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Student orchestra brings harmony to HOOLIGAN’s rendition of ‘Pippin’

Music Director Rebecca Wade coordinated rehearsals between the 26 students in the orchestra of HOOLIGAN Theatre Company’s “Pippin.” (Kristie Hoang/Daily Bruin)

"Pippin" Musically directed by Rebecca Wade HOOLIGAN Theatre Company Schoenberg Hall Thursday through Saturday FREE

By Nikhil Sharma

Nov. 16, 2016 9:28 p.m.

A swelling grand piano and silky strings echo behind the scene as a man in a glittering jacket softly serenades a woman dressed in a leotard. Then the man begins to dance and the music adjusts with clamorous snares, lively winds and vibrant horns energizing the scene.

Thursday through Saturday, the HOOLIGAN orchestra will accompany the HOOLIGAN Theatre Company’s performance of “Pippin” at Schoenberg Hall. The orchestra consists of 26 students who have volunteered to take on the challenge of learning the music and organizing the orchestra themselves for this fantastical fairytale.

[Related: UCLA-based jazz orchestra released album ‘Explorations’ in 2015]

Each HOOLIGAN production features a different ensemble of student musicians. The orchestra of “Pippin” had to tackle the complex music of Stephen Schwartz’s Broadway score to support the acting, singing and dancing of the show, said third-year music student Dante Luna. Since the show constantly shifts in tone, the musicians must switch between different styles of music, changing from downtempo to frenetic and jovial to melancholy and back again on a dime.

HOOLIGAN Theatre Company chose its orchestra members – all UCLA undergraduate students – in October to take part in the performance, Luna said. The HOOLIGAN Theatre Company generally puts out a search for musicians via email and also finds musicians through mutual friends and word of mouth. The musicians can put their names on interest lists, which allows HOOLIGAN to contact them prior to production to show them the music and hold auditions if necessary.

The orchestra includes strings, horns, woodwinds, keyboards and percussion, Luna said. As one of the two percussion players in “Pippin,” Luna plays over 30 instruments over the course of the musical, including a bell tree.

“It’s a huge ensemble to deal with,” Luna said. “The more people you have, the more sound you’re gonna have, more colors, and more things you can add to what’s onstage.”

In addition to juggling so many different instrumental parts, the music director for “Pippin,” Rebecca Wade, worked to organize rehearsals and research the source material. Wade, a fourth-year biology student, said the music director generally gets the music well in advance to understand and digest it. However, she had less time for this play, as she was moved from rehearsal accompanist to music director about three weeks into the rehearsals of “Pippin.”

[Related: Rebecca Wade joined UCLA, USC students for Crosstown Caroling]

Both Luna and Wade watched many different recordings of “Pippin” on YouTube – including the original Broadway show, the 1974 Australian show, the 1982 show in Toronto, the 2013 Broadway revival and some high school shows – to draw inspiration for HOOLIGAN’s rendition.

By studying the source material extensively, the orchestra understood how previous renditions of the show used the music to complement the actors, they said. Each recording of the performance is different; the timbre of the music ranges from a 1970s classical musical theater tone in the original Broadway production to an electronically produced interpretation in its 2013 revival.

For HOOLIGAN’s rendition, the songs blend inspiration from those styles, involving the 1970s-inspired heavy electric piano along with grander moments played by an acoustic harpsichord or grand piano, Wade said.

The difficulties of the music in the production lie in the complexity of the score, which was written by Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz, said Hugh Edwards, a fourth-year business economics student. Six flats in a single measure of sheet music required quick adjustment and dexterity as a cello player, Edwards said.

Wade went to many of the acting rehearsals and observed the idiosyncrasies of the actors during each scene to learn how to adjust the music to fit the tone of the scenes, she said. The orchestra practiced two hours a week individually until the week leading up to the show, in which they joined the actors in rehearsal.

“(I took) note of where they were doing stylistic things, where they slowed down, sped up, were quiet and were loud so that the orchestra could match that,” Wade said.

During rehearsals, direct contact between the pit orchestra and the actors helped to integrate the music and acting. Wade used breaks during run-throughs to speak with the actors to figure out the best way to synchronize their performances with the orchestra’s music. By knowing what the actors do throughout the play, the orchestra can add sound effects to enhance the experience, Luna said. Often, if an actor does an extravagant gesture, such as pointing dramatically to the sky, someone in the percussion section will accentuate it with a beat, like a flare sound from a bell tree.

By adding these background sounds and playing music to support the performances, “Pippin” director Elijah Green, a second-year theatre student, said he believes the orchestra sets the tone for the lighthearted musical.

“The orchestra is vital to guiding the audience’s understanding of the emotional life in each scene in ways that surpass what I can accomplish with stage pictures,” Green said.

As Pippin embarks through each scene of the musical, the musicians adjust to each new development accordingly, Wade said.

“Having an orchestra gives you the liberty of being stylistic … making each musical your own instead of (using) a backing track and having it sound exactly like the music on Broadway,” Wade said.

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Nikhil Sharma
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