The best place to look for an instrumentalist in a Broadway theatre is usually the orchestra pit, but not with these shows. When Once became the third musical in five years to use its actors as the onstage company and orchestra, playing an instrument became a skill casting directors began to track more actively. To this day, playing your own instrument can qualify an actor as a new kind of triple threat. Still, the idea of using actors in this way on Broadway dates farther back than the early oughts.
These nine plays and musicals found actors to play double duty as characters in the show and their own musical accompaniment.
1. Pump Boys and Dinettes
Opened: February 4, 1982
When songwriter-guitarist Jim Wann and actor-pianist Mark Hardwick were hired to play music at New York City’s The Cattleman restaurant, they turned the gig into a testing ground for original songs and characters. Though they eventually lost the job at The Cattleman, the two joined with Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Foley, John Schimmel for Pump Boys and Dinettes, a show loosely based on Wann and Hardwick’s time at The Cattleman. The male actors were the Pump Boys, employees at a gas station who play music on their down time with the girls that work at the adjoining Diner. Pump Boys was a true group effort; all six actors starred in the show and played their own musical instruments, in addition to writing and directing the production. Following an Off-Broadway premiere in 1981, Pump Boys and Dinettes opened at Broadway’s now-demolished Princess Theatre February 4, 1982, closing more than a year later after 573 performances; it had earned a Tony nod for Best Musical in 1982. The show has gone on to enjoy runs on London’s West End, a national tour, and a recent Encores! Off-Center revival.
Opened: November 4, 1990
Before Beautiful and Mamma Mia! were giant Broadway hits, Alan Jane’s Buddy told the story of singer-songwriter and recording artist Buddy Holly on Broadway in one of the first bio-jukebox musicals. The show actually began in London, premiering in 1989, and became a smash hit there before coming to Broadway the following year. Though its time on Broadway was brief—the production ran for just 225 performances—the show has since become a staple of regional and stock companies worldwide. All the music in the show is performed by Buddy and his band, and—as they did in real life—the performers playing those roles all played their own instruments.
Opened: March 19, 1998
Kander and Ebb’s 1966 musical about Weimar Germany on the eve of Nazi control is set in a seedy Berlin club—the Kit Kat Klub. The original production featured an onstage band with players costumed as if they were the club’s band, but Sam Mendes’ 1998 revival production took this even further. This production featured members of the acting ensemble playing such instruments as violin, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, tuba, accordion, and harp during various moments of the show, bringing the haphazard style of the Kit Kat Klub to the musical accompaniment as well. The production earned Tony nominations for Mendes as well as orchestrator Michael Gibson.
4. Sweeney Todd
Opened: November 3, 2005
As the associate director of the Watermill Theatre in England, British director John Doyle made a name for himself helming productions of plays and musicals that stripped away extraneous physical and material elements, presenting shows with only their bare essentials. When it came to musical theatre, this often meant that Doyle excised the orchestra completely, pioneering productions of traditional musicals re-imagined to feature the entire cast performing their roles while also serving as the production’s orchestra. His 2004 take on Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, originally produced on Broadway in 1979 with a cast of 27 and an orchestra of 26, featured a cast of ten actors playing all of the roles and providing the musical accompaniment. This production transferred to London’s West End in 2005 and Broadway later the same year, the latter starring a Tuba-playing Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett (also credited with percussion) and a guitar-wielding Michael Cervis (again credited with percussion, as well). Doyle won the Best Direction of a Musical Tony Award in 2006 for his work on this production and Sarah Travis won the Tony for Best Orchestrations.
Opened: October 30, 2006
Doyle followed up Sweeney Todd with another Sondheim musical: Company. This revival began at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, with an actor-musician cast led by Raúl Esparza as the perpetually unmarried Bobby. Esparza spent much of the production not playing any instrument, climactically sitting at the piano to accompany himself in the show’s moving finale, “Being Alive.” The other 13 members of the cast played everyting from the oboe to the French horn to the double bass. This production transferred to Broadway in 2006, winning Best Revival of a Musical at the 2007 Tony Awards.
6. War Horse
Opened: April 14, 2011
Even plays can feature actor-musicians! Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel of the same name, War Horse follows the journey of a wild horse named Joey, who bonds with Albert, the son of a farmer, before being drafted into the British cavalry during World War I. The show was best known for its impressive and emotionally wrenching life-size horse puppets, but it also featured a dynamic and Olivier-nominated score by Adrian Sutton. Though most of the score was pre-recorded, the production also used English folksongs (devised by John Tams) performed live by two actors who both sang and played accordion and violin. War Horse premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2007, later transferring to the West End in 2009 and Broadway in 2011.
Opened: March 18, 2012
Like Pump Boys and Dinettes, the original concept of Once stipulated the musical would feature a cast that also served as the full orchestra. Based on the 2007 film of the same name, Once tells the story of a guy and girl (known simply as Guy and Girl) who share a brief relationship between other relationships, bonded together by music that they write and perform together. Guy and Girl play guitar and piano respectively, with the members of the ensemble playing bar patrons and band members while playing various instruments during the show’s almost completely diegetic score. Perhaps most impressive, the actors also danced Steven Hoggett choreography while playing—try that with a cello! After premiering Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop in 2011, Once transferred to Broadway in February 2012, going on to win eight 2012 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Direction for John Tiffany, Best Orchestrations for Martin Lowe, and Best Sound Design of a Musical for Clive Goodwin.
Opened: April 26, 2017
This original musical centers on a group of World War II veterans struggling to re-assimilate into civilian life after years on the battlefield. Together with the young widow of one of their fallen regiment members, the group forms an all-veteran band to compete in a radio contest that promises instant stardom. As with Buddy and Once, Bandstand used actor-musicians to allow its characters to actually play the music they were depicted as playing. Unlike most of the shows on this list, however, there was an 11-piece orchestra offstage as well. The onstage musicians wore in-ear monitors with a click track to keep everyone in time. After premiering at Paper Mill Playhouse in 2015, Bandstand opened on Broadway in 2017, winning Best Choreography at the 2017 Tony Awards. It won the Drama Desk for Best Orchestrations by Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen. The show is slated to embark on a national tour, though dates have not been set.
9. The Band’s Visit
Opened: November 9, 2017
Broadway’s most recent actor-musician musical is The Band’s Visit, yet another musical about a band that extensively uses onstage accompaniment. Based on a 2007 Israeli film, the show tells the story of a touring Egyptian band that is forced to stay overnight in a small town in Israel after they inadvertently book tickets to the wrong city. The show utilizes an offstage orchestra augmented by the actors playing the band members (and onstage band members serving as actors), who sometimes accompanying songs during the show’s action and often performing transitional instrumental pieces, including the show’s post-curtain call “concert.” The Band’s Visit premiered at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company in 2016, moving to Broadway the following year. The show was the biggest winner at the 2018 Tony Awards, taking ten trophies including Best Musical and Best Orchestrations for Jamshied Sharifi.
Logan Culwell-Block is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research, and curator of Playbill Vault. @loganculwell