It takes Oliver Rosen exactly eight and a half minutes to cross the Queensboro Bridge from Long Island City to Manhattan’s East Side. That’s on a good day, when he’s not hung over and doesn’t stop to stare at the jagged skyline. He crosses this bridge six days a week on his way to the Neil Simon Theatre on Fifty-second Street, where he plays flute in the orchestra of a Broadway musical called Meet the Piggies.
Oliver likes to stop in the middle of the bridge and look down at the silvery East River. Today, he jangles the change in his pocket and lets his mind wander. He drops a dime over the side of the bridge and watches it fall. Silver. He remembers icicles and scratched bike fenders; the smoky-silver fur of his favorite cat, Annie; his Aunt Stella’s stiff and puffy hair, shot through with streaks of pewter and pepper; the dented pale silver Plymouth station wagon his father drove for the last two decades of his life; the shiny stainless-steel refrigerator, now in his ex-wife’s kitchen; his daughter’s charm bracelet with sterling trinkets that dangle from her thickening wrist; the Manhattan horizon on a cloudy winter evening, when the city lights buff the tarnished edges of an ordinary sky and turn it into a king’s heaven.
Ten years. Ten years of playing for those fucking pigs. Not that he has anything against pigs. But Oliver Rosen, boy wonder of the Rochester Youth Symphony Orchestra, graduate of the Juilliard School, and prize-winning student of the esteemed Hank Goldberg, had expected more from his career than a ten-year run playing soaring flute lines for a bunch of pigs. Now, approaching his fortieth birthday, he is known in music circles as Pig Guy. He is divorced, living a thousand miles away from his daughter, and trapped in an orchestra pit playing for Broadway’s most beloved musical, whose highlights include an emotional Strauss-inspired waltz titled “This Little Piggy,” and an extravaganza—featuring sixteen pigs and twenty dancers—called “Pork Pie Hoe Down.” For Oliver, playing the show means two hours and eleven minutes of nonstop mind-numbing chromatic runs and trills eight times a week. Audience members tell him the pigs perform amazing tricks while he is playing.
The pedestrian path of the bridge—flecked with bits of fool’s silver—looks endless and open and free, as if Oliver could stroll right into the amalgam of Manhattan’s gaping mouth. But when he stands still, as he does today, the birds and cars and clouds and people and barges and buses and trucks and things that go-go-go make him dizzy with their collective sense of purpose.
Against all odds, Meet the Piggies had opened a few months after 9/11, just as other Broadway shows were closing due to dismal ticket sales. The threat of additional disaster kept tourists home—if terrorists could destroy the Twin Towers, what would stop them from blowing up a theater or two? Some shows stayed open, but panicked Broadway producers feared the worst—empty theaters and lost revenue. The producers of Meet the Piggies, “a delightful musical romp with an unstoppable porcine hero,” went on with the show, determined to protect their investment by encouraging theater lovers to take advantage of discounted tickets. Most of the orchestra members, happy to have jobs, stayed with the show, but the original flutist hired for the gig, convinced that terrorists were targeting the Great White Way, fled to Montana. The musical contractor, desperate to find a virtuoso flutist willing to accompany dancing pigs, called Oliver after getting a recommendation from Hank Goldberg.
“Oliver Rosen is your guy,” said the professor. “He’s an odd sort. Persnickety. He wears a fur vest and these weird green fingerless gloves. And that hair? White guy with an Afro? Please. Or maybe he’s not white, don’t know. Don’t care. Good player. Kind of a misfit, but he plays the heck out of anything you put in front of him. He’s a scanner. He can read fly shit. And I’ve heard he’s still unemployed, which doesn’t surprise me, given his personality. If you can get past the ick factor, you’ll have a great player in your pit.”
The contractor hired Oliver, grateful to find a last-minute replacement who could nail the difficult score. So what if he wore a fur vest?
“The lead pig in the show—her name is Peggy P—speaks through the sound of the flute,” the contractor told Oliver. “Your flute will be the voice of the pig. It’s a tough couple of hours for you, since Peggy P is always onstage, and, basically, she never shuts up.”
Oliver never imagined that a musical about a pig family, especially one that premiered so soon after America’s greatest tragedy, would rescue Broadway, and, in a way, rescue him. Like most freelance musicians in town he was out of work and had been scrambling for gigs that didn’t exist. His wife, frustrated by her temp work in a dental clinic, threatened to take their daughter and leave for Florida—which she did anyway, a few years later—but at least Meet the Piggies had bought Oliver a few years with his family.
Today is Wednesday. Matinee day. Two shows. Four hours and twenty minutes of pig music. It’s lonely in the pit—Oliver’s only companion is the conductor, a stout guy named Brownie. The rest of the orchestra is on the eighth floor of the theater building, connected to what’s happening onstage through a video feed. Oliver keeps one eye on the video, one eye on Brownie, and tries to stay awake and in the zone. He’s not sure how much longer he can stand it. The odor of overripe bananas wafts through the pit every time Brownie raises his baton. But maybe it’s not Brownie. Maybe it’s the pigs.
Oliver stops again and looks at the river. The water heaves downstream, but it’s dull and rigid, reflecting nothing—neither mystery nor magic surges beneath its thick skin. Oliver wonders what would happen if he opened his backpack, assembled his flute, and catapulted it, spear-like, into the river. Maybe it would bounce or float, but more likely it would slice through the pockmarked façade of the murky water and vanish. Another contribution to Manhattan’s moat. No ripples left behind. Gone. Poof. Just like that. Easy. Covered up. Vanished.
He had tried to get other work. Up until five years ago he auditioned for every advertised symphony and opera orchestra job he could find. He was willing to leave New York City. Oliver had come close to landing the second flute position with the Cleveland Orchestra, but lost to a Korean flutist who kicked his ass in the final round of auditions. Two years ago he had a shot at a tour with the rock star Baby. It paid ten grand a week plus expenses. In the end, Baby hired a Spanish flutist who doubled as a flamenco artist. At one point Oliver tried to put together a flute quartet, but the gigs he booked paid barely enough to cover his expenses. He couldn’t afford to quit the Broadway gig; he couldn’t afford to send in a sub. He gave up on finding another music job and stuck with the dancing pigs. His wife and daughter gave up and moved to Orlando, where nothing is silver and everything is pastel. Once a month Oliver sends them money. Once a week he calls. Once a minute he misses them.
While he was still married, he had a brief affair with a substitute trumpet player named Grace. That could have turned into something, but she took a job with the Army Field Band and left town. Maybe later this week he could call her. Track her down. Tell her he got a divorce.
Oliver is the only original member of the orchestra and cast still performing with Meet the Piggies. Other musicians shift to other shows when they get bored, but Oliver, whose saxophone and clarinet skills are abysmal, stays, because no other Broadway show needs a solo flutist. He has seen chorus girls replaced by younger and leaner Broadway hopefuls. He has watched stagehands leave for better-paying jobs. Even the pigs retire after two years. Maybe they go to Florida.
The orchestra pit is covered with a transparent net that keeps the animals from sliding off the raked stage and into Oliver’s lap. It happened once, back in 2008. The pig squealed, the audience howled, Brownie grunted and continued waving his arms. Oliver Rosen didn’t miss a note. He continued playing while a frazzled stagehand soothed the poor pig, attached a leash to her jewel-studded collar, and led her through the bowels of the theater and back to the wings. When she reappeared in the downstage spotlight, glistening and serene in her silver tutu, the audience cheered.
Oliver looks down at the East River one last time, adjusts his backpack, puts on his headset, and listens to the opening phrases of James Galway playing the Allegro Maestoso movement of the Mozart Flute Concerto in G. The music sounds like polished silver—brilliant and old. He has other, newer versions of this music, but he keeps returning to this one.
Oliver Rosen makes it to the other side of the bridge and keeps walking. He’ll arrive at the theater in fifteen minutes if he keeps up his pace.
One more time. He can play this show one more time.
Illustration by Julia Goldsby.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.