The technology in SF’s ‘Frozen’ reduces the musicians in live performances, but at what cost to the audience?

Caroline Bowman plays Elsa in “Frozen,” which features a single synthesizer that plays the sound of many instruments. Photo: Matthew Murphy/Disney

For as long as musicals have been on the stage, producers have been looking for ways to keep the cost of band members down, and musicians have been lobbying to defend their livelihoods.

Somewhere between the tinkling sounds of a lone piano accompanist and the lush textures provided by an expensive band of dozens of instrumentalists, lies a sweet spot that balances economic and artistic needs. At least, that’s the industry ideal.

Now, a groundbreaking advancement in keyboard technology called KeyComp promises, or perhaps threatens, to swing the terms of this long-running theatrical tug-of-war squarely in favor of the producers, potentially saving millions of touring shows.

The production of “Frozen” which began playing at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco on November 18. promises Bay Area audiences more than a live rendition of “Let It Go.” It also marks what may be the local debut of KeyComp, which according to its inventor will make it possible for a single synth to reproduce the sound of many orchestral instruments with unprecedented flexibility.

Caroline Bowman as Elsa (left) and Lauren Nicole Chapman as Anna in “Frozen,” which uses KeyComp music technology during its performance at the Orpheum Theater on BroadwaySF. Photo: Matthew Murphy/Disney

“If you look at an orchestral score and how many different rhythms and whole chords it contains, andYou can easily hit the 10-finger limit for a keyboard player,” said Christoph Buskies, the German engineer and musician who invented KeyComp while working as a musician for traveling shows that stopped in his hometown of Hamburg.

The innovative aspect of KeyComp, he said, is that a single musician can play one or two of the major musical lines, and the technology adds secondary lines in a way that matches the player’s tempo, articulation and dynamics. The result is a fuller and more varied musical texture than a single keyboardist can usually muster.

When Buskies demoed KeyComp for The Chronicle playing an interlude from “Aladdin,” it was like he had an invisible third hand. Even on the secondary lines, his sample notes, recorded on analog instruments, had warmth, swing, and attitude, unlike samples of earlier technology he demonstrated, where notes materialized and disappeared with all the subtlety of on and off switches.

Buskies insists on an essential difference between KeyComp and more purely automated technologies, such as a rhythmic “click track” or fully pre-recorded accompaniment.

“As a musician myself, it was important to me to put this technology in the hands of a capable musician,” he said. “KeyComp will never play itself. It is an instrument that has the ability to follow a performer and use all the musicality that he performs”.

KeyComp has been used in Europe for years, and the benefit to producers is clear: they can get a better sound than most synths without hiring more musicians. But members of the American Federation of Musicians union are concerned about the economic impact of KeyComp, especially on its subgroup, the Theater Musicians Association, which has 565 members nationwide.

“It may eventually threaten the continued employment of nearly all theater musicians, both local and touring,” AFM International President Ray Hair said in a statement to The Chronicle. He added that the union will continue to work “to obtain better economic terms and protections against further job erosion by reducing orchestrations and the use of electronic devices.”

KeyComp creator Buskies said those concerns led him to sit on the technology for several years after first developing it in the 1990s.

“I thought, ‘This technology is a Pandora’s box,’” he said. “So I put it in a drawer for several years. I was sure that if it was misused, it would be bad for live musicians.”

What changed his mind, he said, was a production for which he was conducting the orchestra. The producers threatened to shut down the show entirely unless overall expenses were reduced. Buskies decided to bring KeyComp into the mix.

Orchestra members rehearse in the balcony lobby for the opening of “Moulin Rouge” at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

To date, Disney Theatrical Productions is the only organization using KeyComp, using it internationally in productions of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” A representative for Disney Theatrical declined to provide details about where in the US the company has used the technology thus far, but noted that “Disney Theatrical Productions meets or exceeds all rules and minimums set by the union. of Musicians, the American Federation of Musicians, on Broadway. and on the road This includes the use of KeyComp on the road and our hiring of eight local musicians for the performance of ‘Frozen’ in San Francisco. ”

If you’re a fan of musicals, there’s a good chance you’ve attended a show where the musical accompaniment is just a guitarist, a percussionist, and a pair of keyboards whose synthetic sounds replace a variety of analog instruments. The timbre of keyboards can often be poor, like that of a karaoke MIDI track or a 1990s computer game soundtrack.

It was frustration with that low-quality sound that led Buskies, whose day job is as an engineer at Apple, to develop KeyComp.

First, a musician records samples that are specific to the program in question. Depending on the sheet music, that could mean up to 100,000 individual notes that need to be played and labeled. Then, during performance, a synthesizer calls up notes by pressing a key on the keyboard; the player can stretch or manipulate the recorded note live, according to the director’s directions.

Anthony Murphy plays the Genie in Disney’s “Aladdin” at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre. Photo: Deen van Meer/Disney

How much of a difference that can make to the listening experience of most audiences remains an open question.

“Synthesizer technology just keeps getting better and better,” said Dan Feyer, a San Francisco-based music director and keyboardist who has played with the American Conservatory Theater and Center Repertory Company, among other groups.

“In a symphony hall, it is much easier to tell the difference. But when the orchestra is in the pit and all the instruments are miked and mixed and processed, and the vocals are much louder anyway, in a musical, you can’t hear as much detail in the music.”

San Francisco music director Dan Feyer, joined by Tasi Alabastro in an American Conservatory Theater rehearsal, says synthesizer technology just keeps getting better. Photo: Santiago Mejía / The Chronicle

The fight over the size of theater orchestras has roots going back to the mid-20th century, according to Paul Laird, a music historian at the University of Kansas who specializes in the Broadway musical. By the 1950s, he said, the musicians’ union had negotiated a minimum number of musicians who had to be paid whether they played or not. That gave composers an incentive to write big and varied scores like Leonard Bernstein’s for “West Side Story.”

But when “Hair” introduced rock to musical theater in 1967, bands began to dwindle. Synths only accelerated the trend.

“The orchestra on ‘Wicked,’ for example, is just a string quartet,” Laird said. “But with the soundboard, the microphone system and the synthesizers, it can sound like you have a symphony orchestra down there. A synth harp sounds terribly like a harp!”

For touring productions like “Frozen,” producers can often use even smaller orchestras, in part because the regional locals of the musicians’ union have less influence than the one in New York City. Today, when a traveling show has a big orchestra, that in itself amounts to an artistic statement.

David Henry Hwang talks about his play “Soft Power” as the Curran Theater announces its four-show run in San Francisco. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle 2018

For example, “Soft Power,” a musical imagining Hillary Clinton as the winner of the 2016 election told from China’s point of view, used a 23-piece orchestra when it arrived at the Curran Theater in 2018.

“There’s something almost physical about the way our bodies pick up that sound,” said playwright David Henry Hwang, who wrote the libretto for a score by composer Jeanine Tesori. “You just get this kind of sense of wonder and delight, an aural spectacle that takes over the audience.”

A more typical orchestra size for a touring production is eight to 14 musicians, said Townsend Teague, CEO and co-founder of Teague Theatrical Group and a former manager for the company on many Broadway tours, including “Les Miserables,” “Catch Me If you may”. ” and “cats”. Financial incentives can be substantial.

Teague recalled one show, which he declined to name, whose tour producers spent nearly $200,000 to re-orchestrate the score for a 14-piece ensemble instead of the 22 musicians who had accompanied the Broadway production.

“The math told us that over an 80-week period, the difference in payroll would be a savings of $1.1 million,” he said, noting that orchestra payroll (not including transportation and housing) typically makes up 8%. at 12% of a tour budget.

KeyComp has the potential to change that calculus even further.

“If this is as good as they say, it’s going to be a real problem for us,” said Tony D’Amico, Boston bassist and TMA president emeritus. On the other hand, he pointed out, musicians have been fighting technology ever since talkies revolutionized cinema.

“We’re never going to win that battle, so I think the key is trying to coexist with the technology,” D’Amico said. “Let’s see how we can make sure people continue to get their money’s worth.

“Music is half of the title ‘musical theatre,’” he added. “The public is paying their good, hard-earned money to see this product, and if it’s four keyboards and a synthesizer, they’re not getting their money’s worth.”

“Frozen”: Book by Jennifer Lee. Music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Directed by Michael Grandage. Until December 30. $40.50-$199.50, subject to change. Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market St., SF 888-746-1799.

  • Lily Janiak and Joshua Kosman

    Lily Janiak and Joshua Kosman

    Lily Janiak is the theater critic for The San Francisco Chronicle and Joshua Kosman is the classical music critic for The Chronicle. Email: [email protected], [email protected] Twitter: @lilyjaniak, @joshuakosman

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