Vinnie DeMasi on Subbing on Broadway

April 28, 2011
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THE SUBDOMINANT....the Suburban Broadway Sub

  It’s summer 2005 and I’m living a guitarist’s dream: I’m on a hydraulically-lifted stage set in front of 1,000-plus people. The incandescent spotlight catches yours truly, as I rip into the decidedly Hendrix-ian solo of “Shameless,” a song penned by one of America’s greatest tunesmiths, Billy Joel. The nine-piece band I’m temporarily a member of consists of alumni from Joel’s band as well as former/current confederates of Rainbow, Meatloaf, Tommy James, Chubby Checker, Tower of Power and Utopia. And to top it off, I’m banking Saturday night premium union scale!
   On the recommendation of a mutual friend, I’d gotten the chance to fill in¬—or “sub” in Great White Way parlance¬—Dennis DelGaudio’s Guitar I chair on the Billy Joel/Twyla Tharp Broadway collaborative Moving Out . Ironically, it’s an opportunity I almost passed on. When my 6-string bud and regular Moving Out fill-in Chris Jusino suggested I ring Dennis as he was looking for reliable subs, I was initially reluctant. In my mind, playing in a Broadway pit orchestra seemed decidedly “unhip” and not very rock and roll (my last theatre experience was in High School ham-fistedly slogging through the charts of Bye Bye Birdie!)
   I finally contacted Dennis after a particularly unsatisfying gig with my then-current band, but mistakenly played up my pedestrian jazz/sight-reading chops before he bluntly informed me. “Um….it’s a rock gig, you know.”
   The Broadway scene was changing and the rock-based ‘jukebox musical’ was becoming more and more the norm. And though I’d only sub on Moving Out a handful of times before it closed that same winter it was my introduction to the world of subbing Broadway shows and would lead to a brief stint with Jersey Boys and my current regular fill-in gig on Broadway’s longest running musical Mamma Mia. But more on that later…

    I was pretty psyched to learn that the score to Moving Out would require zero reading on my part. Instead, I was invited down to “shadow” (unobtrusively watch the principal do his job during a live performance) and handed a CD with the band in one ear and Dennis's Plexi-fied guitar in the other in the other. “Give me a call when you’ve learned it,” he said.
  Aside from mastering the music proper, Dennis’ chair (well, it’s called a chair, but Moving Out was among the first of an increasingly popular trend on Broadway where the band is standing on stage playing) required a certain amount of extra-curricular activities that had to be dealt with. For one, there was his custom-designed Tom Peck (pedalracks.com) board of a dozen stomp-boxes that had to be activated at appropriate times. There was the hast guitar change from Strat to Les Paul and the retuning to dropped-D with houselights out and dry-ice swirling for the Marylin Manson-inspired reworking of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
   Then there was the infamous A/B switch. Dennis’ part called for the occasional squall of feedback, and since his Marshalls were situated under the main stage, a solution was devised where a small Fender amp was strategically placed facing him on the band’s moving platform. Hit the “A and B” switch and your signal was also fed into the Fender, producing sweet harmonic feedback and literally vibrating the stage under your feet. Hit the “A or B” switch and you still got the sweet feedback and floor buzz – but you took yourself out of the house mains! It was a mistake newbie subs often made, apparently. 
   Also, before the song “Moving Out” the house went literally pitch black, there was a one-bar drum fill before they came back on in sync with the first downbeat. Chris Jusino hipped me to the fact that I’d need to find the opening 5th position Dm  in the split second before the houselights went out on the previous song, or risk some unintentional atonality.
 Perhaps the greatest opportunity to blow it came at the show’s opening curtain though. There was a quick four-count, then Guitar I played the shuffle-eighth-note intro of “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” Since I was the only instrument playing at that point, an adrenalin surge could easily translate into a tempo surge and derail things right out of the gate. Before my “big debut” as I sat in nervous excitement in the band’s “dressing room” (a bunch of lockers below the stage where everyone would don the standard pit-band outfit—black shoes, black pants and black shirt). I was shot back into the moment by the sudden Thwap! Thwap! Thwap! Thwap! of (former-Rainbow/Meatloaf drummer) Chuck Burgi’s stick against one of the lockers. I looked up suddenly as he smiled and said, “That’s the tempo I’m gonna bring you in at junior…make sure you’re ready for it!”

   Thanks to my buddy Chris (who was subbing the Guitar II chair of long-time Billy Joel guitarist/music director Tommy Byrnes that night) I navigated my first show without incident or fanfare. As a sub, your main responsibility it to NOT do your own thing but to play the parts the way the main guys does. Or to explain it more bluntly, as one of the principal dancers Ben Bowman told me afterwards, “You must've done alright for your first show because I didn't notice you were here.”

   After Moving Out closed, both  Dennis and Chuck (as well as Moving Out saxophonist John Scarpulla) would join Tommy Byrnes in Billy Joel's band for a tour that included his famous Last Play at Shea Shea Stadium concert in summer 2008.

  Despite the initial excitement generated by my brief first encounter with Broadway, I dragged my feet looking for another subbing gig. Instead I settled into my new role of fatherhood, finished my masters, recorded a solo CD (cdbaby.com/cd/vincentdemasi) wrote dozens of articles for Guitar Player (including this one—www.guitarplayer.com/article/tommy-byrnes-and/oct-05/14176)
and joined the ever growing ranks of tribute band artists. By the end of 2009 though, I'd find myself with opportunities to play on two of the Great White Way's most successful shows...
More on all that next time.


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