Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Interview: Benjamin Rauhala of CARRY ON at 54 Below Premieres

Put on your tiara because Bibbidy Bobbidy Benjamin talks with Broadway World Cabaret!

BWW Interview: Benjamin Rauhala of CARRY ON at 54 Below Premieres

In a world where wishes are not granted every day, the universe put a maker of magic on the earth, to ensure that singers and the fans who love them can live each day with the promise of dreams coming true. Thanks to one convivial fellow, legions of Broadway and concert performers can step on a stage and feel safe to take a leap with their voices and their vulnerability. Because of one jovial gentleman devotees of Disney, patrons of Princesses, and believers in Broadway can schedule nights out with the knowledge that their money will be well spent, and that they will return home sated and elated. He has many nicknames and job titles, but all the artists who cling to his wisdom, rely on his support, and long for his company just call him Ben.

A long admirer of the Benjamin Rauhala brand, it was my most ardent wish to do a story on the musical director who first had the idea that made The Broadway Princess Party a reality, but it isn't often easy to reach out to a relative stranger for an interview - there needs to be a reason. Fortunately, the universe provided one, and I waited exactly two minutes, after reading that Feinstein's/54 Below had made a film of Jeremy Jordan's 2020 solo show CARRY ON, before I emailed Benjamin and asked for an interview about him, about Carry On, and about The Broadway Princess Party. And guess what?

The Fairy Godfairy granted my wish.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

Hello, Benjamin Rauhala! Welcome to Broadway World! Before we start, I want to ask you a question... I have only ever heard other people say your last name and I have learned not to trust people for names, so I want you to say your last name.

Of course, of course! Rauhala - Rau rhymes with Pow, and then Huh and Luh; and the emphasis is on the first syllable because it's Finnish - my father's Finnish.

I've heard everything you can possibly imagine.

It's sort of funny - when people say my last name, I don't really hear it, I just acknowledge it and people ask me, "Did I say that right?" and I have to say "I wasn't listening, I'm so sorry."

Well, you're better than me - I don't listen to anybody. About anything.

(Both laughing)

So, let's talk, Benjamin - not only are you one of the industry's most beloved musical directors and artistic collaborators to the stars, you are also one of the most often employed. How did you get through the last year without getting to create and being with your various families?

Oh my goodness. I was very lucky that my parents in Massachusetts were willing to welcome me home with open arms to where I grew up, which was a wonderful, supportive place to be while I was dealing with all of this change and upset, watching dates just drop off my calendar. Things just get moved six months, then another six months. There's been a lot of wonderful virtual concerts, a lot of different moments where I've been broadcasting from my friends' living room, a lot of COVID tests (laughing) and the thing I learned is that so much of what I love is the collaborating with the artists, and just making the music together in a room. Of course, we missed the audience, but just having that human connection... by July, when I got to do it for the first time, I was so grateful for it. I had no idea how much I took that for granted. My love language with people is just being at a piano, sharing music, and creating together. Suddenly that I was totally cut off from that. So I was trying to plan a lot of opportunities to see what friends I could safely make music with. I really got into fitness; I was never that kind of person but it was one of those things where suddenly I had a lot of time and I could bike, I could walk and I eventually joined a gym and got a trainer. That has been a fun, weird little quarantine journey that has definitely helped ease my mind and my stress from being so removed from my normal lifestyle and the things I love doing the most. That has really kept me afloat and sane. I also have a weekly zoom meeting - it's monthly now but it was weekly throughout the hard parts of the quarantine - with so many of the singers I worked with. We would get together on Sundays and just catch up. I don't think we all talked that often and that consistently before quarantine! I actually feel closer to a lot of the artists than I did before all this happened, which I'm very grateful for that.

It's a happy pandemic byproduct.

Totally.

In the Broadway Princess Party film, you talked a little bit about your childhood self and your love of Disney. It made me wonder what little Benjamin was like: what did the journey from baby Benjamin to Broadway Benjamin look like?

Oh my goodness. Baby Benjamin used to be very, very introverted, which is funny to think about now because I'm pretty gregarious and outspoken. I grew up... I used to draw a lot and I drew princesses, particularly mermaids. I went to see Beauty and the Beast when I was seven and begged to have piano lessons after, and my parents allowed. My father is a professional trumpet player on the side - my parents are both lawyers. So, my mom being from New York and my dad being a professional musician and they were very apt on me being involved in the arts and being a musician. So I grew up playing the piano, I was that kid who played with dolls and had a Little Mermaid lunchbox and grew up into the kid who loves the Spice Girls and Britney Spears. I was that teenager growing up. Then, sort of through music, I became more outspoken. I did drum and bugle corps, which is like competitive marching band for 14 to 21-year-olds - that really pulled me out of my shell. By the time I was going to college, I ended up accidentally playing for the heads of musical theater at Emerson College, where I went my freshman year before I transferred. I got roped into music directing actually, because I came from a town where they didn't do musicals, and I loved musicals growing up. That's why I started doing what I did - I had no idea what a music director was. I got roped into doing some mini-musicals, like 20-minute versions of The Fantasticks and The Secret Garden, and the singers came to me, they said, "Hey, can we warm up?" I said, "Sure, go right ahead", not realizing that it had anything to do with me. And now I'm responsible for the vocal health of some of Broadway's most elite singers. (Laughing) It was inspirational to me and I immediately felt connected to singers and leading singers and musicians that way. So I transferred off to music school. I went to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and I got my master's at the University of Central Florida. During that time I started traveling back and forth to New York City and making friends where I could: I started off making friends with singers I would meet at The Laurie Beechman Theatre at an old thing called The After Party, may that particular open mic rest in peace. That's how I met Alysha Umphress, who was the first singer I ever performed with there, that was where I first performed with Lauren Kennedy. And that was sort of the launching pad. It was me networking my way through singers and reaching out to different music directors on Facebook who were so kind to let me sit in the pit with them. After I moved to grad school, I was pretty well networked. That was in 2011, and by the beginning of 2013, I was the music assistant on Diane Paulus's revival of Pippin.

Thanks to Charlie Alterman, who is so brilliant, who music directed Next To Normal, and Nadia DiGiallonardo, who was on Waitress, who really took me under their wings and showed me the ways of the world. I was 26 and so bright-eyed. And I was the least talented person in the room, which was such a gift, to be surrounded by people who were smarter than me and inspiring and who were willing to help escalate me just by being there, and existing, and letting me be in their presence. That was such a beautiful formative experience. And that was the beginning.

How did you get to be The Fairy Godfairy?

The Fairy Godfairy! Ok! So, hello! In 2014 or a year after that, I started touring with Jeremy. At the end of 2013, the year we did a Hit-List 54 Below concert of that, and we developed a pretty good working relationship - we'd never worked together, we didn't know each other, but at the end of that week, we were at our after-party and before he left, he said, "I would work with you any day, anywhere, anytime" and he was just buzzed enough to be telling the truth. And I was like, "Oh wow." Because he's a very quiet man, you know? And I wasn't sure, honestly, where we stood; I just knew that we were having a good time during the show. So when he scheduled his first solo concert, that next April, he gave me a call.

So we had spent a lot of that year running around, doing a lot of concerts on both coasts and I had gotten hired as an original programming director at 54 Below, which meant that in the year 2015, I was producing two performances of one new show a month. I had a whole bunch of different ideas, I was making lists and pitching them to people, and Jeremy and I were coming home from Disney World, just before Broadway Loves Celine Dion; I was on our flight, I wrote down an idea that said The Broadway Princess Party and I wrote Laura Osnes with a question mark. She came to my birthday party six weeks later and I was just courageous enough to ask her what she would think of doing something like that with me - getting all of our best girlfriends together and singing a bunch of princess songs.

She thought it sounded fun, and about five months later we were writing the script (it was a really wonderful process, I could go on for days about how easy it was for Laura and I to put the first show together) and we were like, all the girls are playing Cinderella, playing Ariel, playing Belle. We felt like I needed a character. We wanted something effervescent. And I was like, it's like a Fairy Godmother, but fabulous, what is that? And I was like, "Well, maybe just Fairy Godfairy." And we both thought it was really funny but can we say that? And I was like, "I think I'm telling myself that that's not offensive." We did it for that first show in August 2015 and we've been doing it for six years ever since.

BWW Interview: Benjamin Rauhala of CARRY ON at 54 Below Premieres

So here's the thing: because of the princess thing, the Disney thing, the Broadway Princess shows have a lot of family. Did it concern you at all about, being all the sides of yourself in front of those family audiences?

Sure, of course. I think in New York City, we felt very protected. You know, the first times we did it, it was at 54 below, it was somewhere where we knew that the people knew who I was, the humor was funny, people would think of as a hoot... but when we started touring the show it was definitely a conversation that we were a little more nervous about it. But instead of shying away from it, Susan Egan, when she came on and her husband Robert, their idea was actually to push me more into the center of the play.

So the film we did in December, you meet me first, you hear a little bit about my story, and it's from my perspective. When we introduce it that way, we've actually, knock on wood, had a beautiful time on the road. There've been times we've gone to cities where I thought maybe my jokes weren't going to land, or I wasn't going to be embraced: it's been beautiful in every single city we went to. I think Disney fans, and I think Broadway fans are some of the most wonderful open-hearted people, theater fans in general. I think we live in a time where we're moving towards beautiful things, where it can feel really normal for a Fairy Godfairy to walk out at a Broadway Princess Party concert, and for people to think that's wonderful and support it. For me to go on stage and talk about playing with dolls as a kid, which I got tortured for when I was little, and to be applauded for it is one of the most healing and beautiful gifts I've ever been given.

So on that subject, as men like you and I have watched the world literally change during our lifetimes, what are your reflections on having LGBTQ+ youth see you living in the light that you have created for them?

Oh goodness. It's such a beautiful, incredible gift that I'm only beginning to grasp. When I was in my hometown in Boston doing the concert two and a half years ago, a young boy came up to me, and he gave me a big hug and he said, "You are my favorite part of the show, you play the piano so beautifully," and he was such a sweet soul. And in that particular moment, I realized, "Oh my gosh, me sharing the stage with these women and just being myself is going to make the world a safer and better place for someone else who was like me growing up." And to know that I get to go on stage, and the more myself I am, the less I apologize, the more I'm able to help other children in this universe and be a light for them is such a gift - it is comforting to the child within me that had a harder time with it, to know that maybe I can be a positive influence for someone else.

You have done time on Broadway but most of your time now is spent creating concerts for the great vocalists of the industry. Do you ever miss the camaraderie of the big family atmosphere of a Broadway show, or do you find the intimate nature of concert work more fulfilling?

Ooh, beautiful question. I think both things are absolutely wonderful and are beautiful presences in my life. My birthday was last month and I was looking through old photos... I came to my birthday party from the spring when I was playing for Fiddler On The Roof: I had this beautiful group photo of maybe 25 people who came over after our show, to my birthday party. That - especially a show like Fiddler On The Roof that is so family-based and led by Danny Burstein, who was such a beautiful father figure to that entire company on stage and off and in the band - that's the peak of that sort of family, that big show culture, that feeling of so many bodies coming together to make something beautiful.

BWW Interview: Benjamin Rauhala of CARRY ON at 54 Below Premieres

I get that same feeling from Broadway Princess Party, even if it's five or six people: it does feel intimate, but it's also bigger than you. I do miss that sometimes, but I will say that my favorite thing is getting to make any singer feel safe and supported because I think that singing, especially in musical theater, is one of the most vulnerable things you can do. To be a person in a singer's life who makes them feel safe to express their truth and tell their story, for them to know that I have their back the entire time, and they can go all the way to the edge of being as vulnerable as they know how to be - maybe even further - and know that I have them - that's what gets me up in the morning. That is what keeps me going on days that are hard. That is my favorite thing about what I do. I love both things, but if I did have to choose, I think the intimacy is really what fuels me.

Show business is rich with relationships of artists who come together in a special way, like Liza Minnelli and Kander and Ebb or Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy. In spite of all the people that you work with, your relationship with Jeremy Jordan is widely acknowledged as one of the special ones. Put a picture in my head of that friendship and that work partnership.

BWW Interview: Benjamin Rauhala of CARRY ON at 54 Below Premieres (Laughing) First: thank you, that means a lot. Jeremy and I are very often like siblings. We are always joking with each other. We don't mince words with each other, so creatively, collaboratively, and as friends, we're very frank with each other, definitely -- I think that's both of our senses of humor too, where we think it's funny to give each other a hard time. We've spent so much time together that we definitely have a shorthand with each other, and we have a really deep trust with each other. Neither one of us gets particularly defensive with each other - we'll both fight for the best idea: we'll get into creative discussions but we both really respect each other's opinions. We'll sleep on it if we're having a disagreement ever, and one of us will come back and say, "No, you were right," "No, you were right," and it's lovely. What I treasure most of my relationship with Jeremy, out of all the things that have happened to me in show business, is that he is completely loyal. If there's a concert date that I can't do for whatever reason Jeremy will move that concert date. He would rather hold the space that we hold sacred, the space of us doing these shows that we've created together. He would rather hold that space than sacrifice that to make a quick dime somewhere. He came into my life at a time where I was feeling very redundant and undervalued and he always makes me feel completely seen, completely valued, and like a real partner. He was the first person who encouraged me to talk on stage. When I talk about where Fairy Godfairy came from -- Jeremy was so nervous for our first set of concerts that I used to have to get on the mic and talk and joke with him to relax him and keep him on track. When we did our first shows in San Francisco, he was terrified to be vulnerable like that because he had never been himself on stage that way before. Because of that, we started developing these funny bits, and that's how I learned to be funny on stage. Honestly. It was trial by fire with me and Jeremy giving each other a hard time on stage and I'm so grateful for that because I would have never thought to step into the spotlight that way. As a music director, my job is beautifully subservient - it is to support. But because he pulled me out of the shadows out of necessity, it really taught me so much about myself. In that way, we groove together.

BWW Interview: Benjamin Rauhala of CARRY ON at 54 Below Premieres

Our first shows together were his Greatest Hits Show - we wrote it in two weeks and over the years we started pushing the boundaries, we started doing interesting transitions in shows and trying to make things a little more unconventional. CARRY ON, the show that we just filmed, was the peak of that, where we pushed all the way into doing what is really a play with music that we're really proud of. We learned to do that together over the years, and that has been a joyous artistic journey. We've lived so much life together, especially the past two years of getting to watch him become a father - I was there, in the hospital, the night Clara was born. We've shared so much beautiful life together and I think that comes out in the way we work together. It's a beautiful friendship, it really feels like family, and I'm very grateful for it.

So that show you were just talking about, CARRY ON. It was the last thing you guys did before the lockdown and it's his most personal show yet. Is it easy for Jeremy to open up to audiences like that? Or do you have to encourage him?

It was the last thing we did - we went all the way until February 28th of last year. At this point, he really wanted to tell stories about his childhood. He really went in with a strong mission that he wanted to be open, honest, and truthful about how he grew up and what his past was so that he could move through it. I think he was the most nervous the first night, just because you don't know how the audience is going to receive it, you don't know if you really can say those things out loud. The first dress rehearsal and the opening night was when he needed the most support for me. But once he released those stories into the universe, he very quickly realized that him sharing those stories became about the audience.

It became about them seeing themselves within his life and connecting and sharing with them. It was just as much about the audience as it was about him sharing his own demons. Over the years, we've gotten a lot more comfortable being vulnerable and open, by the time we properly started the process with Carry On, he knew exactly how vulnerable he wanted to be. We worked through the script together and sometimes I would push him further for certain pieces of writing, there were a couple of times where we pulled back, where I was like, "I actually think that is maybe further than you need to go to tell the story." I think you always want to save a little bit, I think you want to save a little bit for yourself and for your family. He went into this process very brave and willing to be vulnerable and willing to be uncomfortable, in order to make art that he could be really, really proud of.

Carry On is about to debut as a film for 54 Below Premieres. Does it look greatly different from what we saw on the live stage?

I just watched it and it does, actually. We filmed without an audience and the band is more spread out - we had some risers - it's both beautiful in the shot, but also it's better for the COVID circumstances. What we were able to do with the film is (SPOILER ALERT): portions of the show happen in the current moment, at the venue while he's doing a concert, and portions of the show are meant to be when he's rehearsing the show ... with an audience of one. What we were able to do was to shoot those before scenes in a completely different way, with completely different lighting, in a different outfit, in a way where you don't see the band and you are able to feel like you're in the room with him and (his audience of one), experiencing the show that way, more like you're spying on him. I think it's even more intimate than it used to be. Then the other half of the show, you get to have a full, vibrant Feinstein's/54 below experience with KJ. Hardy's beautiful lighting, it's very concert oriented, all the bright strobing, all of the things that we love there that make it feel so theatrical. You see our wonderful band who got to return to us from the run - it's very exciting. But it is very true film - we rewrote the script in a way where it reflects that he's been at home with his child for the last year, and that is a different perspective than we had a year ago. Clara turns two Wednesday, he's had a totally different time as a father, so certain things have been rewritten just because we live differently.

We acknowledged in the show that we're doing it to an at-home audience, we play to the cameras when we want to; we're not pretending that it's a filmed concert that was just happening at the venue and there were cameras. Jeremy went through the script and really made it so that this is a special, unique experience for at-home viewers and for people who saw the show live. The heart is still the same, but it has been really redone to fit the medium in a way that I'm very excited about

In a perfect world where Disney wishes get granted every day. What would you like to see happen with Carry On?

BWW Interview: Benjamin Rauhala of CARRY ON at 54 Below Premieres I would love for it to touch the hearts of thousands of people. I would love for it to help various people who watch it have difficult conversations with their family and address some of the baggage they're holding on to, and sort of lift some of that off of their shoulders. I would love for so many people to see it so they can see... I think you see the real Jeremy Jordan here. I think you get a beautiful view into his heart and his mind. He's one of the most incredible, intelligent, genius but also beautifully hearted people I've ever met. It's a rare privilege to get to know him like that, and the fact that it's all there for you, that so many people get a light into there, I think it's a beautiful gift to the universe because to know him like that has been such an incredible gift in my life. I'm thrilled that casual fans of him (or even the really diehard fans) get a glimpse into that big beating heart that makes his performances so dynamic.

I'm talking to Jeremy tomorrow. If I ask him to answer the question "Who is Benjamin Rauhala," what do you think he will tell me?

I think he would say... sassy, smart, loyal, a great friend, a Britney Spears lover and extraordinarily flamboyantly and lovingly gay... and also possibly a mermaid. (Both laughing hard) Something in there. I'm sure one or two of those words would appear in there.

I will let you know! Benjamin. Tell me one of your favorite fan experiences from a Broadway Princess Party.

Oh my goodness. Oh, goodness. Goodness, goodness. Anytime somebody (and there have been many beautiful pieces of art given to me) anytime somebody draws me, I'm always completely blown away. Anytime that someone has made art with me and the girls, but especially when it includes me because as the music director, you're kind of on the side, I'm always so moved, so taken aback anytime I receive a piece of art - that really floors me. I will tell you, there are dozens and dozens of times where we're doing a meet and greet and people just come and they just see Susan or Laura or Courtney, and now Aisha, and they just weep because they're overwhelmed with what their experience was growing up. Someone who's my age who saw Susan in Beauty and the Beast, or someone younger who Cinderella was their first Broadway show, and you see that they've had this beautiful experience, that they get to relive these moments as adults. It means so much to me to know that I was part of creating this experience that touches so many people so deeply, that reminds people of their childhood innocence and youth. At any meet and greet, there's always a couple of people who I'm like, "That is why we do this." That completely fills my heart.

You just mentioned how the musical director is off to the side. Fans at the shows don't get to know you as well as they get to know Jeremy or the Princesses. And I want the fans to know a little bit more about Benjamin. When can we expect a Benjamin Rauhala show?

(Laughing heartily) What I will tell you is that the Broadway Loves series, where we celebrate (where I celebrate with my friends) beloved pop icons like Celine Dion, Sam Smith, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez... I do find that those shows are actually a bit autobiographical for me. When I'm hosting, I'm usually talking about how these songs related to my life at that particular moment, those shows are called "Broadway Loves" but they really are "Ben Loves" and my friends really fill it in for me. I think it's probably as far as I'll go because I do enjoy being the center of attention in a certain way, but I don't have the voice to hold the thing on my own; so I'm grateful to all of my friends who sing the song of my heart in those concerts.

Well, since there's not going to be a full-on Benjamin solo show, what can I use our space at Broadway world to tell your fans about you?

Oh... um...

Other than that you love Britney Spears, which we all know

(Laughing) Exactly. That human connection is my favorite thing in the world, and whether that is sharing that connection on stage with my singers and my musicians, or meeting people after the show, or DM-ing with somebody online who has been moved by the art I make, that is the most beautiful part of being an artist for me. It brings me endless joy. I'm so thrilled to meet and encounter anyone who has ever been moved by anything I've been a part of it.

Benjamin, thank you for doing this with me, I've had the best time.

Of course. Thank you, (Laughing) I'm very long-winded so I appreciate it.

Jeremy Jordan CARRY ON debuts May 6th and runs through May 27.

For information and tickets to Jeremy Jordan CARRY ON visit the 54 Below website HERE

Visit the Benjamin Rauhala website HERE

Visit the Broadway Princess Party website HERE

BWW Interview: Benjamin Rauhala of CARRY ON at 54 Below Premieres


Featured on Stage Door

Shoutouts, Classes, and More from Your Favorite Broadway Stars

Related Articles View More Cabaret Stories

From This Author Stephen Mosher