Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.
What exactly do you do in your role as Musical Director for a new Broadway show like The Producers?
On The Producers, we have a musical supervisor, Glen Kelly, who created all the piano and dance arrangements and has been working closely with Mel Brooks for the last two years. I have written the vocal arrangements for The Producers and serve as musical director and conductor. My job has been to help cast the show, choose a drummer and assistant conductor, rehearse and teach the music, find the best keys and tempos, prepare the orchestra, make sure the orchestration is correct, conduct seven shows a week, watch the eighth show, give notes to the cast and keep the understudies prepared.
How did you become a Musical Director?
I’ve been accompanying singers, dancers and instrumentalists from the fourth grade on… I’ve played for Christmas pageants, children’s theatre, high school choruses, gymnastics, magic acts, dance classes, voice lessons, auditions, churches, community theatre, college degree recitals, summer stock, private parties, dinner theatre, rock ‘n’ roll bands, cabaret acts, night clubs… it’s too scary to think about… anyway, often the piano player ends up as the leader of the band and that’s what happened in my case.
You work both on Broadway and in cabaret – do you have a preferance?
I prefer working on Broadway, because I like to be able to pay my rent and eat. Also, conducting a big new Broadway musical is quite a rush. I only dabble in the cabaret world, and pretty much only with the very talented Sally Mayes.
How is the job of a Musical Director on Broadway today different from what it was in the days before microphones and synthesizers?
I think the job of the musical director has remained pretty much the same over the years, even though musical styles have changed so much. However, the sound designer and sound engineers now have an active and pivotal role in the process. Fifty years ago there were no microphones or need for any sound personnel. Now it doesn’t matter how well or bad the orchestra is playing, if you don’t have a good sound system and sound operator, you are screwed.
What role does a Musical Director play in the recording of a show’s cast album?
Basically, you conduct a clean and spirited show, and hopefully the microphones will capture the sound. Of course, you want it desperately to be the best possible version of the score for posterity. With The Producers, we made our recording after we had closed in Chicago but before we started previews in New York.
What was your favorite working experience, and why?
Closer Than Ever holds a special place for me. It was the first show in New York that I got to musical direct and do vocal arrangements for. Working with Richard Maltby, Jr., David Shire, and that incredible cast was a total thrill. It was also the first time I had been involved in a production that had started in a small club (the much-missed “Eighty-Eights”) then went on to the Williamstown Theatre Festival and finally on to the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York. It was also the first Original Cast Album I ever made – plus (if that wasn’t enough!), I got to sing a wonderful song, “There,” with my old friend Sally Mayes. A very exciting time. You always love your first…
What do you think of the state of Broadway today?
I’m pretty upbeat about Broadway in 2001. Eight new musicals are opening on Broadway this season, and all by American composers. A Class Act, Tom Sawyer, The Full Monty, The Producers, and Jane Eyre are all written by composers new to Broadway. There are many interesting plays currently on the boards, and there is even a marching band musical, Blast, about to open!!! What’s to complain about?
You’ve just returned from an out-of-town tryout. Does that process still work to get a show ready for New York?
It certainly helped in our case. We previewed for three weeks in Chicago, and then played for one week more. We were able to make about ten minutes of cuts, tinker with lyrics, try lots of jokes. We were making changes to the last performance in Chicago. With the rise of the internet, you’re really not in some isolated location working without the glare and scrutiny of would-be critics. Boston and Chicago are not as far away as they once were… Thankfully, the word of mouth and internet gossip on our show was all very positive.
What kind of music do you listen to for fun? What CDs are in your player right now?
I listen to a wide range of music: pop, jazz, classical. Last five CDs I listened to: Sting: A Brand New Day, Gladiator: Movie Soundtrack, Haydn Piano Sonatas: Alfred Brendel, Maria Callas: a retrospective, Dixie Chicks: Wide Open Spaces.
What advice would you offer to aspiring Musical Directors today?
- Learn to play in as many styles as possible.
- Listen to and learn the musical theatre, popular song and jazz repertoire.
- Become a great sightreader and be able to do basic transpositions quickly.
- Play for as many people as possible in as many varied venues as possible.
- Work with new composers and do new shows.