The latest Broadway tour stopping at the 5th Avenue Theatre, "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," boasts a large orchestra. Before the show and during intermissions, many audience members wander down the aisle to peer into the pit, but even the most savvy may not realize that most of the musicians there are local.
"One of my biggest frustrations is that reviewers almost never mention that there are live musicians in the pit," said Dr. Jo Nardolillo, one of the violinists for the current run. "The 5th Avenue makes such an effort to hire local musicians, even for the tours, which is fantastic."
Nardolillo has been playing for musical shows since her high school days in Olympia, WA. “I worked on some musicals with Ian Eisendrath (the 5th Avenue’s musical director). I was in the pit when he was on the stage,” she recalled.
After earning her Ph.D. at the Eastman School of Music, Nardolillo has performed throughout the United States and in Europe. A founding member of the local new-music ensemble TangleTown Trio and the jazz sextet Touché, she’s also authored “The Canon of Violin Literature” and the recently released “All Things Strings: An Illustrated Dictionary.”
For her stints in the orchestra at the 5th Avenue, being comfortable with many types of music is essential, said Nardolillo. “A pit musician has to be able to play lots and lots of styles. You’ll play a Gilbert and Sullivan show, then bluegrass, and then something Arabian,” said Nardolillo, who was a violin soloist on the new musical “Secondhand Lions” last fall.
To prepare for the current run of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” at the theater, Nardolillo and the other musicians received video of the show and the book.
“We had one rehearsal with orchestra on June 11 in morning. That evening, we’re playing for a paying audience,” she said. “It’s crucial that the musicians show up knowing the show inside and out.”
Like many violinists, Nardolillo is more familiar with the opera version of George Gershwin’s score. For the recent Broadway revival, the score received extensive revisions, returning the show to its jazzy roots. “Style is everything, all jazzy scales and harmonies,” she said. “We have to play it just right. There’s a Deep South laid-back swing that has to feel so sultry that the music drips honey.”
For the violins, George Gershwin’s “overture is particularly difficult. It spans one note farther than your hand can reach, but you have to figure out to hit that note very fast. That requires a lot of drilling and training,” said Nardolillo.
The musical, Nardolillo notes, contains many major hits familiar to audiences who have never seen the show. "It's hard not to be in love with ‘Summertime.’ Our favorite show at Tangletown Trio is our cabaret show and we do a cover of ‘Summertime’ in it,” she said. "I love Love the love duet, 'Bess You Is My Woman Now.' It’s complex and a really beautiful song."
As for future musicals at the 5th, Nardolillo would love to see a production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Hands down that is the show most appealing to any violinist,” she said. “I’ve done it twice and I’d do anything to sit up on the 5th Avenue stage and play that solo. It would be a dream come true.”
“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” continues through June 29 at the 5th Avenue Theatre.