The Monster in the Pit

I listened to this week’s This American Life from under the bedsheets, wide awake, at about 2am. I listen to podcasts to fall asleep but this one didn’t have the desired effect. I found it riveting.

It was delicious to me because:

1. It’s a classic story of workplace woe taken to an absurd degree;
2. It’s a real example of a “Groundhog Day,” which is something I always enjoy;
3. It reflects badly on Andrew Lloyd Webber, who I hate;
4. It confirms my feelings about Phantom of the Opera, which I dislike;
5. I remember being moved by Gary Wilmot singing “Music of the Night” on TV when I was a kid, so maybe my relationship with Phantom isn’t as simple as merely disliking it.

The story begins with the profile of a trumpet player, Nick Jemo, in New York City circa 1987. He doesn’t get much work. His life is spent sitting by the phone, waiting for gigs. When he’s given a job on the all-new Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, he’s overjoyed. Surely it will pay the bills for a year or more. He celebrates by buying coconut water, which would normally feel profligate.

Phantom ends up running for 35 years: career-length financial security for one trumpet player, and also for the other musicians he sits with each night in the orchestra pit. Unfortunately, it’s a living hell.

It’s dark, cold, and cramped in the pit. Worse, the job is mind-numbingly repetitive. The musicians–creative people with good hands and brains, all of whom trained at the world’s best music schools like Juilliard–have to play the same abysmal score in precisely the same way every single night. They hear the same lines coming from the stage. The same audience reactions. The same chandelier come crashing down at the end of Act I.

He’d never been in a situation like this where everyone seemed so locked into routine. His colleagues would sit down in their chairs at the exact same minute every day. There is a cellist who would say, “Marvelous,” every time Nick asked him how he was doing. There was the first horn player who would pull out a stopwatch every single night to time how long the second horn player held a note in one of the songs. Some days it would be 17 seconds, other days 16.2.

As in many jobs, the colleagues got on each other’s nerves. But in this environment, people became absurdly sensitive:

In the pit, you notice everything. The way your neighbor blows out a spit valve, the way someone brags about their kids, the smell of someone’s perfume. Every little annoyance, every perceived slight, accumulates.

At the end of 30 years sitting just inches away from your coworkers, you lose all sense of proportion. Your enemies turn into monsters. For [oboist] Melanie, the monster in the pit* was always a trumpet player named Francis Bonny. Everything he did drove Melanie nuts, from the black biking shorts he wore in the pit, to always eating his dinner in the locker room with his back turned to her.

(*I was hoping “The Monster in the Pit” would be the name of this segment, but it’s actually “Music of the Night after Night after Night,” which is also excellent).

I can’t help thinking that this is all deliberate torture, that Andrew Lloyd Webber is the ultimate sadistic boss:

Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted the best of the best for Phantom, which means the pit will always sound good, though it also creates some creative and spiritual problems for the players, who have to get through the score night after night after night.

Personally, I find it highly likely that Lloyd Webber’s dream was to lure and trap some beautiful people in a pit.

And they really were trapped. Like many people with rarefied talents, the musicians felt that they couldn’t leave. To leave would have meant sitting at the phone again, waiting for the next gig. And the next lifesaver might just be another Phantom anyway.

It felt unending and precarious. Because of the way successful Broadway shows are extended, season after season, the musicians never really knew when it would end. Or if it would ever end for them, since so many of them were dying of old age, one by one.

Finally, after 35 years, Phantom of the Opera has closed on Broadway. Nick Jemo and his colleagues (apart from the ones who died) are free at last.


Trapped in a pit? The Good Life for Wage Slaves is the survival guide (and shoulder to cry on) you never knew you were waiting for.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

2 Responses to “The Monster in the Pit”

  1. Tom says:

    I found it interesting that the oboeist actually ended up missing her old routine, almost Stockholm syndrome-esque, in a way. Great recommendation!

  2. Yes! This tracks with personal experience and I was glad the journalist asked the question about people being nicer towards each other towards the end. Such a great radio segment; I’m glad you enjoyed it too.

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