In response to my interview with Sweeney Todd orchestrator Sarah Travis, I received an e-mail from Jenifer Tice, who had some interesting thoughts on the whole actors-as-musicians phenomenon (in director John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd, currently at American Conservatory Thaeter in San Francisco, the actors are also the orchestra). With Jenifer’s permission, I want to share some of her observations and encourage you to leave your thoughts — either via a comment on the blog or e-mail me at

I find the idea of having actors/singers multi-task as the orchestra to be a very disturbing trend. I want to see the full performance of the character, and adding this layer detracts from the performances, as least for e. It seems like a cheap parlor trick. (Case in point: Watching Raul Esparza accompany himself as he sang “Being Alive” at the Tony’s was annoying to me — that is not why I go to the theater. Let a pianist play the song while he embodies the character of Bobby. His take on Bobby was somewhat overwrought anyway, but having him play piano for himself put me off his performance immediately. This is not a hotel lounge act; it’s an expensive theater ticket. And I want an orchestra!) The fact that Judy Kaye should have to learn to play the tuba (“marginally” by her own account) in order to play Mrs. Lovett seems absurd to me. Having actors serve as the orchestra also fights the whole illusion of their being these characters. Although I admit it would have been fun to watch Patti Lupone play the tuba (for five minutes anyway), I loved the concert version a few years ago when she & George Hearn were not distracted by instruments or elaborate sets and played the hell out of their roles. Sometimes less is truly more. Actors have more than enough to do, and talented musicians deserve the gig. Audiences paying over a hundred bucks a seat deserve better, too. I hope this will be a short-lived gimmick.

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