the Opera" bought me. If you're a musician in New York, you don't expect your work to buy you a beach house. Even the notion of steady work can seem like a fantasy. Henry's in the pit warming up before performance number 8,490 of "Phantom of the Opera." He still gets anxious.

Mr. FANELLI: I've always had nightmares of not being able to get to the theater, being stuck somewhere, or there's no harp here, or the harp breaks or the music falls down. I have those anxiety dreams all the time. People say, how do you stand to hear that music night after night? Well, you know, playing music and listening to music is not exactly the same thing. It's a wonderfully written harp part that requires artistry and phrasing.

And there's one little chord that I have, it doesn't make any difference, the audience would never know the difference, but there's one little chord, there are nights where I just, I arpeggiate the chord just exactly right. This is strange isn't it? Anyway, there are places all through the show where I'm really am satisfied if I played it the way I really like to play.

(Soundbite of Mr. Reit Humming)

SCHULMAN: There's Peter Reit again without his French horn.

Mr. REIT: There's a couple money things. You know, like, you have the whole show and basically if anyone's even going to notice that you're there from the audience perspective because they're so caught up in the show, there's just a couple times when you have, like, major moments.

Unidentified Man: Ready, here we go. (Inaudible)

(Soundbite of French Horn)

Unidentified Man: That's it.

(Soundbite of song "The Phantom of the Opera")

Mr. HOWARD MCGILLIN (Actor): (As The Phantom) Let your mind start a journey though a strange new world. Leave all thoughts of the world you knew before. Let your soul take you where you long to be.

SCHULMAN: Practice makes perfect, but 20 years of practice?

Mr. HERSHEY: We never clam. We never make mistakes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REIT: It's bound to happen sooner or later. I mean and the shows run for so long, every mistake that's possible to make has been made.

SCHULMAN: 9.8, 9.9, the piano player holds up a score card for the most impressive errors. A few shows back Lowell got a perfect score.

Mr. REIT: What did you do to earn a ten?

Mr. HERSHEY: I made a loud short note entrance a bar early.

Mr. REIT: When no one else was playing.

Mr. HERSHEY: When no one, well, I think the harp plays a little.

Mr. REIT: Oh good.

SCHULMAN: Things do go wrong in "Phantom of the Opera." It's part of the plot. The Phantom causes a one-ton chandelier to crash to the stage. And a stagehand character gets strung up from the rafters dead. The Majestic Theater hasn't been a dangerous workplace for Lowell and Henry and most of the Phantom's pit musicians. Then again, there have been hair emergencies.

Mr. REIT: There was a moment where the pyrotechnics was a big flash when the Phantom disappears and a spark from the explosion went down and landed in the hair of the first, the oboist.

Mr. FANELLI: Oboe player.

Mr. REIT: And her hair actually was on fire. And they had to quickly, I'm sorry I'm laughing. At the timeā€¦

Mr. FANELLI: Well, it's 20 years. Funny little things that didn't go wrong.

Mr. REIT: Yeah. And she was uninjured but there was some damage to her hair which the hair departmentā€¦

Mr. FANELLI: Took care of it.

Mr. REIT: They took care of it. They cut her hair.

Mr. HERSHEY: The hair department?

Mr. REIT: Well yeah. Yeah. They cut her hair.

Mr. FANELLI: Adjusted the length of her hair.

Mr. REIT: They're experts in that field. Adjusted the length, that's true.

SCHULMAN: That kind of excitement is rare. Mostly the show runs like a clock. Eight shows a week, 20 years the notes never change. The musicians earn 1500 dollars a week, about 188 bucks a show or 78,000 a year if you play every performance. Section leaders get a bit more. You have to wonder, for a creative soul, is it a Faustian bargain? Peter Reit says the answer is simple, uh-uh.

Mr. REIT: It's not what people think. This show has enabled me to play more creatively than I ever could have in my life simply because it is stability and we have a 50 percent rule. We only need to be here 50 percent of the time every quarter. So anytime I want to take off to do something, I can. I can do brass quintet recitals, I can play in orchestras, all of us can do all this stuff.

SCHULMAN: They sub with the top orchestras in New York, and when a regular takes the night off, it's work for someone else. For performance 8,490, the pit orchestra included a horn player who's logged about 4,000 shows as a substitute. To reach the pit, the musicians walk a catwalk under the stage and pass through a narrow doorway.

Twenty-seven players squeeze into the pit for each show. For when they aren't playing, Lowell and the other musicians carry along books, crosswords, and Sudoku.

Mr. HERSHEY: Because I've done it for so long I know in my body when I'm supposed to be playing. When I'm not playing, I read books, I study languages, and then when I pick up the instrument again it's a little bit like Tourette's, you know, I drop the book and I blat out a few notes on trumpet and then I pick up the book again.

(Soundbite of song "The Phantom of the Opera")

SCHULMAN: For NPR News, I'm David Schulman.

SEABROOK: Their songs from "Phantom of the Opera" at the music section of our Web site, npr.org.

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