For some reason I can remember as a high school student looking at the liner notes to an original cast recording of Les Misérables and being rather taken aback by the small size of the orchestra and especially the fact that there was only one trombonist listed—a bass trombonist. At that time I had no experience in pit orchestra work, so I knew nothing about the logistics of seating in orchestra pits, much less the periodic negotiations between the American Federation of Musicians and the League of American Theatres and Producers, in which musicians and theatre companies argue regarding the minimum size allowed for orchestras in live Broadway productions. Theatregoers—particularly those who travel from “flyover country” and only see Broadway shows on rare vacation outings—might be astonished to know that if some producers had their way live orchestras, which many see as a highlight of these productions, would be replaced by “canned music” and synthesizers. In any case, the small size of some orchestra pits combined with the shrinking numbers in these negotiated “minimums” has led to new shows whose brass sections consist of one or two trumpets, one or two horns, and a single trombonist. While older shows with fuller compliments of musicians are sometimes simply performed with parts missing, a recently more common practice is to have a composer or arranger rescore the program for a smaller orchestra. This generally leads to a more satisfying result than “taking stuff out.”
With both new and re-orchestrated small orchestra programs (including not only musicals but also opera and ballet) the single trombonist usually finds himself playing a chameleon-like role, sometimes acting as an additional horn, trumpet, or bassoon, or assuming the role usually occupied by the tuba. Occasionally he will even play an actual “trombone” part! While some of these scores ask the single player to double on tenor and bass trombones, or bass trombone and tuba, in my experience the part has usually been labeled simply “trombone,” and in any case there is not always adequate space in the pit for additional instruments. I have performed in pit orchestras for several productions like this in the past fifteen years or so, and have nearly always found the bass trombone to be my instrument of choice for these “one trombone” shows, even when the tonal range does not absolutely necessitate the larger instrument. Here are a few reasons why.
1. In these scores the trombone plays a foundational role in the brass section, and to a certain extent in the orchestra as a whole. In the absence of tuba and contrabassoon, and with usually a small number of celli and basses, the single trombonist often finds himself providing the “bottom” for the orchestra. Even when the notes are not incredibly low the bass trombone is still better suited to this than is the tenor.
2. Playing “third horn” and “second bassoon.” While the bass trombone’s heft at louder dynamics enables it to adroitly accomplish the above task, its mellow sound at softer dynamics is an asset when the trombonist is called upon to perform delicate section passages once assigned to now-missing horn or bassoon parts. A skilled bass trombonist will be able to add the additional notes to these passages without significantly disrupting the prevailing “horn” or “bassoon” timbre.
3. The second valve often proves useful. Most orchestra pits are rather cramped spaces and if you find yourself performing one of these reductions you will probably be seated in a back corner with very little room to operate. Alternate fingerings afforded by the second valve on most bass trombones can sometimes prevent extended handslide movements that are difficult in small spaces and even facilitate page turns. I’ll be doing the latter in such a performance later today, using the two valves combined to play D3 in first position and holding the handslide with my left pinky while turning the page with my right hand. This is a handy trick not possible on an instrument with one or no valves.
4. Adding additional low notes. This last suggestion should be taken only rarely and with special attention given to remaining in good taste. Orchestrators writing for a single trombonist often write with the tenor trombone in mind, and leave the trombone in a higher octave at cadences which would benefit from a bit more “bottom.” While blatting pedal tones would not be appropriate sometimes a well-placed note in the valve register fits very nicely. Of course, this should only be done with the (sometimes tacit) approval of the conductor.
There are, of course, instances where the bass trombone might not be the instrument of choice, such as productions with more jazz or pop influence which clearly demand the timbre and nimble movements of the small-bore tenor trombone. Often, though, the bass trombone just makes sense in these orchestrations. I guess that Les Mis orchestrator was on to something!