By Mark Cristofaro, Drummer-Percussionist-Noisemaker, orchestra member for Sunday in the Park with George
Preparing for a new show is always challenging. I get the score, look over the music, see what instruments I will need to bring, etc. Any Sondheim show though always makes this process harder. For the percussionist, it usually involves a lot of instruments, which you just don’t have sitting around in your living room. When I received the score for Sunday In The Park with George, I expected the worst. The usual Sondheim stuff which includes a multitude of tuned percussion, like timpani, vibraphone, orchestra bells and even tuned concert toms, tuned wood blocks called Temple blocks, and tuned cymbals called Crotales. Then just for fun, he usually throws the percussionist a curve ball by writing in an unconventional sound. When I played Sweeney Todd here, it was the “metal bucket”. Pacific Overtures had the “bell plate”. Even Caroline, or Change had me trying to make music by playing on a cardboard box…
So I had heard from some other players in the business that Sunday would require more of the same insanity: pots and pans. OK, no problem. I can handle this. Just another day at the office. From what the score reads, looks like 4 different pots…or pans…or both. However, when I started to listen to the original soundtrack, the pots…or pans…sounded like they were specific pitches. (long pause………)
What do I have to do now? Go into my kitchen, take out our cookware, and listen for pitches? This was never going to happen(mostly because if I EVER took cookware out of my kitchen to use as a drum or something, the front door locks would be changed by my wife Suzanne when I returned home that night). So with a little help from another percussionist colleague, we brainstormed and came up with a great idea to find the specific pitches needed for this show: Thrift shops. So, we start going into second hand stores…with a pitch pipe and a mallet… You can only imagine the looks we would get.
I learned a lot about cookware construction during this quest. The thinner the pot/pan, the lower the pitch. If I found as cast iron pan, it usually had a very high pitch. These were the easier ones to find: the higher pitches. I determined the pitches I need were(form low to high), C#, F#, A natural, and C natural. These were the distinct pitches I hear on the recording that doubled the bass line for the song “The Day Off”. So we found the highest pitch, C natural rather quickly. A small skillet (iron) pan. Also the A natural initially, but I decided to replace that one because it was a thinner metal, and sounded too “clangy”(is that a word?). So then I found a real nice replacement A natural…another skillet(iron pan). Real defined “A”. AAAHHHH….. Sounded like a bell of some sort. I was getting hopeful, but then hit a dry spell. Couldn’t find the 2 lowest pitches. After a few attempts at various places, I did come across this sauce pan, thin metal though, that produced a fairly convincing low F#. Chances of finding that last pitch, the lowest C# was looking almost impossible. I came up short so many times. Then I just got lucky and found this beautiful larger iron skillet pan(looks like something form the 70’s w/ a red paint bottom) that produced a very convincing low C#. OK…had them all.
Now that I had the “instruments” (aka..the skillet pans), now I had to figure out how to set these things up so I could some how make music with them. There are no stands, mounts, or gizmos you can find to hold pots and pans in place so that a drummer can play them with sticks or mallets. My idea was to find some kind of suspended contraption to hang the pans from…but where was I gonna find something like that? Lucky for me, technical director Glenn at the Arden had some ideas, and he designed and fabricated an aluminum structure that we fastened the pans to. It is a great piece of hardware, and I don’t believe I could have played the show smoothly without Glenn’s help and input. It even looks cool…makes me look like I know what I’m doing too.
I’ve done 14 musicals at the Arden, and the production people and artists know I go to all extremes to make the music and percussion 100% accurate. Sometimes it’s not easy to do. But when you “get it right” and never compromise the integrity of the music, it feels so good…