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On with the show, and out with a good book

LOS ANGELES -- The reading starts when the music stops.

Between the jazzy numbers of "Thoroughly Modern Millie," during breaks as brief as two minutes, musicians in the Ahmanson Theatre's orchestra pit holstered their horns, kicked back from their keyboards, and began to read.

They weren't perusing sharps and flats.

Instead, as the cast delivered comic dialogue and the audience laughed away, the musicians bowed their heads over magazines, hobby guides, and novels such as Stuart Woods's "Capital Crimes," reading in the dimly lighted pit like penitents praying in a candle-decked chapel. "I can't imagine the hundreds of books I've read in my 30 years in the pit," said "Millie" lead trumpet Stu Blumberg, who favors thrillers. "I probably could've gotten several PhDs if I'd read books that were more involved."

From Los Angeles's Music Center to New York's Broadway, orchestra pits are distinguished by their below-the-stage anonymity, cramped quarters, and battles over the growing use of computer-controlled synthesizers, not to mention the occasional falling prop that bonks a player mid-chord.

What might surprise theatergoers is that pits can also be raging reading rooms, where some of the best musicians in the business devour text to tune out the words -- the dialogue, that is. One of the tougher parts of their gigs, they say, is hearing the same scripted lines night after night, for months or even years on end.

Idle listening invites boredom, the musicians note. And boredom causes the mind to wander, which can result in a missed cue.

"There are shows where there are seven, eight minutes between pieces," said Seymour Red Press, who has played woodwinds on Broadway since the 1950s. "It's very difficult to just sit there. How much can you ruminate? You'll fall asleep."

To stay awake, musicians have gone so far as to sneak portable televisions into the pit. "That's too much," Press said.

Pit wisdom holds that reading requires sufficient alertness to keep the ear pitched for the signal, often a bit of dialogue, that tells a musician it's time to switch from paperback to sax.

"There are guys who continue reading while they're playing," Press said. "The music is completely memorized. It's the ability to have two sides to your mind."

Not that mixing sentences with staves is risk-free. A local pit veteran relates a cautionary, perhaps apocryphal, tale of all the trombones at the old Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles becoming so engrossed in books that they botched an entrance. And Press says producers can be prickly about reading.

"If they happen to come in and sit in the balcony and see people in the pit reading books, they might not think they're getting their money's worth," Press said. "That's not true. But it wouldn't look good to the audience."

Luckily for the readers, much of the audience can't peer into the pit.

The Ahmanson trench is typical: It's tucked behind a partition, illuminated only by music-stand lamps, and painted a dull black. The musicians wear dark clothing -- "pit blacks" -- and have a limited view, if any, of the action above them.

They once rated better seats. In early opera and musical theater, instrumentalists performed at spectator level. Opera composers began noodling over the concept of a sunken band in the late 18th century, believing a pit would prevent the musicians from drowning out the singers, says Neal Zaslaw, a Cornell University music professor who has co-authored a history book on orchestras. Pits didn't become popular until after the 1876 opening of Richard Wagner's Bayreuth opera house in Germany. It boasted a custom-built pit that shielded and muted the large orchestra that his compositions demanded.

Wagner christened the pit a "mysterious abyss," Zaslaw said.

The invisibility of their labors is a touchy subject for many in today's pits. They say they can toil for weeks on a musical without meeting the actors and actresses. "We pass people in the hall and have no idea what they do in the cast," said trumpeter Blumberg.

Some pit musicians also grouse about receiving scant recognition in reviews, unless it's for a problem.

"If the band doesn't get mentioned in a review, that's a good thing," said Jeff Driskill, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Theater Musicians Association. "It can be frustrating. We feel like we do a world-class job working in the pit."

And the work is frequently done in closet-size spaces, the musicians bumping elbows. "If you're claustrophobic, you would really feel uncomfortable down there," Driskill said.

The confines restrict evasive moves when a prop is propelled from the stage. John Fumo, second trumpet on "Millie," recalled a show years back that sent a suitcase sailing into the pit.

"The thing came flying and hit me right in the neck -- while I was playing!" he said in his Ahmanson roost, squeezed against the curtained partition.

Pits are undergoing a different kind of squeeze as producers turn more to digital music to shrink ensembles and cut costs. The trend helped trigger a 2003 strike on Broadway, and it remains a bitter topic in the trade.

But an upside to the pit life, apart from the joy of playing live music for good money, is that it accommodates reading. Or solving a crossword puzzle. Or learning origami.

"That took two minutes," said "Millie" keyboardist and assistant conductor Michael Horsley, pointing to a paper lily atop an equipment carton, next to an origami primer he'd been reading. "It's meditation in a way. It clears the mind."

Horsley also keeps a combination calendar-crossword book within reach. It was a gift from "Millie" music director and conductor Eric Stern, who is the busiest person in the pit but still manages to whip out a Handspring cellphone-Web browser between songs, swapping his baton for a stylus.

"I'm uncomfortable discussing that," Stern said with a sheepish smile. He was backstage, in the cool basement behind the pit, preparing for his 390th-plus run through the show. He said he can hop off his platform and catch up on e-mail because he has the score nailed.

"I make that cue," he said.

At the "Millie" intermission, the musicians hustled out of the pit to their locker room, where four of them bent over a crossword puzzle. "I probably tonight came up with 10 or 15 words," said string bass Tim Christensen.

The talk turned later to the range of reading opportunities afforded by various musicals. During "Les Miserables," "Miss Saigon," and "The Phantom of the Opera," the books rarely get cracked.

"Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Producers," on the other hand, feature dialogue stretches long enough for a trip to the library. "On `Fiddler,' there's 20 minutes of dialogue -- whoa!" Blumberg said.

"Millie" ranked in the middle category. First trombone Bob Payne, however, said its demands on his instrument had put him behind in his reading after a few weeks. "I've gotten through one book," he lamented. "That's bad."

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