The music conductors who make Broadway sing - but won't get Tonys Broadway's music conductors aren't eligible for Tony Awards. But they're still vital to each show.

The music conductors who make Broadway sing - but won't get Tonys

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Tonight, the Tony Awards, Broadway's highest honors, will be handed out at Radio City Music Hall after the first full season following the COVID shutdown. Not everyone who works on a show is eligible for an award, so every year, reporter Jeff Lunden shines the spotlight onto Broadway's essential workers who won't be walking up to collect medallions. This year, it's music directors.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: In the good old days, music directors were easy to spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: You looked at the orchestra pit in front of the stage and saw a conductor waving a baton. But these days, the musicians can be placed anywhere, from a loft above the stage to a room in the basement of the theater.

RONA SIDDIQUI: This is the state of things. And, yeah, we have our own little pit in the basement, and it's very comfortable.

LUNDEN: That's Rona Siddiqui, the music director for "A Strange Loop," which is nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including best musical.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "A STRANGE LOOP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing) Portrait of a portrait of a Black, queer face. And a choir full of...

LUNDEN: While Siddiqui is on keyboards with five other musicians in the basement, the cast follows her by looking at video monitors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "A STRANGE LOOP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Singing) Black and queer as American Broadway...

SIDDIQUI: I mean, yes, I would rather feel, like, more connected to the actors and actually be in proximity with them and feel them, and they can feel us vibrating together, but this is what it is.

LUNDEN: The music director is involved in many elements of a musical. They help cast the show, teach actors the music, rehearse the band, sometimes create vocal and dance arrangements and work closely with the orchestrator, director and composer. And once the show is up and running, they conduct it eight times a week.

SIDDIQUI: I feel like the music director is kind of like the pub communication-wise because you're - you've got the creatives on one prong and the cast on one prong and the band on one prong, and you're the thing - you're kind of the linchpin, I guess, that's kind of keeping the whole thing together. It's a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "COMPANY")

UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE #1: (Singing) ...Comes company...

LUNDEN: And keeping things together changes from performance to performance and actor to actor, says Joel Fram, music director of the Tony-nominated revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Company."

JOEL FRAM: If you start a number and it is clear that the person may want it to go a little faster, then you nudge the orchestra along in a way that nobody but you and that singer will notice.

LUNDEN: Fram has been involved in this gender-swapped revival of "Company" since it was conceived in London back in 2017. Bobby, the male bachelor in the original, has become a 35-year-old woman worried about her biological clock in the revival. In the original, Bobby's three girlfriends sang an Andrews Sisters-type song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "COMPANY")

UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE #2: (Singing) You could drive a person crazy. You could drive a person mad (vocalizing).

LUNDEN: In the revival, Bobby's boyfriends sing the song in a new vocal arrangement by Fram.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "COMPANY")

UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE #3: (Singing) Like to get a person all romantic, while you're made to feel a fool (vocalizing).

LUNDEN: Fram says he worked on at least a dozen drafts of the vocal arrangement, which needed the late Stephen Sondheim's approval.

FRAM: I just changed the last note of the melody to move up instead of down, thinking that Steve would never notice, and Steve sent me an email back that said, may I remind you I am the greatest living composer-lyricist in the world? Perhaps we should try the melody I wrote instead of the melody you wrote.

LUNDEN: Fram says he found a solution without changing the melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "COMPANY")

UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE #3: Bobby is my hobby and I'm giving it up.

LUNDEN: Fram conducts the orchestra from a loft above the stage, which is sometimes illuminated so the audience can see the players. Julia Schade, the music director of the Tony-nominated new musical "Six," is actually on stage playing keyboards with a small rock band.

JULIA SCHADE: Our outfits are so cool. They're these vinyl pants with laces laced up the front of them. We get these cool black boots that are studded out.

LUNDEN: "Six" is kind of like a rock concert starring Henry VIII's six wives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SIX")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Divorced.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: Beheaded.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: Died.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: Divorced.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: Beheaded.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: Survived.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (Singing) But just for you tonight, we're divorced, beheaded, live.

LUNDEN: And because the music is in a variety of contemporary pop grooves, the band wears in-ear monitors with a click track. Schade says it's like playing with a metronome.

SCHADE: So the click track really helps keep us all together and has, like, these little sort of electronic bassy (ph) things sometimes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SIX")

UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE #5: (Singing) I don't need your love, no, no. I don't need your love...

LUNDEN: All three of the shows got hit with omicron, which sometimes meant performances were suspended and often meant that understudies and standbys went on stage with subs in the pit. One of the music director's jobs is to maintain the integrity of the show regardless of who's in it, says Rona Siddiqui.

SIDDIQUI: You cannot go on autopilot. Your brain wants to go on autopilot because you've done it so many times, but you have to be responding to the actors and their energy, the audience and their energy, understudies and their energy.

LUNDEN: And Siddiqui adds she knows it's been a really good show if a lot of the audience members stick around to hear the exit music after the curtain calls.

SIDDIQUI: I always judge the audience by how much they applaud at the end of the exit music. I'm like, OK, yeah, they're a good audience (laughter).

LUNDEN: The Tony Awards will be broadcast on CBS this evening. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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