Interview with Pianist & Co-Arranger: Mark York
Mark York: When I first visited NYC in 1987, the first Broadway show I saw was La Cage Aux Folles composed by Jerry Herman at the Palace Theatre. The second night I saw Me and My Girl starring Jim Dale at the Marquee Theatre. I now am Jerry Herman's music coordinator and Jim Dale's personal pianist. Jim and I formally met through Cy Coleman. Then in 2006, I got a call from the York Theatre stating that Jack Lee, the Broadway conductor, had given them my name. They were in need of a pianist who could improvise and read lead sheets for Jim Dale and Jessica Grové in an upcoming benefit concert of Busker Alley. The Musical Director, Aaron Gandy, was out of town and could not be there. It would be at Tony Walton's home and Dick Sherman (the composer of the show) would be there. I said, "Sure!"
When I got there, Jim treated me like a long lost member of the Cy Coleman Family. I started playing the first tune and Jim picked up his seat and said, "I'm sitting next to Mark for the rest of the rehearsal." And we have been best friends ever since. We are both Leos. So I get him in spades.
After the sing through of the songs, they insisted that I remain on the project, but they already had a musical director. Tony Walton set up a meeting between Aaron and me. The moment the two of us met, we have been like brothers. Again, Aaron is a Leo. We both adore Jim Dale. We protect him at any cost. We know what he needs and wants. And we do whatever we can to make that happen.
One day, Aaron called me determined to do a concert starring Jim at Carnegie Hall with a full orchestra. The two of us batted that around a little and then he sent me to Jim to see if he would be up for it. Jim loved the idea and the three of us set up a meeting. One thing lead to another and before we knew it, we were working on Just Jim Dale-telling stories of Jim's life and career from the British Music Hall to television, from the Young Vic to the "Carry On" films, Broadway and the "Harry Potter" audio books.
TS: What exactly do you do as co-arranger and pianist for Just Jim Dale?
MY: Aaron Gandy and I shape songs for Jim so they are tailored to his voice. And Jim always has an idea of how he wants his songs to sound. Also, we have treated this show like a musical, not a cabaret show. Therefore, the music cues are structured like they are for a musical. All of his songs go from dialogue into lyrics, just like in a traditional musical.
TS: How did you work with the director, Richard Maltby, Jr.?
MY: Richard looks at every word to make sure it shapes and shades what Jim is saying. As the director, he is also the editor. He brings his expertise to the table to help guide Jim's show in the best way possible. In fact, that is what all three of us (Aaron, Richard, and I) are doing. We bring our talents to the table shaping and guiding Jim's stories about his life. Mutual respect goes a long way in this kind of process. And all four of us have that.
TS: What are the challenges of co-arranging and playing the songs in this show?
MY: I have to be ready for things to change in a split second. This show is 90 minutes of Jim Dale, wall to wall. No break. No chance to be "off" and regroup. Although Jim sticks close to the storytelling as written, he can alter things a little here and there. Personally, I love that. It's real music hall or vaudeville. Jim thinks on his feet. He's a master at it.
TS: Is there a part of the show that you especially love playing?
MY: I love everything we are performing. You see, Jim is present in every song. There are no "floating" moments. That makes everything from a little ditty or a full song sheer fun to perform. Every moment of every song is connected and alive. It is electrifying.
TS: Were you part of the Long Wharf production in 2012? What changes are being made between that production and this?
MY: Yes, I was part of the Long Wharf production. Things have changed. Most of the major sections are still there, but refining, top to bottom, has taken place. Just like in any original musical.
TS: Do you ever get to improvise in the show or is it scripted very tightly?
MY: Jim and I know where we are going at all times. But things do happen and we just run with it. Jim is the ultimate comedian. To him, the stage is his playground. He is really at home when he is on stage. Nothing scares him there.
TS: Where were you born and educated? How did you become an arranger and pianist?
MY: I was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma. I took two and a half years of piano lessons. I started playing in my dad's Baptist church. Played three times a week in church from age 10 until I was 28 years old. My dad's church gave me every opportunity to learn and hone my pianist/arranging/composing talents. I wrote and arranged for every holiday possible. The church loved it and so did I. I really started arranging when I was 12. My dad and mom never told me that I couldn't do it, so I just did it. When I would ask my dad if I could do this or that, he would say "You bet. Just do it." His attitude allowed me to become the artist I am today. As a side note, my dad was a great joke teller and always had his congregations roaring with laughter, every sermon. So playing for Jim Dale or playing for my dad's church services-they really are the same to me-wonderful and life affirming. They make me glad to be alive.