With a bumper crop of musicals onstage in August, musical directors give some notes on what they do
I'm sitting at the piano, leading a music rehearsal for Fiddler on the Roof. The Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Joseph Stein classic marks the 50th anniversary of its Broadway bow this year, and the Austin Jewish Repertory Theater (of which I am artistic director) and Trinity Street Players are mounting a joint production to celebrate.
You've probably done the math by now and concluded that Fiddler premiered in 1964, toward the end of what many scholars refer to as Broadway's "Golden Age." Most commentators place the beginning of that period with Oklahoma!, which also happens to be receiving a revival in Austin this summer, courtesy of Zilker Theatre Productions. But that's not all, folks: At least 11 – count 'em, 11 – musicals are running on area stages during August. That's an average of one opening every three days.
These shows are a varied lot, covering not only the musical's Golden Age but every era since, right up to today – two of the works are even brand new. But as different as they are, they all do feature music, which means every one of those productions needs someone to shape its sound. In my experience doing just that as a music director, I've found that people are often surprised to learn that musical theatre scores are not all sung in the "same way." Careful attention must be paid to matters of style when coaching performers within the context of a particular production. What serves someone well singing Fiddler won't necessarily be as effective for singing Footloose or The Who's Tommy, a consideration of which Oklahoma! co-musical director Molly Wissinger was particularly aware: "I was very conscious of striving to marry a Golden Age singing style – some would call this 'legit' or 'classical' – with the context of the [story] so that the vocal performances and arrangements felt as lively as the characters themselves without losing the beauty of the line," she says. "Our conductor and my co-musical director, James Welsch, also worked countless hours to mingle the elements of classical musical-theatre structure and orchestration with the grounded intention of the themes and, most importantly, to serve us in our [outdoor] setting."
Just a short drive from Zilker Park down Barton Springs Road at the Dougherty Arts Center, musical-loving audiences will be treated to very different kinds of sounds at Austin Theatre Project's Godspell. "Of course, the obvious difference between Godspell and a more traditional score (such as Oklahoma!) is the style of music that comes [after] a 30-year span of time," says David Blackburn, who leads the production's music. "As a musical director, I find that many actors are much more comfortable singing in the Rodgers and Hammerstein style than they are with the contemporary rock-pop sound you find in Godspell. My job is to help the actors find stylistic skills that allow them to bring a more contemporary sound to their voices ... [since] Godspell was part of the trend of the late Sixties and early Seventies that saw American musical theatre make the transition from old-school musical theatre to [a] new rock-pop sound that guaranteed a new and vibrant audience."
That rock-pop sound is heightened even more in Footloose – playing just across Butler Park from the Dougherty in the Long Center's Rollins Studio Theatre – since its songwriters, Dean Pitchford and Tom Snow, earned their stripes writing pop and rock hits, and they scored it for a rock combo. "Footloose is iconic, and it starts with the songs," asserts Michael McKelvey, vocal director of the Summer Stock Austin production. "The story and message of the show is one an audience can rally behind, but the songs are what make this show appealing for most audience members [age 30 and older], because it takes them to a memorable place in their lives. The pop-rock style of the show, although identified with the late Eighties or early Nineties, seems to have the catchy melodies and pumping rhythmic drive that is infectious for audiences of all ages."
Chicago – another Summer Stock production on the Rollins stage this month – also draws from popular music styles, but in their Seventies score composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb sought to evoke the hit songs of five decades earlier. Helping performers straddle a sound that is at the same time post-Golden Age musical and Roaring Twenties jazz is a unique challenge for a musical director, but one for which Lyn Koenning, with her eclectic musical background, is perfectly suited: "Because the music of Chicago is influenced more by the popular/jazz music genre than classical, I use that aspect of my skill set to work on the vocals and instrumentals for the show. I draw mostly on my experience playing and singing with pop bands and the jukebox and contemporary musicals I've directed. The musicians in the orchestra have to be very comfortable with the syncopated rhythms and idioms of ragtime and jazz music but also the nuances of underscoring dialogue and the exact timing that is an element of all genres of musical theatre."
Old and new are also mixed in the new musical Bright Now Beyond, premiering at Salvage Vanguard Theater, but in a distinctly different way. Musical director Peter Stopschinski describes the score by composer Bobby Halvorson as "some combination of [atonal composer Arnold] Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and a mixtape from the Nineties." Serving as musical director on the original production of a new work almost always means collaborating with the show's composer, an element of Stopschinski's experience that seems to have been especially fulfilling for him in this instance: "The composer has a master's degree in vocal performance, so the music is skillfully written for voice," he explains. Audiences are likely to appreciate its eclecticism, too, as "it ranges from powerful and fun grrrl rock songs with drum machine and electronics to beautiful arias with live chamber orchestra."
Ah, yes. "Tradition!" Serving as musical director on Fiddler reminds me that the title of its iconic opening number doesn't refer only to the customs of the shtetl in which the play is set, but also to the broad, polystylistic nature of the American musical theatre sound throughout its history. Perched between two distinct stylistic periods of musical theatre – the Golden Age sounds of Broadway with the later rock scores – Fiddler offers its own musical meld: of splashy Broadway production sounds with Eastern European folk scales and melodies reminiscent of the synagogue. And this palette is, perhaps, an especially fitting analogy for the spectrum of styles offered to Austin audiences in a broad musical theatre buffet this month: a feast of musical traditions old and new.