“The music director is to a composer-lyricist what a director is to a playwright,” says Andrea Grody, who has served as music director alongside David Yazbek on the Tony-winning Best Musical The Band’s Visit and now Broadway’s Tootsie. The music director on any new musical is an integral part of the creative team, making decisions that impact the final production and what is ultimately the show’s score.
“Every piece of the production is a question of how you tell the story,” explains Grody, whose Tootsie credits also include vocal arranger, incidental arranger, music supervisor, conductor, and the orchestra’s keyboard 2.
As music director, Grody’s job is to execute the musical piece of that story in accordance with her composer-lyricist’s vision.
You might think of a music director in terms of your community or school production: the person who teaches each section of the choir and each section of the orchestra the notes, the dynamics, the diction or articulation. But when building a new musical, the material continually morph as the production gets on its feet. Grody’s job as music director is not just a matter of execution, it’s creation.
In the case of Grody’s partnership with Yazbek, the composer-lyricist records a demo in which he sings the melody and plays piano, backed by a rhythm section. “He makes the groove. He makes the whole structure of the sound. Then he hands that to me,” says Grody. Grody often transcribes the music outright. As the vocal arranger—a common duty among music directors—she composes the harmonies for Yazbek’s songs and determines who sings what. She may also contribute to orchestrations.
Once rehearsals begin, Grody adopts a teaching role. She teaches the cast their songs, vocal harmonies, dynamics, in solos and group numbers—but she also makes the stylistic choices. The score does not yet say “pianissmo,” not until Grody says so. And Yazbek trusts her to make choices and changes in service of his musical intentions.
In other words, music directors play a huge role in how the final score sounds. “If I have a sense of something I think is the right change, I will just do it,” Grody says. “If I feel like I’m starting to creep into writing territory where the fundamental idea of the story is changed, I will call him.
“The riffs, for example, in Tootsie when Dorothy Michaels is singing, Santino [Fontana] and I worked on that,” says Grody. “It’s shaping around the core that Yazbek made.” But, say, the objective of a song, that goes to the top.
To return to her analogy, just as a director decides how a playwright’s words are delivered, a music director establishes the same for the music. A music director has to answers questions like: “Should the song be in this key? Is this groove the right groove for this song? Should this character be singing it? Is this the right structure? Should this verse go here or there? What if we switched those two lines of lyrics? Those two lines of music? We need to have some dialogue here, can we do that and keep the musical form?”
Once staging and choreography come into play and then during tech rehearsals, Grody may add music on the fly. If the set designer and director need a scene change to be longer, someone has to make those arrangements; that someone is Grody. If there needs to be a dance break, Grody works with the dance arranger and choreographer to write that music. She says, “We have to modify whatever the composer first did to work with whatever is actually happening in real time.
“If the [ensemble] isn’t onstage anymore, what’s happening then? There’s time when no one is singing but the song has to keep going. What’s happening? Which instrument is playing?”
Grody recalls the moment she and the Tootsie team needed to add a dance break: “[Dance arranger] David Chase is scribbling on a piece of paper. I’m at home scribbling, making arrangements vocally, [choreographer] Denis Jones comes up with an idea and that informs the music. Then music has an idea that informs the dance,” she explains. “That’s how the story is told.”
It’s a wild collaboration, difficult to distinguish who contributed what notes or what lines. The key is to speak the language set by the composer-lyricist.
Once previews begin, Grody conducts the show each performance and also notes the show, serving as Yazbek’s eyes and ears to maintain the final product the team decided upon.
Do You Have What It Takes?
“The only thing I think is a requirement for music directors today is being able to play piano,” says Grody, in terms of concrete skills. Effective communicators make effective music directors as MDs are the conduit between the company and the composer-lyricist. “Everyone speaks music differently, so you have to translate everyone’s sense of what’s happening musically in a way that aligns as one vision,” says Grody.
A background in teaching is a useful skill, as well, and Grody recommends learning as many additional instruments as possible to assist in musical fluency—if not outright orchestrating. Oh, and be able to conduct.
A Day In The Life
Tootsie at the Marquis Theatre for an 8 PM show
7:15 PM Arrive at the Marquis to check in with stage managers and say hello to members of the cast
7:30 PM Spend time with the band, building community and checking in
7:45 PM Change into black clothes to conduct the show
7:55 PM Head into the pit and warm up
8:00 PM Tune the band
8:05 PM Receive a call from the stage manager asking if she’s ready to start the show
8:07 PM Curtain up!
10:35 PM Give notes to musicians and pack up
Of course, Grody’s day varies depending on the stage of the production. Before workshops of a new musical, Grody participates in meetings with the creative team and auditions to cast the show. She’ll spend solo time writing vocal arrangements and editing scores and transcripts of scores. During the workshop phase, she attends pre-production and post-production meetings with the team (before 10 AM and after 6 PM). During the workshop days, Grody teaches the songs and takes notes on any changes the composer-lyricist wants to make; this is also the phase where the most experimenting is done. During rehearsals, Grody is the first person to teach any piece of music to a cast member or instrumentalist. During tech period, she prefers to rehearse with the orchestra in the morning before tech rehearsal begins so that she can attend tech and make any on-the-fly changes and add any necessary incidental music. Soon enough, it’s first preview!
People say to Grody, “‘If there had been an award for music directing you would have won.’ Or, ‘Why aren’t you getting recognized?’” For now, Grody just wants more people to understand the role and impact of music directors—without minimizing the obvious creative load of the songwriters.
“We have to create [awards] categories because that’s how we process the world,” says Grody, though she notes the Olivier Awards recognize Best Music and include multiple members of the music team. “The question is always: how is this category changing?”