BWW Interviews: Chatting with 'The Craze' Musicians of ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS
Music plays a key role in the hilarious Broadway production of ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS. Each night on the stage of the Music Box Theatre, 'The Craze', a four member band comprised of musical director Charlie Rosen, lead guitarist Austin Moorehead, percussionist Jacob Colin Cohen and lead singer Jason Rabinowitz, perform original songs by Tony-nominated composer and lyricist Grant Olding. The setting of the play, 1960's England, is a period of musical history marked by a fusion of rock n roll, jazz, folk, country and a little-known genre called skiffle.
Skiffle had its peak at the end of the 1950's. Its unique quality incorporated the familiar sounds of the acoustic guitar and drums with the rather unusual beats of the washboard and tea chest bass. With their anti-establishment, free-style attitude, skiffle players were considered by many to be the predecessors of modern-day punk rockers. With the onset of Rock 'n Roll in the 1960's, the style all but disappeared, yet its influence on future musical genres is undisputable.
BWW had a chance to chat with all four members of 'The Craze' and find out how they transform themselves each night from four immensely talented American musicians of the 21st century to four young lads from 1960's Brighton, England.
Charlie Rosen is a musician and composer who serves as the musical director of 'The Craze.' He made his Broadway debut at age 18 in the musical '13'. A year later he was part of the band of Broadway's 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.' His Off-Broadway credits include Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
It's interesting that all your Broadway experiences so far have been with shows where the band performs on stage rather than in an orchestra pit.
Yeah, I seemed to have found this niche for on-stage Broadway bands, isn't that funny?
It is. And I would imagine you prefer it that way.
Yes, you know it's definitely more exciting. I've had experiences, not on Broadway, more growing up, where I've played in pits and l love that as well. But being on stage and as you saw in the show, when we're not playing we're still in front of the stage, it's really cool because you still get to be a part of the action and the chemistry and the excitement of the audience. Everything that's going on, you get to experience with the actors. It's a little bit more connected to what's actually happening, so it's really exciting.
I was watching the four of you during the performance and you seemed to be laughing just as hard as the audience, as if it were the first time you had seen the show.
Yeah, and especially with this show because it really is different every single night. There are things that the actors will do in the moments where they have room to stretch out with their reactions that continue to surprise us, so we're laughing right along with the audience. You never know what they're going to do.
During your career, you've played in concert and festival venues and I'm wondering how that compares to the more intimate setting of a Broadway theater?
Well, any of those concerts or festivals are usually just a one time thing which is cool, and the audiences are always great. But there's something about having a show that repeats itself, where you can really get to know the experience of the show and how the audience reacts to that. You get to know the material on a more personal level. They are very different ballgames, that's for sure.
'13' was your Broadway debut.
The cast was so young and so talented. What was it like working in that atmosphere?
It was cool. You know I was only 18 when I moved out here. I was the oldest one in the cast actually. I was very young, and I had just moved out of my house. I hadn't even gone to college, I moved straight from high school, so at the time it was a little bit overwhelming for me to be thrust in this professional environment. But it was really great and everyone was super helpful. But it was very, 'I can't believe this is really happening. This is amazing.' The Jacobs (Bernard Jacobs Theater) is not the biggest Broadway house, but it felt huge at the time. It felt huge.
And Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson played there as well.
Yeah it did. It came in a year and a half later. That was a very different kind of show!
Were you familiar with skiffle music before you took on this gig?
I wasn't. I wasn't familiar with it at all. Although I was familiar with the genre that resulted from skiffle. But I've learned so much about it through the music and it's such a ubiquitous part of the music that we know, but it's a relatively unknown genre. The Beatles started out as a skiffle group, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds. They all started out playing skiffle music. In fact, I was just watching a Youtube video of Jimmy Page in 1959 as a little boy on a talk show playing skiffle. So not many Americans know about it, but it was pretty important as a predecessor to the British Invasion.
When the four of you are up on stage, it really is reminiscent of The Beatles in one of their earlier performances.
Exactly. Just before they were 'The Beatles' - maybe when they were 'The Quarrymen', their pre-Beatles band.
How did you go about creating the authenticity of that era? Did you study many videos?
Absolutely. We all watched many videos. There's a skiffle legend named Lonnie Donegan, who was kind of what you would call the 'punk' musician of the day, or was as much as you could be in the 60's. He looked clean-cut by our standards, but his attitude at the time was very much cheeky and anti-authority.
So we watched videos of him performing and how he behaved and what we learned is that although it is this very cheeky, young sort of rough music, we had to treat it as if we were Brits in the 50's playing it. We had to play as if we were playing on a variety hour where our suits were clean cut. So we had to be respectful, but we had to be respectfully disrespectful about how we presented the music. And it's been a cool challenge because we are American of course, it's kind of an acting thing really, to learn about the mannerisms of these particular Englishman during this time period.
Do you have acting experience?
No not really. I never did any acting or acting training, but you know working in on-stage bands and being a part of these shows and being around these actors that are so talented, I've really noticed the parallels between creating characters and finding your voice through that character. And its an interesting parallel to playing in a band because not everything is written down. You have the song, but the re-interpretations are totally up to the player. And so I discovered that there really is a parallel between any sort of performance art in the way you create on a personal level.
Have you had a chance to meet with your counterparts, 'The Craze' of the West End production?
No not yet, although we tweet each other all the time. And actually, we joke sometimes about doing a 'Craze' foreign exchange program. It'll probably never happen but we joke about it. Also what has ended up happening is, because we're different musicians, we've come up with other little ideas or licks and we send those licks to them with the composer's approval to put in their show and then they'll send us licks that they have planned out with the composer's approval to put in the show here. It's actually very cool that in the 21st century we're kind of collaborating and continuing to develop the music of the show across the ocean via Twitter.
Austin Moorhead is making his Broadway debut in One Man, Two Guvnors, in which he plays lead guitar. He recently played the 2nd national tours of Spring Awakening and Shrek the Musical. He is a two-time prize-winner in one of the world’s most prestigious guitar competions (GFA).
I'm wondering, being that you didn't have any acting experience prior to joining the production of One Man, Two Guvnors, did you think, 'what have I gotten myself into?'
Yeah, there's definitely a little acting work involved for the musicians. You know it's different and it keeps things interesting. Doing a lot of Broadway-type stuff you're usually in a pit a lot. So just being on stage for this show is kind of a new thing for a musical, or for a play with music, so it's fun.
This was your Broadway debut.
It was. It's been great. I couldn't ask for a better show or better music. Grant Olding, the composer is fantastic and he has been hands on with us from the beginning. And I always love being involved with the composer. And the music is great. I grew up on The Beatles and that whole middle set could be Beatles music, it's sounds so similar. So it's a blast to play and we're given such freedom. It's very different than most scores where you have to play exactly what's written every night, and that's the goal of most pits on Broadway. But this is much more of a freedom to play different solos and try different things, so it's really fun for a musician.
Who are some of your musical influences? Obviously The Beatles are one.
Yes, I mean The Beatles were huge for a guitarist like me. I really listen to everything. Prince is a huge influence of mine, I think he's fantastic. I'm really into country guitarists as well like James Burton and Chet Atkins, but I also love some Jazz guys like Pat Metheny. I really listen to a little bit of everything. My background is mainly classical but then I started playing in rock bands and blues and country and all sorts of stuff, so it's fun to get to play in a show where I'm on stage and I kind of get to employ different licks from all the genres I play.
Were you familiar with skiffle before you became involved with show?
I wasn't, no. I had heard the term before but I never really listened to skiffle, especially the UK Lonnie Donegan type of skiffle that this music is based on. But it's such a conglomerate of American blues and jazz and country and country western, so it's stuff we're all very familiar with, that we grew up with.
Was it difficult to create the look and sound of an authentic 1950's British band?
I think it just fell into place. We worked a lot with Grant who had been doing the show in England and he's so familiar with the style. He worked with us everyday, not just on the playing but the presentation, and being on stage and how he wanted us to look. And we were given a lot of freedom and then he would just sort of guide us and give us ideas, what looks correct and how it should look and sound. So I think it fell into place and we all just sort of meshed from the beginning and it just worked out well.
Yes, it looks like you've been playing together for years.
Yes, well that was the goal, so I guess it worked!
What would you say is the biggest thing you've learned so far from this experience?
I think the whole acting element has been probably the biggest learning experience for probably most of the band, but for me especially. Just being on stage and having to be engaged in the show, the whole show. I'm used to being in pits where I can play a song and then take a break and just sort of zone out for a little while. This is 2 1/2 hours of being engaged in the show. We're right in front of the audience so we have to be paying attention the whole time.
Do you compose your own music as well?
Yes. What I'm doing right now is focusing on pop song writing for singers, for performers who want to do albums. So I'm working on getting a catalog of pop tunes ready that I can work with singers with and hopefully, eventually one of them will make it big and launch my songwriting career. I really enJoy Songwriting but not performing my own stuff. I like writing for other people.
Can you see yourself writing a Broadway show of your own at some point?
I thought about it, yeah. It's not something I have the time to do or interest right now but I'm sure at some point I will. I really enjoy playing and writing all sorts of stuff. As I said, I started out strictly classical and then branched out from there. And it's fun playing in Broadway shows - it's a bit different for me, but it's a blast.
Jacob Colin Cohen is also making his Broadway debut in ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS in which he plays percussion, including the washboard and drums. He has performed and recorded as a drummer with artists such as Jimmy Buffet, Mac McNally and Nick Blaemire & The Hustle.
I know you were exposed to all different types of music from the time you were young.
Definitely, I started playing music when I was three. My dad's a drummer, amateur drummer, he raised me on his music so I grew up listening to everything from Frank Zappa to MiLes Davis, a band called Little Feet, a band called Tower of Power. I was into a lot of vintage music. I didn't really get into the mainstream music of my generation until like five years ago. I think it was really great because I was exposed to so many different styles so because of that I'm so versatile today. And these days you need to be a jack of all trades so I feel like it's really helped me be able to cover lots of different types of music no matter what kind of gig I get.
Do you have a favorite style?
You know, I just love good songwriting. I just like good music. If I had to pick something it would probably be soul music, like the 60's, 70's soul like Stax, Motown, or the newer soul music like D'Angelo or Erykah Badu, that kind of stuff. But I love all kinds of music.
And I read that you've performed with Jimmy Buffet.
I did. It was kind of a crazy situation. Jimmy was backing an artist that he brought over to the U.S. from Cape Verde and he was doing some concerts to promote the artist, so he played a couple of shows with us. They showcased this artist in three concerts, two in the Hamptons and one at Joe's Pub. It was great. He's a great dude and it was a great experience. It happened in the summer of my Junior year of college, so going back to school that senior year was really tough because it was like, 'alright, I know what it's like to be a professional now. Do I really want to go back to school?'
A little anti-climactic, I guess.
You had some prior acting experience. Has that been an advantage as far as being more comfortable on stage during the show?
I did it as a kid. I didn't pursue it in high school or in college, but I've always loved performing. I've always loved being in front of a camera, on stage. And it's nice to be upfront for once. I'm always in the back on the drums. It's been pretty comfortable for me. And I've gotten more and more comfortable as the shows went on but it's been a great learning experience. Even though I don't have any lines, it's definitely a process of trial and error, figuring out what works, what people enjoy, what makes people feel a little uncomfortable. It's been great.
And it seems like you can never be quite sure what the actors are going to pull on stage each night.
(Laughing) Yeah, lately they have been doing a lot of improv, so every show has been different for the past few weeks.
Were you familiar with skiffle?
I had no idea about skiffle music. I showed up to the audition and they were like 'do you know how to play the washboard?' and I said 'I never played one but I can try.' And Grant, who wrote the music, seemed to appreciate that I was open to trying anything. But I mean I have to tell you, after my first audition, I had never played washboard before and I walked out of there thinking, 'Well I bombed it. I sounded like garbage. There's no way they're going to call me.'
So they actually handed you a washboard at the first audition?
They handed me a washboard with no strap so I had to hold it in between my legs! It fell a few times during the song. I looked like an idiot! I totally thought that I bombed it and that they were going to hire somebody else. Actually, a good friend of mine auditioned and he had a washboard, he knew how to play. I just assumed he was going to get it. He didn't get a callback and so I was shocked when I got it because I was like, 'Wow, here's a guy who I respect so much and he has so much experience.' I guess it didn't really matter whether I played washboard or not.
Is it similar at all to the drums or any other percussion instrument?
I mean the only thing would be the sense of rhythm, but in terms of playing it, I mean sure, it's percussive. I've played other forms of percussion my whole life, but it's definitely a different animal. Just working with the washboard and really learning what it can do and it's really awkward, just the angle you're at. It just takes some getting used to but now I actually have a lot of fun with it.
I assume you're not reading from music, there are no notes involved.
Well, there were when we started. Grant Olding came and worked with us for two weeks and he had an entire book of charts for all the songs and we worked off those for the first week and then he said 'alright, put the books away!'
And then you were on your own.
Yeah, but it's skiffle and Rock 'n Roll, it's not a typical Broadway show where the orchestra has lots of hits. It's pretty straight forward so you don't really need to read.
From an audience point of view, it looked like you've been playing it your whole life.
That's great. Thank you.
This is your Broadway debut?
This is my Broadway debut. Up to this point I was, well, it's really funny. I graduated from Berklee College of Music then moved here in June 2010. I was playing around between clubs in the city as a side man, doing sessions and things like that, but in terms of supporting myself, I was actually a real estate agent. I was working for this huge real estate team in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and I was there until two days before rehearsals started. And as soon as I got the gig for this show I was like, 'alright, I quit!" That was a big thing for me. I wouldn't have been able to survive in New York without that job because music wasn't supporting me. It's been very crazy in the last six months. I mean just 6 months ago I was doing Open Houses in a suit trying to sell a half million dollar condo.
Wow - what a turn around.
It's been a wild run. It was great because, I don't want to look down on anybody, but I saw so many friends from school move here after graduation and I saw how hard it was and I said, "you know I want to find a way not to do that. I want to be comfortable and also pursue music, so I got the real estate job. And it was great. The schedule was so flexible so I never had to miss any shows. I could leave whenever I wanted to - there's no hours, so it really worked. But at the end of the day I just wanted to play music.
Jason Rabinowitz is a composer, actor and multi-instrumentalist making his Broadway debut in One Man Two Guvnors as lead singer of The Craze. He is co-founder of The Pop Ups, a puppet musical troupe whose critically acclaimed show PASTA! is touring nationally. He is also founder of the indie rock band, The Bloodsugars.
You took over the role that Grant Olding originated in the UK production of One Man, Two Guvnors. That must have been a bit of pressure for you.
You can say that again! But having Grant train me was the best. I mean Grant is the best and he is very gracious and patient and allows me to sort of take it on my own where it was appropriate and stay true to his vision where it needed to be.
I understand he still remains very involved.
Defintiely. He told me, 'you're my eyes and ears. If Paul McCartney comes to the show, you have to let me know!' so we email each other about different happenings, different anomalies in the show.
Has Paul McCartney come?
Oh, not yet, not yet! We're waiting. They'll be air raid sirens that go off when that happens! It's been thrilling getting to meet these people that you've watched your whole life, even if it's just for a moment, it's still pretty thrilling.
Were you familiar with skiffle prior to joining the cast?
Yes, I was definitely familiar with it. I'm a huge Beatles fan so I was familiar with what it was. Obviously being in this show, got me way more into the heart of it.
Have you had any prior acting experience?
I went to Laguardia High School for acting. But subsequently felt like music was more my speed and pursued that in college. I've done acting but not as a career pursuit, it's more that I keep falling back into it! (laughing)
Has it been difficult to achieve the authenticity of a 1950's skiffle band?
Well, we're all American musicians and in rehearsals, we really had to learn how. There's a reservation inherent in this role that we as American musicians really have to practice doing. We had to practice keeping it low key and honestly, there's some times when we just have too much fun with it. But that's just how it goes. We basically just had to practice. And Grant really helped mold it. He would tell us, 'this is a little too big.'
Yet at the same time it sounds like he also gave you the freedom to have fun with it.
Oh, of course. Absolutely.
What is the biggest thing you've learned so far?
Vocal health? (laughing) No, I've learned that Broadway has a lot of phenomenal customs and it basically runs on kindness. We've been so fortunate to have such kind, awesome people who work on this show. It's really, really great. Everybody, absolutely everybody. It's been a very wonderful first experience to have on Broadway. Oh, and I also learned the accordion!
Oh you didn't know how to play that before?
No. Grant was like, 'Ah, you'll pick it up. No problem.' And it took a month.
That's impressive. I was speaking with Jacob and he was telling me how he had to learn to play the washboard.
Yeah, he's really good. He's done an excellent job. The band is phenomenal. These guys are just so talented.
It sounds like you have some other interesting projects going on. Can you tell me about The Pop Ups puppet troupe?
Well I used to work for an infant/toddler music program and I had another friend who did as well. We wanted to work together. We got together and we wrote a record and someone asked us to make it into a musical so we did. It was really fun and successful so we kept on the project. It's really influenced by the Henson Workshop and the Muppets. It's for kids, but we threw in enough adult humor that we hope to get everybody. It's been a lot of fun. We've gone on tour with Yo Gabba Gabba, this kid's TV show that has a live program, and we performed at the Kennedy Center. It's been a great project. Really enjoy it. We just made our second record and second show, which I actually didn't get to perform in because I got cast in this show. So oddly enough, as Grant was training me to be him, I was training another fellow to be me. It was a very strange time!
You also founded an Indie rock band.
The Bloodsugars. I have diabetes, so that's the name of the band. We've been around for quite a while. I work with a wonderful collaborator, Matt Katz, who is an amazing musician in his own right and puts out records of his own. We write together and produce together.
Do you hope to continue on the Broadway route?
Absolutely! I would love to keep working on Broadway. I was just saying it's the best job I've ever had in my life. It's awesome. It's super awesome! I have this very unique set of skills that really works here. I'm really hoping to stay on Broadway!
ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS is currently playing on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre (239 West 45th Street). For tickets and further information, please visit: http://www.onemantwoguvnorsbroadway.com/