BWW Inteview: Maestro Luke Frazier Shares Details on Great Performances, New Arrangements for WICKED IN CONCERT!

The star-studded special airs this Sunday, August 29th at 9 p.m. EST on PBS.

By: Aug. 24, 2021
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BWW Inteview: Maestro Luke Frazier Shares Details on Great Performances, New Arrangements for WICKED IN CONCERT!

PBS will mark Broadway's return with WICKED IN CONCERT, a musical event celebrating the songs from one of the most iconic hits in Broadway history. This special performance will feature reimagined, never-before-heard musical arrangements created just for this broadcast, performed by celebrity artists from the worlds of film, pop music and television. Whether you've listened to the Grammy Award-winning cast recording for years or are new to the world of Oz, you will fall in love with these extraordinary Broadway classics written by the incomparable composer Stephen Schwartz.

The evening is co-hosted by WICKED's original stars, Emmy and Tony Award-winner Kristin Chenoweth and Tony Award-winner Idina Menzel, with performances by Tony Award nominee and star of Sex and the City, Mario Cantone; Tony and Olivier Award-winning actor Gavin Creel; Tony Award nominee and star of the soon-to-be-released film West Side Story, Ariana DeBose; two-time Academy Award nominee and Emmy, Tony and Grammy Award-winner Cynthia Erivo; Stephanie Hsu of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; EGOT winner Rita Moreno; multi Grammy Award-winning country artist Jennifer Nettles; Grammy Award nominee and star of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, Alex Newell; Grammy Award nominee and co-star of the upcoming film Dear Evan Hansen, Isaac Powell; Olivier Award-winner, Grammy Award nominee and star of Glee Amber Riley; star of TV's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Gabrielle Ruiz; and Tony Award-winner and star of The Glee Project Ali Stroker.

Musical numbers featured in this star-studded concert include much of the beloved score, such as "The Wizard and I," "Defying Gravity," "Popular, Wonderful," "No Good Deed," "For Good" and "As Long As You're Mine."

We spoke to Luke Frazier from the American Pops Orchestra, who served as arranger and musical director for the upcoming special. It airs this Sunday, August 29th at 9 p.m. EST on PBS.

Growing up in West Virginia and spending most of his career in New York City and Washington, D.C., Luke knows the breadth of audiences that can have their lives changed by music of all kinds. A classically trained pianist and conductor, Luke spends every day focusing not only on musical excellence but also about using music as a tool to connect people from all walks of life. Gone are the days of programming and conducting in a vacuum-the arts today are about the communities we serve and the patrons, both existing ones and those yet to be reached. This philosophy has led Luke to be a pioneer in how, where, and what orchestras perform. This commitment to innovation led Luke to start The American Pops Orchestra in 2015 to serve as an artistic model of this thinking. In Luke's shows, it's not uncommon to hear pop singers, classical musicians and television stars all in the same program. Each concert, whether it be with his own APO or another orchestra around the country, is curated as an opportunity to highlight music, particularly American Popular Music. This music that we've created together can be used as a rallying point in our collective lives. Luke crafts each concert with a dramatic arc featuring both innovative and classic arrangements to keep both audiences and artists engaged at every measure.

Luke is lucky to call many of the world's most acclaimed artists, friends and collaborators. These friendships include Renée Fleming, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Patti LaBelle, Kelli O'Hara, Juanes, Wynton Marsalis, Rita Moreno, Morgan James, Joshua Bell and so many more have led to concerts all over the country both in iconic venues and to millions of viewers on television. Passionately committed to the next generation of musicians, Luke spends a significant amount of time and resources with all levels of aspiring musicians. Each year APO hosts a free national collegiate vocal competition, hosts instrumental and vocal masterclasses for collegiate musicians, creates original children's programming of the highest caliber and spends two weeks visiting schools free of charge in some of the poorest regions of our country. Luke believes in the power of music to open new doors for children - In fact, it was an elementary school gymnasium performance which included live musicians that inspired his own career.

Read the full interview below!

How did the Wicked event come to be? How were you brought into the project?

PBS wanted to do Wicked for over ten years, and we've been doing a lot of projects with them. The American Pops did a big New Year's Eve celebration with Stokes and Audra and Renee Fleming and Patti LaBelle and all these things, and we've done a bunch of other shows. So, we have a good relationship with Stephen Schwartz, and we went to him and said, you know, what would you think about this? And he said yes.

And so, for me, once we got that sign off, the concept was that we'd completely re-imagine all the music from the show. New arrangements, new orchestrations, different people singing it than had ever sung it before. I came up with all the concepts for all the music, I designed the orchestrations and worked to get them all created. So that was kind of my role in how it all initially came about.

Can you tell me a little about these new arrangements that you've written?

One of the things that I think is really exciting about this - The American Pops Orchestra reimagining classic, American music. So what I love to be able to do is kind of turn off my brain for what I've heard and hear it with fresh ears. So, I kind of get to the essence of the piece.

For example, we'll take Dancing Through Life. When you listen to Dancing Through Life, it's very poppy. It's very electronic instrument. And when I heard it, in my ear, all of a sudden I heard 1940s dance band. And that was the effect I had orchestrated! It has this big band, fun, fat-sounding take on it. And then for Popular - my first degree was in piano, and my second degree was in conducting. As a result of that, I had to play Popular 530 times, it seems like, for singers. And so many of my friends did - people in church basements and community theaters, everybody has played that for somebody.

I thought, okay, I can do a big orchestration, or I can kind of pay homage, in a little way, to all the people who have played this piece. So for that, we used four pianos. It's just thinking through every song and thinking, okay, pieces that maybe - and by the way, we use no electronic instruments in the show, which is also another big deal.

How did you assemble the cast? Did you have people in mind while you were thinking through these new arrangements?

It was a bit of everything and in between. There are certain people - I cannot wait for everyone to hear Cynthia Erivo sing Couldn't Be Happier. I think when most people think of Cynthia, they would assume she'd do Defying Gravity, or one of the big, big, full-out numbers. And what I loved about that is the arrangement we made is very folk-string group with background chorus. Very warm and cuddly, almost.

And so to give Cynthia the chance - who's a friend of mine, and I know very well - but to give her a chance to show a different side of her voice I just loved. And so some people I had like that, and then others, I would have in mind once we cast them for one certain piece and then I'd be looking into the arrangements as I was creating them and I'd think, well, actually, it's gonna be better like this. And luckily everybody was game to just keep shaking it up.

And of course, some of the artists had their wish list pieces. So you try to do all those things in one - and it was a lot of fun.

Do you have a personal history with Wicked? Do you remember the first time you encountered it, and is your relationship to the show different now than it once was?

No, it's very different. I saw the stage production only once, believe it or not. Which there's a part of me that thinks that makes it better. I listened to the album many, many, many times. You know, I grew up in West Virginia, so almost no touring companies come through the entire state. So there wasn't really the option to go see it there, and to get to New York was almost impossible at the time.

My exposure to Wicked was through the album, which I think for so many people in the United States, that is their way to experience musicals. For me, I had a pretty wide-open concept of what I wanted, having seen the stage production, obviously, and knowing it well, and seeing about a million clips of it over the years. So, that was my relationship. It deepened dramatically.

And Stephen Schwartz is a genius. There's no other word for it. The way he comes up with things - there's just no one like him. But what was amazing is to be able to take that piece, and I, of course, got his approval for everything I dreamed up, everything that seemed so crazy. And he signed off on every single one. We didn't have to change a thing.

So, it made me feel good that we were kind of on the same wavelength there with how we were gonna shake it up.

As you've been going through this process of reworking these songs to be heard as if for the first time, what do you think is the most exciting thing about the special? What can audiences most look forward to?

Here's what I think, is the musical Wicked, really, is all about taking people for who they are, for looking past pre-conceived notions. That is the story of Wicked, and helping people become themselves. So what I hope folks take away is that they see a musical that they know and love, and they know all the arrangements by heart, and they know the sound by heart, but their minds will be opened, and their ears will be opened, and they'll walk away thinking to themselves, "Holy cow, I'd love to hear this musical, or that musical with a different way."

It's kind of tying the theme of acceptance and listening with fresh ears in everyday life is what I really hope the takeaway is.

This comes at the end of probably what has been the worst two years for theatre in history. It's very exciting for that reason, but I wanted to ask how your work changed for you during the pandemic. What are you most excited about as we enter this period where it seems more plausible to do live performance?

I'll tell you - I think we are the only or one of the only orchestras whose season expanded during COVID. So, at the very beginning, I made a commitment that I would not cut any salaries for my musicians. I would not pay any actors, directors, anyone, any less in fees. So, for me, we kept creating, and we figured out safe protocols. Whether it be an intimate me sitting at home leading an evening game show or a huge orchestra playing New Year's, we had over 200 performances with live audiences for some of them, all safely distanced or outdoors. And the thing about it is we've had not a single case of COVID, and not a single scare of COVID.

So, my story is, my message is, that it can be done. It could be done. And as a result of doing that, it forced us to just keep innovating, thinking outside the box. And what I love is - I'm a person who gets very bored with anything predictable. I never want to conduct too many things the same way. Every time I go to the podium I do a piece slightly differently. So, for me, this was actually, while stressful, for sure, it was thrilling time for my creative line to keep saying, "The bottom line is, performing arts cannot just stop." I'm not going to be an organization that sends out an email and says, "We're gonna be opening soon." My point was, we're gonna stay open. And we're going to keep creating, and we're going to keep hiring people.

And I think that's why we kept getting the opportunities, is that commitment to safety, and that commitment to making live art.

The one big takeaway from this and for Wicked, another thing I wish is that all arts organizations across the country remember that COVID gave us an incredible opportunity for true accessibility. It's very different to give away some free tickets to a space or to a concert hall or a theater to see a show, and that's accessibility. What accessibility means is free programming that reaches people across the country. So my sincere wish, and what APO is committed to, and what PBS is the perfect partner for, is that free outreach, and making sure that we inspire new people to appreciate the arts.

Those are my big takeaways - my big soapboxes to stand on.

Photo Credit: Elman Studio