ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Mystery of a Music Director and Saying Goodbye to Unbroken Circle
28 Oct 2013
What is a music director, you may ask? It's the person that's in charge of the music! They oversee all the music aspects like orchestration, vocal arrangements, dance arrangements and do the day-to-day conduction of the show. Often, they take on some of the other jobs. (Ted and Stephen have won Tony awards for orchestrating, and Marzullo is the vocal arranged for Disaster!.) We all found out that we all had similar childhoods playing piano for school shows and performing in them... sometimes at the same time. Marzullo was the pianist for his school production of The Pajama Game, but also played Heinzie and, because he danced, was one of the three dancers in "Steam Heat". Why was Heinzie in that number? Ask his Connecticut high school theatre teacher. I myself recalled doing Can-Can, my first musical at Oberlin, where I was the pianist in the orchestra but, at one point in Act Two, ripped off my black pants to reveal tights and quickly ran onstage to do the Apache dance. Stephen Oremus played Arvide in his High School production of Guys and Dolls but immediately, after each scene he was in, had to take off the enormous bass drum he carried and quickly walk down the stage staircase, in full view of the audience, to play piano for every song.
Speaking of doing things in full view of an audience and harkening back to musical theatre being the step-brother to classical music, I was conducting A Little Night Music at Oberlin and couldn't find a harpist willing to do the show. Finally, I got one but she told me she had a rehearsal scheduled during one of the performances. I told her it was fine without getting more details, because I was so happy to have anyone willing to play.
To set up this image, let me also tell you that Oberlin had no interest in musical theatre and would only allow us to do musicals in a room at the student union. That's right, there was no stage on the entire campus that we could use for one weekend... even though tuition in the '80's was $20,000. (Still annoyed? Yes, sir.) So, during these full musical productions, the audience would be on one side of the room and the performers and full orchestra on the other. There was no pit. And there was no entrance/exit for the performers, just the main doors to the room. So, in the middle of Act Two, the harpist for A Little Night Music indeed had another rehearsal and had to leave. AKA, she had to walk out the main doors in front of the entire audience... while wheeling her harp! No, not while carrying her tiny flute case. Once again, during a scene. While wheeling her harp.
We also talked about the arbitrariness of getting music director work on Broadway. Marzullo had met Stephen Flaherty a few times, and one night Marzullo decided to go out and ran into Stephen. They chitty-chatted and Flaherty asked him what he was up to. Marzullo told him he was working as a pianist on Broadway but was interested in new projects and Stephen told him that he and his writing partner Lynn Ahrens just lost their music director for the reading of a new musical they were doing. Marzullo wound up doing it, and the show went to Off-Broadway and then to Broadway! He told us how arbitrary it was because he almost didn't go out that night and if he hadn't, he never would have wound up music directing the fantastic Once On This Island. Watch the fabulous performance the show did on the Tony Awards featuring the brilliant Lillias White and LaChanze.