By Sarah Rebell
The night before The Lion King was set to resume rehearsals post-shutdown, Audrey Flores received a phone call from one of the horn players. A big storm had felled several trees and they were down over the Metro North train tracks. He wasn’t going to be able to get into Manhattan for the Broadway musical’s first rehearsal after 18 months away. Would she mind stepping in?
Flores is used to receiving last minute calls of this nature. She has been subbing for Disney on Broadway for nearly a decade, playing horn on The Lion King, Aladdin, and prior to the pandemic, Frozen. But she’s never been a regular chairholder on a Broadway musical. As a result, she’d never experienced a music rehearsal quite like this before.
“I don’t know what it’s like to go through that process of opening, and tweaking, and getting levels in mics,” she said. “So, to sit there with them for the first time in 18 months and help re-metabolize the show was a huge honor for me.”
As a sub, Flores was very aware that she was “walking into someone’s home.”
“You’ve got to read the room and sit with their vibe instead of bringing your own energy to it all the time,” she explained. “I was really excited to be there, but in my own quiet way.”
That is, in essence, the paradox of being a substitute musician on Broadway. The role is critical to the ongoing maintenance and success of the show, but it is often overlooked and all but invisible to the rest of the company – let alone the larger theatre industry. While performers who understudy, swing, and standby on Broadway are now (deservedly) receiving gratitude and acknowledgement for their vital contributions to their shows, subs are still being left out of the conversation.
With COVID-19 variants still running rampant through Broadway stages and orchestra pits, subs are working harder than ever “to keep the music playing” (to quote Marilyn and Alan Bergman’s song “How Do You Keep The Music Playing”) and literally save their shows.
Nevertheless, these freelance musicians are expected to rehearse themselves, show up ready to perform(after receiving a negative rapid test, of course), and fit in seamlessly with a group of musicians with whom they may have never played before. Even as Local 802 union members, subs don’t have access to the same type of rehearsal pay and healthcare benefits as their fellow chair-holding musicians, or even their fellow performing understudies in Actors Equity.
Subbing can also be an important way for less experienced musicians to get their foot in the door so they can learn, grow, and make the necessary connections to one day hold a chair of their own on a show. But challenges like the lack of rehearsal pay and healthcare can make it harder for newcomers (especially from historically-excluded groups) to stay afloat, continually reinforced as the pandemic continues to rear its head in the post-shutdown era of Broadway.
Subs Saving the Day
“It is crazy just how much COVID has really affected, and continues to affect, our industry,” said Caroline Moore, who subbed for the Broadway production of Six before they were hired as the regular drummer on the national tour. “COVID is still a big threat to shutting down the show.”
They recalled a week during an Omicron outbreak when “everybody was dropping like flies.” One morning, they received a frantic phone call from Six drummer Elena Bonomo saying that she and all of her other subs had tested positive for COVID-19.
“I think I covered nine shows in a row that time because I was the only sub who didn’t have COVID,” Moore recalled. Consequently, they had to be vigilant about mask-wearing and self-isolating to try to keep from testing positive as well. (Subs at Six are required to get tested 48-72 hours prior to their performance. If they are asked to go on last-minute, then the show’s COVID safety manager ensures that they take a 30-minute rapid test and wait in the dressing room until they are cleared to play.)
Despite the pressure of being the only available drummer, Moore found a silver lining to subbing on nine consecutive shows: “I was able to correct my mistakes in real time on the next show. I felt like every show, I was able to lock in better and better with the band and with the Queens.” The opportunity to improve their playing onstage during that run of shows helped to strengthen their ties to the show and to the music team. “I feel like that’s what really helped me continue to do well with the band and continue to get asked to come back.”
Moore’s experience is not unique to Six. Contractors and music directors across Broadway productions are increasingly aware of the need to build out their lists of subs who are ready to play at a moment’s notice.
“We got hit with COVID in our pit early on, before we had a deep bench of subs,” said Rona Siddiqui, the music director for A Strange Loop. “We had some people learning the show quite quickly. The experience was a rude awakening that there is no time to lose in preparing a deep bench in case of emergency.”
New musicals no longer have the luxury of time; they must make sure that there are subs who can come in and play even before the show officially opens.
Last March, Jason Howland, the composer and music director of Paradise Square, called his friend Sharon Kenny at 7 a.m. and asked her to play piano for the show’s final dress rehearsal at 8 p.m. that night. It’s worth noting that while COVID was not the only reason why the show needed a sub so last minute, it was a contributing factor: an outbreak had significantly limited the number of players who were available to go on that night.
Because the musical had not yet begun Broadway previews, there was no conductor video for Kenny to watch to prepare. She managed to obtain a bootleg iPhone recording from a band rehearsal and tried to get a sense of the musical timing, even though a lot of the music had changed since that rehearsal. Kenny went on to play that night without having ever heard the full score.
“It’s hard to be a sub. I always feel like there’s some secret that everybody knows that I don’t know,” Kenny said. “When you’re less prepared than you would ever dream of being, I think the biggest thing is to just stay calm, and to trust yourself.” A veteran Broadway sub who has played piano/keyboard on Beetlejuice, The Music Man, Mean Girls, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Beautiful, she understands that mistakes are bound to happen, “but you’ve got to let it go and move on.”
With Time to Prepare
Even when musicians have time to prepare subbing in a pit, the gig is still incredibly challenging.
“You have to be ready, be available, be good, and be PATIENT. I often joke that I want to insert a chip into my arm, so I don’t miss any calls or emails,” said bassoonist Patricia Wang who currently subs on The Phantom of the Opera and Into the Woods.
Wang played on Phantom prior to the pandemic; like Flores, she was able to help reopen the show last fall with the regular musicians because she was filling in for another player. “I had the luxury of playing the rehearsals and experiencing what it was like to open a Broadway musical.”
Into the Woods was a more typical sub experience. Wang came in after the show was already open and did not get to rehearse with the full orchestra. Instead, she was invited to come to the theater and watch the show on a monitor with speakers. She was also given a conductor video and a book that was “very well-marked by the chair holder.”
These practices serve as significant reminders of the power that chair-holders have in making or breaking a sub’s experience. When a chairholder is willing to work with their subs, share a detailed score with them, and/or let them audit a show sitting next to them in the pit, it can really make a difference.
Maestra music contractors like Six’s Kristy Norter actively encourage their regular chairholders to support subs. “There are things within the book that a regular can do to help facilitate a better show for the subs: the way you mark the book, the way you approach giving them their materials, how organized you are,” Norter said.
“If it’s a show like Six where there’s some basic choreography, putting all of that in writing in a way that’s accessible to the sub, so that they can do their homework, [is extremely helpful].”
Prior to playing for Six, Moore had studied drums with chairholder Elena Bonomo. They had played through the drum track together and Bonomo herself asked Moore if they wanted to sub on the show. “I think it’s really important for chairholders to want their subs to succeed, to want them to have these opportunities,” Moore said.
When Bonomo let Moore sit next to her during a music rehearsal, they were able to observe firsthand how she handled certain tricky aspects of the drums track. Unusually, they also got their own put-in rehearsal where they got to perform the show onstage with members of the company. “It was really great for my nerves because I got to run through the entire show without a big audience being there.”
Apart from rare opportunities like these, subs are typically expected to learn the show on their own time (which can take up to 40 hours) and figure out all the intricate nuances of the track in real-time with the lights, mics, and a live audience.
“As a sub, it all falls on you,” said Kenny. “And you’re the only one responsible if it doesn’t go well.”
Unlike actors, who typically receive a steady salary and benefits as a standby or understudy, subs are not paid to rehearse by themselves or with anyone from the show. While the regular chairholders can certainly help ease a sub’s prep process, it shouldn’t be incumbent upon them alone to support their subs. Key industry figures like producers hold the power to change the system by, for instance, building in paid rehearsals for music subs.
“I would love for the industry to treat subs the way they treat covers and understudies,” Siddiqui said. “If producers would support the occasional rehearsal with actor covers AND pit subs, that would ease so much stress and anxiety for these people who are doing an insanely difficult job.”
Subs and Healthcare
Another important industry issue for many subs right now is access to healthcare. The persistent reality of COVID-19 on Broadway exacerbates this need.
“Oftentimes we’re going on because the chairholder has COVID. That means it’s very likely that we’ll get COVID too,” Flores pointed out. “Any kind of support that our union or that the league can give us in terms of health benefits is vitally important for subs.”
In advance of Broadway’s reopening, the union entered contract negotiations to ensure that regular chair-holders would receive fully paid health benefits. Unfortunately, subs don’t qualify for these benefits because they typically don’t play enough shows to meet the new requirements.
The musicians’ contract stipulates the minimum number of performances that a regular must play (which is 50%), and there simply aren’t enough remaining weekly performances for all of the subs for each instrument to have a chance to play the show with any regularity. The fact that Broadway orchestras are continually shrinking in size only adds insult to injury.
“A lot of subs who have been faithfully subbing their whole careers lost all possibilities of health benefits,” said Flores. “There’s just no way that they can hit this higher threshold with the limited amount of work that is happening now.”
In order to reach the necessary threshold, subs would likely have to take other union jobs or work a day job. Both options could potentially limit their availability to learn new shows and sub when they are called.
Subs and Stigma
In addition to these other challenges, subs often deal with a negative stigma surrounding their work. This stigma can be even harder to overcome as a woman or nonbinary musician in the pit. A trumpet player who made her Broadway debut this past year subbing on two musicals reached out to me to share her experience, but she did not feel comfortable naming the shows for which she played.
“The people who have mentored me in this industry have shared that a regular will feel uncomfortable if a sub is sharing publicly that they’re subbing for them. That will put the regular in an uncomfortable position of having to potentially answer to other people about why they aren’t playing on their [own] show,” she explained, adding “I don’t want to put anyone in that position.”
This Maestra is cognizant that she plays an instrument that has traditionally been played by men. The gender disparity can add to the pressure when she subs on a show. “It’s easy to feel that the eyes are on me as someone who doesn’t typically play this instrument.”
As a result, she preps extensively before each gig. Although she was offered the opportunity to make her Broadway debut sooner, she chose to wait until she had more time to work with the show’s materials before subbing in the pit.
“I wanted to be as prepared as I could for my first time playing,” she said. Over the course of a few months, she was able to sit in the pit, take notes, meet the music directors, and watch the conductor as she worked on learning the score.
The Gender Gap
This trumpet player is hardly the only Maestra who is aware of the added obstacles that can come from being a woman (or nonbinary) sub in this industry.
“I know firsthand that being called in to sub is subjective to the members of your instrument who have those chairs in the pits, alongside the culture of the theatre house, the show, and the folks in charge,” acknowledged Shelby J. Blezinger-McCay, a percussionist who subs on Aladdin and Six. “If they aren’t creating a space and supporting women and nonbinary musicians in the field, they are limiting the access and inclusion.”
Blezinger-McCay values her music community and wishes she could strengthen it by expanding her network of fellow subs. “So often, I have no idea who is a sub on Broadway and who isn’t, who has chairs on shows and who doesn’t,” she explained.
Blezinger-McCay would love to be able to look through a directory, or attend gatherings, for sub musicians. “It seems to me that creating a space virtually and in-person for us all to gather, get to know one another, learn who is where and when would be really meaningful.”
For pianists and other musicians who often play their instrument alone, the opportunity to connect with fellow musicians and join a community is especially meaningful. “When you’re subbing in a pit, all of a sudden, you have this community around you–all of these other like-minded people who are experiencing a lot of the same things and have the same sense of humor,” said Kenny.
When Kenny first started subbing on Beautiful, she was frequently the only non-male-identifying person in the pit. One time, she overheard a male musician complaining about the number of jobs that women were getting and questioning whether they were being hired because of their skills or because of their gender.
“I was in the room when he said this, and it made me very angry, obviously,” she recalled. But she was quick to point out that she felt supported by her other colleagues. “The other men that were in the room were just as offended as I was.”
It is not enough to hire more women and nonbinary subs if they are not going to be welcomed and prepped in a way that will enable them to be asked back to play again. While there are a multitude of paths to becoming a Broadway pit, Moore’s trajectory of going from Broadway sub to national tour chair-holder to (hopefully) Broadway chair-holder is certainly one of the most well-trod and demonstrates the importance of the platform provided by subbing.
Yet even with these success stories, the industry still has a long way to go, especially when it comes to creating access for subs from historically-excluded communities.
“Subbing is the best gateway into allowing more women and nonbinary people onto some of these stages, because a lot of these shows are still mostly white men playing the show. And then they’ll just ask other white men to come and sub,” said Moore. “I think it is a matter of the chairholders opening that door, letting those people in.”
Some leaders in music departments, like Norter and Siddiqui, encourage their regular chairholders to be conscious and mindful of inclusion when they are recommending subs.
“I have a first-time sub coming in next week who is an incredible musician, but has never played in a Broadway pit,” Siddiqui said, referencing pianist Shio Tepper. “She has come in and watched a number of times and played through the show with us on our practice rig. We are all doing our best to set her up for success.”
A Strange Loop’s practice rig is a helpful way for new subs to learn the show at the theater instead of isolated at home. “They have an additional rig set up in the rehearsal room with a monitor and audio feeds so that you can play along to a show live without anyone hearing you,” Tepper described.
Most subs don’t get to practice in the pit prior to their debut, unless they are given a put-in rehearsal like Moore got for Six. However, Tepper had the opportunity to practice playing in the pit on the actual rig that she’ll be using in the show.
Siddiqui was Tepper’s graduate school professor at BerkleeNYC and the person who initially invited her to audition to sub for the show. Tepper also credits her with creating such a welcoming environment in the pit. “As a female POC musician, it is sometimes challenging to find inclusive spaces in this industry, and A Strange Loop is definitely a space that feels comfortable and inclusive.”
“It’s not that hard to do this. We can open doors and show people the ropes,” Siddiqui said.
It was relatively simple for the music team to support Tepper as she subbed on the show, and the experience made a profound impact on her. The day after she made her debut, she emailed me, “I never thought I would be playing in a Tony award-winning Broadway pit! It’s really wild to think that I have now played on Broadway. That in and of itself is a surreal feeling.”
So, what could the Broadway music industry do to not only open its door to more women and nonbinary subs, but to support and empower them as well?
- Producers could offer subs paid rehearsal time with members of the music team and practice rigs when subs are learning a show. They could also offer paid put-in rehearsals for subs when they do a put-in rehearsal for performers.
- Music teams could encourage chairholders to recommend subs who are skilled musicians from a diverse array of backgrounds and to take the time to work with those musicians in advance of their first show.
- Chairholders could notate their books in ways that clearly communicate tricky sections of the score and any onstage choreography for the band.
- The union could work to provide healthcare options for subs who don’t meet the required criteria to qualify for health benefits through their subbing alone.
- Organizations like Maestra and MUSE could create a Directory for subs and plan virtual events where subs could come together and connect with each other.
Despite the pressures and stresses of being a Broadway sub, especially in this era, these Maestras appreciate the gig for the opportunity to network, learn, and grow as musicians. Getting to play on different shows, and having to learn them so quickly, keeps them on their toes.
“I have learned such an invaluable amount from my time subbing,” said Kenny. “I would not trade it for anything.”