BWW Interviews: Mary-Mitchell Campbell on ASTEP - A BIG FISH in Broadway's Charity Works Pond
If anyone has earned the title of "hardest-working woman in show biz," it might just be Mary-Mitchell Campbell. She's a music director and conductor, who's worked with Cy Coleman and Stephen Sondheim, with credits that don't quit - NEXT TO NORMAL, COMPANY, SWEENEY TODD, ROAD SHOW, and THE ADDAMS FAMILY among them. She's been on the faculties of NYU and Juilliard, and the accompanist for Broadway songsters like Kristin Chenowith and Jonathan Groff.
But it's her charitable works that put her in the spotlight, as well. Whether serving as musical director for various Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS benefit performances or for Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang camps, she's been more active in serving the theatre community and the public than most, but in 2005 she took another step on the road of community service to found ASTEP, Artists Striving To End Poverty, bringing the arts and the power of imagination to underprivileged children internationally. Currently she serves as the organization's executive director - along with her full-time musical career.
We recently caught up with the ever-busy Mary-Mitchell, who's been lauded for her charitable efforts as well as for her contributions to theatre (she earned a Drama Desk award for COMPANY) to ask her about her work for good and how she manages to do that at the same time as she handles her musical work, just before she entered into rehearsals for BIG FISH, which previews in September.
BW: You're known as a musical director - NEXT TO NORMAL, COMPANY, and SWEENEY TODD among your work. What took you into stage music?
MMC: I was sixteen, and I saw a performance of BABY - and I just decided that using music to help acting was much more interesting than just classical music alone. I was at North Carolina School for the Arts' high school program at the time. It was a school performance, and I was so impressed. That was my turning point. It was great.
BW: You've had those three shows and a number of other key ones - Lincoln Center's SWEET CHARITY, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and playing for Carole King and Tony Bennett. What's been your favorite work, to date?
MMC: ROAD SHOW, actually, because I got to collaborate with Stephen Sondheim on newish work. We were rewriting together. He's incredible - you learn so much from him; he's so interesting, too. And BIG FISH is a highlight. There's this really amazing score, and there's so much imagination and heart.
Performing with people like Laura Benanti and Raul Esparza on concerts is also great. It's storytelling in its own form. And working with Cy Coleman [on GRACE: THE MUSICAL] was phenomenal. I was straight out of school and he took me under his wing. He was an amazing mentor and so incredible. And we were in Amsterdam - there's so much you learn about yourself and other people when you're working together in another country and learning how to deal with that.BW: Now, in theatre, you're working on Andrew Lippa's BIG FISH. What can you tell us about that?
MMC: It's a really, really beautiful story. I'm in love with the story and with John August, who created the original. And Susan Stroman, who's directing, is a genius. She is so visionary. It's great to create something new with her. Norbert, Kate, and Bobby [Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin, and Bobby Steggart] are incredibly talented and they're so lovely.
It's a wonderful story I think everyone can relate to about families trying to understand who they are. I think people will be incredibly moved by it.
BW: But let's talk about charity. It - and not just SWEET CHARITY - seems to be in your blood. You've been music director for Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall camps.
MMC: Cy Coleman got me into that, because he was involved and he'd been music-directing these events. But he was in his early 70's and getting interested in reducing some of his work. My first camp, I had to sight-read for Isaac Stern, and that was trial by fire.
I blame Paul Newman and JoAnne Woodward for ASTEP - the way they leveraged the arts and artists for their kids. I've taken a page from their book. In fact, ASTEP just got involved with their camps this year as a joint program.
BW: And are you still music director for the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS musicals?
MMC: I do a lot with Broadway Cares. They're a huge partner with ASTEP. I do BROADWAY BACKWARDS every year, the Easter Bonnets, things like that. I'm meting about some fundraisers this week. It's amazing, the movement that's been created out of Broadway Cares. They're kind of the parent of the artistic charity movement.
BW: And you do yet other charity work - there's your Sondheim concerts.
BW: What drives you to do good?
MMC: Cy and Paul certainly inspired me, but I've gained so much from my experiences. As an artist you can have all the technique in the world but it's nothing unless you have something to say. You have to try to figure out who you are. I traveled to do that; I threw myself into new experiences.
The biggest thing is the kids I work with. They're such sponges, and they appreciate that people show up for them. These kids' lives change, but I find my own life changing as much if not more, because of them.
We help kids imagine other options than the lives they have. We show that education is the key out. So many of our kids here go to college. We're having real success with that.
There's something about the visceral process of the arts. We have kids tell the stories of their lives so far. They act them, they sing them, they write them - it makes for such a difference to their lives to express what they've lived through in some way.
When I participate, as I did in India, I teach "Seasons of Love" from RENT, and afterwards these kids know that the song is from RENT, that it's about HIV, what HIV is, how it spreads, and they all want to go back home and share what they've learned. This makes a difference, and they're sharing that with others.
BW: ASTEP covers so much, doesn't it?
MMC: We mobilize artists to work with underprivileged children in different situations. We work in New York, Florida, Ecuador, and India. We have a two-week program now in South Africa, but some of our programs here are one-day events, depending on who's involved and what they're doing.
We're now working a 6-week summer academy for immigrant youth. It helps them adjust to being here, learning English, sharing their stories of getting here. The sharing helps them adjust. So many of them are coming from war zones.
Our primary focus as an organization will always be the children, but the secondary effect is to transform the lives of the participating artists. The artists come out of their programs so full of joy and gratitude when they see how they, as artists, can really change the world.
We're always looking for volunteers. Donations are always useful and important. People can come and work with children for just one day. We're all arts - theatre, music, dance, visual arts, poetry, writing. It's not just all actors. Everyone's welcome - everyone makes a difference to these children.
BW: Why is it so important for children to have arts training? What makes it so transformative? In an age of school budget crunches, arts are one of the first things to go - they're considered an expendable luxury.
MMC: People are aware of the correlation between arts and discipline, or between the arts and striving for excellence. We're not creating the best environment for our children when we deprive them of that. They don't see that the arts are a crucial part of child development.
Many studies do show that when students are involved with the arts their grades improve. So does school discipline, and there's a decrease in violence. It helps kids correlate working hard with achievement. It helps them channel things they're passionate about.
The current definition of success is limiting. What I do on Broadway is interesting - what I do with ASTEP is important. For me, success is doing projects I'm invested in, with people I care about working with. Any time a child decides she can become a doctor because of ASTEP, that's a success.
Did you see that incredible Times article about the convocation speech by George Saunders? It was about kindness. He gave it at Syracuse. It's about kindness - about what's important in life.
ASTEP, ARTISTS STRIVING TO END POVERTY, can be found at www.asteponline.org. Campbell's current show, BIG FISH, which begins previews in September and opens officially in October, has its official website at www.bigfishthemusical.com.