Featured Technology in S.F.'s 'Frozen' reduces musicians in live performances, but at what cost to audiences?

Published on November 25th, 2022 📆 | 1760 Views ⚑

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Technology in S.F.’s ‘Frozen’ reduces musicians in live performances, but at what cost to audiences?


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

For as long as musicals have been onstage, producers have been looking for ways to hold down the cost of orchestra musicians, and musicians have been pushing back to defend their livelihoods.

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

Now an innovative advance in keyboard technology called KeyComp promises — or perhaps threatens — to shift the terms of this long-running theatrical tug-of-war squarely in producers’ favor, potentially saving touring shows millions.

The production of “Frozen” that began performances at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre on Nov. 18 promises Bay Area audiences more than an in-the-flesh rendition of “Let It Go.” It also marks what may be the local debut of KeyComp, which its inventor says will make it possible for a single synthesizer player to replicate the sound of many orchestral instruments with unprecedented flexibility.

Caroline Bowman as Elsa (left) and Lauren Nicole Chapman as Anna in “Frozen,” which utilizes the KeyComp musical technology during its run at BroadwaySF’s Orpheum Theatre. Photo: Matthew Murphy / Disney

“If you look at an orchestral score, and the number of different rhythms and full chords it contains, you can easily get to the limit of 10 fingers for a keyboard player,” said Christoph Buskies, the German engineer and musician who invented KeyComp while working as a musician for touring shows stopping in his hometown of Hamburg.

The innovative aspect of KeyComp, he said, is that a single musician can play one or two of the most important musical lines, and the technology adds subsidiary 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 generally muster.

When Buskies demonstrated KeyComp for The Chronicle by playing an interlude from “Aladdin,” it was as if he had an invisible third hand. Even in the subsidiary lines, his sample notes, recorded from analog instruments, had warmth, swing and attitude — unlike the samples from a previous technology he demonstrated, in which notes materialized and vanished with all the subtlety of on-off switches.

Buskies is adamant about an essential difference between KeyComp and more purely automated technologies, such as a rhythmic “click track” or a fully prerecorded accompaniment.

“Because I’m a musician myself, it was important to me to place this technology in the hands of a capable musician,” he said. “KeyComp will never play by itself. It is an instrument, which has the ability to follow one player and use all the musicality that this player puts in there.”

KeyComp has been used in Europe for years, and the benefit it provides for producers is clear: They can get sound that’s better than most synthesizers 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 Theatre Musicians Association, which has 565 members nationwide.

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

KeyComp creator Buskies said those concerns caused 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, that would be bad for live musicians.”

What changed his mind, he said, was a production for which he was running the orchestra. The producers threatened to close the show entirely unless expenses were reduced across the board. Buskies decided to bring KeyComp into the mix.

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

Thus far, Disney Theatrical Productions is the only organization to use KeyComp, employing it internationally in productions of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” A representative from Disney Theatrical declined to provide details about where in the U.S. the company has used the technology so far, but noted that “Disney Theatrical Productions meets or exceeds all rules and minimums set by the musicians union, 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 San Francisco run of ‘Frozen.’ ”

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 couple of keyboards whose synthetic sounds stand in for a variety of analog instruments. The timbre of the keyboards can often be poor, like that of a karaoke MIDI track or the soundtrack of a 1990s computer game.

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

First, a musician records samples that are specific to the show in question. Depending on the score, that might mean as many as 100,000 individual notes that need to be played and tagged. Then, during performance, a synthesizer player summons notes by pressing a key of the keyboard; the player can stretch or otherwise manipulate the recorded note live, according to the conductor’s cues.

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

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

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

“In a symphony hall, it’s a lot easier to tell the difference. But when the orchestra is in the pit and every instrument is miked and mixed and processed — and the vocals are much louder anyway, in a musical — you can’t hear the details of the music as much.”

San Francisco music director Dan Feyer, shown with Tasi Alabastro at an American Conservatory Theater’s rehearsal, says synthesizer technology keeps improving. Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

The struggle over the size of theater orchestras has roots going back to the middle of the 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 minimum numbers of players that had to be paid, whether they actually played or not. That gave composers an incentive to write big, varied scores such as Leonard Bernstein’s for “West Side Story.”

But when “Hair” introduced rock to musical theater in 1967, orchestras began shrinking. Synthesizers only accelerated the trend.

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

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

David Henry Hwang speaks about his play “Soft Power” as the Curran Theatre announces its four-show season 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 an orchestra of 23 musicians when it came to the Curran Theatre in 2018.

“There’s something almost kind of physical about the way our bodies take in that sound,” said playwright David Henry Hwang, who wrote the libretto for a score by composer Jeanine Tesori. “You just feel this kind of sense of awe and delight, an aural spectacle that sweeps 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 company manager on many Broadway tours, including “Les Misérables,” “Catch Me if You Can” and “Cats.” The financial incentives can be substantial.

Teague recalled one show, which he declined to name, whose tour producers spent nearly $200,000 to reorchestrate the score for a 14-member ensemble rather than the 22 musicians that 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 accounts for 8% to 12% of a tour’s budget.

KeyComp has the potential to shift that calculus even further.

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

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

“Music is half of the title ‘musical theater,’ ” he added. “Audiences are 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. Through Dec. 30. $40.50-$199.50, subject to change. Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., S.F. 888-746-1799. www.broadwaysf.com



  • Lily Janiak and Joshua Kosman


    Lily Janiak and Joshua Kosman

    Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle's theater critic, and Joshua Kosman is The Chronicle's classical music critic. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com, jkosman@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @lilyjaniak, @joshuakosman

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