How do you get theater work?

Since I began playing a long run of Hamilton in Chicago, I’ve been getting similar questions in somewhat random inquiries from people, asking questions similar to these:

How did you get this gig?  Did you audition?
How does one go about “breaking in” to the theater scene as a musician?
What kind of prior experience does one need to start working in Broadway-style theaters?

The main crux of these questions is this: how to go about getting work in Broadway-style pits.  I can only tell the story of my own path, which very well might differ from the paths of the other musicians I work with.  There’s no big secret to it; in a similar way to getting work as a musician in general, it boils down to this. You need to develop your skills, get out there, meet people and get heard.  Here are some impressions from my personal experience that I found worked well for me.

Become a musician first, a theater musician second

When I was a college student in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I worked to develop as diverse a skill set as I possibly could.  I was playing in jazz groups, big bands, pop/rock bands, Latin groups, learning as much as I could, and getting as much playing experience as I could.  I’d always wanted to build my career in three major areas:

  1. I wanted to play live: clubs, concerts, touring, corporate…whatever gigs I could possibly do for which I might be the right fit.
  2. I wanted to teach at the college level, private lessons, classes, clinics, or whatever else I could do.
  3. I wanted to do studio work. I’d always wanted to be a recording musician, and develop some of the unique skills required of studio musicians.

At that age, I wasn’t thinking about theater work at all, to be honest.  I had this (semi-accurate, at the time) idea that that kind of work tended to involve much more classical percussion playing than I was able to do.  In fact, I had played in my high-school productions of Anything Goes and Gypsy, and did a couple small shows in early college that had more or less affirmed that idea, although I did enjoy playing them all the same.

Over the years (mid ‘90s to early 2000s) I played as much as I could and built up a significant base of musical contacts, a few of whom were involved in doing theater work.  By this point, I had developed a solid reputation as a versatile drummer.  In early 2003, I was playing a corporate gig, and the trumpet player on the gig happened to be the contractor for all of the downtown Chicago shows.  He came up to me on a break and asked me if I’d be interested in auditioning for The Lion King, which was about to begin its first major run in Chicago.  I didn’t wind up getting the gig, but my audition was well-received enough that I got asked to sub on the show.

When an opportunity comes along, OVER prepare

After being asked to sub on The Lion King, I studied the music inside and out.  I went and sat with the main drummer, Jim Widlowski, for around 5 or 6 performances.  And, of course, I practiced the show (and listened to show recordings) every chance I had, knowing full well the unique “without a net” position a theater sub is in: No stopping, no do overs.  You have to keep going no matter what.  When the time finally came for me to play my first show, I was well prepared and the show went smoothly.

The above paragraph, I believe, is the most basic answer to the question of how to approach being a working musician: Work 10 times harder than you might think you need to, and you’ll be fine.  After my first show ended, I got the compliment from some of the other musicians that I would realize later is the best compliment a sub can get: “I simply forgot Jim (regular drummer) wasn’t there.”  When you can do well as a sub, especially the first time, you’ll impress the other musicians.  They know what a tough job it is.  Playing my first show well basically cemented my reputation as someone who could reliably be called for theater work, whereas prior to that I had not been on anyone’s radar screen in that scene.

After that, I started getting flooded with theater work on a regular basis.  Ha!  Just kidding; the business doesn’t usually work that way.  I did a few things here and there, but the reality is that I simply kept on doing what I was doing (gigs, teaching, sessions, etc.).  After subbing, however, I did get asked to play a 13-week run of the return engagement of The Lion King as the regular a couple of years later, because Jim was busy playing Wicked at the time.

As I previously mentioned, I had worked hard to develop a diverse skill set as a music student.  Many or most of those skills would turn out to come in handy in the theater:

  • Reading
  • Control of time and feel
  • Playing with a click
  • Playing with a conductor
  • Understanding a wide range of musical styles
  • Basic skills on percussion instruments: shakers, hand percussion, even mallets on occasion
  • Discipline to play a written-out part


Theater subbing: Trial by fire

Just about anyone will tell you that just about the only way to get into theater work is to sub first.  In fact, that’s basically true of just about any gig: playing, teaching, recording.  You’ll never know when an opportunity will come along (usually when it’s least expected), and you must be fully prepared for it when it does.  In order to do that, you must get to know the musicians (both on and off your instrument) who are playing regularly and look for opportunities for them to hear you play.

The interesting thing about subbing in the theater is that it tends to be a good deal more challenging than being the regular, particularly as a drummer or percussionist.  Here are a few things that make it more difficult:

  1. You have to come in and fit into a mold that has already been cast. It’s in everyone’s best interest for you to play the book in the same way as the regular—including tempos, transitions, fills—as to disrupt as little of the process as possible.
  2. You have to play on someone else’s setup, which may or may not be a good fit for you ergonomically (and subs are generally discouraged from re-adjusting things, as space is typically at a premium and mic placements are already set).
  3. You get far fewer opportunities to “get it right” than the regular.  The regular has the next show, then the next, etc., but as a sub you always feel a higher sense of pressure and immediacy.

So at the very least, there are a good number of extra challenges to being a sub over that of being a regular.  I’ve always felt that in a way that actually makes subbing an excellent training ground for playing theater.  If you can build your skills and reputation to the point where you start getting called often to sub, then the transition to being a regular will be a relatively easy one.

How Hamilton happened

As to how I got my current job playing the drum book for Hamilton, it’s a fairly simple story, honestly.  I was playing a production of West Side Story in early ’16, and the pianist on the show, Colin Welford, asked me if I might be interested in doing Hamilton, which would be starting up in Chicago in the fall.  Not to offer me the gig, but to help scout out interested parties.  He was to be the music director/conductor for it.

I was asked to submit audition materials (in the form of audio recordings of whatever quality was convenient), and was sent 5 selections from the show.  I took a few days and learned the music best I could.  The day after I submitted my materials, I was honored and delighted to receive the call informing me that I had been offered the job.  Later I would be told that one of the things that helped was the relatively short turnaround time with which I had gotten my audition materials sent, which was funny to me, because I felt I had really taken my time!

The long and short of it is that it was an opportunity that came along, and it felt to me like it had almost fallen out of the sky.  The reality is that I had spent many years, decades even, working hard, preparing, building my skills, subbing, playing with scores of different musicians and building my network before the opportunity presented itself.  I was at once lucky AND prepared, just as I had been when other great opportunities came along earlier in my career.

I hope I have been able to answer some of the questions in this article that people have been asking.  Thanks for reading, and as they say, “break a leg”!

9 thoughts on “How do you get theater work?

Add yours

  1. Wow Tom that was truly a great blog. I learned new things about you. The next time I’m asked, “so how did you get Hamilton?” I will refer to your blog and say, “90% of this is also my story”.
    Thank you for taking the time to share.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tom, this …is awesome. I was just told “We should really get you playing the shows that come to town” (I’m a piano player) and just started my investigating on how in the heck you make that happen. Seriously, this helps the grey matter get a grip on it!

    Liked by 1 person

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