The View from the Pit: Cellist Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf

For a couple years now, we’ve been discussing the craft behind writing and performing contemporary musical theatre. We’ve interviewed dozens of writers and performers about their process, but we’ve yet to interview a very important group of people who make musicals happen: the pit musicians. That changes now with this new series!

Photo by: Kevin Thomas Garcia
Photo by: Kevin Thomas Garcia

We sat down with Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf to discuss her industrious and varied career as a musician. Originally from Scotland, Mairi has held chairs in thirteen Broadway productions, including Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, The Bridges of Madison County and the Fall 2015 production of Fiddler on the Roof. Off-Broadway credits include The Last Five Years (2002), Passion (2013). She has also been a featured performer with Renée Flemming, John Pizzarelli, Jeremy Jordan, Jason Robert Brown and been on multiple TV performances, including “Live from Lincoln Center,” PBS broadcasts “Joshua Bell with Friends @The Penthouse” and “Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin’ To Do.” As a classical soloist and chamber musician, she has appeared in the major venues of Europe, Asia and the US. Mairi completed her undergraduate studies at the Guildhall School of Music in London, and holds Masters and Doctoral degrees from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She lives in Hartsdale, NY, with her husband, saxophonist, Marc Phaneuf.

Can you talk about the differences between playing revivals versus original shows?

I knew very little about the history of Broadway before moving to New York, so any time I get to play or sub a revival, I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn about that show from the inside out.

With a revival you have the opportunity to become familiar with the music ahead of time, although the orchestrations may have been rearranged and/or reduced, in which case you’ll have a new part to play. It can be exhilarating to get to play a song you already know and love.

In terms of my role as a pit musician, there’s not much difference between the two, except that the preview period of a new show can hold substantial changes. The order of songs can be swapped and entire songs can be removed and replaced, sometimes with only thirty minutes playing notice. It’s amazing what can happen to a new show in the days before it’s “frozen” for the critics.

Recording a cast album must present unique challenges and opportunities. Can you talk about both kinds of experiences?

Cast albums are usually a marathon day of recording, either on your day off or whenever the sessions can be squeezed in around shows. The day itself can be 4 sessions in a row, starting at 9am and going until 11pm, with half hour breaks for food. With the set up, and time taken to shift from one song to the next, there’s generally only enough time to record each song twice, so by far the greatest challenge is being “on” all day. With luck you’ve already been playing the show for a while, and are familiar with your part, but sometimes — if the producers want to get the album out before the show opens — you’re seeing the charts for the first time.

The first cast album I recorded was the original production of The Last Five Years. Knowing how people felt about that album made me feel an increased responsibility in terms of the exposed cello part in The Bridges of Madison County. (I remember the day we recorded Bridges there was supposed to be snow storm. I don’t live in the city, so a friend let me use her apartment the night before so I wouldn’t worry all night about making it in!)

There’s a video of us doing “Almost Real,” which was essentially recorded in two complete takes. It was towards the end of the day, around 9.30 PM, and I remember wondering how Kelli was able to function given that this was supposed to be her day off, and that she had two small kids at home. The video online is a beautiful testament not only to her ridiculous artistry, but some ferocious stamina!

The idea of subbing on a show horrifies me, but you do it all the time. Share with us a bit about the process and how you quickly develop a musical rapport with an ensemble that’s used to someone else.

Subbing is stressful! The first time you play a show it can feel like an out of body experience. Hopefully you get “approved” and can go back. The second time can be even harder than the first, as you’d been living and breathing that show in the days before and now some time has gone by, and perhaps you’re in the middle of learning another show. Eventually you hope to get “designated” which means the regular can send you in for them without consulting who else might be playing (in the beginning it’s organized so that there are regulars surrounding you to make it as secure and comfortable as possible). I keep a copy of the book so if enough time has gone by between between hirings, I can play through with the recording again.

The process of learning a cello book is relatively straightforward — you’re given the book and a recording of the show by the regular (sometimes there’s a conductor video), and you go home and start playing through. Then you’ll sit in the pit and watch the show next to the regular. If I can, I like to record the show again from that chair so I can get sense of what it will sound like from that position, and to get a sense of the variances in tempos and vamps. Also the show could have settled into slightly different pacings over time, so it’s good to have a recent version. Then I’ll listen to it constantly on the train or in the car. That way I find it’s easier to internalize the tempos.

In terms of “rapport” your job is to fit in with the musical scene you’re in. For me the easiest situations are where I can hear everything — all the inner notes and rhythms — so I know what I’m fitting with. Then the most important part is having your head out of the book enough that you can catch the nuances from the conductor. Shows fluctuate slightly in every performance and the conductor is making those calls, and therefore needs to know you’ll be there no matter what. It’s a different kind of musicianship than most other gigs — your role is to be completely supportive of the stage.

The styles of the shows you sub for greatly vary. Is it challenging to stylistically toggle back and forth depending what theater you’re at?

Once you’re comfortable with a book, it can be fun to have that kind of variety!  I love listening to a wide range of genres, from Joni Mitchell to Brahms to PFunk, so I enjoy going from a lush string section of a Rogers and Hammerstein revival to playing the bass line groove with a drummer in a rock show.  Being flexible in terms of the styles of music you can play is essential in Broadway.  You also need to be able to play “at the back of the beat” or “on the front of the beat” depending on the feel the conductor wants.  It’s challenging, but rewarding.

What advice can you give to musicians looking to break into the business of playing shows?

I get asked this a lot, and it’s hard because Broadway only seems to get more competitive as years go by. There’s less “other work” than there used to be, and the pit orchestras are generally smaller. So not only is there tremendous competition for the chair, but once people are hired, they’re less likely to sub out. That said, it’s a large, vibrant community at the peak of its game, and there’s a lot going on! I recommend that people pay attention to shows off-Broadway. They tend to not pay very much, and so people are often looking for good subs. If you take it seriously and do a good job, you’ll hopefully get noticed. The first two conductors who hired me in the year after I moved to NYC had heard me play at The Last Five Years off-Broadway, and that’s ultimately how I ended up getting my first Broadway show.


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One thought on “The View from the Pit: Cellist Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf

  1. I don’t know Ms. Dorman-Phaneuf personally, but was made aware of her work by a friend who does and was especially impressed by the “Almost Real” video you linked to. The cello is by far my favorite orchestral instrument and her playing is wonderful. Terrific interview. Thank you.

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