At the end of my interview this week with Jim Abbott, the musical director of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, he said something that I'd like to emblazon on a tee-shirt and send to all amateur commentators who wonder why work on a new musical needs to be so exacting.
"I spent two years in Holland," Abbott said, "working on Aida and Tarzan. The Dutch have a saying that applies to making changes on a show. They say: 'We all have to get our noses pointed in the same direction.'"
With a new show's music, Abbott explained, the proboscises are plentiful. For example: "During the rehearsal period for Women on the Verge, the song 'Time Stood Still' had a somewhat different form. A middle section for Patti [LuPone] was added in." That alteration, Abbott said, meant that he had to re-do the arrangement, pass it off to someone for recording (because part of the number plays as taped music during the performance), and edit the recording. Then the song went to the orchestrator, Simon Hale. Once that orchestration began to be used in the show, more changes were made because director Bartlett Sher wanted the number to sound more light-hearted.
As Abbott spun out this example, I began to appreciate more fully why he had begun our chat by stating, "One of the main requirements of a musical director is being adaptable."
Abbott's adaptability may have something to do with his wide-ranging experience. He grew up in Texas, a place where making a stab at sports, at least through junior high, is nearly required. "I got hurt playing football," Abbott said, "so I got more involved in band. I fooled around first with the euphonium, which is a small tuba. I didn't start playing piano until way into high school. I had a natural affinity for it, and luckily had some really good teachers along the way."
Abbott studied composition at North Texas State, got work with a national tour of Cats when it came through Dallas, and a year later came to New York. He's done arrangements for dozens of shows and individual performers, and on Broadway has been musical director for Rent, Bombay Dreams, and Tarzan.
Does Abbott miss the jazz or classical music that were part of his musical training? "Not usually, no," he replied. "I play a lot of different genres, so Broadway suits me because it draws on so many of them." He added: "When it's good, Broadway is as good as any music anywhere."
Even in age of reduced orchestras for Broadway shows? "That's a big subject," Abbott said. "You want to get the best sound for the type of music you're playing. A lot of pop performers now compose for Broadway, so you don't necessarily need 30 musicians." He added: "At the same time, it was great to be able to hear a show like South Pacific with so many players."
The band for Women on the Verge is good size for Broadway these days. "There are 11 people in the pit," Abbott said, "and five people - strings and percussion - backstage." Having people in different places in a theater has become fairly common, given the small size of orchestra pits in some houses. What's more, sophisticated sound systems can blend instruments so the audience doesn't hear the difference between musicians sitting next to each other and musicians sitting in separate spaces.
"The musicians and performers in this show may not be standing side by side but I hope we sound as if we are," Abbott said, adding that "this is one of the best casts and orchestras I've ever worked with."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.