In the pits, on Broadway

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The clarinetist Todd Palmer has accompanied performances of “South Pacific,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The King and I” and now “My Fair Lady”


  • Todd Palmer, a veteran clarinetist. joined the “My Fair Lady”’ orchestra this spring. Photo courtesy of Todd Palmer

  • Lerner & Loewe's "My Fair Lady" " at the Lincoln Center Theater. Photo: Joan Marcus

Todd Palmer is no stranger to Broadway. Having played clarinet in “South Pacific” with Kelli O’Hara, “Sunset Boulevard” starring Glenn Close and “The King and I” with Ken Wantanabe, he has become a veteran clarinetist in orchestra pits across the Great White Way. This spring, the Upper West Sider joined the “My Fair Lady”’ orchestra, and is currently accompanying — and appearing in — the show at Lincoln Center eight times each week. Palmer, 46, sat down with us to dish about the show’s offstage shenanigans, glamorous party scene and his favorite post-show cocktail.

How did you get the job playing in the orchestra of “My Fair Lady”?

Well, as it is with most things in life, it’s about who you know. I knew Ted Sperling, “My Fair Lady’s” music director, from doing jobs around the city, and 10 years ago, he asked me to do “South Pacific” at Lincoln Center. That gig led me to do “Sunset Boulevard” with Glenn Close, “The King and I” again at Lincoln Center, and now “My Fair Lady.” I knew all the orchestra members of “My Fair Lady” before we started rehearsals. Lincoln Center likes to rehire their musicians. It’s a family affair, really.

Do you have a favorite moment in the show?

In the show, the orchestra has a 10-minute cameo onstage. For the party scene, all 30 of us come onto the stage in our white tuxes and white ties. We get to watch Eliza Doolittle come down the staircase in an exquisite ball gown. We play on a big bandstand, which a giant machine pushes up and down. The audience always applauds when the platform descends.... It’s all very grand.

How do you keep the show fresh and interesting for yourself while playing it night after night?

Well in the show, there are long, eight-minute stretches of dialogue on stage where we have no music to play. And to ease the boredom, there ARE some shenanigans that go on in the pit. We throw sock puppets at one another, read magazines or stand up and play to keep ourselves entertained. I’ll even go out into the hall and exercise while the show is going on. Of course, the audience sees none of it, because we are in the pit below the stage.

It is also cool to see how the actors deliver their lines night after night. The dialogue is so well crafted and witty, and they deliver it a different way each night, depending on the audience’s energy, applause or the actors’ moods. The actors also forget their lines, and improvise. Or sometimes, someone in the orchestra comes in at the wrong time, and there’s lots of laughter. It’s live theatre; you never quite know what’s going to happen. That is what makes the show different and fresh every time, and makes it interesting for us night after night.

With the ongoing #MeToo movement, “My Fair Lady” has generated controversy in the press. How has the show’s creative team addressed elements of the show that some perceive as misogynistic?

I think Eliza is a much stronger character in this revival. In the Hollywood film, Eliza stays with Henry Higgins, even after he mistreats her. But at the end of our show, Eliza is ambivalent; she ends up running off the stage. You’re not really sure what she is thinking: is she in a moment of indecision, or not? Bartlett Sher was very aware of not making this revival a reincarnation of a museum piece. He knows how to dust stories off, and make them relevant in this day and age. I think that’s one of the reasons why Bart wanted to do this show. It hasn’t been seen on Broadway in 25 years, and a lot has happened since then with women in the workforce and at home. For many years, we were lying to ourselves, saying that women were equal. But now, in this unique time that we are living in, change is in the air. And I know Bart Sher is trying to convey that in his staging.

What do you do after the show to decompress?

Good question! Well, I make a cocktail before I go to the show every night. I mix Amsterdam vodka, triple sec, fresh lime juice and a delicious mango mixer. It’s not a cosmo; I call it a ‘Tozmo.” Before I leave, I put it in the freezer, and it is sitting there waiting for me when I get back home at 11:30. And when I get home, it is frozen to perfection. I nurse my cocktail, and sip it slowly instead of downing it all at once. And then, I watch reruns of “Modern Family” on my couch. It is the perfect way to decompress after a three-hour show.

How did you start playing the clarinet?

Well, I grew up in Hagerstown, Maryland. I went to the local elementary school and played trumpet in the fourth grade. But my sister played the clarinet, and would leave her clarinet in her closet. And I would sneak into my sister’s room, and take it out. And I would teach the fingerings to myself while she wasn’t home; I was completely self-taught. I one day went to my band teacher, and told him that I would be switching from trumpet to clarinet. And that was that.

Do you still practice?

I still do warm up exercises. I was doing them as I was watching Wimbledon this morning.

As a young musician, did you ever think you would have all this success?

At 19, I moved to New York. I came here, bright-lights-big-city, and made a career out of this. If I had gone to a fortune-teller back when I started, and had they told me things would work out the way they did, I would not have believed them. I feel so blessed to have had this career. Because of music, I have played in China, have swum in the Aegean Sea. Growing up, my family would never travel farther than a car would take us.... So without music, I never would have done any of this. So I am very appreciative of the things that have come my way.

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