Since I am usually on stage, rather than in the pit, and I haven't done a musical in years, I can remember only vaguely where the various sections go for a musical (piano and violins sort of stage right, drums way over on the left).
I know that this depends a lot on the size of the orchestra and the show. But, still, there are some conventions that are often followed. I'd like to get a general idea of what the rationale is for the most common seating arrangements.
I have been orchestrating the score for a musical that I have written. There are 18 players in the full orchestration (4 reeds, 4 brass, 3 violins, 2 celli, 2 keyboards, 1 string bass/acoustic bass guitar, a drummer and a percussionist). The keyboards are MIDI, so we don't need to make room for an upright or baby grand piano. The percussionist plays 2 timpani, tubular bells and assorted percussion "toys" (tambourine, marachas, triangle, etc.)
So, my question is, how would you set up the seating arrangements - assuming that the pit is large enough to accomodate the instruments listed above, plus a conductor - and why? For example, is it best to have the bass closer to the drums, or near the other strings (there are quite a few places in the score where I do a four part harmony with the three violins on the upper voice and the cellos and bass filling out the rest of the chord)? My goal is to make a small orchestra sound large and to be able to get away with amplifying just the strings (and MIDI keyboards) rather than the whole pit and not having to mic the singers. Equally important to me is insuring that every musician can hear well enough to play his part and keep in time with the other players. I'm hoping to gain some insight as to where to put people and why - not only for this show, but for future compositions.
Finally, I know that they use mics for everything on Broadway now, and that it's all mixed down to mono. But the harsh reality is that few shows ever make it to Broadway. The rest (and even the ones that do move on) start out in stock or off Broadway where the houses are smaller and they don't have the abily or the funds to mic everybody. Once the full score is completed, I plan to start work on a reduction for smaller houses. In all likelihood, the first production(s) if any will be in small venues using the reduced score. But I'd still like to figure out the ideal seating arrangement to base it on. I hope all this makes sense. I think, if you compose for the theater, you'll understand my concerns.
Having peered into 30+ B'way pits, I can tell you there is no set 'standard' layout, although there is a general trend to the layouts. Some extreme variations, such as "The Lion King", had four percussionists, two taking up nearly the entire right-side of the pit (twin concert marimbas back-to-back!), one percussionist each in the left-right wings, and the entire brass section in the basement. Every music stand was equiped with a 5" or so flat screen monitor of the conductor who was not visable from the pit (it's a deep pit and he's on a high platform). Pretty cool!
Usually, (from the conductor's POV) strings are hard left, violins closer (but usually just behind the reeds) and celli towards rear. Modern shows have them plexiglassed and miced for better mixing control.
Reeds are soft left-to-center, once again with reeds 1, 2, 3 closer, with 4 and 5 (the lo-reed guy) usually in a pocket with the most space (he has to squeeze in some large instruments ... bari sax, bassoon, bass/contra-alto clarinets, etc.)
Brass are usually soft right to hard right, usually horns and trumpets closer, trombones back more (bass trombone sometimes doubles tuba ... needs room!). Butttt ....
Bass can be close-right, and keyboards are often right in front and to the right of the conductor, which pushes the brass back a row or so.
Drums/percussion are usually right-rear to hard right ... mallets taking up a lot of space. Drums are almost always plexiglassed and miked.
Plectrum are anywhere, usually in pockets between brass and percussion.
Upright bass is usually not sitting with string section since it more often functions as part of the rhythm section.
Yes, I understand that everything is different on Broadway. (I heard that the drummer for Phantom is actually in a room, three floors away, linked by video and headphones). I'm not worried about that. If this show ever makes it there, a pro orchestrator and sound designer will re-do everything anyway. I'm just concerned about getting the best possible interpretation of my work in less sophisticated venues where it will first be heard. I also want to make sure that the musicians can follow each other from where the would usually be sitting, and that my demo using VIs is panned, roughly, to reflect this, so that the play reader will know what to expect.
That said, I can understand how you'd want the bass near the drums in a contemporary piece - and how you wouldn't, if it is bowed most of the time and interacting with the other strings (like in a string quartet). In my show, it does a lot of both, so I'm not sure where to put it. It's a big instrument. I assume the best place is toward the back of the pit, on one side or another.
As far as the percussion goes, I'm thinking of placing the drummer on the extreme right (as you face the stage) and the percussionist on the left. I've seen it done this way before. To me it makes sense because the percussionist is most often doubling the bass line on the timpani or playing accents with the triangle, tambourine, etc. The drummer's part is much more rhytmic. I thought I'd put the bass next to the percussionist, so that the other strings, on left side of the orchestra, can at least hear one instrument that's keeping the beat. The down side is that he's further away from the drummer. So I'm not really sure what is best.
I'm thinking the cellos should go to the left of the violins, because there are only 5 strings altogether and if they aren't amplified, being together will help them hear each other. Reeds center and brass to the right, in front of the drums makes sense to me. I was thinking center and left for the keyboards, respectively, because they are MIDI and it doesn't matter where they go, and that's where I have the room.
They key concept that seems to be eluding me is: is it better to have some separation between the brass and reeds, or do you want them together, if possible (reeds in front of the brass, rather then adjacent to them)? The latter would make sense to me if I were using saxes, but in this show there is only one and it is used only on one number. In the score, one or more reeds plays above or below the brass in the big numbers. In the softer numbers, solo reeds play lines intertwined with the strings or float above them usually. Putting the reeds in between the strings and brass keeps them close to both sections. Strings and brass are the most separated since they are rarely playing the same thing or even at the same time. Anyway, that was my rationale, but I had no idea whether it would make sense to an experienced conductor.
One general thing to remember is that your musical director/conductor will more than likely lay out the pit. Without knowing the actual space available in the pit in those smaller venues, all you can do is make a stab at it. He also will insure everyone is able to hear each other and see/follow his direction.
What I listed as far as 'typical' B'way pit layouts covers shows that had pits smaller and larger than yours. Dinner theater, regional, and out-of-town shows also follow those guidelines so it's not just for mega productions.
I would want a good balance on my demo CD of the show rather than an exact replica of how the pit is panned/layed-out ... especially since you don't really know how the musical director/venue will influence the actual pit layout.
Unless your drum set player is doing nothing but playing drum set, usually he/she is close to the percussionist ... sometimes playing some of those misc. instruments along with him. It's a personal call but I wouldn't want my timpani right behind a small unamplified string section; timp behind or near brass is no problem. Strings are usually more comfortable away from drums/perc. who will be heard no matter where they end up .
Your general layout of strings left - reeds center - brass right sounds good.
Good luck in sorting all this out; I hope we get to hear some of your show some day ... I'm looking forward to it!
That's the kind of thing I needed to know. I understand that things will change in performance - as soon as other artists become invovled, in fact. I'm an actor. I'm used to it. But I am also used to preparing, as much as possible. Taking a stab at making the demo sound as much like a live, unamplified (or mostly unamplified) performance - if nothing else - helps me get a feel for what the audience will actually hear and gives me some perspective. Thanks.