I have a gig coming up, it's playing piano for a party of older Broadway singers that want to make requests and sing along while I accompany. They have their books and I have Hal Leonard's "Ultimate Broadway Fakebook" (Over 700 songs). In general they like old show tunes: Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart, Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, Kander & Ebb, Bock & Harnick, Bernstein & Sondheim. No Andrew Lloyd Weber or les Miz. Favorites are "Someone to Watch Over Me" and Sondheim's "Our Time". Anything from "Finian's Rainbow" and anything by Sondheim.
My question: I am used to playing in time with slight rubato. But when I listen to Broadway pianists and singers they seem to operate in a different world of timing with frequent extreme rubato, speed up, rubato, speed up, all very well coordinated. How do they manage that timing where every phrase is dramatically different? Is there some sort of routine more than just slow down at the end of every phrase and then pick it up again? I expect the answer will be "Listen to the singer..." But it seems that could be risky when you are sight reading a little lead sheet and not familiar with the songs.. Might there not be some method to it than more than "Just listen to the singer" ???
Here is an example from Finian's Rainbow titled "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love":
Loc: Victoria, BC
I don't think one can ever anticipate what any (Broadway) singer - old or not - is going to do with his/her interpretation of a song. Certainly, it helps if the accompanist is familiar with a lot of Broadway tunes - not just the music, but the all-important lyrics as well; that might help give a clue what to expect.
That said, though, every interpreter is going to have his/her own "take" on a song. The extreme rubato you write about is only successful when - the accompanist knows the singer's style well - the accompanist has rehearsed with the singer - the accompanist has long experience working with Broadway shows/singers.
In your case, I don't think you can reliably predict how your singers are going to interpret their songs if you don't have the opportunity to rehearse with them.
Your best bet is - you guessed it! - "Listen to the singer!"
What a wonderful list of stellar Broadway composers/lyricists! Good luck!
BruceD - - - - - Estonia 190 in satin ebony
Loc: Rockford, IL
What Bruce said--the lyrics are most likely what the singer will [*ahem*] emote by, and there you are faced with the unpredictability of DRAMATIC INFLECTION. You are not accompanying--you are playing. That's why they're called plays. Well, musicals... I mean..., um. Well, ...whatever...
My suggestion is this: Remember the acting exercise, "Mirror"? Match your musical articulation (inflection) to theirs. In other words, be the sauce to the ham, and you'll be fine. (Play with your vocalist. See? That's what I mean...)
Don't be afraid, when practicing your tunes before the event, to go too far in ways you might imagine someone might interpret...
Then, at the gig, use your intuition to gauge how far to pull back and be the straight man in the mirror. But if anyone says, "Hit it!," then, you get to do slapstick.
Please let us know how it goes. This is a story waiting to happen!
I may not be fast, but at least I'm slow.
Loc: Iowa City, IA
Yep. This is one of those things that you cannot prepare for.
The only way to get good at accompanying musical theater, Great American Songbook, and cabaret stuff is to do it a lot.
Dive in, knowing that you'll make about a million mistakes and that people will get frustrated with you. Listen, do your best, and do it again. You'll be better the next time you do it (only a thousand mistakes and people will only be slightly annoyed.)
One bit of advice - don't play very much. Play enough to keep time and get the bass right. Don't worry about fancy voicings or anything.
"If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him." (John Holt)
Loc: South Carolina
I would advise against playing Sondheim numbers from a fakebook. There's a 2 volume songbook out there called "All Sondheim" that covers the more well known solo numbers.
Good luck and don't forget to enjoy yourself! I've worked with lots and lots of Broadway people when I lived in NYC and have only met one with the stereotypical "diva" attitude.....and rest assured, if things start to fall apart while performing, they'll know what to do. So, you'll learn a lot.
Piano performance and instruction (former college music professor).