[I’ve frequently republished articles about musical theater from Allegro, the member magazine of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. Local 802 is the union chapter that represents the people in the orchestra pits of Broadway and (some) Off-Broadway theaters (among other New York City musical venues) and their issues and interests are often central to musical theater in general, from the singers and dancers to theatergoers. Here are two articles about experiences in musical theater from the inside, one from a composer who chronicles his experience getting his original Off-Broadway musical onto the boards and the other about a program the union sponsors that gives children an inside look at how a professional musical play works in production.]
MEMBER TO MEMBER: FROM PAGE TO STAGE: THE MAKING OF A MUSICAL
by Dan Manjovi
[Dan Manjovi’s account of the work of seeing his musical play, I Am, I Will, I Do, produced appeared in Allegro, volume 117, number 10 (October, 2017).]
Creating and writing an original musical and bringing it to successful production is a time-consuming – and often arduous – labor of love. Local 802 member Dan Manjovi, a keyboardist, composer and arranger, debuted his original musical, “I Am, I Will, I Do,” last month at the 2017 New York Musical Festival. He wrote the following essay for Allegro about the process of navigating an original musical from the page to the stage. Manjovi has had a wide-ranging and interesting career as a musician, vocalist, actor, composer and teacher. His song “Somethin’s Comin’ My Way” appeared in the 2009 Oscar-winning film “Precious” (and its soundtrack recording). He’s also recorded several solo releases, and his credits in theatre include numerous regional and Off Broadway productions. Dan is a proud longtime member of Local 802, Actors’ Equity, and the Dramatists Guild, and is especially proud that the first New York production of “I Am, I Will, I Do” was all union. Manjovi was also thrilled to utilize Local 802’s Referral Service in recruiting the band personnel for the show.
How does a musical get born? Before I had ever thought about writing one, I had served in many productions as either a performer or musical director – or both, in a few cases. But my first foray as a musical theatre writer began in the early 2000s. I was approached by a small theatre company to write a musical revue and some scenes built around a few of my existing songs. I came up a loose plotline and three characters: a gay musician and his two best friends, who were boyfriend and girlfriend. We performed it once, but the company folded and the show went nowhere. But writing was fun and intriguing for me. I enjoyed creating characters, developing and writing scenes and songs, and combining elements of drama, comedy, lyrics and music.
Afterward, I spent the next few years on the road, musically directing or performing in various productions throughout the country, among them “Master Class” by Terrence McNally, and “Gunmetal Blues,” by Craig Bohmler. I also performed in staged readings of new works, including a 2006 workshop of a musical revue called “The End,” by George Furth (“Company,” “Merrily We Roll Along”), and Local 802 member Doug Katsaros. I credit those productions, and the directors and writers with whom I worked, with giving me the training ground, guidance, and valuable lessons in how a show is honed, staged and produced.
In 2010, back home performing, teaching, and recording in New York City, the initial creative impulse for what eventually became “I Am, I Will, I Do” came to me, ironically, through my work in the single engagement club date field.
Working, teaching, and doing occasional single engagement club dates, I found irony, poignancy, and humor in seeing so many LGBT people (myself included) who were part of the wedding business, but legally unable to get married. I also drew from my experience of how people of all ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and walks of life seek the same things: love and fulfillment. I created a plot line that tracked the lives and struggles of a diverse group of friends, all connected to each other in some way, all at that pivotal age of 29 to 35, and all not quite where they had expected to be in life in one way or another. The ongoing national conversation about same-sex marriage was also part of the plot. I envisioned a romantic musical comedy about the ups and downs of 21st century relationships, not from a political, polemical standpoint, but from a human one.
Writing continued over the next few years, with continued character, plot, and score development. Rewrites were also required as the legal battle over same-sex marriage worked its way through the court system.
The three initial characters now became Dave Abbott (the musician) and Nancie and Richard Peterson (now married and Dave’s business partners in a wedding planning business). Dave is perpetually disappointed in his search for true love, and frustrated with his stalled composing career. Nancie and Richard, married ten years, are facing unresolved strains in their marriage around money, career and family planning. Valerie and Tony, a bickering couple whose imminent wedding is being planned by the three, are taking their second trip down the aisle due to commitment issues. The best man, Harris Barnsworth, an African-American human rights attorney, and would-be singer is not living his own life. And Dr. Lara, a minister, and Oprah wanna-be, is a 40ish single woman, whose dreams of success have been dashed. When Dave and Harris are suddenly thrown together to rehearse Dave’s song “I Am, I Will, I Do” for Valerie and Tony’s wedding, the two men are forced to confront each other and their foibles. Simultaneously, the different yet related struggles of the other two couples and Dr. Lara emerge. For the NYMF production, a small feature role was added for Grace Hightower DeNiro, who plays an elegant night club singer at the Bijou, the local Karaoke bar.
By 2015, having completed a script and score draft, I set about finding a theatre to stage a reading, and eventually found a developmental home at Amas Musical Theatre. Amas has developed many shows to successful fruition over 49 years. With their help and expertise, we mounted two developmental readings of the show in 2015. Extensive book, music and lyrics exploration and revisions were made, with songs and scenes edited, revised, re-written or replaced. That development process is so necessary for a show to move forward.
In 2016, I pursued every opportunity to move the show forward. Then, unexpectedly, in January 2017, I was invited by the New York Musical Festival to stage “I Am, I Will, I Do” as part of their Beta Series. The Beta series focuses on shows that are further along in their development, and the production focuses on one or two elements. I quickly accepted, and decided to focus on the elements of staging/choreography, and implementing the full orchestrations, which I had written during the course of the show’s development.
“I Am, I Will, I Do” is scored for a four-piece band: keys, guitar, bass and drums. As an 802 member, I felt it was important that our musicians and creative team be union, because union talent is simply the most professional and the best. I recommended David White (bass) and Brian Radock (drums) for the project. They had worked together on another show, “The Illusionists,” at the Palace, during its Broadway run.
The guitar chair was still unfilled, however. I was very committed to equal opportunity and diverse hiring at every level of our team, and I conveyed that to the music director, who contacted 802’s Referral Service. The union recommended the wonderful Ron Jackson to us, and we were all set!
From May to July, the various elements that go into putting a show on its feet began to take shape. The arrangements were an important part of the show, and I took a lot of care in rehearsing them with the band. We ran down each arrangement, and the musicians contributed 100 percent in making the charts sound their best – they were terrific! In July, during our final week of rehearsal, when we finally brought the band and the cast together, everyone was really excited and energized.
David White told me, “It’s always a pleasure to work on shows in development and be able to have one-on-one interaction with the composer and creative team to be able to really help craft the show. ‘I Am, I Will, I Do’ was no exception. Local 802 has been making such outstanding headway in the NYMF festival and I look forward to see what the show has to offer going forward!”
Guitarist Ron Jackson said, “I was really happy to be recommended by the Local 802 Referral Service! I got to meet such great talent!”
“I Am, I Will, I Do” ran at the NYMF Festival for three performances this year. All were sold out, and enthusiastically received with standing ovations. In attendance were luminaries such as composer (and 802 member) Alan Menken, and actors Robert DeNiro and Judith Light, among others. Seeing and hearing the show performed onstage by a wonderful cast, and the score played by excellent musicians, with everyone giving their best, is thrilling. And big thanks to 802 for creating a positive work environment for its members, so that new shows can be developed and produced.
[Dan Manjovi is a longtime member of Local 802. If you are a Local 802 member with a story idea for our “Member to Member” column, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
* * * *
THOUSANDS OF KIDS LEARN ABOUT BROADWAY DURING THREE JAM-PACKED SESSIONS
by Bettina Covo
[This article about Local 802’s Creating the Magic by Bettina Covo was published in Allegro, volume 117, number 8, in September 2017. This program, which Local 802 supports for obvious reasons (the kids will be their audiences in years to come), is called Creating the Magic because that’s what happens when drama, music, singing, and dancing all come together in a theater.]
The end of the 2017 school year was a busy time for Nick Sala, creator and producer of Inside Broadway’s successful Creating the Magic programs. Per usual, three Creating the Magic events were scheduled for the school year. These educational and entertaining presentations are the highlight of the season for the public school students invited to this unique behind-the-scenes look at a Broadway show. But this year, due to scheduling difficulties, the last two presentations fell within one week of each other, making for a whirlwind tour-de-force season finale.
In spring, 1,600 excited public school students stepped behind the curtain of the classic John Kander and Fred Ebb musical “Chicago” at the Ambassador Theater. “Chicago” is unique on Broadway partly because the orchestra performs on stage for the entire show. The students, most of whom have never experienced a Broadway production, were able to experience the synergy of musicians and actors simultaneously interacting live on stage. That alone made this presentation exceptional.
The actor who currently plays the character Roxie, Mexican-born Bianca Marroquín, kicked off the event with her character’s namesake song. Marroquín proudly reminded the audience that she is the first person from Mexico who has been cast in a lead role on Broadway. The character Velma, played by South African-born Amra-Faye Wright, smiled wryly as she spoke to the students about the power of immigrants in the theatre. The two ladies made a formidable duo.
Local 802 members Scott Cady (piano), Ray Cetta (bass/tuba) and Tony Tedesco (drums) accompanied the actors, led by conductor /music director Leslie Stifelman. Stifelman spoke to the students about the colorful use of ragtime that helps maintain the decisively vaudeville flavor of the show. When asked about her role as conductor, Stifleman was emphatic: “I like being the boss and I like being the boss of the musicians.” To help demonstrate that point, she raised her hands, cued the students to start applauding and then gave them a clear cut off as the house went silent. Such is the power of the conductor.
The dance captain and others from the backstage crew came out to talk about the choreography, lighting, sound, and other stagecraft for this singularly minimalist production. The students observed firsthand how something that appears so simple requires a carefully coordinated team of extremely talented and skilled people on and off stage who endeavor to present a flawless performance each and every show.
Creating the Magic events take a great deal of planning and coordination, so producing two within a week of each other is no simple feat. Yet, without skipping a beat, Sala and team launched their final show without a hitch at the Majestic Theatre, for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic musical “Phantom of the Opera.”
In stark contrast to the minimalist approach of “Chicago,” the cast and crew of “Phantom” transported 2,500 students on a captivating tour of some of the production’s complex props and stage sets replete with candelabras that magically appear out of the floor, floating gondolas that sail across the stage and, of course, the famous chandelier that soars up to the ceiling.
Creating the Magic usually employs a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums for these educational events. Luckily for this group of students, the producers felt it was important to maintain the show’s sweeping operatic style. So, of the 27 musicians who play “Phantom” nightly, Local 802 members Joyce Hammann (violin), Karl Bennion (cello), Daivd Lai (piano) and conductor Richard Carsey were on hand to accompany the actors. Adding the strings was a pleasant change.
It is has become customary for the music director or conductor to address the audience on behalf of Local 802 and the musicians. But this time, all four musicians were invited up on stage for a brief discussion about the role of the orchestra and the conductor. Hammann introduced herself, holding up her instrument to ask if anyone in the audience knew what she held in her hand. A large number of students proudly and rather loudly proclaimed, “A violin!”
Inside Broadway understands that this kind of interaction with the musicians themselves reinforces the connection between musician and musical. Hopefully, it will be the start of a new paradigm for these events.
Inside Broadway’s Executive Director, Michael Presser served as MC for both shows, deftly guiding the audience on a grand tour behind the curtain to explore and discover the multiple aspects of producing a Broadway show. Together with the actors, musicians, stage managers and the various crew members, the students were happily swept up in the whirlwind that is live Broadway. Bravo to everyone at Inside Broadway!
[Bettina Covo is a member of the Local 802 Executive Board and the chair of the union’s Education Subcommittee.]