Booking It! Tony and Grammy Award-Winning Book of Mormon and Wicked Music Director and Orchestrator Stephen Oremus

By Adam Hetrick
March 4, 2014

Playbill.com's new feature series Booking It asks leading industry members to share professional insights, need-to-know tips and essential tricks of the trade for up-and-coming and established theatre artists. This week we speak with Stephen Oremus, the Tony and Grammy Award-winning orchestrator, conductor and music director of The Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots and Wicked.



Oremus made his Broadway debut in 2003, penning the original orchestrations and arrangements for the Tony-winning hit Avenue Q, for which he also served as musical supervisor. That same year Oremus was also part of the original creative team of the Stephen Schwartz blockbuster Wicked, serving as conductor, musical director and arranger.

He won his first Tony Award in 2011 for co-orchestrating the Tony-winning hit The Book of Mormon with Larry Hochman, and earned a Grammy Award for producing the Broadway cast album of that musical. Oremus followed up with a 2013 Tony Award for his orchestrations for the Cyndi Lauper musical Kinky Boots, for which he also serves as musical supervisor. His credits also include serving as conductor, musical director and additional orchestrator for the Dolly Parton musical 9 to 5; as well as vocal arranger for High Fidelity; and orchestrator, musical supervisor and arranger for All Shook Up.

For a performer, what is most important to a music director? Vocal technique, range?
Oremus: I would say that both vocal technique and range are very important. It all depends on the role being cast and what the requirements are for that role. Don't forget, this is a collaborative process and the music director is just one of several people behind the table. If someone sounds amazing singing something, it doesn't mean that they have the acting ability or presence to handle a specific role. It's important to look at how that person is communicating musically and how well all of the elements come together. It's never about just singing, it's about storytelling through music.

How much material should be in your book? Some professionals say pick the handful of songs you do best, while others say to have a wide variety of options.
Oremus: No matter how large your repertoire is, it's always important to have at least a few other songs with you in case the team wants to explore more musically. It's also helpful for some of the other songs to be in the style of the show you are auditioning for. Music directors like to know if a performer does well on other material and not just one song that they sing really well.

In your opinion, what is the best way to prepare your book?
Oremus: It's important to have a very clear audition cut of a song for the pianist to play, which is double-sided with pages that are easy to turn. Now that we have the technology to print songs in any key, it's important that you have the song in your key and not rely on an accompanist to transpose on sight. You are only putting yourself at a disadvantage if you come with loose pages that can fall off the piano, or a song that the pianist will have to transpose, or make up an accompaniment to. The time invested in preparing a book that anyone can play will only help you in the end.

Oremus served as Music Director and Orchestrator for The Book of Mormon.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Can you speak a bit about the importance of vocal styling and straight-toning? Broadway encompasses a wide range of styles. Should you be fluent in all of these styles, or work toward your strengths/niche?
Oremus: Every show is different, and modern musical theatre requires such varied styles of singing. That said, I know plenty of people that are fantastic legit singers who would never be cast in a pop/rock show and vice versa. It's always great to expand your repertoire and range of style, but it's also important to know what your strengths are as a singer. All of the shows I work on require a large range of styles, so one would have to be proficient in each style to be in those shows. I would recommend that singers work on perfecting the style that they are most comfortable with and familiarize themselves with other styles that the show needs.

How do you feel about vocal embellishment and riffing during audition songs? Where do you draw the line when trying to show your skills, yet not overdo it?
Oremus: It's always a hard call, but I would prefer the actor doesn't riff. How am I supposed to know if you just learned something wrong or are trying to show off? Sometimes it backfires and actually hurts a person's audition. The time to experiment with that kind of interpretation is after you get the job, and even then it has to be appropriate for the character, or musical moment, and be dramatically motivated. It's still possible to show that you can execute a certain style without adding extra notes to the song. Music directors are responsible for ensuring that the original vision of the composer is upheld, so it's best for the auditioning actor to sing it as written (or recorded).

Although a song is known to be overdone, would it still be okay to use if you sing it well?
Oremus: Absolutely. A large part of the audition process is feeling confident in your abilities. Don't forget, the people behind the table want you to do well.

Depending on the audition, is it best to ask the creative team what they want to hear? Do you run a risk by picking the song yourself?
Oremus: The casting breakdown is very specific about what the creative team would like to hear in the audition. It's important to follow those instructions and be ready with your book to possibly sing other [songs] in a similar style or different range.

Can you speak about etiquette when approaching the accompanist, establishing tempo and being clear on your cuts?
Oremus: The goal is to communicate with the pianist as concisely and directly as possible. You don't want to take too much time at the piano having to explain yourself. It's most important to explain the beginning tempo, the end of the song, as well as any visible cuts in the music. If your music is clearly marked, you're golden here. If it's not, odds are you will take lots of extra time at the piano and have the team waiting for you to begin, which is never a good thing.

For aspiring Broadway music directors and conductors, what is the best way to break into the industry?
Oremus: Everyone's path is different. It's really just about getting out there, doing good work and building strong relationships with collaborators. Some people choose to stay in town and try to break in to the Broadway pits as substitute players, while others go out and music direct shows regionally. Again, there is no right or wrong answer. Choose your path and get out there and make great music!

For aspiring Broadway music directors and conductors, is being an audition accompanist a good way to network and establish relationships with professionals in the industry, or can you become pigeon-holed?
Oremus: It is absolutely a good way to network and establish professional relationships. Serving as an accompanist for auditions, rehearsals or musical theatre classes will develop important skills that will serve you well as a music director. I did all of the above, and I learned as much as, if not more, than the students and people who were auditioning.

Many times music directing and conducting jobs open up on the road, which can put you out of touch with the New York theatre community. Can you speak about that challenge? Is it worth heading out of town?
Oremus: I spent almost ten years of my life doing shows out of town regionally before I got any opportunities in New York City. My advice? Hone your craft. If you want to be a music director and/or arranger, then take every opportunity to go wherever you feel you can do great work.

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(Adam Hetrick is the editor in chief of Playbill.com. His work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com, as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillAdamH).