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Speak–Easy Toastmasters

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An evening amongst the musicians of Jesus Christ Superstar

by Doug Gallant

Chris Corrigan at work during a Charlottetown Festival performance of Jesus Christ Superstar (photo: Doug Gallant)It’s Friday night at the Charlottetown Festival. No one has been admitted to the theatre yet for this evening’s performance of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Cast members are still getting into costume, picking up body mics, doing vocal warm-ups, checking hair and make-up. They won’t hear the call to places for top of show for 40 minutes.

But while it’s silent on stage it’s another story in the orchestra pit. There silence gives way to short bursts of sound. The sound of the well practiced hands of percussionist Dave Shephard striking the head of his congas. The sound of Norman Adams’  bow gliding across the strings of his cello. The rapid, rhythmic fire of Trevor Grant’s drumsticks as he checks his kit. Muted chord progressions and lead runs from guitarist Chris Corrigan. This is the drill every night in the orchestra pit.

Every member of the orchestra has a pre-show prep routine because once the house lights go down and the stage lighting comes up there’s no time to address unexpected issues.

Tonight, for the first time, I am seeing Jesus Christ Superstar from the perspective of the musicians who bring the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera to life. Music Director Craig Fair directs me to put on a headset and literally within minutes the overture begins.

My head turns like a corkscrew as I try to watch every player in the pit from my space between the drummer and the bass player. I cannot  see every member of this exceptional orchestra play but hear virtually every note clearly on my headset.

I had already seen the show twice this season but I hear notes in my headset I had not heard before and it’s beautiful. Because I cannot see what is happening on stage I am tuned in totally to the orchestra.

This is a demanding show for a pit player. They earn their money. There is virtually no downtime until intermission. Same for act two.

And then it’s over.

Corrigan, one of two guitar players in the pit, says the challenge of playing Superstar is getting used to the pacing. “It’s an opera, the pacing is different, there is no dialogue interrupting the music,” Corrigan says.“The show’s first act just flies by. It feels like a flash. But I love it.”

Does Corrigan, one of the Atlantic region’s most respected guitarists, have a favourite part? “The best part is that I get to play the solo that Henry McCullough played on the original (Jesus Christ Superstar) album.”

Music director Craig Fair describes  Superstar as a fast train you have to keep on  the tracks. “It’s beautifully orchestrated,” Fair says. “The arrangements are very detailed. It’s one of his (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s) finest. I wouldn’t say it’s crazy hard but it’s very busy for everybody.”

It most certainly is. And to observe that, and hear what I heard on the headset, gives me an even greater appreciation of the orchestra than before. I’ll never look at the pit the same way again.

—Doug Gallant has had a long career as a journalist on PEI. Now a freelance writer, he contributes often to The Buzz.

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