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Tales from the Pit – Mike Zabrin and Legally Blonde by Jonathan Moody

With the ever-shrinking budgets of most civic theatres and playhouses, the music director finds themselves hiring a smaller pit than what the original orchestration calls for. Suddenly the bass player has the task of covering a much broader tonal and musical spectrum than what the original notes on the page allow. While this is nothing new to me, I thought I’d find out what my fellow “theatre rats” were doing and coping with.

I got a chance to chat via email with young upstart (and fellow Warwick endorsing artist) Mike Zabrin (who you can find online at www.mikezabrinmusic.com). We both had just recently completed a run of the show, Legally Blonde, and decided to compare notes.

Mike’s Specifics:

  • Legally Blonde at the Devonshire Cultural Center, for a 4 week run
  • The pit consisted of 5 musicians, onstage in the right corner
  • Gear used: Warwick CS Streamer LX, Fender Jazz fretless, Mesa Boogie, Walkabout Amp

Jon’s Specifics:

  • Legally Blonde at the Barn Theatre, for a 2 week run
  • The pit consisted of 4 musicians, in the pit under the stage
  • Gear used: Warwick Streamer LX, Phil Jones Bass Briefcase, ProTone, Pedals Buzzard Overdrive, Flying Eye Auto Wah and Nectar Chorus

With a small pit, there are always compromises to be made. As Mike said, “Being a medium-sized production, the director probably didn’t have the budget to pay 10+ musicians (ed note: the full score for LB calls for 12 musicians, with all horn parts doubling or tripling). I have played in musicals (like Legally Blonde) where the MD will hire 1-3 keyboard players and use MIDI sounds to cover the horn lines, and string lines as needed.” In Mike’s case, the pit consisted of two keys, bass, guitar and drums. Luckily, he didn’t have to deal with the Music Director handing him sheets of music from the score with notation of what to play and/or add to his score. However, there were still enough vamps though to keep him on his toes, or as he put it, “I did have to really watch the Music Director when to get out of some of the vamps and continue with the music. He would normally raise his hand during the last time.”

My run wasn’t that different tonally, in that we were a four-piece; guitar, bass, drums and keys. We focused more on having a rock band sound and covered as many of the cues in our score as possible. I used a lot of effects more as sonic “filler” to help beef up the bass without losing too much of the definition. Given also that our MD was the only keyboard, we didn’t have as many vamps; most of our were timed so we knew ahead of time how many times to take it. In the case of any emergency vamps, we watched the MD’s head.

While our settings were different, we both seemed to attack the book in the same manner. Mike’s method was to look through the book and ask “What are the fundamental points in this song I need to establish as a bass player? That’s the first question that should come into every bass player’s mind while reading a score. Especially in a musical like Legally Blonde, where the bass is often playing ‘busy,’ I couldn’t afford to lose the groove in order to play a really fast lick or slide. It was important for me in this production in particular to distinguish groove from ornament; I used the groove as a guide to take me in different directions.”

I could’ve written Mike’s comment myself; the first thing I look at when approaching a theatre score is to look at what is important (the groove) and what doesn’t have to be exact (the ornament). Especially in a small pit, the fundamental groove is what is needed to anchor the pit and keep the singers confident, especially during the dance numbers (and OMG you guys! There are a lot!). Sometimes that conflicts with what is written in the bass score. Remember, that score was written for a lot more people than what you have, and as such, more things are covered. Not so when you’re down to 4 or 5 people.

My favorite part of every theatre run (or gig, for that matter) is the gear selection. The book for Legally Blonde calls for FOUR basses; upright, electric, electric 5 string and fretless. And no, I’m not making that up. While I opted to stick with just my Warwick Streamer
LX 6 string, Mike took a broader approach.

“I really had to brush up on my fretless bass chops on my Fender Jazz Bass! Also, I brought my Mesa Boogie Walkabout (my smaller combo rig). I needed something small to keep on stage with me that the sound tech can put a mic on, but still has a clear, crisp sound. Also, I had to figure out the exact moment I had time to switch basses from my fretless to my Warwick Streamer LX. In a musical like Legally Blonde, a lot of the songs go right into the next one without pausing for
dialogue, so that was quite a challenge!”

Mike’s comments on the amp really ring true. While a small amp (his Walkabout, or my Phil Jones Bass Briefcase) may not be ideal in a large gig setting, it’s crucial to have something of this size for a theatre pit. It allows the soundman some dynamic control as well as allowing all of the musicians to still hear you.

Lastly, we talked about particular things that had to be taken into consideration. Since mine was in a Summerstock Theatre, there was very little time to work on the show; we had two rehearsals with the band, two with the cast and then a dress/tech rehearsal. However, Mike had even less. “I was surprised that we only had 3 rehearsals and that was with the cast! Usually in other musicals I’ve done the band will rehearse separately a couple of times, so we all really had to be on top of our game!” This is definitely where Mike’s earlier comment of focusing on the groove over the ornament comes into play. When you have little to no prep time before opening night, it comes down to sticking to your role as the foundation and laying that groove down, despite what the notes may tell you to play.

I hope this gives you a unique look into how two different musicians tackle the same book and show. Thanks to Mike for his time and banter on the subject. For more information on Mike Zabrin (and hear his sweet Warwick Streamer LX), please check out his website at www.mikezabrinmusic.com or catch him on Facebook, Twitter (@mikezabrin) and the like.

If you’re a fellow “theatre rat” and would like to be included in an upcoming “Tales from the Pit” article, contact me at [email protected] or find me on Twitter at @monjoody. Thanks for reading, and have a great month!

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