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Tales from the Pit: Blyss Gould and West Side Story by Jonathan Moody

Tales from the Pit: Blyss Gould and West Side Story by Jonathan Moody… I have always held Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece, West Side Story, on a pedestal. It was one of those shows that I had the opportunity to play in high school but passed on. Later, as I heard horror stories from the musicians in the pit, I silently thanked myself for backing out. Decades later (wow, I can say that now) I had the opportunity to tackle the behemoth that is WSS. A good friend – and smoking musician that you can find at www.bayareabassacademy.com – of mine, Ted “Blyss” Gould just recently tackled this as well, and we compared notes.

Blyss’ Specifics:

  • West Side Story at the Contra Costa Civic Theater, for a 4 week run
  • The pit consisted of 15 musicians, 12 feet above the stage on a narrow platform, like one of those little planes; the kind you think you’ll die in and the live on in the hearts and minds of millions of adoring fans. (ed. note: His sense of humor is another reason why I love this guy)

Gear used: Aguilar TH500, Aguilar GS112, Mike Lull MV5 Jon’s Specifics:

  • West Side Story at Western Michigan University, for a 3 week run
  • The pit consisted of 15 musicians, in the pit under the stage

Gear used: Kydd Carry-On Electric Upright Bass, EA iAmp Micro into a Schroeder Mini 12R

The physical size of the pit that Blyss was in led to him not being able to use a string bass for the show (which, since composed in the 50s, called for it). As he put it, “The physical space would not all an upright to fit in so I had to play electric using a piece of foam and palm muting techniques.” Both techniques are great for approximating the sound of an upright bass when the real estate just doesn’t allow for it. Blyss’ experience with the upright also helped make the sound more “authentic” to the original.

Blyss brought up an interesting point in terms of compromises that I hadn’t thought of. “I think that the biggest compromises came from the budget constraints. It’s always pretty obvious when less experienced players are there to get ‘the experience.’” Theatre work is a very different animal from the regular gig, and like he mentioned, it’s very easy to spot the people that are either new to the genre or have previously written it off as easy. I experienced this a little; as a “local pro” that was brought into a college level production, I was the minority as most of the players were students. Some had pit experience, but a lot of them didn’t realize the mental focus and attention that was needed (especially when talking about Bernstein). Despite being in a larger pit, Blyss still got the call to cover all of the cello queues that were left open. Yours truly didn’t have to worry about that; the keyboardist I played with is a monster and easily absorbed those parts into her book.

When playing with a larger pit that is close to – if not the same as – the initial orchestration, more care needs to be taken when looking at the bass score and figuring out which parts you keep and which parts aren’t important. And then, there are those shows that just have to be played completely correct. “West Side Story is so different from any of the other shows, where a lot of the music in pop oriented with very discernible grooves. Of course songs like “Cool”, “America” and “Officer Krumpke” have grooves but the show isn’t like, say “Hairspray” or “The Wiz” where you can take some liberties. The ink in the West Side book is there because that’s what they wanted you to play, nothing else.” I’ve found that Bernstein’s book is so intricately written that the instrument parts need to dance with each other, much like the actors on the stage. As Blyss put it, there is NO room for interpretation, improvisation or anything else. You’re playing your part, and it needs to LOCK IN with everything else or it sounds wrong.

In terms of gear selection, Blyss mentioned that the show really didn’t influence his decision at all (aside from the real estate constraints). I’ve personally found that having an electric-upright bass (my current one is the awesome CR-5M from NS Design) in my arsenal makes a lot of sense, and in the case of West Side Story, really came in handy.

In the end, Bernstein’s “West Side Story” is one of those shows that you don’t play; you strap in and hope that you come out at the end. It’s a demanding show that, when it locks in, is beautiful on so many levels. Thanks again to Blyss for taking the time to compare notes with me. Drop the man a line at http://www.bayareabassacademy.com on Twitter (@sonofabass) or on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/sonofabass).

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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