What are the prerequisites for playing in the orchestra for a show like South Pacific? Musical ability is key, and experience helps, but according to Peter Sachon, one of the production's three cellists, what also matters is the adult version of Plays Well With Others.
"The thirty members of the South Pacific orchestra and the conductor," Sachon observes, "must co-exist in a confined space for extended periods of time. Everyone doesn't have to be best friends, but you've got to try to get along." Otherwise, he implies, the pit becomes the pits.
Sachon has played in the orchestras for Legally Blonde, High Fidelity, andThe Light in the Piazza, but his first musical-theater gig was with LCT's Man of No Importance, in 2002. "That was also my first show with Ted Sperling," Sachon says, referring to South Pacific's music director. "We had met at the Hollywood Bowl. He was there working with Audra McDonald."
For Sachon's career, No Importance was of great importance. "That job came up at the same time as I was offered a position with the Hong Kong Symphony. I hadn't given much thought till then to the musical theater. I'd been trained classically, at the Manhattan School of Music and at the Mannes School of Music. But I decided that I didn't want to go to Hong Kong and argue with people about Beethoven, so I stayed in New York."
Once he entered the musical theater, Sachon was won over. "One of the reasons that many people don't go to classical concerts is that they don't always include a wider swath of what the culture is. This doesn't mean programming Madonna but it should, and now thankfully sometimes does, include things like great movie music. And something like South Pacific, which is great American music, period."
Does Sachon miss being part of a symphony orchestra's large cello section? "That depends. As a student, I played with ten or twelve cellos. Playing a single line" - most Broadway pit bands rarely have more than a single cello - "was something I had to get used to."
Sachon says that South Pacific's ensemble is the largest he has played with on Broadway. "It's nice to be in a cello section with three players. It mixes the line better than two do. And it's great to be in a musical's orchestra where the instruments are all acoustic. In Legally Blonde, the cellos were in a separate section of the pit, doubled by an electronic keyboard."
Not that there's anything wrong with that, adds Sachon, whose experience with that show was positive. Still, he admits, there's something special about working on South Pacific, where music is so central. "It all begins with the overture. Contemporary audiences aren't used to being asked to sit back and listen to music for eight minutes before anything happens on stage. Sometimes, they look a little bewildered at first. But the overture lets them know that they are about to see something special - something epic."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com