I may not be the biggest fan of Broadway musicals, but when a friend introduced me to the Associate Music Director "The Book of Mormon", Adam Ben-David, we really hit it off.
I was curious about how he got his start, and his answer took me by surprise, "I was thinking about ways to make a living as a musician, and I noticed a lot of the best rock players were working the pits on Broadway. That wasn't always true -- in the '60s,'70s and '80s Broadway wasn't the place to be." Things started to change when rock musicians were coming off the road and studios were closing, so a steady Broadway gig for $2,000 to $2,500 a week looked awfully good.
Of course, only the very best players manage to land full-time employment with long-running shows, but if they can't score one of those, they might work as "subs." When a regular member of the band takes a vacation or goes off to do a tour, a sub fills in. That job can be super-stressful: note-perfect performances are required, so subs practice for weeks before they're ready to play a two-and-a-half hour show with the band.
Ben-David is a keyboard player. Before "The Book of Mormon," he was in the pit for "Wicked," and later on he was music director for "Jersey Boys" for four years. When he heard Trey Parker and Matt Stone were putting together a musical, he was eager to make the jump.
So when I asked what a music director does, he explained, "Your job is keeping the 'paint' in place, because over the months, doing eight shows a week, even when actors change or there's a substitute drummer, the music has to be consistent." Ben-David said, "It's exactly the opposite of what a jazz musician does -- it's like trying to perfectly play an album night after night." I definitely got the feeling Ben-David enjoys the challenges of his work. With "The Book of Mormon" he switches between playing keyboards and working as associate conductor for the nine-piece band. He's a big fan of Yamaha keyboards and pianos and uses them at the show and also at home.
"The Book of Mormon" is now in its fourth year, and the cast has almost completely turned over, but the band is the same. The musicians hear a "click track" in their monitors, which Ben-David really likes for the security it brings. Without the click track, he might slow the tempos if he came to work with a toothache, or if the actors had a lot of coffee before the show they'd want to speed up. The click track ensures the tempos are precisely the same night after night. Not that the click track makes the band play like a metronome; with good players the sound should still feel fluid and organic. Of course, the audiences are new every night, and some crowds are more enthusiastic than others.
Ben-David occasionally takes time off to play concerts and do some writing. He pointed out that a lot of live concerts are now using Broadway-style production, with lighting, smoke machines, backup dancers, and click tracks. There's a merging of the way concerts and Broadway musicals are presented.
With such high expectations for perfection, I asked Ben-David if there have been any major music disasters in "The Book of Mormon," and he said one night his computer and backup for the keyboards went down, but the show went on sans keyboards (the computer systems were replaced soon after). Ben-David's keyboards add strings, horns and so on. and they make the nine-piece band sound like 20 pieces. The computer accesses over 350 "patch changes," and they keep Ben-David busy for the whole show. So when he calls up a sound bank -- for instance, strings -- that's called a "patch." When the time comes to play another bank of sounds, that's a patch change.
Four years in, "The Book of Mormon" is still playing to packed houses, so it looks like Adam Ben-David isn't going anywhere, and he likes it that way.