How Jesse Kissel Became John Kander’s Go-To Music Director

Outside the Theatre   How Jesse Kissel Became John Kander’s Go-To Music Director What he has learned from the famed composer, and why collaborating on Kid Victory has been an eye-opening experience.
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Jesse Kissel Marc J. Franklin

Who: Jesse Kissel
Outside: The Vineyard Theatre

Jesse_Kissel_Kid_Victory_Vineyard_Theatre_Stopped_Outside_2017_HR
Jesse Kissel Marc J. Franklin

Jesse Kissel, the music director for the Vineyard Theatre production of John Kander and Greg Pierce’s new musical Kid Victory, chats about how he met the celebrated Cabaret composer, why he loves working with him, and some of the craziest things he’s witnessed from the pit.

How did you begin working on Kid Victory?
I played auditions for the show about two and a half years ago. I had worked on The Visit with John Kander [on and Off-Broadway], and it was good to be back in the room with him, but I didn’t think anything of it. David Loud [music director for The Visit] couldn’t do the world-premiere run in D.C., so he asked me; he said, “Kander trusts you, can you do it?” And I said, “Yes, of course!”

What kind of work had you done with Kander already?
The first thing I did with him was a concert of The Visit about six years ago, and then I worked on The Scottsboro Boys in L.A. There were some missing orchestrations, and we were having issues with the score, so I ended up developing a relationship with Kander—going over to his house and getting to know him. It’s surreal, but in the moment you just forget about it, and it’s a job. Then there are moments where you stop and think about the responsibility of this man’s work. It’s such an honor to work with him.

What does your job entail?
For this production, it started with our music supervisor David Loud teaching all the singers the music on the first day of rehearsal, and then editing the music as we went along—based on changes made by the director Liesl Tommy, by Kander, or by Greg Pierce. At the same time, we were editing all the material and taking videos to send to the orchestrator, Michael Starobin. After the cast learned all the songs, we had to teach the orchestra. Now, during the run, I’m also playing and conducting the show.

How many edits were you making during previews?
Depending on the type of edit—something like cutting four bars of music, for example, I can do directly on the stand with the players without having to hold another rehearsal. If it’s a huge edit, we have something called a continuity call, where we bring the band in for a half hour before a performance, and we walk through it. We did that once during Kid Victory previews for a song called “You Are the Marble,” which is a Viennese waltz. Kander kept saying that something wasn’t right about it, and he wanted to edit the musical arrangement to sound like there was a snake going through the orchestra. It was representative of Luke—the central character in the show—and his mind decompressing. So Kander, myself, and an assistant worked on it over a weekend downstairs in the Vineyard’s green room, figuring out an edit that we would send to Michael Starobin. That was five days before opening, and it was an entirely different arrangement of the song.

In those instances, do you get a sense of really helping shape the show?
Working with Kander is a very collaborative process. In that instance, I went home and had a stab at the changes based on what we’d talked about. He liked about 75 percent of it. That’s the part of my job I love the most.

What’s the hardest part of your job?
I think I get a little worked up when we sub players in the band. In the orchestra, the work doesn’t stop—once the show opens, all the players start subbing out, and it can be initially stressful. It always ends up sounding great, but the first week after opening usually has lots of subs. We’re an orchestra of 10, including myself, which is quite big for an Off-Broadway show.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen from the pit during a show?
There have been heart attacks, and the show has been stopped. The other night, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens were in the audience, and our violinist’s string broke—six songs in. Luckily she had extra strings, and within the space of two scenes—before she had to play again—she re-strung her instrument, left the pit to tune it, and returned, all in ten minutes.

Set in a small Kansas town, Kid Victory follows the return of a teenage boy who was missing for several months. Tickets are available at vineyardtheatre.org or by calling (212) 353-0303.

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