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Blackbirds of Broadway Tour

On the Job with Blackbirds

While most larger productions have their orchestra located out of sight in a 'pit' below the front of the stage, Blackbirds uses a five-piece jazz-oriented stage band. It's a great situation for the players involved, because we can react to each other easily, get showcased playing jazz solos, and are able to see the action taking place on stage. During some parts of the show, we are easily visible to the audience and during other parts a screen of black gauze is lowered in front of us to make us practically invisible. You can't see us, but we can see you...

As with most theater productions, the Blackbirds company generally works a six-day week running Tuesday through Sunday, with Mondays off. In each 6-day week there are 8 shows scheduled. They are usually around 8:00pm Tuesday through Sunday, with   matinee (afternoon) added on Saturday and Sunday. Matinees are typically at 2:00 or 3:00pm, and evening shows will generally be around 8:00pm. This was pretty much the schedule in Richmond and Roanoke.

At the Barter Theatre, where much of the business is from senior citizens bus tours, it's a 5-day week with matinees on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Sunday is matinee-only. This gives us both Monday and Tuesday off. The Sunday matinee ends around 5:30pm, and the next show after that is at 2:00pm on Wednesday. The band likes having the extra day off, but the cast feels strained from cramming their eight shows in only five days. At the Arkansas Rep and the Charlotte Rep, we played a number of 10am matinees for school students. In Europe, where we  will play a different theatre every night, there will only be six shows a week. (i.e. one show per working day)

The work week is fairly easy for the musicians, because we play from written music and our job is pretty cut and dried. The hardest-working members of the Blackbirds band are music director/keyboardist Ron Barnett and drummer Rodney Harper. They are sometimes called upon to assist in rehearsals for the show's cast. The rest of us are generally free to practice, rest and explore the town.

To begin the work day, band members generally observe what is known as a 'half-hour call.' This means that we are expected to sign in at the theater at least 30 minutes before the show begins. A fresh sign-in sheet is posted every day. By checking the signatures on the sheet, the Stage Manager can see if anyone is missing and take steps to correct or compensate before it's too late. The show runs just under 2 1/2 hours. On a two-show day, we arrive at 1:30pm (half-hour call) for the first show, which starts at 2:00 and ends around 4:15. By 4:30, we have packed up our instruments, changed out of our tuxes and turned our shirts over to the costume dept. for laundering. This leaves us around three hours to kill before reporting back at 7:30 for the 8:00 evening show. For me, this is the perfect opportunity to eat a leisurely dinner and drop by the local library to check my email on the Internet. 

Because the band in this show is onstage with the cast, we are assigned a dressing room and our tuxedos are cleaned and maintained by the theater's costume dept.

In Europe, the nature of the job changed from a resident theatre atmosphere to a hardcore tour involving mostly one-nighters. A typical day began somewhere between 6 and 10am as we got up, showered, packed, and ate at the hotel's free breakfast buffet. Bus rides were typically 3 to 4 hours, so we board the bus at 9 or 10am in order to reach our next hotel around 1pm. After arriving at the next hotel, we would be free until around 6pm when it would be time to board the bus once again for our trip to the theatre. In Europe, we observed a 90-minute call before the show because the stage, sound and lighting would be different in each location. Keeping this all smoothed out was a crew of technicians who struck the set every night, hauled it immediately to the next town and had the stage, sound, lights and wardrobe ready for us when we arrived the following evening.

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Blackbirds Band onstage: (left to right) Yours truly, Forrest Johnson, trumpet; Rodney Harper, drums; Tom Bernath, bass; Ron Barnett (piano/music director).

 

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Blackbirds Band Backstage: Bassist Tom Bernath (left) changing into his tux, trumpeter Forrest Johnson (center) warming up, and Music Director/Pianist Ron Barnett (right) making repairs to his heavily used book. Missing are drummer Rodney Harper (out of the room) and yours truly (holding the camera).

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Forrest (lower left) reroutes our audio cables onstage in Charlotte as Tom (upper left) and Ron (right) look on.

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Rodney packs up his drum kit for the move to Little Rock

 

 

Meet the 'Blackbirds' stage band:

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Ron Barnett (piano, music director): Striking a pose worthy of Bruce Sullivan

Tom Bernath (bass):  No, he's not on dope!

 

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Rodney Harper (percussion):  The personification of suave

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Forrest Johnson (trumpet):  An eye-poppin' solo worthy of Louis Armstrong.

Yours truly (reeds):  Trying not to look at the camera, but...

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