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By LINDA BUCHWALD
The cast of Chicago changes frequently, but if you listen to the orchestra behind the actors, then you’ll hear the same man night after night.
Woodwinds player Seymour “Red” Press has been in the orchestra of the long-running Broadway revival since it opened in 1996, and that’s just part of a career that spans over fifty years and 100 shows. He’s played everything from Pippin to Meet Me in St. Louis to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, not to mention the original production of Chicago. And if that’s not enough, he’s also one of the industry’s premier music contractors and coordinators, meaning he hires musicians, helps set rehearsal schedules, buys and rents instruments, and oversees the orchestra. This season alone, he coordinated Hair, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, and Finian’s Rainbow.
Fifty years ago, however, Press wasn’t dreaming about Broadway. When he was thirteen, all he wanted to do was play with the legendary bandleader Benny Goodman, and shortly after a stint in the army during World War II, that’s exactly what he did.
“But then that era died and I had to make a living,” he says.
His first Broadway show was Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s The Body Beautiful in 1957, but a bigger milestone came in 1959, when he joined the orchestra for the original production of Gypsy, starring Ethel Merman. “It was the show against which all my future shows were to be measured,” he says.
Press’ career came full circle in 2007 when he received a Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre at the same time that he was music coordinator for the most recent Gypsy revival. He recalls, “At the award ceremony, Patti LuPone, the magnificent star of that production, sang one of its most wonderful songs, ‘You’ll Never Get Away From Me,’ to me. My cup runneth over.”
Press feels similar gratitude for his Chicago gig, and he has no immediate plans to leave the show. For one thing, he’s seen Broadway orchestras get smaller over the years, and he’s happy to have steady work. But beyond that, he feels Chicago gives him something special. “I can’t picture myself being in any other show for that amount of time and not being very unhappy about it,” he says. “You’re always glad to have the job, but you’re musically unhappy. But not this show. Everyone has solos. Everyone can show off. And so everyone cares.”
Plus, Press feels like part of the Chicago family, citing a tradition where the cast and crew celebrate birthdays during intermissions. The sense of community is no doubt boosted by the fact that the musicians are part of the action, sitting on stage while the actors perform. “Most shows, you’re in the pit, you’re downstairs in the basement,” he says. “The actors are upstairs in their dressing rooms, and you can go through a whole fourteen years of a show and never meet any of the actors. We’re all one company here because we all share this together. It’s a marvelous place to be.”
Linda Buchwald is an assistant editor at Scholastic. She blogs for StageGrade and her own blog, Pataphysical Science.