Into The Spotlight: Recognizing Broadway Musicians This Tony Awards Season

Jun 9, 2019
Originally published on June 10, 2019 10:50 am

The scores of Be More Chill, Beetlejuice, Hadestown, The Prom, To Kill a Mockingbird and Tootsie are all up for Tony Awards at the 73rd annual awards show. One of their composers will walk away with a hard-earned trophy. The musicians who play these scores, though, aren't even eligible for any of the show's official honors. These people's work, while always heard, often goes quite literally unseen — but not always. Some musicians came out of the pit this year to be featured onstage in their respective shows.

In the revival of Kiss Me, Kate, woodwind player Greg Thymius takes center stage. Decked out in a tuxedo, the 20-year Broadway veteran opens the second act with a clarinet solo. The clever blocking of the clever staging of the song 'Too Darn Hot" fits Thymius in with the dancers. "People dance around me in that magnificent way that they know how," Thymius says. "And so, it fools people into maybe thinking I'm doing something too."

But the spotlight is unusual for Thymius. Stage/pit separation is the norm for musicians, to the point that they sometimes use video monitors to see what's happening onstage. "We liken it more to a recording studio experience where we're a little bit separated, we're in different rooms," Thymius explains.

Being onstage is nothing new for Broadway first-timer Eleonore Oppenheim, who plays upright bass in the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! Oppenheim's used to playing in front of audiences in contemporary classical ensembles and in a rock band.

Eleonore Oppenheim (right) plays alongside Damon Daunno in Oklahoma!
Little Fang Photo / Courtesy of Oklahoma! The Musical

"Because of my background as a performer who is not generally in a pit, it doesn't feel weird to me, somehow," Oppenheim says. "It feels just sort of normal that I'm there and that the actors and the band are all making something together in the same space and with the audience."

In the Tony-nominated musical Hadestown, based on the Orpheus myth, the entire band is onstage. Brian Drye plays trombone and steps into the action during several numbers. He's used to playing a couple of sets a night in clubs, but says playing eight performances a week is a challenge.

"About a week ago, I started to get a little delirious," Drye says. "I haven't taken a break yet. I've done 57 shows since it opened, so tomorrow's my first time that I'm sending [a substitute] in."

Danny Jonokuchi plays the theremin onstage in the musical Be More Chill.
Maria Baranova / Courtesy of Be More Chill, The Musical

At the curtain call of every Broadway show, whether they're in the pit or onstage, the band always gets a bow. But being featured while they perform is something Danny Jonokuchi cherishes. He plays the theremin, an electronic box with two antennae that creates sci-fi sound effects, and a spotlight shines on him at top of Be More Chill.

"It makes it for me," Jonokuchi reflects. "Just to have a couple moments where the band is really recognized, that the show kind of takes a moment just to acknowledge the band, is a huge thing."

Listen to the full story at the audio link.

: 6/10/19

A previous Web version of this story misspelled the first name of Eleonore Oppenheim as Eleonor and Eleanor.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Winners of the 2019 Tony Awards will be handed out at Radio City Music Hall tonight. It will be a night of actors and directors, playwrights and composers celebrating their wins. But there's no award for the musicians who play the music. Their work often goes unrecognized. Jeff Lunden profiles some of the unsung heroes of the stage.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The score for the sci-fi musical "Be More Chill" is up for a Tony, but the musicians who play it aren't even eligible. Still, when the show opens, a light shines on a single instrument and its player.

(SOUNDBITE OF BE MORE CHILL ORIGINAL BROADWAY BAND'S "JEREMY'S THEME")

LUNDEN: It's an electronic box called the theremin. And the man who plays it is Danny Jonokuchi.

DANNY JONOKUCHI: The theremin has two antennas. This one determines pitch, and the one on the side here determines the volume. And so when we turn it on....

(SOUNDBITE OF THEREMIN SOUNDING)

JONOKUCHI: ...Using both hands moving through the air, not touching the instrument...

(SOUNDBITE OF THEREMIN SOUNDING)

JONOKUCHI: ...To create a lot of these sci-fi effects.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEREMIN SOUNDING)

LUNDEN: Jonokuchi is making his Broadway debut with "Be More Chill." Woodwind player Greg Thymius is a 20-year veteran on Broadway.

GREG THYMIUS: I was exclusively a substitute for 11 years before I got my first Broadway show.

LUNDEN: Usually, Broadway musicians perform in a pit in front of the stage or underneath it. The musicians can't see the actors and often have to use video monitors to connect with what's happening onstage.

THYMIUS: We're under the stage. We're recovered. You know, sometimes you have to use a click track. We like it more to a recording studio experience, where we're a little bit separated. We're in different rooms.

LUNDEN: But this year, Thymius is center stage in the revival of "Kiss Me, Kate," where he dons a tux and opens the second act with a clarinet solo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO DARN HOT")

JAMES T LANE: (As character, singing) It's too darn hot.

LUNDEN: In the song "Too Darn Hot," the choreography is frequently centered around him.

THYMIUS: People dance around me in that magnificent way that they know how, so it fools people into maybe thinking I'm doing something, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO DARN HOT")

LANE: (As character, singing) But when the thermometer goes way up and the weather is sizzling hot, Mister Adam for his madam is not because it's too, too...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Too darn hot.

LANE: (As character, singing) Hey, that's what I said.

LUNDEN: Being onstage is nothing new for Broadway first-timer Eleanor Oppenheim. She plays upright bass in the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" Oppenheim's used to playing in front of audiences in contemporary classical ensembles and in a rock band.

ELEANOR OPPENHEIM: Because of my background as a performer who is not generally in a pit, it doesn't feel weird to me, somehow. It feels just sort of normal that I'm there and that the actors and the band are all making something together in the same space with the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T SAY NO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) I'm just a girl who can't say no. Kissing's my favorite food.

LUNDEN: Another one of this year's Tony-nominated shows to feature musicians on stage is a retelling of the Orpheus myth called "Hadestown."

BRIAN DRYE: My friends that have come see it described it as a Broadway show with trombone (laughter) or trombone with Broadway show.

LUNDEN: Brian Drye plays it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: Drye is used to playing a couple of sets a night in jazz clubs, but Broadway musicians have to play eight shows a week - some days, a matinee and an evening performance.

DRYE: About a week ago, I started to get a little delirious from it. I haven't taken a break yet. I've done 57 shows since it opened, so tomorrow's my first time that I'm sending somebody new in.

LUNDEN: Broadway musicians have to arrange for a sub themselves. Clarinetist Greg Thymius says subs are a part of a long Broadway tradition.

THYMIUS: You are bringing new people into the community as you were brought in. That's important. You have to pay forward the kindness as your elders paid you.

LUNDEN: Still, it's a far different thing to step into the spotlight. And that's something that Danny Jonokuchi at "Be More Chill" cherishes.

JONOKUCHI: It makes it for me. Just to have a couple of moments where the band is really recognized, that the show kind of takes a moment just to acknowledge the band is a huge thing.

LUNDEN: And the audience gets to see the faces of the people who make the music.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAY DOWN HADESTOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) The wage is nothing, and the work is hard. It’s a graveyard in Hadestown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.