Sweet sound from a small space

Year two of a live pit orchestra for the NUHS musical production proves a smash hit.
Pit crew members readying for their final performance of The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Pit crew members readying for their final performance of The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Last year it was Gomez, Morticia and the rest of the Addam’s family who sounded so crisp and clean and right there. This year it was Quasimodo and the resplendent Esmeralda who seemed practically in your lap.

The secret? The pit. And the talented group of musicians assembled there to do their thing.

Theater director Carissa Cowles in front of the orchestra pit before the last performance.

The New Ulm High School Theater Department ditched the piped-in orchestra sound for a second year straight in favor of actual musicians, and it paid off.

In the little space adjacent to the stage known as the pit, ten musicians combined their talents to produce sounds and beats that together with the entire musical production staff helped bring to the audience an unforgettable musical experience.

Theater Department head and production director Carissa Cowles is excited about the development. “The overall impressiveness of it – the ‘wow’ factor, is what I like most about it,” Cowles said. “I also like the live performance more because they are able to be more flexible with the actors singing on stage, they can go with the flow of it better,” she said.

Although musicals and theater productions have been performed in the NUHS auditorium since construction of the school in 2017, use of the orchestra pit really only got into full swing last year with the production of The Addam’s Family Musical.

Audience view of the orchestra pit. A benefit of the side location of the pit is that “the audience can see both performances at once,” pit director Dan Olson said.


That is due in large part to the technical difficulty of the music. “The music that we get for these shows is literally scored for Broadway productions,” pit director Dan Olson said. “So you’re looking at professional music. And that’s really difficult for students at our level.”

NUHS choir teacher Dan Olson taking his seat at the helm. Olson is in charge of all musical aspects of the show, including playing in and directing the pit orchestra.

“The fortunate thing is that we’ve had some talent come through the last couple years that is capable of attacking it,” Olson said. “We’ve had three or four students who are up for the challenge, and then we grab some volunteers, whether they are parents or other members from the community to fill things out.”

There are other challenges involved in coordinating a live pit orchestra. Olson said that “making sure the pit is not over-powering the singers on the stage” is one of them.

“The other thing is matching with what is going on onstage,” Olson said. “My job is to be able to watch the stage and direct the orchestra at the same time. There are moments when the actors skip lines or jump ahead, and we have to go with that,” he said.

And then there is the pit itself. As a bit of a hold-over term from days past, the pit traditionally was located below the front of the stage, which is where it got its name.

Technically speaking, the “pit” in the NUHS auditorium is more like a room, but that term lacks the swag and flair of the original term. Either way, the sound is sweet – and loud – just the way the audience likes it.

Peaking in the pit: a closer look at some key players
NUHS Sophomore Henry Albrecht, Drumset
NUHS Sophomore Henry Albrecht, Drumset

Henry has the distinction of having played in both live orchestra pit productions of musicals at NUHS. Having played last year, he "was able to get first dibs on the drumset" this year, he said. "It's similar to playing in the school band. I had a couple parts where I got to play actual stuff on the set," he said but otherwise it isn't quite like ripping away like you might with your garage band.

Henry said, "The first and the last nights were a little rough for everyone, but the two in the middle were really good, and I really had a lot of fun."

Philip Claussen, center, ready to perform in the pit.
Philip Claussen, center, ready to perform in the pit.
NUHS Band Teacher Philip Claussen, French Horn

Philip Claussen has extensive experience in the music world. Prior to heading the NUHS band department, he was a music instructor at Loyola in Mankato, as well as in Maple River.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is his second Victor Hugo production. In high school, he played in the pit for Les Miserables.

"The Hunchback is interesting music," Claussen said. "It's a horn-specific thing. The music is a lot of stopped horn, where I put my whole hand inside the end of the instrument to change the sound. It's an unusual technique, and it was an interesting challenge," he said.


NUHS Sophomore Ryan Johnson, Keyboard 2
NUHS Sophomore Ryan Johnson, Keyboard 2

Ryan, in his second year in the pit, had a unique experience with this year's production in that he was joined there by two other family members, his mom and sister.

"It was a unique experience being able to play with family because I had never done it before," Ryan said. "There were many times when we practiced the music together at home and that was fun. People might think that it would be embarrassing, but really I don't mind and I am glad that they wanted to join to support the pit."

"I really enjoyed this musical, seeing everyone in the pit and the cast was really a great experience. I don't know how they managed to get the production worked up so well, but it sounded amazing," Ryan said.

And one final note Ryan added was that Mr. Olson is a true lifesaver. "He keeps a stack of Lifesaver mints on his piano and chucks them at us whenever we ask for one. Since it is hard to keep going for so many hours, those mints are what kept most of us going."

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