Musicals all have one thing in common – music, of course! And while the actors, chorus, and dancers take center stage, there is another world right beneath their feet. Most high school musicals feature a pit orchestra comprised of student musicians, all of whom share an immense passion for their craft.
At the Bobby G Awards in Denver, the state-wide high school musical theatre program, the Outstanding Performance by an Orchestra category seeks to honor participating schools and the students involved. This year’s nominees include Castle View High School, Fort Collins High School, Fossil Ridge High School, Lakewood High School, and Mountain View High School.
At Fort Collins High School, musicians could sign up to participate in the orchestra for their production of SpongeBob The Musical. Willow Keen, a freshman at Fort Collins, said, “The directors were very transparent up front that it was going to be a lot of work,” which might have deterred some students. But at Fort Collins, “[the music department] is already made up of people who just really want to make music.”
In musical theatre, there’s a rehearsal where the chorus and orchestra come together for the first time called a sitzprobe. For some pit musicians, the sitzprobe was an entirely new experience. Andrew Nelsen, a junior at Fossil Ridge, auditioned to be a part of the orchestra for Bright Star. “I had never experienced a sitzprobe let alone any performance for a musical theater, but watching all the components come together was just an amazing thing to see,” he said. For others, the sitzprobe never stops being magical – no matter how many a musician may have under their belt.
Outside the magic, participating in a pit orchestra can be difficult. The pacing, the collaboration with actors onstage, and the time commitment are all contributing factors. Leigh Schmidt, a senior at Lakewood High School, commented that incorporating choreography for Something Rotten was a new element she hadn’t experienced before. “The actors had to learn to coordinate tap dancing, which many of them had never done before, with the music and the vocals,” she explained.
The time commitment can be tremendous, with rehearsals sometimes taking place multiple times a day in addition to regular band or orchestra practices, schoolwork, and other activities. Lots of Starbucks, as Vanissa Breitenstein from Castle View High School said, got them through the process of bringing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to life. For others, leaning on one another and building a community was the best way forward. Faith Hunn, a senior at Fort Collins, said “the pit is a community that cares and supports,” a sentiment shared by most musicians.
Creating a community is inevitable when so many people are crammed into a pit. At many theatres, the orchestra pit is mostly hidden under the stage. Audience members may not even realize there is live music until the curtain call, when actors will gesture to the pit for applause.
For some musicians, this “secrecy” provides an excellent opportunity for fun traditions. At Castle View High School, the pit partakes in the “passing of the fork.” As Nic Hundley explained, “We have a tradition of passing a fork to each member of the orchestra during an actual run of the show. The goal is to be discreet and never allow the audience to see what we are doing.”
Besides the opportunity to make music, create lasting memories, and spend time with friends, participating in the school musical is a way for these musicians to share their passion. Annika Waples, a senior at Lakewood High School, said, “I truly believe in the enormous impact that live music can have on bringing people together and think that the arts are something that we need more of in the world right now.”
Special thank you to the following contributors who helped inform this article:
Castle View High School (Paola Rodriguez, Nic Hundley, Ashley Smith, Vanissa Breitenstein, Brooklyn Parrish, Oliver Andrews, Ada Bevill, Logan Wight, Ava Booth, Sam Hardman, Victoria Plucinski, Dan-Anh Nguyen, Carter Travis); Fort Collins High School (Nicholas Orozco, David Morris, Eleanor Cram, Cassidy Hall, Willow Keen, Bryce Crawford, Logan Guggemos, Isaac Watson, Faith Hunn, Kira, Camille Vaughan, Raymond Bian); Fossil Ridge High School (Andrew Nelsen); and Lakewood High School (Leigh Schmidt, Annika Waples)