A day of note for his way of life
Seymour “Red” Press was preparing to return to Broadway on Tuesday night, blowing alto sax, soprano sax, clarinet and piccolo, all equally well, in the long-running production of “Chicago” at the Ambassador Theatre.
“I’m one of the lucky people in the world,” says Press, who for more than 40 years has made a living playing live music in this city. Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. “Gypsy,” “West Side Story,” “Guys and Dolls.” Sondheim and Irving Berlin. The Shubert, the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall. And countless flops. Tuesday, he was just glad he had a gig.
Despite the settlement reached between producers and musicians in the early-morning hours Tuesday, it remains unresolved whether future generations of the very best musicians like Red Press will be able to stitch together a life in one of the great performance centers on Earth. Already, technology has profoundly changed Broadway, the way it has every other part of our lives, and eliminated the need for so many musicians in a theater. Microphones, synthesizers and electronic keyboards have long souped up the natural sounds of voices and instruments. The crackling interaction of artists and audiences in one theater for one night has already been forever altered. Now, there will be even fewer musicians in that hall. Perhaps the audience won’t notice.
“But is good enough enough?” Press kept asking himself and others as he went about Tuesday, checking the union hotline, visiting the dentist, calling the other 12 musicians in “Chicago’s” orchestra to make sure they reported to the theater by curtain time. “Will people still feel Broadway is what it is supposed to be?” He knows some who have seen “Chicago” -- both the movie and play -- and liked them both. But, for his money, there’s nothing like a live show.
The fear in the music world is that cost-conscious Broadway producers want to replace live musicians with “virtual” orchestras -- digital equipment that can make the same sounds. The labor dispute pivoted on how many musicians should be required in the orchestra pit at Broadway’s largest theaters. The negotiators eventually agreed on 18 or 19, down from 24 to 26.
“Us wind guys -- it’s difficult to replace us with a synthesizer the way they do the strings,” Press says. “The equipment really thickens and changes our sounds.”
Certainly, the sounds are a lot different in theaters today than they were when Press was playing in his first Broadway hit in the orchestra pit of “Gypsy” with booming-voiced Ethel Merman on stage. It was 1959. Press had already played with Dorsey at the Cafe Rouge in the Pennsylvania Hotel. His hair was auburn back then, not the grayish-blond it is now. And his wife, Nona, was pregnant. They had recently left Manhattan and bought a house in the suburbs.
When “Gypsy” took off, Press knew he’d get a check every week for at least a year: “I was in heaven. Heaven. I think people still feel, who break into theater, when they get a hit show, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. But no musician gets rich off this life. Everybody on Broadway has to live in New Jersey, and it’s worse for kids today because life is just more expensive.”
A career of it
Press, now in his 70s, put two kids through college and took some nice family vacations working on Broadway, part of the demimonde that practices in the day and plays at night.
The few hundred musicians who get to play on Broadway are among the most adept in the world, often playing several instruments in a show, working eight performances for an average of $1,400 a week.
“If you’re a musician, unless you’re Yo-Yo Ma, you hope to play at the highest caliber, pay your bills, maybe get a pension and retire with a middle-class life,” Press says, recalling that although he once knew a sax player who had a mansion in Great Neck and a Rolls-Royce, that was long ago and the guy was working on network television shows in 65-piece orchestras. “That kind of job has been gone for a long time,” Press says.
In New York, television and film producers now also rely heavily on electronically enhanced music. In the 1970s, Press put together a 60-piece orchestra that recorded in a Broadway studio David Shire’s score for “Kramer vs. Kramer” (which ended up not being used in the film). After the orchestra played the first big cue, the musicians put down their instruments and applauded Shire, Press says. “The music was so beautiful, it was like Brahms.”
Last year, Press did another film score with Shire for a flop called “Ash Wednesday.” “It was just the two of us. In a tiny studio, on the Upper West Side, with David on synthesizer and me on alto flute.”
Press, who for 20 years has also been a contractor -- hiring other musicians for shows -- understands there are many pressures on producers. The world has had to change, not just because producers want to cut costs, but also because audiences are attuned to a different kind of music that is louder, more raucous and electronically filtered.
“You can’t forget that 8 out of 10 shows close, you can’t forget that payrolls are higher and that it costs more to build a set,” Press says. “Producers are looking at every area to make this business profitable for their backers.”
And then he giggles a little. Red Press is semi-management because of his role as a contractor. But at heart, he is a musicians’ musician, and he immediately segues into a speech about all the bad shows he’s been in and even quotes reviews.
But Press, his eyes still a vivid blue and his hands uncalloused, almost delicate, turns thoughtful again, like he’s bracing for a final soliloquy in one of the better shows.
It’s easy to talk in extremes, he says. New York could continue to showcase the world’s best musicians and let them play live with all the excitement that can bring, or there can be fewer and fewer musicians in the theater, until one day all that is left is one guy, alone in the dark, under a little light with a synthesizer.
“Each generation has been concerned about the next in my business,” says Press. “I just hope it never gets to the point where it’s one guy and a machine.”
Geraldine Baum’s New York, N.Y. column usually runs on Monday.