Play On: Shining a Spotlight on Music Directors
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
by Sean Kana
This past winter I was fortunate to once again be the music director for the TBA Awards celebration. I saw a plethora of local talent in the room that night—actors, choreographers, directors, fellow musical directors—and thought, “How cool would it be to highlight certain areas of this vast talent pool?” Then the idea struck me to start with the group I know best: “Let’s put the spotlight on music directors!”
The music director, or MD, oversees the musical aspects of a play with music in it. I have heard us MDs referred to as Jedi Masters, probably because we have super powers. Or maybe it’s because many of us embody music directing as a lifestyle as well as a career choice. The MD, who is part of the creative team alongside the director and choreographer, rehearses the music with the actors and the orchestra and usually conducts the orchestra during performances. We typically play a big role in casting the actors and selecting musicians. It is our job to convey what I refer to as the canvas of a play to the audience—to those who want to escape reality, or need a true affirmation of what is going on in the world.
As resident music director at Broadway By the Bay, I work with so many wonderful actors and musicians but I hardly get to see other music directors because our rehearsal schedules are so busy. So I was excited to connect with ten of the Bay Area’s finest MDs to share aspects of their careers as well as some fun stories.
We always tell actors to be master storytellers and to delve deep into the material, but we music directors do just the same. We learn and practice not only the notes on the page, but compassion, empathy, discipline, language, history, focus—all of those things that are essential for every part of your life.
Sean Kana with his 2015 TBA Award for Outstanding Music Direction. Photo by Leah Gardner.
Sean: What theatre companies have you recently worked with?
Katie Coleman: Most recently, I have worked with Los Altos Stage Company, Jewel Theatre Company, and Palo Alto Players. I was curious though so I counted and in my career as an MD in the Bay Area, I have worked with 9 companies, 7 youth companies, and 8 schools—plus plenty more as an orchestra member.
David Möschler: Shotgun Players, Mountain Play, Lamplighters Music Theatre, American Conservatory Theater, Ray of Light Theatre, College Light Opera Company, Youth Musical Theater Company Berkeley, West Edge Opera, among others.
Lane Sanders: I regularly musical direct for Children's Musical Theater San Jose, and have done some work in the past with The Harker School and Gavilan College.
Dolores Duran-Cefalu: Currently I’m MD’ing at Foothill Music Theatre for the current production of Sideshow, and MD for California’s Great America. I have MD’d at A.C.T., Center REP, San Jose Repertory Theatre, American Musical Theatre of San Jose, and Beach Blanket Babylon.
Ben Prince: I’m an artistic associate at Ray of Light Theatre, where I’ve done most of my shows. But I’ve also worked at San Francisco Playhouse, 42nd Street Moon, New Conservatory Theatre Centre, Woodminster [Summer Musicals], Berkeley Playhouse, and a few other places. My next show is at Center REP, and that’ll be my first time working there.
Amie Jan: Children’s Musical Theater San Jose has been my resident company since 2006.
Matt Bourne: Stage 1 Theatre, Ohlone College, Sunnyvale Community Players.
David Brown: Currently music directing at St. Ignatius [College Preparatory] and music directing A.C.T.’s 50th Anniversary Gala. About to start as music assistant with Monsoon Wedding at Berkeley [Repertory Theatre.] In the recent past I've worked with SF Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Custom Made Theatre, and Ray of Light.
Dave Dobrusky: 42nd Street Moon, San Francisco Playhouse, Theatre Rhinoceros
Eryn Allen: OMG! I Love That Show! Productions, Fantasy Forum Actors Ensemble, Stars 2000 Teen Theatre Company.
Sean: What is your all time favorite show to music direct? This can be a show you’ve done or hope to do.
Katie: I recently MD'd a production of Next to Normal with Jewel Theater Company. The emotional content of the show, the piano-heavy rock/contemporary musical theater score, and the fact that the show is mostly music with not a love of down time made it by far my favorite show to play to date.
Dolores: Hard to say! Probably my own show that I cowrote, a holiday production for AMT San Jose called Christmas Dreamland.
Ben: Every show is unique, and I don’t know that I have a favorite, but I want to put in a plug for Bat Boy, which is wall-to-wall brilliant and tons of fun.
Matt: I don't think much about what shows I'd like to do in the future, but I am a sucker for shows with big orchestrations. Two I would really like to do someday are Sweeney Todd and Show Boat.
Next to Normal at Jewel Theatre Company. Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo.
Sean: Do tell us some of the funniest or craziest moments you have experienced as an MD.
Amie: The craziest is probably attempting to put out a fire on stage during the Act 1 finale of Phantom Of The Opera by swatting at it with my keyboard player's spare shirt.
Dave D: Playing piano solo accompaniment, trying to be “memorized”, accidentally modulating to the wrong key, and forcing an entire ensemble of actors to sing a finale a fourth higher than rehearsed (which they did!). This has happened more than once.
Katie: The band comes up with hilarious ways to pass the time in the pit: chalk-art on the walls, glow stick dance breaks, and SO MANY group texts. Don't even get me started, lol.
Sean: What’s something most theatergoers may not know about you.
Ben: I am also an attorney, and yes, it is a long story. So yeah, feel free to contact me if you have some sort of legal issue. I probably cannot help you, but you never know.
David B: Since people seem to find this out about me sooner or later…I am a two-time Jeopardy champion!
Eryn: There was a time when I was playing a gig on stage with a big band and Dana Carvey was the headlining act. During his act, he came over to the piano and asked if he could play a song. I sat next to him on the bench while he sang/played "Choppin' Broccoli.”
Sean: How do you embody your role as a music director?
Matt: At the start, I try to figure out the intent of the authors. Any time I have a difficult decision, I try to frame it in terms of how to achieve whatever effect or emotion that was originally intended.
Dave D: My job is to make sure that the music not only sounds good, but also serves the play. I have to be a good collaborator with the rest of the creative team to achieve a uniform concept.
Eryn: Your brain is constantly being split in a number of different directions at once. I strive for the synchronicity of those different directions.
Sean: What projects do you have coming up?
Katie: Next up is Spamalot with PAP, [title of show] with LASC, then Lizzie with City Lights Theater Company. All projects I'm excited about!
David M: I'm getting ready to jump into rehearsals for Beauty and the Beast with Mountain Play, then The Most Happy Fella with YMTC Berkeley, followed by Grand Hotel and Once Upon A Mattress at College Light Opera Company, then The Black Rider with Shotgun Players.
Lane: I'm very excited to be the musical director for Million Dollar Quartet this fall with Palo Alto Players.
Ben: I’m currently doing Silence! The Musical with Ray of Light, which is a hilarious parody of Silence of the Lambs, and my next show is Altar Boyz at Center REP.
Silence! The Musical. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Sean: Why do you do what you do?
Katie: I love how musical theatre combines so many different art forms into the performance of one story. I love how, in a time where moments are captured on our phones and played on repeat, theater is absolutely in the moment. I love that theater helps me feel emotions I did not even know I could feel, and makes me think about life in new ways every day.
David M: I think music directing is the most fun and singular role for a production because you are there from choosing a show, to auditions, pre-production meetings, rehearsals, and then performing along with the cast and musicians through closing! With most regional productions, you spend the majority of your time in rehearsals, which is where I feel most comfortable, creative, and alive!
Matt: I love musical theatre's ability to connect with audiences, and to provoke a kind of emotional connection that is unlike any other art form.
Sean: How has the Bay Area shaped your career?
David M: The variety of theatrical experiences in the Bay Area have not only allowed me to be a freelance music director for a living but the wealth of creative people and diverse experiences (both artists and audiences) have allowed for me to grow as an artist and hone my craft, for which I am grateful every day.
Amie: The Bay Area is blessed with so many wonderful theater companies, from children's theater to community and professional theater—all powered by a wealth of talent in every aspect of theater. I am proud to be a part of this community.
Sean: Do you have any words of wisdom for upcoming MDs?
David M: Seek out and do work for projects and people that excite you. If you are always working on a project that is thrilling artistically or creatively and is with people you admire and respect, then your best work will always lie ahead of you!
Lane: Never stop learning; never stop growing—as a musician, as a conductor, and as a person.
Dolores: Wisdom: Know your show. Expand. Have an open mind. Be on the same level often with the cast and orchestra—they have so so much valuable information. It takes a village!
Sean Kana is the resident music director of Broadway By The Bay and a member of the vocal faculty at American Conservatory Theater.