Inside the Theater
Audiences rarely see one of the most memorable parts of a live production.
Most theater and dance performances feature live musicians tucked in a sub-stage orchestra pit, blasting and crooning melodies that enhance the show without audiences often realizing it.
But this wasn’t always so.
As part of The Smith Center’s ongoing blog series exploring the history of theater magic, discover below how the orchestra pit originated.
A Crowded Stage
When the advent of opera in the late 1500s transformed live performances, it led to an unexpected dilemma: a crowded stage.
Orchestras accompanying the performances were often placed on stage alongside the actors, with as many as 50 musicians sharing the spotlight.
“Monteverdi's ‘L'Orfeo’ probably had 40 or so musicians sitting on the stage in a hall that had an audience of about 200,” says theater writer Brad Hathaway.
By the late 1700s, some theaters seated orchestras in front of the stage — which led to referring to a theater’s main level as the Orchestra Level.
But this only proved dangerous for musicians.
“Patrons could be quite demanding and threatening,” Hathaway says. “Musicians in Boston printed a notice asking the ‘thoughtless or ill-disposed not to throw apples, stones and other missiles into the orchestra.’"
An Unexpected Innovation
One of the world’s greatest opera composers takes credit for hiding — and protecting — the orchestra.
Richard Wagner, who penned numerous operas and symphonies still performed worldwide, gained a reputation for his intense commitment to distraction-free performances.
This included silencing applause and removing unnecessary visuals.
With this priority, he oversaw a complete architectural overhaul in 1876 of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre in Germany.
His work featured unprecedented infrastructure: a curved, hooded shell for musicians that receded under the stage — the first orchestra pit.
“While the conductor and a third of the musicians were at stage level, the placement of that hood was such that no one in the audience could see them,” Hathaway says. “However, the conductor could see the entire stage, and everyone on it could see him.”
This allowed for enough space for the approximately 100 musicians in Wagner’s robust orchestra.
Plus, the curved shape directed the sound back to the stage, so the performers could better hear the music.
This offered such a revolutionary approach to live performances, most theaters were built with orchestra pits by the end of the 19th century.
“That craze was driven in part by the fact that theaters burned down a lot,” Hathaway notes of common issues with gas fires. “With a lot of theater building going on, innovations took less time to become standard.”
Musicians Return to the Stage
After a longstanding tradition of orchestra pits, some contemporary productions now return their orchestras to the spotlight.
To seamlessly merge music and storytelling, a variety of Broadway musicals today feature a small band on stage, instead of in the orchestra pit.
These include touring Broadway hits that visit The Smith Center, such as Dear Evan Hansen, Waitress and Come From Away.
Broadway musical Escape to Margaritaville even wove the on-stage band into the plot, with the musicians doubling as the lead character’s band.
“The band members are not only playing some killer Jimmy Buffett tunes, but they also play along in the scenes,” explains Aimee Lane, the show’s dance captain.
In “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the performers themselves played instruments on stage alongside the show’s orchestra, removing any barriers between the two.
“There are so many layers,” says the show’s star Aaron LaVigne, of merging music, dance and story on stage. “It’s a highly emotional, theatrical experience.”