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January 6, 2009 - WALL STREET JOURNAL Arts & Entertainment As a Music Contractor, His Job Is the Pits By JOANNE KAUFMAN
March 8th 2013 - Broadway World Music - Caryn Robbins BWW Interviews: Bassist & Broadway Music Contractor John Miller
For over 30 years, John Miller has been the musical coordinator on over 100 Broadway productions, from as far back as 1980's Barnum to 2012's Tony-winning revival of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. He also serves as a contractor for touring shows, movies and commercials and is an accomplished bass player who freelances for recordings and concerts, including The John Miller Quartet + 2 at 54 Below and The Cutting Room.
The creative jazz musician spoke exclusively to BWW about the earliest days of his career working alongside famed composer Cy Coleman as well as his more recent projects, including the highly anticipated revival of Stephen Schwartz's Pippin.
The role you play in the creation of a Broadway show is so varied, but can you explain in a nutshell what a musical coordinator does?
A music coordinator helps decide which musicians would be perfect for that particular show. But there is a whole process that takes place to get those musicians there for that show and that piece of the pie is part of the world I live in. The first step is how did I get the job? A number of people could have called me; the conductor, the music supervisor, an orchestrator, or a composer. I could have gotten a call from a producer or general manager who represents the producer. One of those people has called me and asked me to work on the show.
And do you find that you typically receive that call at the same point of every show's journey?
It can come either very early or it can come after all the elements are put together. There are some shows that I am involved with that are two years away. Some shows I'm involved with don't even have a composer, and there are others I'm involved with that called when they had all their ducks in a row and the final thing they needed was help selecting the musicians and someone to get them a good deal on musical equipment. So it can be anything from 2 to 3 years away to a call at a month's notice.
With a show like Pippin that is transferring from A.R.T., will some of the musicians come along with the show?
Pippin brought the music supervisor, conductor/keyboard and assist conductor/keyboard from New York. Other than that, terrific local musicians in Boston were hired for the A.R.T. production. Terrific New York musicians have been hired for the Broadway run.
I wanted to ask you about your involvement with Once. That show is so unusual in that the actors and the musicians are one and the same.
My involvement with Once was very specific. It was not a creative musical involvement; it was principally helping the producers resolve musician's union issues.
So you really are involved in so many different facets of the production. And once you are called in, does the conductor, or director still have a say in your choice of musicians?
A lot of very talented people have a say in the choices. It varies with each show. Sometimes it could be a combination of the conductor, music supervisor, orchestrator, composer, dance arranger and sometimes it can be a producer. They all may have suggestions of people they feel would be ideal for the show. But everyone has the same goal in mind; the perfect musicians for that production.
How did you first fall into this profession, because I know first and foremost you are a musician?
I had done a lot of work with Cy Coleman as a bass player. And I was also the music director and a performer in a show of Cy's called I Love My Wife. There were four of us musicians acting and singing as a quartet on stage. We actually won a Drama Desk Award that year. A few years later, around 1981,Cy had a show called Barnum coming in and asked me if I'd like to be the music contractor for it. I'd never done that for a show before, but I think he felt secure asking because whenever I had recommended musicians for recordings or different gigs we were doing, he always felt comfortable and protected by my choices.
So he asked me and I remember the story well, and he loved to tell this story for years. I said, "Absolutely not!" And he looked at me incredulously and said, "Why?" I said, "Cy, I'm a single guy in New York, working all the time, I have a motorcycle, just having a great time," and while I didn't tell him this, the connotation of a contractor to me back then was kind of a little seedy, a little wheeling-and-dealing, a little cigar chomping. Not that I had ever played in a pit of a Broadway show, but from what I had seen about it back then, it had that reputation. So that's why I told Cy, "Absolutely not." And then he had this great line, he said, "I gotta give it to some schmuck, I just as soon give it to you!"
So I said to Cy what I normally say when I'm in these situations, "Let me get back to you." And I called up a bunch of my pals and I asked, 'What would you do?" and they all said the same thing, "Try it, see how you like it. Maybe it's as awful as you think it is, maybe it's worse. Maybe it's not that bad and maybe it will even be fun." So that was the first show that I did and that was about 100 Broadway shows ago!
Do you have one particular show which was most memorable to you?
As a musician there are always going to be shows that really resonate. Certainly as a jazz bass player a show like City of Angels was pretty spectacular. As a guy who plays rock 'n roll, a show like Tommy is pretty great. As a guy who likes pop music a show like Jersey Boys is right up there.
To work on classic revivals such as Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma is a thrill just to hear those songs again. And to be working with the composers of today, Stephen Sondheim, Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, Jerry Herman, Marc Shaiman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Maury Yeston, Jeanine Tesori, Scott Frankel, Elton John, Harry Connick Jr., Burt Bacharach, Mike Stoller, Stephen Flaherty, Lucy Simon, Jeffrey Stock, Jimmy Roberts, Rachel Portman, Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Michael Friedman, Matt Sklar, Lisa Lambert, Frank Wildhorn, Ricky Ian Gordon, Mark Hollmann, Chris Miller, Gunnar Madsen, Willard Beckman, John Bucchino, Jason Howland, Pete Townshend... nothing beats that.
Most smart audiences will relate to the book, relate to the songs things like that, but for most musicians, their first go-to place will be to respond to what the feel of the score is. But I can tell you, there hasn't been a show I've worked on that I haven't loved working on. I don't smoke, but probably the cigar chomping contractors of years ago felt the same way!
March 1st 2013 - Bass Musician Magazine - by John Kuhlman From Bedroom to Business: John Miller
October 15th 2012 - Playbill.com - by Mervyn Rothstein
A LIFE IN THE THEATRE: John Miller, the Broadway Musical Contractor, Lends an Ear
Meet John Miller, the longtime musical coordinator who helps match the right musicians to Broadway and touring musicals.
"I'm not sure I intentionally sought this as a career," John Miller says. "What got me into this was my love of playing the bass."
Miller is a musical coordinator, or contractor, for Broadway shows. For more than 30 years he has been the coordinator on over 100 productions, including the Tony-winning Once, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, Newsies, the Follies revival, Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages and Hairspray — all the way back to Barnum in 1980.
He's also a contractor for touring shows, movies and commercials. And yes, he freelances as a string bass player (though not in his musicals) for recordings and concerts, including at the nightclub 54 Below.
What is the musical coordinator's job? He works with the conductor, the composer and the orchestrator "to decide who would be perfect musicians for that show," Miller says. "Musicians who'd work well with that conductor, musicians the composer would want for the style of music, musicians who'd bring everything the orchestrator wants out of the instruments. You're sort of the conduit for all these musical parts of the show." He's also involved in the nitty-gritty, like budgets, substitute musicians and cast albums.
Composer Cy Coleman specifically led Miller to this career. "I worked as a studio musician for Cy. I played on some of his albums and was involved in his Broadway musical I Love My Wife," in 1977. "I was music director and played Harvey, the bass player. Just four musicians were in the band, onstage, acting and singing. About a year later, Cy said he had this show Barnum and asked me to be music contractor. I said, 'Absolutely not.' He was incredulous. I said, 'I'm single in New York, playing the bass, riding my motorcycle, having a great time.' He said, 'I got to give it to some schmuck. I'd just as soon give it to you.' That was 100 shows ago."
Miller grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side and early on became interested in music. "I taught myself guitar, a little piano. When I was 16 or 17, my brother brought home from college a friend who had a string bass and left it at our house over Christmas. I started fooling around with it. My parents were shocked when I told them this was an instrument I'd like to study. I was just drawn to it."
Miller studied bass at the University of Michigan. "This was the 1960s. A coffeehouse in Ann Arbor, Canterbury House, was the Midwest stopping place for the big folk-rock boom. People like Doc Watson, Janis Ian, Richie Havens, Tim Buckley, Odetta played there. I was 19. I'd get there at 5 PM for their sound check. They'd play by themselves, but I was fearless. I'd walk onstage and start playing bass behind them. They had no idea who this kid was. By the end of the sound check, 99 percent would ask if I'd like to play with them for no money. I said, 'Absolutely.'"
He also played "jazz clubs, and with bluegrass groups, German oompah bands."
He was getting his degree playing classical music, and his teacher suggested he audition for the Minneapolis Symphony. "I realized that fit in the category of things I thought I should do, not what I wanted to do."
After graduation, says Miller, some of the Canterbury House performers "called me to do gigs with them. Then I came home" to New York, to "a wonderful career as a freelance bass player, playing all styles of music." And to Cy Coleman, and Broadway.
Miller is also heard on an album, "Stage Door Johnny," on which he sings and plays fresh arrangements of classic show tunes.
(This feature appears in the October 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)
February 13, 2012 - How to Make a Living as a Musician website - by Marc Ensign
An Interview with Bassist and Broadway Contractor John Miller
If you have ever had any interest in making a living as a musician in and around New York City, you have no doubt heard of, spoken to, worked for, played with or listened to John Miller. Along with being the musical contractor for some of Broadways greatest hits like Tommy, Jersey Boys, Hairspray and a ton more, John is also a very accomplished bass player that has performed with some of the best there is.
In preparation for writing my book “How to Make a Living as a Musician”, John was gracious enough to set aside some time and offer up some of his wisdom. Here is a little taste…
When someone wants to be considered for a show that you are contracting, how do you prefer they reach out to you? Mail? E-mail? Phone? Are you looking for a demo? Resume? Etc.
Personally, I’ve never gotten a job as a bass player by making a phone call or sending a resume. All of the work I have ever gotten came from another musician recommending me. If you are a basketball player and all you want to do is play professional basketball, it would be naïve to say that you are going to call, write or send a letter to Pat Riley and get on the team. Instead, be the best. Play. Play in high school. Play in college. Play on the street. Wherever you can, play. And if you’re really good, you’re going to hear from Pat Riley.
That being said, in the world of enlightened self-interest I think e-mailing your resume is an acceptable form of introduction. My only advice would be to make sure that in your resume you include a few people that know your playing and an honest assessment of where you think your strengths are. For example, if you say you are an electric bass player who doubles on upright bass, you’d better be sure that your proficiency on both instruments are the same. If you are a fantastic electric player that plays a little upright, somehow make that clear. The last thing you would want is for someone to hire you based on your resume only to find yourself on a gig expected to play acoustic bass with a bow and you blow it.
What specific attributes do you look for when you are hiring for musicians for a new show?
Often times I make the analogy of a musician that is called by his Aunt Sadie to put together a trio for Aunt Sadie’s’ wedding anniversary. At the moment he is asked, that musician is now a leader and contractor and is responsible for making the decision of what musicians to use. He will look for the best players that he can find for that style, that can blend in musically and personally, that show up on time, won’t eat all the food, won’t come on to all the women and will put their cases in another room. Someone who is a consummate professional that can read whatever reading is involved, transpose whatever Aunt Sadie’s husband wants to sing and easily adjust if the electricity goes out for a half hour. It’s no different for that contractor than it is for a Broadway contractor. It’s much more than just the ability to play.
Since there are so many factors in choosing the right player beyond musical ability alone, are the majority of your decisions of who to hire based on who is already in your Rolodex?
Not too long ago I hired musicians I never met or never even heard of before. How did they get the job? I called one musician I wanted who was the perfect player for the style and instrumentation of the show. He was not available. He suggested a player I never heard of who he thought was a terrific musician. I wrote the name down and called the next alternate. He was not available either and recommended the same person. I called a third person that was not available and he recommended the exact same person. I called that person and he got the gig. So, what is the lesson?
Musicians are like athletes. Athletes know what ball player can get the ball in the hoop. Athletes don’t lie. Athletes might say I don’t like them but I know they can get the job done and I want him on my team. Musicians know who is good and if you are really good, word will spread quickly. So it’s not necessarily who is in a contractors Rolodex as much as who is on everyone’s mind.
Aside from being one of the most sought after Broadway contractors, you are also quite an accomplished bass player. What is the secret behind such a long illustrious career as a professional musician?
I’m committed to one thing…not sucking. My strength is that I play all styles of music on the electric, fretless and upright well because I love all styles of music. I am fearless and confident and committed to making it as comfortable as I can for the other players. While many times on a gig the knee jerk reaction may be to show off what a monster player you are, what I do is just the opposite. I let the drummer take the four bar fill. I play with a deep pocket and bring no attention to myself. I try and make everyone else shine. That approach has resulted in some of the greatest compliments I have ever received.
How important do you think formal education is for an aspiring musician?
Clearly you need a lot of skills. WHERE you learn the skills doesn’t matter as much as WHETHER you learn them. For example, on the gig no one really cares where you learned to play a G minor scale, they only care how well you play a G minor scale. With that said, formal education can offer a foundation of musical and social well roundedness that can significantly aid in a players sophistication. It offers a great opportunity to learn in many styles, meet a lot of other musicians, create a lot of opportunities and develop a lot of new relationships. In the end, what’s best depends on the individual.
It may sound cliché but if you could give some advice to a musician wanting to work on Broadway, other than the obvious like be a good reader, what would it be?
The reason why Broadway is talked about now more than ever is because it is the last place a freelance musician could get a steady gig making a living as a musician. But if you look at the players that have ongoing careers as a professional musician you will find people that are extremely versatile that work in many other facets of the industry. They have had a long career outside of Broadway. For classical players, Broadway is just something else they do while playing in the various symphonies. Players are actively involved in freelance work, small bands, big acts, etc. Constantly playing with whatever acts they can find…and they also play Broadway. The goal is to be working. Broadway is only part of it.
May 12, 2009 - Broadway.com Industry Insider: John Miller
For more than three decades, John Miller has worked behind-the-scenes on Broadway as a music coordinator. He is currently represented on Broadway by Jersey Boys and Rock of Ages. A bass player by training, he also has sat in the orchestra pits of many shows.
When we heard that John has a new CD out this spring, we e-mailed him with some questions about his role in bringing musicals to the stage, and how he got into the business. Here are his answers.
What exactly does a music coordinator do?
The music coordinator is a part of the music team consisting of the composer, conductor, music supervisor (when there is one) and orchestrator. Sometimes I’m asked early on to recommend conductors or orchestrators, and occasionally sound designers. But more often, once a conductor is onboard, I work with the team to help find the perfect musicians that all agree would be the best fit for the musical needs of that specific show. This is one of my favorite parts of the job. It’s a great feeling to be a part of giving work to deserving musicians.
Then I help set up all the details for the orchestra rehearsal schedule. We prepare all budgets, payrolls, contracts and help find the most cost-effective ways to give the music team exactly what they want, making sure that all musicians’ union rules are followed.
Once a show is up and running, we maintain it by overseeing musician’s substitutes, publicity appearances, and organize the cast album and road show when there is one.
How did you fall into this role?
After getting my degree in the string bass at the University of Michigan in the mid 1960s, I returned to NYC and started working as a freelance musician. One of the artists I was lucky enough to record with was Cy Coleman, who asked me to be the music director and one of the performers of his show I Love My Wife, for which our four-piece combo won a Drama Desk award.
Then in the early ‘80s he asked if I wanted to be the contractor of his new show, Barnum, coming to Broadway. I said no. Cy looked at me and said, “I’ve got to give it to some schmuck, I’d just as soon give it to you.” So I decided to give it a shot. Cy was thrilled with the band; I took it very seriously but I was flying by the seat of my pants. To my surprise I dug it, and happily the phone kept ringing.
What was your most memorable show to work on?
As a jazz bass player, I’ll never forget the first time all the musicians played the score of City of Angels. No one who was there will forget. And as a rock bass player, hearing that opening chord to The Who’s Tommy is unforgettable. From the first rehearsal of The Producers through closing night, working with Mel and his entire team was what you might expect: ridiculous good fun for everyone.
I’m not sure what music I was listening to in the 80’s, but it wasn’t White Snake. So I’m currently having a ball getting to know all these great tunes in Rock of Ages. The challenge for me in this show was to help put together a 5-piece band who not only play this music convincingly, but who live it and look it. So my own personal goal was to put together a group who had never played as a band, and have them sound like they’ve been on the tour bus for years with endless amount of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Goal achieved!
How did this new CD come about?
When I’m through wheeling my bass around the city, and my work as a music coordinator is over, I make my way home late at night and lean the bass up in the living room corner. My wife and our dog are asleep. The night is peaceful. I pick up the guitar -- the Martin my parents gave me when I was 12. I turn on the TV to watch a movie…anything, and begin to play.
Nothing in particular, just some chords, or some fragmented lines. Gradually, they begin to morph into a groove. The groove always came first and that would lead me towards one of these great Broadway classics. Then the arrangement evolved from there.
I love each of these songs, but I feel as though I didn’t actually pick them -- they somehow picked themselves. Each one surfaced from down deep in my earliest memories and affections and kept me and the Martin company with late-night, relentlessly seductive guitar grooves.
March 23, 2009 - PLAYBILL.COM ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Live from O-Lando By Seth Rudetsky
Last Wednesday, I interviewed John Miller, who is one of the biggest Broadway contractors. A contractor is the person who hires the musicians in the pits, and he's done so many shows, it's mind-boggling. The Producers, Seussical, Jersey Boys, Thoroughly Modern Mille, The Drowsy Chaperone are just a smattering of the many shows for which he's put the orchestra together. He was there talking about his new CD called "Stage Door Johnny."
John began as a bass player and in the late 70's he was asked to audition for I Love My Wife, the musical that celebrated the 70's penchant for wife swapping. Quick trivia note: Who took over for the two male leads? Answer: The Smothers Brothers. Question Two: Who understudied them? Answer: Chicago director Walter Bobbie!
So, the show needed a bass player who could sing and act a little, and John was asked to try out for the part and, before he went, he asked his actor friend for audition tips. His friend said that if John got a call offering him the part, he should ask to look at the script and score. John auditioned… and was offered the part on the spot! He tried to act savvy and told the director that he'd like to look at the script. There was an awkward pause and they finally said, "OK…we could get you a script." Then John said, "…and I'd like to see the score." Well, the composer was sitting right there…. and it was Cy Coleman! He had written the scores to Sweet Charity and On The Twentieth Century. There was another awkward pause, but this time it was followed by "Thank you very much!" Usually if you're thanked, you're also ixnayed. John was mortified, called and apologized for acting like he didn't want the job and he got cast. And, he was the main singer who debuted that 70's classic "Hey, There Good Times," which was also featured on the Tony Awards.
January 2009 - International Musician ADAM DOLGE
FROM BASSIST TO CONTRACTOR - STAGE DOOR JOHNNY
John Miller got his start playing for music greats in Michigan. After moving home to New York City, he started hislong career as a bass player and music contractor. John Miller admits he never had a practical goal when he’d approach music greats like Tim Buckley, Doc Watson of Local 546 (Knoxville, TN), Richie Havens of Local 802, John Hammond Jr. of Local 248 (Paterson, NJ), Skip James, or Ramblin’ Jack Elliott of Local 292 (Santa Rosa, CA) and ask to accompany them on bass. He was just an 18-year-old student, attending the University of Michigan, studying string bass in the mid 1960s.
“That was an extremely formative time for me. I realized I loved playing all styles of music, and I did just that,” says Miller of Local 802 (New York City). He often played at the Ann Arbor, Michigan, Canterbury House, a coffee house that hosted famous folk musicians in the ’60s. “I would show up late Friday afternoons, when the musicians did their sound checks. Usually it was just one singer, and I would take out my string bass, walk right up to them, and start playing,” he says. “Most of the time they’d be startled, but for any singer who’s not used to having a bass player and all of the sudden has a bassist that sounds good—most singers would say it sounds great.”
FEARLESS, NOT AMBITIOUS
He never thought he was ambitious during those years in Michigan, in- stead he thought of himself as fear-
less. “I’m embarrassed to say I never really had a particular goal, it was just for the love of playing and the love of making music with people I enjoyed,” Miller explains.
While in college, Miller became the house bass player at the Falcon jazz club in Michigan, and played in the
Michigan Jazz Band, touring South America in 1965.
One college bass instructor thought Miller stood a good shot of getting accepted into the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. As he started preparing for the audition, Miller had his doubts. “I realized in the midst of it, that preparing for the audition fit in the category of what I should do, or what might be good for me. But I also had to acknowledge what I really wanted to do.” In the end he decided not to audition.
After graduating in the late ’60s Miller moved back home to New York City. He worked as a freelance bassist in the ’70s, and ’80s, frequently filling in for the “first call” bass players. Since most of them had too much work, they never thought of him as a threat. If the first call players were overbooked, Miller would sit in. He found a lot of work. “If I subbed for 10 bass players, who were working all the time, low and behold, I’d be working all the time,” says Miller. “That’s basically how I got into the recording world and the freelance world in New York City.”
One of the people he recorded with and did several gigs with was Cy Coleman, the late legendary composer, musician, and songwriter. In the mid ’70s Miller received a call from a casting agent who asked if he’d like to audition for a new Coleman musical called I Love My Wife. The show had four actors and four musicians, who not only played music on stage, but also acted, sang, and danced.
Miller agreed to audition and also recommended other bassists, drummers, pianists, and guitarists to the producers. Before going to his audition, he asked advice from an actor friend. who told him what to expect at the audition. He also advised Miller that, if they offer him a part, he had every right to ask to read the script and hear the music before accepting it.
Bringing both his guitar and bass to the audition, Miller sang a song that his brother had written and read some lines. “Then something happened that I wasn’t quite prepared for,” he says. “They said, ‘Johnny, would you come out into the house, we’d like to talk to you.’”
Coleman, the director, writer, and producers asked if he’d like a part in the show and be the show’s music director. Caught off guard, and remembering what his friend had told him, Miller asked if he could see a copy of the script and hear the music. Finally, they said, “Thank you very much.” “And I assumed that means I was supposed to leave,” says Miller.
He wheeled his bass and guitar up to the West Side of Manhattan, thinking he had made a fool of himself and missed an opportunity. Later that day Miller spoke with Coleman and told him he felt stupid. Coleman gave him the part and, as Miller puts it, “the rest is history.”
In all, he spent two years with the show, and has since performed in more than 50 on and off Broadway shows, musicals like Hairspray, Les Miserables, Footloose, and Sunset Blvd., and feature films like Chicago, The Producers, and High Fidelity. He’s played with some of the music industry’s biggest names—Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan of Local 802, Bonnie Raitt of Local 47 (Los Angeles), B.B. King of Local 71 (Memphis, TN), and Pete Seeger of Local 802.
LIFE'S A GROOVE
In the early ’80s, Coleman asked if he would contract a new musical, but Miller was unsure. “I thought, I’m a single guy, I have a terrific life as a bass player, life is really a groove,” says Miller who, at the time viewed the contracting business as slimy or seedy. “Then Cy said, ‘I have to give it to some schmuck, I just as soon give it to you.’
“I decided to do what I always do when I don’t know what to do,” says Miller. “That is, to ask some of my pals what they would do.” All of his friends seemed to agree. Even if the business was run a certain way, that didn’t mean Miller had to run it that way. “It certainly made me nervous, but I accepted the contractor offer. That was almost 100 shows ago.”
Since then he’s contracted Broadway shows, recording sessions, films, TV shows, commercials, music events, and has also maintained an active life as a bassist. His dual careers have run side by side and complemented each other. All of his contracting is exclusive to the American Federation of Musicians. “All the jobs I’ve done are union jobs,” says Miller. “I am asked, once in a while, if I would be interested in contracting a non-union job. I always decline.”
Part of his success has come from maintaining positive relationships with the AFM, Local 802, as well as the producers and general managers who hire him. “I believe I am of far more help to the union when I have good relations with management, and I believe I am far more useful to management when I have good relations with the union,” he explains.
Miller’s artist portfolio reads more like a musical bibliography of the past 30 years. With credits in about 75 Broadway musicals, a host of films and TV shows, and list of more than 100 famous musicians he’s worked with, Miller is one of the least known yet immensely respected modern musicians. He recently released a CD, Stage Door Johnny—a collection of show tunes reworked in various styles.
January 2005 JOHN MILLER, BROADWAY CONTRACTOR From Local 802 website
John Miller has contracted close to 100 Broadway, Off-Broadway and National Touring shows. He is a bass player and has been a Local 802 member since 1966.
The following article was originally a speech given by Miller to the Bass Player Live Workshop on Oct. 17, 2004.
I never met a bass player who said his or her dream growing up was to play in a Broadway pit.
Play in an orchestra, maybe. Play jazz, R&B, rock, funk, pop, you name it -- but not in a Broadway pit.
So how do you explain why these guys are playing on Broadway: Steely Dan's bass player and keyboard player, Aretha's bass player, Sting's former guitar player, Simon and Garfunkel's guitar player, Bobby McFerrin's bass player, and 50 percent of the musicians in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra?
Clearly something has changed. Why do these caliber players want their own Broadway show? The answer is not complicated. The studio scene isn't what it used to be.
Very few of us can make a living solely as studio musicians. Even to make a living from a combination of gigging plus studio work is challenging at best.
How did this happen and where did that work go?
That's another conversation with someone smarter than I am, who can explain it to all of us.
But we all know those days are over. Embrace the inevitable. A vacuum was created in the industry and Broadway became the new studio scene.
Why Broadway? What's the attraction?
For openers, a livelihood. In 2004, the minimum weekly gross salary was $1,500 for eight shows plus all benefits, for no more than 24 hours a week of our time. Play electric and upright? That's one double for an additional $180.
You must belong to Local 802. The union negotiated a powerful benefit for Broadway musicians that allows us to take off 50 percent of the time and still protect our chair for the entire run of the show. That time is usually taken so we can do other gigs.
You get to play your instrument eight times a week and play with great musicians who share your commitment for playing at the highest musical level. And you're often playing some amazing orchestrations. And not to be underestimated, there is potentially a great hang with some fascinating people.
The Big Question
Now, let's get to the heart of the matter: the big question and probably the only one musicians want to ask: how do I get a Broadway show?
Let's first talk about how you don't get one and dispel one of the greatest myths: "Calling the contractor will help me get work."
Let me repeat that. It won't.
What feeds this myth is the misguided view that the contractor is the one solely responsible for hiring musicians for shows. It's simply not true.
The conductor is the Buddha. He or she is ultimately the one who must be comfortable with the choices.
And sometimes the composer has musicians to recommend.
And don't forget that orchestrators also have a strong voice in the final selection. They know the level of difficulty they've written and they often write with specific musicians in mind.
Of course contractors make recommendations, but we don't necessarily have the final say. Our job is to work with everyone -- the conductor, orchestrator and when possible the composer -- to select the musician who they all feel is the perfect player for that style of music, for their show, that specific instrumentation and the unique combination of personalities in the pit.
But does knowing all of that stop us from wanting to call the contractor? Doesn't seem to. It's not a good idea. I don't say that because of my contracting work. I say that because of my experience as a bass player.
No one has called more people looking for work than I did when I first started out. Someone, I'm sure with good intentions, told me I should call all the movers and shakers; a particular contractor, a conductor, an arranger, a leader. You name it, I called them.
These people had no idea who I was. I was slow to realize they didn't like being solicited. And it began to sink in when a few slammed the phone down. I had been given the wrong advice. Calling as a stranger, unsolicited, was a professional liability for me. But more important it got me further from my desired goal; to play for them.
What to Do
So what can we do? Send a letter to introduce yourself. Include a resume. Why not? But don't tell a contractor that you need work. (Who doesn't?)
And don't lie. It's a small industry. And it's just not smart.
In your resume make sure that you indicate any show experience you've had. It's also very helpful to mention if you'd be willing to go out on the road for a year. You never know.
Make sure, while you're at it, that you know something about the person you're writing to. Some young musician wrote me a very flattering letter about how anxious he was to meet me because he knew that I was "one of the most successful drummers in the industry."
I'll tell you what I do with the resumes I receive:
I file them and put the names in a database.
I look through them when I'm stumped.
I particularly look for people willing to go out on the road. That's a real good way in. But once again, calling the contractor won't help.
We're In It Together
Here's what I think really does work if you want to play on Broadway or anywhere else for that matter: we are, each of us, one another's contractors. All the time. Anytime someone asks us to recommend a musician, we are acting as contractors that very moment.
I believe I can say that almost every job I've ever gotten as a bass player is because another musician recommended me.
I encourage you to take every opportunity to play. Do readings, workshops. Take an Off Broadway show, an Off Off Broadway show. Hopefully, when those conductors get their first shot they'll bring you along. Sometimes you'll meet these conductors on non-show-related gigs. I was so hot to play that I'd even go with singers and their accompanists to auditions.
I remember being embarrassed to call a major Broadway drummer for a workshop of an Off Broadway show. The union wages were low and the time commitment was extensive. He told me that not only would he love to do it; he'd bring his own drums.
Later he explained that he takes jobs like these because he wants to build relationships with the new, up-and-coming composers and music directors to keep himself current and hopefully secure work for himself down the road. Smart long-view thinking.
Bass players are asked which drummers we like to play with. And musicians are like athletes, we always tell the truth about how good someone is: "This drummer lays down a deep pocket, great time, great feel. I just don't want to sit next to him on the plane."
That bass player's recommendation might very well be the reason that particular drummer gets hired, or not.
Your goal is to make sure you're the person everybody wants to play with.
And don't overlook the obvious: make sure they know how to reach you, and you them. Have your business card handy and get theirs, that way you can "contract" one another.
Start By Subbing
How do you get started? The most obvious answer is subbing and the good news is, the regular bass player is always on the lookout for great subs. They need you more than contractors do.
Your goal is to sub for the regular and begin building your own reputation with the conductor and the musicians as a great player with a great attitude.
Now you need to find a way to hook up with the regular player because they choose the subs they feel will best protect their chair. Ultimately it's the conductor who approves or disapproves the sub after hearing them play their first show.
With a little bit of legwork anyone can find the names of the regular bass players doing all the Broadway shows. They're all listed in the Local 802 directory (available free to members).
The next step is to make contact. Here's where we all need help because self-promotion has never been our strength. Let's assume you don't know the bass player. If you can find another musician who knows your playing and knows the regular and is willing to put in a good word for you, that's the best. If you've been playing in New York for a while, you probably know enough musicians to play the six degrees of separation game: someone who knows someone who knows the regular bass player.
Making First Contact
Now you're ready to make contact with the regular. Call at an appropriate time or e-mail.
Keep the conversation short and simple. Introduce yourself. Use your best credentials. Ask if they'd like your resume or a CD of your playing. Remember with your resume, give names and contact numbers of other musicians you've worked with. Again, don't lie on the resume.
The point of your phone call is to find out if there's a convenient time for you to come and watch the book. If they say "yes," great. If they say "no," let it go. For now. Don't push. Move on to another show and try again in six months. You don't want to irritate the regular.
If you find that getting to sub on Broadway is an obstacle, go Off Broadway, or Off Off. Go where you can find an "in" someplace. The point is, you need to get started.
We've all heard stories of musicians, new to New York, who land their own Broadway show in three months. That's like lightning striking. Don't wait for it. It rarely works that way. Find where your services are needed. Working Off Off Broadway is better than waiting around for Broadway and hitting a brick wall. This can be a slow process. Embrace that.
The Next Hoop
Let's now assume that somehow or other, you've made contact with the regular player who has invited you to come watch the book.
When you go, here's what you want to do....
Broadway from the Ground Up John Miller, "Meet the Contractors" Part II
Allegro’s contractor series continues with part two of John Miller’s article, continued from last month.
John Miller is a bass player and contractor with many years’ experience. He contracts for recordings, films, jingles, concerts and Broadway, and has been a member of Local 802 since 1966.
Let’s now assume that somehow or other, you’ve made contact with the regular player who has invited you to come watch the book.
When you go, here’s what you want to do: first and foremost confirm the time. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot — some shows have a 7 p.m. curtain now. Don’t arrive after curtain.
Wear black; tape the show (bring a Walkman): check out the regular’s equipment. You’ll probably be using his upright and your electric. Fast change of instruments? Pedals? Amp settings? Notice how tight the area is. Sometimes these places are unbelievably cramped. See how the bass player maneuvers his upright. Watch how the conductor lays down the beat. Fill out the paperwork for the in house contractor. And most importantly, see how you can get a copy of the book.
Now you have a better idea of your competition. How do you stack up? How’s your sight reading? Could you have sight read that part flawlessly? Remember that on Broadway the regular player doesn’t see the music until the first orchestra rehearsal. You’re expected to sight read the part.
Lines like, "Don’t worry, I’ll eventually get it and it’ll be great" won’t cut it at this level of competition.
Could you have played that treble clef arco part in unison with the cellist as in tune as the regular did? Do you play that well with the pick? Can you follow the conductor as well as the regular? Can you play it that consistently? Are you versatile on all styles?
Ask yourself, can I handle the comments the conductor gives? Am I open enough to really see where my weaknesses are and work on them? What are the regulars doing better than I am?
Enlightened responses for all of us might be, "Let me try to understand why they got the job. Let me learn all I can from them." This is the tough work we all must do.
LEARN THE BOOK
Now you go home and learn the book. Cold. Meticulous preparation is the key. Once you’ve got it, call the regular to ask if you can come a second or even a third time to watch the whole show. Most regulars will see this as being extremely conscientious.
When you feel confident that you are ready to play the show, tell the regular. Sometimes it won’t go down that smoothly. Sometimes the regular will unexpectedly call: "I need you to play next Saturday for me."
Be flexible, and remember — make life easy for the regulars. If possible accept the date they’ve called you for. You never know when or if they’ll call again.
And be realistic. You can have put in hours, days, weeks, months learning a book with absolutely no guarantee that you’ll ever be given a show to play or if you are given one, that you’ll be asked back to play again as an approved sub.
YOUR FIRST SHOW
So now you get the call to sub your first show. Double-check the curtain time. Obviously, the better you’ve learned the book, the more comfortable you’ll be, and your odds for success will be greater. Some difficult passages you might even consider memorizing. Be prepared that there might be a different conductor than the one you’d been watching. Get to the pit early. Check that the music is in order. Check that there isn’t a song in a different key than those you practiced in your sub book. It’s risky to bring your own copy; changes might have been made since you were last in. As I said before, you will most likely use your own electric but use the regular’s upright.
Get reacquainted with all the equipment; don’t change the settings. The conductor and the sound department want consistency. Play it like the regular. Don’t make it "yours." Don’t add "your" style. Don’t try to be better than the regular. The best compliment we can ever receive subbing a show is when the conductor says, "I didn’t even know the regular wasn’t there."
Remember, the conductor is the Buddha and will be listening closely to a first time sub. It may be reassuring to know that you both want the same result, to play a great show; if you can hold on to that, it might make you a little less nervous.
If the conductor has comments for you during the show, at intermission, or after the show, take them as an opportunity for you to learn what the conductor needs from you. And remember this: correcting your position works. Protecting or defending your position doesn’t: "the reason I did it that way," or "I was distracted," or "I slowed the tempo down because I thought the drummer was too fast." Pick an excuse. This isn’t what the conductor, or frankly ANYONE wants to hear. What they want to hear is: "I got it. I hear what you want, let me try to give it to you."
I’ve been told by many conductors that given a choice they would prefer to have the good musician who responds well to criticism than a better musician who resists or dodges it.
Bottom line: first show subbing, play it exactly like the regular. Think karaoke.
Surprisingly, the second time subbing the show is usually tougher than the first. It’s like a sophomore jinx. It’s easy to have a false sense of accomplishment and make foolish mistakes. Concentrate and stay focused.
The third time you sub the same show you should feel more confident that the conductor likes your approach and hopefully you can relax a bit and let all your musicality come through.
And by the way, don’t be afraid to ask the conductor how you’re doing. Is there anything different they’d like from you? It seems obvious, but I’m always surprised how few musicians do ask.
Players in the band are usually very supportive of subs, but remember, it’s the conductor who makes the decision whether or not you return, not the players.
What if you find out that you are an unaccepted sub and not asked back? Don’t shoot yourself. You’re in good company. You’d be absolutely flabbergasted, as I’ve been, at the quality and reputation of players who have been deemed unaccepted subs at some shows. And don’t forget an unaccepted sub for one conductor may be a first call for another conductor. You’re not going to be perfect for every show. It’s a very tough pill to swallow. Accept it, see if there’s anything you can learn from it, and move on. Go where you’re loved.
GETTING ANOTHER SHOW
Now that you’re subbing a show, your next goal is to sub another show and another. Try to sub in as many shows as possible. The more conductors and associate conductors that know you, and like your playing, the greater your chances of getting your own show.
Here’s a hypothetical story: I get a call from Will Lee who tells me that he had a dream that he should be playing on Broadway. He asks if I can help have his dream come true. So when I say to a conductor, "I’ve got amazing news; Will Lee would love to play your next show," that conductor might respond with, "I don’t know who Will Lee is, but I heard a sub at my last show who knocked me out and I want to use him."
Here’s my point; and this is good news for most of us who aren’t Will. If the conductor thinks you’re a good sub your odds of being hired by them are better than someone, even someone famous, who the conductor doesn’t know.
YOUR OWN SHOW
Now you get called for your own show. I like to say "people remember an entrance and an exit." What I mean by that is, in the beginning, when you get the call you’ve been waiting for, don’t start by asking things like, "How many more doubles can you get me?" or "Could I be a couple of days late for the rehearsals?" "Could I get out of the lock-in period?" Remember; make life easy for the person hiring you.
Make certain you’re prepared for what I call "Zen and the art of eight a week." What I mean by that is to be prepared for a show schedule that will now be a part of your daily life and the life of your family.
Remember, we’re in the service business. The upper left-hand corner of the music does not say "John Miller" or your name — it says "bass." It is to be played the same way every show eight times a week. This is not easy for some people.
In that regard, it’s essential that you have other outlets for your own music. Whether that means playing in bands, orchestras, or composing, it will help you to feel less frustrated playing the same part eight times a week.
If you think that your schedule is so busy that you know you’ll be taking off 50 percent of the time, let the contractor and the conductor know so there are no surprises. Very occasionally, it might be in your best interest not to accept that show and let the conductor and contractor know that you’d love to be a sub. That very well might protect and even strengthen your relationships with them.
Conductors know how many good players are out there who want to commit to the chair and most would rather have that player in their orchestra than someone who knows from the get-go that they’re not going to be there more than half the time. And they especially don’t like surprises.
FINDING YOUR OWN SUBS
Now let’s assume you’ve been offered a show and you’ve accepted. It’s now your own show, your chair and your turn to find subs. The goal is to find subs who play as well or better than you. The better your sub is, the better your odds are that the conductor will be comfortable with you taking off.
Don’t make the mistake of hiring subs who don’t play as well as you in the belief that the conductor will be happy when you return. They won’t. Nor will your fellow musicians. Because when your show eventually closes, and they all do, don’t think the conductor won’t remember which musicians had great subs. They will. And so will everyone else.
Here are some suggestions that might help: take the time to prepare your sub. Encourage them to be as diligent as you were. Call them to be sure they show up on time. Because if they don’t and your chair is empty at the top of the show, your own job as the regular could be at stake. And I guarantee you; your fellow musicians will have zero tolerance for it. Neither will anyone else.
I want to speak to another point, a little more subtle, but one that I believe profoundly affects all of us. In the beginning of a show everyone is on a high.
Everyone’s on his or her best behavior. But soon the daily routine begins. Make no mistake; pits are intense. Cramped quarters, cheek by jowl with a bunch of artists with no lack of ego. And all this eight times a week. This scene brings out the best and the worst in us.
Eventually shows close. Many conductors have told me after the run, "I’d just rather not use that musician again." And it usually has nothing to do with ability. It’s most often about a negative attitude that musician brought to the pit. No matter how great these people play, it becomes increasingly dicey placing them.
When I put a pit together, I try to imagine a band on a bus. Busses break down. If the people on the bus enjoy one another, it can be a great adventure. If not, it can turn into a bloody nightmare. I want to be on that bus with musicians who are upbeat, have easy spirits, and a high flowability.
Some time ago I read an article in Fortune magazine. They had interviewed upper management and asked why they fired people. Ninety percent said it was for attitude, not ability. This is a bigger issue than you might think.
NOT GETTING CALLED BACK
So you played great, took conductor’s comments well and were a team player and you’re not called for another show right away. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you did something wrong. Everyone working on Broadway is a terrific player. It could just be that the conductor, arranger, composer and contractor of that new show thought that someone else might be more suitable for the needs of that particular show.
As bass players we all know that we’re mostly side musicians; someone else is the leader. I encourage all of you to be a leader at least once to see what it’s like to have that responsibility. If you can’t, then try this: imagine what it would be like if you had your own band and were going to play at a prestigious club for your own CD release party for important industry people.
ou’re dealing with getting people there, the sound system, rehearsal time, paying the musicians, obtaining music stands, and handling delivery of equipment. And then the day before your great gig, your drummer calls to say he has a family emergency and can’t do it. You freak. This is the last thing you want to be dealing with. The stakes are high.
You call another drummer. "I’m in a panic. Could you fill in for my drummer?" You’d probably want to hear the following response: "I’d love to do it. I’ll take care of everything. I’ll call your regular drummer right away and see if I can get together with him. I’ll practice the parts and what time would you like me at the sound check?"
That’s exactly what you want to hear. That sub made life easy for you as the leader. You won’t forget that musician. Keep that in mind when you’re subbing for someone. Keep it in mind when you’re the regular, because for the conductor and the contractor the stakes are that high for every single show.
I love being a bass player. I’m proud of the fact that bass players are extremely supportive of each other. We share information about new gear, new CD’s to listen to and we love to hang out with one another.
A few years ago a bass player friend of mine told me about an audition he had just done. He said he had suggested to them that they call me to audition as well because he thought they should hear me play. Be that kind of bass player. One of the things we share that makes us unique is our unending love of music and the people who make it.
I hope this has been a little helpful in demystifying the question of how to work on Broadway. Of course, these are just my own personal observations as a bass player and a contractor. And I realize that everyone’s journey is different. I encourage you to ask other bass players, other contractors, conductors and instrumentalists. Get their opinions. See what works for them.
I try to keep in mind the Zen adage that says "Fight your shame and learn all you can from others."
Just keep on playing at your highest level everywhere you can. Make it comfortable for everyone. I guarantee you that musicians will want to play with you and they’ll recommend you to other musicians. I don’t know anything that beats that.