ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The Composer as Conductor

Ask Playbill.com   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The Composer as Conductor Chatting with Tony-nominated Grey Gardens composer Scott Frankel, who recently conducted a performance of his own show.
Scott Frankel (right) with Grey Gardens' leading lady Christine Ebersole.
Scott Frankel (right) with Grey Gardens' leading lady Christine Ebersole. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

This week's question comes from the Playbill.com staff.

Question: With Grey Gardens set to close July 29, the show's composer, Scott Frankel, wanted to get a chance to conduct the show for one performance, on July 18. What's it like to conduct your own show?

Answer: When Frankel moved to New York, he worked as a conductor, with credits that include assistant conductor on the original Broadway production of Into the Woods, musical continuity in Jerome Robbins' Broadway (he also conducted one performance), conductor on Falsettos on Broadway and conductor on Putting It Together Off-Broadway in 1993 — his last full-time conducting gig. Playbill.com spoke with Frankel about his one-time-only experience conducting Grey Gardens.

Playbill.com: Why did you decide to conduct Grey Gardens?
Scott Frankel: When I first came to New York, most of the work I had was a pianist and conductor for Broadway shows. When I started composing more full-time, I kind of retired from that. But it did occur to me in the last couple months that maybe it would be fun if I could go back into the pit.

Playbill.com: Did you have any preparation?
Frankel: I did. Even though I wrote the music and obviously know how it goes, people don't realize the conductor is responsible for a lot of what happens in the evening. There are light cues that are taken off the conductor. There are sound cues. So I did sit in the pit a couple times to watch how [conductor] Larry [Yurman] did it and to get an up close and personal vantage point on exactly what his show is like in real time. And then after I did that a few times, I started to wonder why I wanted to do this — it didn't seem like it would be fun — it seemed like it would be really hard and nerve-wracking.

I brushed up on some strange time signature things, some songs are in four, some are in three — three-four time — but a number like "Jerry Likes My Corn" is actually in seven. That's an unusual meter and an unusual beat pattern to conduct something in seven, so I had to review.

Playbill.com: How did everything go during the show?
Frankel: It actually went really well, I'm happy to report. Preparation was kind of everything.

I felt pretty secure about the road map of it. I wrote it; I've seen the show a lot — I had a pretty good sense of what it would be like. Like an understudy going on, you have to balance wanting to make it your own [and the fact that] it has to be in the template of the person you're standing in for. You can't reinvent the wheel. I really tried not to do a lot of unexpected things. I love the way that Larry conducts the show. It wasn't like I was going to come in and do it the way I've always wanted. I tried a few things some things a little faster — maybe more of a ritard in certain areas, maybe a different dynamic in a few things, but within the framework.

I've never seen the show from so close, and that was kind of amazing, to see Christine [Ebersole] and Mary Louise [Wilson] and the rest of the cast, not even from the first couple rows but from four feet away. Christine blew me a kiss at the curtain call, and that made me feel like I had died and gone to gay heaven.

I did the whole thing from memory [without the score in front of me]. It sounds more impressive than it is. Most people do them from memory. I was really prepared to say that if anything goes wrong, I'll say it was always how I intended it all along. I didn't have to lie and go to that preposterous place — it went very smoothly. I was surprised how smoothly it went.

I think that both in terms of cast and orchestra, there's probably a pretty emphatic heft that comes from an author conducting his own score. You have the authority, the ultimate authority. I think that they were especially predisposed to follow me because of the fact that I wrote it. I think it gave me a lot of command that if I was stepping in to conduct The Drowsy Chaperone I wouldn't have had.

Playbill.com: Were there any mistakes?
Frankel: There was one tricky cue at the beginning of "Another Winter in a Summer Town" that I caught at the very last second, and the cellist was right there with me. Christine starts singing that song, and it's in what's called a safety, which means she can start whenever she wants, and sometimes when she's in an emotive place, you don't get a lot of heads up that she's starting, and you don't get a heads up that we're going to be moving on. I didn't want to ask the cast to do something more than they do. I didn't want to ask them, "Could you throw me a head shake when you're about to do this?"

Playbill.com: Did the audience seem to know that the composer was conducting?
Frankel: There are these things called sliders in the front of house in the lobby — it's a little board that says, "This performance of blank will be conducted by blank." In the beginning they ordered one for Larry the conductor and one for Paul, who is associate conductor, and they ordered one for me because I must have said [I would be willing to fill in]. There was this existing Scott Frankel slider, which they must have used. They didn't make an announcement. [Some shows announce], "Tonight's performance will be conducted by Joe Blow." We don't. There's a girl who always sits in the front row who's seen it 20 times and I climbed up and she said, "Hello Scott."

Playbill.com: Did you enjoy the experience?
Frankel: [When I started], it was a cross between adrenaline and deer in the headlights. I wasn't enjoying it in real time at that point. But as the first act wore on, and during the second act, I was actively enjoying it. To shape the music in the way I had always heard it in my ears was a treat, and to experience those performers from this incredible birds-eye vantage point, it's just incredible to be that close. Then I was relieved, and I went out and had a giant margarita.

Playbill.com: Did you notice anything new in performances from standing so close?
Frankel: It's almost like seeing it in super, super close-up. One of the things I love about our actors is that they're all very nuanced. They're not giving Shea Stadium-sized performances. To be close is to see that nuance all the more directly — when there's a subtle reaction or an off-handed look. These actresses, because they've been playing these characters for so long, they have the security to underplay things. I do remember looking at John McMartin when he dresses down Edith in the first act. He says, "Your mother and I reared you to be a lady, and what have you become instead? That most pitiable of creatures: an actress without a stage." I do have to say, it was terrifying. I really felt like my grandfather was yelling at me. That's also a line where [from] the audience you can almost hear a gasp. I gave a little gasp, too. I was like, "Uh!"

Playbill.com: Any other thoughts on the experience?
Frankel: I've always wanted be a composer, but everybody's got to make a living, and when I first moved to New York it seemed like [being a conductor was] a very good way to make a living. But I found in my twenties that I didn't have a good temperament to be a conductor. You really have to be up and energetic. On the two-show days sometimes, the cast is draggy and tired, and you really have to motivate and be a peppy cheerleader. And somehow in my twenties, I was kind of cranky and sullen. Now I think I could do a much better job. I think I'm a happier person now. I think I could do eight shows a week successfully. If the Grey Gardens royalties across the globe trickle down and I don't write anything for a while, I think I could go back and conduct a show eight times a week and be happy about it.

I haven't conducted a show in 14 years. It's a long time between engagements. It really was kind of like a grand experiment. There's a quote, "You really ought to do something every day that you're scared of," or that's different or that's a challenge, so with that adage to heart, I'm glad I did it.