Thanks for sharing ... I enjoyed (and am dismayed by!) the article.
We're seeing "Gypsy" Thursday and can't wait to hear the full 25-piece orchestrations. We saw a Dinner Theater production of this show a year ago and playing this score with a rhythm section plus just one trumpet and one trombone (and two reeds) just didn't work. Conversely, I remember seeing "My Fair Lady" at this same theater years ago with the original 5-chair Reed section reduced to flute and bassoon chairs and the feel and sound of the show was excellent.
The point is, the style, genre, and feel of the show have to be supported by the orchestration or you have a disappointing mess.
I am a professional actor and I get free tickets from the unions I belong to all the time. I also regularly take my teenage nieces to paying performances on Broadway and off.
The trend I have been seeing is toward smaller orchestras (for all the reasons stated in the article). This unfortunately usually takes the form of abandoning the string section, replacing it with a synth, reducing it to a string quartet and balancing the volume with mixing, or a combination of a string quartet, supplimented by synth strings.
Paradoxically, a few big shows (notably South Pacific, Gypsy, Wicked and Phantom of the Opera) have gone in the other direction and have a larger orchestra. I've seen Wicked and Phantom recently and they really sounded terrible live. For one thing the orchestras were all or almost completely burried under the stage. You hear nothing but what comes out of the speakers - so it sounds recorded (in mono). You wouldn't know it was live. And Broadway speaker systems aren't all that great to begin with. Even a relatively large string section can be made to sound like mud in these circumstances.
Some of the smaller shows, with fewer instruments (that are not amplified) actually sound better. Obviously, not as lush - but it least it sounds live, like a real performance.
And it isn't only the mics that are a problem. Once, long ago, when I was just starting out, I did some extra work at the Met. They just needed a lot of bodies for the triumphal march in AIDA. Most of what I heard of the opera I heard from the stage. The pit was huge. Their was a second orchestra in one of the wings (coordinating with the main conductor via closed circuit TV) and yet a third group of assorted musicians (drummers, trumpters, etc.) playing on stage with us. Well, it just sounded too perfect. You couldn't hear a bow scrape or a page turn. It didn't seem real. It sounded like a recording - and I was right there in the middle of it and could see and hear everything.
So bigger, isn't necessarily better. But, generally, the pits are getting too small for that real Broadway sound. When they go larger, just as often, they mic them, separate the musicians and destroy the benefits of having a big, live orchestra. And sometimes (as with Phantom) they just overdo it. You don't need to lushly orchestrate music that is basically rock and roll trying to sound classical by adding heaps of brass and then lots more strings to balance them. They do a much better job with Spring Awakening - which just has a rhythm section, a harmonium and a couple of strings. It all depends on the show, how its orchestrated and whether the pit is covered. The quality of the musicianship is just superb, always. But sound design is dictated by economics and the decisions are not always made by musicians - which is always a bad thing.