In the Pit
A day (actually, night) in the life of a Broadway musician
Sonny Paladino seems to know everyone on his walk along W. 45th Street from a coffee shop to the Music Box Theatre, saying hello to stagehands and Tony award- winning actors as he enters through the stage door and heads for the orchestra pit.
Since last spring, Paladino, 34, has been the associate conductor for the Tony award-winning musical, "Pippin" on Broadway. Of Pippin's eight shows a week, Paladino conducts one; other nights, he plays the keyboard.
"I'm a piano player first," he says.
Paladino grew up in Ronkonkoma on Long Island, and after taking piano lessons as a young child says, "I always knew I would play music."
Paladino now lives in the heart of the theatre district- on 44th and 9th- a neighborhood in which he has lived for the past five years.
"I spend a lot of time in the neighborhood," he says.
He enjoys runs along the West Side Highway, eats at Nizza on 9th avenue in between shows and socializes after shows at Broadway hangout Glass House Tavern. "It's like a high school reunion for Broadway," he says.
Before tonight's show he chats with the other musicians backstage -- there are five, including Paladino -until a stage manager calls "Places!" over the backstage loudspeaker. A few minutes after 8 p.m, they move to the pit beneath the stage. The orchestra consists of the drums, trumpet, bass, guitar and Paladino on the keyboard.
Three screens surround Paladino's keyboard in the pit: one LCD screen the size of a car's GPS sits directly in front of him, showing conductor Charlie Alterman. Another shows the stage. On a third screen, the software MainStage produces specific sound effects for each act.
Paladino opens the score, pushes up his shirt sleeves and stretches his fingers and arms, fighting off pain from the tendonitis he's acquired by playing piano nine hours a day, every day, for most of his life. The tempo rises as the musicians begin the first number, as the curtain drops to the stage and reveals a colorful circus setting where acrobats, dancers and trapeze artists slide, glide and swoop through the air and across the stage.
Because he'll be conducting the next evening, during breaks from playing Paladino mimics the conductor, practicing his timing. His hands dance in the air and he gestures towards the drums, the trumpet and the guitar, bopping, tapping and clapping his hands against his thighs.
His eyes flit between the three monitors, while he also concentrates on the score. Since "Pippin" involves many acrobats, Paladino needs to make sure his notes match their landings. If an actor misses his mark, Paladino has to make the music cover for him.
In the summer of 2012, Paladino almost gave up on New York to look for opportunities in the pop music scene in Los Angeles. He was preparing to move when he received a call: "Pippin" needed an associate conductor. He has decided to forgo moving for now.
But he has played with some big names in pop. When the Australian version of the "The X Factor" came to New York, he worked with guest judges Alicia Keys and Kesha. He's also co-written songs with Matthew Morrison of "Glee."
"He's always the musical director for things I write," says Joe Drymala, musical theatre writer and composer. He's Paladino's best friend since they met at Berklee College of Music in 1997. The next year they became roommates in New York City, Paladino wanting to be a Broadway musician and conductor, Drymala hoping to write musical theatre. Both succeeded.
Drymala describes his music as very contemporary and says Paladino is one of the few people who understand the pop sound, especially in New York where most musicians are classically trained.
Paladino, however, leans toward jazz and funk.
"That's really where his musical soul is," says Drymala.
After a semester at Berklee he decided he missed New York, and transferred to City College, majoring in jazz. After graduating and working as musician in a church for three years, he knew he needed to do something more creative to boost his career. So he took a chance as a music director for a play Drymala wrote, for $100 a week. His job meant hiring musicians, and by accepting paltry pay he was able to hire some top Broadway guys.
"The best musicians just want to play. The name of the game is to be out there doing stuff," says Paladino.
Connections he made working on this play led to his touring on the musicals "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels", "Grease" and "High School Musical."
Besides working on Broadway, Paladino is part of the Doo Wop Project, a three- year-old group including previous cast members from "Jersey Boys." Paladino plays the piano and does all the musical arrangements. The group sings classics and modern songs in doo- wop style.
"It's the most fun thing...it's a lot less like work."
Paladino knows something about doo-wop. Some of his earliest musical memories came from watching his uncle, Martin D'Amico, who played the keyboard and trumpet for Johnny Maestro and The Brooklyn Bridge. He still looks to his uncle for advice on music.
"Pippin" has reached the last act and the orchestra is in high gear.
"Woooooooo!" shouts Paladino as he plays the last few bars. "Just another day at the office."
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