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BWW Interview: THERE ARE NO ONE-PERSON SHOWS: Musical Director, Tracy Stark

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Tracy Stark Talks About the Art of Musical Directing and Her Career in Cabaret

BWW Interview: THERE ARE NO ONE-PERSON SHOWS: Musical Director, Tracy Stark

Here at Broadway World Cabaret, we like to try new things. Today we're doing just that. For a while, I've wanted to do a series of interviews that focused, not on the stars of cabaret shows, but rather on the support staff, the people who work behind the scenes to make the stars shine that much brighter. In the coming weeks, I'll talk to directors, musical directors, writers of specialty material, musicians, designers, publicists, and more, focusing on their jobs and how they create a cabaret community. Even some dedicated fans of cabaret don't realize how many people are involved in the production of a "One- person show." That is the focus of this series.

Today we kick off the series with my conversation with musical director, Tracy Stark. She is one of the most prolific musical directors on the NY scene, playing upwards of 75-100 shows a year. She is the winner of 11 MAC awards in addition to the Bistro award and the Dottie Burman Songwriter of the Year award. She has worked with a plethora of great artists including Lesley Gore, Sarah Dash, Phoebe Snow, Karen Black, Randy Jones, Jimmy Osmond, Tovah Feldshuh, Eric Millegan. Tonya Pinkins, Ann Crumb, Marni Nixon, and hundreds of other rock, jazz, and Broadway artists. In the past 6 months, I have seen shows she worked on with Alice Ripley, Kim David Smith, and Meg Flather.

Her work is consistently interesting, smart, witty, and rooted in story and lyric. She has a chameleon-like gift to sound like the artists she plays for without imposing a style on them. Working with Tracy makes a singer more authentically themselves. I sat down a few days ago to talk to Tracy about what her job entails. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

BWW Interview: THERE ARE NO ONE-PERSON SHOWS: Musical Director, Tracy Stark

Ricky Pope

Hi Tracy. Welcome to Broadway World.

Tracy Stark

Hi.

Ricky Pope

I want to start with a couple of background questions. Where did you come from? And when was it that you discovered that music was an important thing in your life?

Tracy Stark

I have been playing since I was a toddler. The story that I have heard from my parents is that I was in nursery school, daycare. I think I was three or four and we were all sitting around singing some nursery rhymes. I went over to the piano and I started playing it. And Miss Mitzi, her name was, called my mother and said "Do you have a piano? Did you teach Tracy this song on the piano?" And my mom said, "We don't have a piano." I had maybe not even seen a piano at that point. So that was the start. My mother was the kind of person who, if we showed interest in something, was 5000% behind investing in lessons and doing all that kind of thing. So that's how it started. I've been playing all my life.

Ricky Pope

Are you a native New Yorker?

Tracy Stark

No. Philadelphia

Ricky Pope

Awesome. How did you discover cabaret? How did that come into your world?

Tracy Stark

At one point in my late twenties, I was in San Francisco and I actually didn't realize it was cabaret. I was just playing for singers. I am a singer/songwriter. I was concentrating on doing that. But until money is coming in, you need to do something else. So I was playing for singers. I was always attracted to that. I love playing for singers. I especially like when it's collaborative. But I didn't even realize it was cabaret. I mean, I probably heard the word cabaret two or three years after I started doing it for a living. You know, I was playing in clubs. That's what I was doing. At that time, which was in the late eighties, early nineties, cabaret had to be, somebody in a gown and doing standards. I mean, it's certainly not like that now. Cabaret was something specific that I didn't realize I was doing. I was just playing music. Does that make sense?

Ricky Pope

Oh, yeah, that makes perfect sense. It leads to my next question. I ask this of almost everybody because cabaret seems like such an ineffable thing. How would you actually define cabaret?

Tracy Stark

There is no genre, so it's the largest umbrella you can have. It is a person or multiple people on a stage being intimate. And you can have 10 people in the audience, or you can have 3000 people in the audience. For me, you can have a cabaret show at Carnegie Hall or some larger place. To me, it's the intimacy. And it's a very fine line between just concerts and cabaret shows. I saw Bruce Springsteen on Broadway. I turned to my husband and I said, "This is the best cabaret show I've ever seen." You know? I mean, it was Springsteen, but it was absolutely a cabaret show.

Ricky Pope

I mean, there was a script.

Tracy Stark

I'm not sure if the script is what I consider a cabaret show. I've certainly seen cabaret shows that have not really had scripts, or maybe bullet points or something like that. I've seen people who I consider cabaret people who you see two or three times and the show is completely different, you know? Especially right now. I think it was easier to define cabaret in past decades. Now it's certainly not a certain genre of music. You can have a cabaret show that's hip hop. You can have a cabaret show that's metal. It can be anything.

BWW Interview: THERE ARE NO ONE-PERSON SHOWS: Musical Director, Tracy Stark Ricky Pope

Right. I've seen cabaret shows that weren't even musical, that were just spoken word. Or dance.

Tracy Stark

Or juggling.

Ricky Pope

So for all of my readers who may not know, would you tell us in the simplest terms, what it is that the musical director does. Because it is so many jobs.

Tracy Stark

It's so many jobs! I do not work with two people the same way. It depends on their skill and what they excel at. So if I'm doing everything that a music director is possibly able to do, I'm helping to pick out songs, helping to figure out what the whole show is about, putting things in the right key, arranging, putting in whatever styles this person wants to do or can do. Then there's getting a band together if that's appropriate. Scheduling, rehearsing the band, figuring out where we're going to do the show, writing arrangements, doing the charts, figuring out the dynamics between the vocalist and the band. And then of course playing the show.

Ricky Pope

Which is the only part that the audience sees. I think that many people believe when they go to these cabaret shows, that a musical director just shows up and plays the piano.

Tracy Stark

An accompanist. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And there are certainly times when I do gigs where I show up and play the show and I don't do all the other stuff. It's funny when somebody calls me a music director and I am just part of the company. That's weird. But I mean, it could be any one of those things.

Ricky Pope

How would you say that's different than being a theatrical musical director? What are the differences between that and being a musical director for a cabaret artist?

Tracy Stark

I believe there is a lot more allowance for creativity in a cabaret show. I think you have very specific things to do in a book show. The script is written. The music is usually written unless you come in at the very beginning of a theatrical show. Sometimes the musical director writes the arrangements in a theatrical show, but more often there's a different person. Your job as a music director in a theatrical production tends to be figuring out what to do with the material that's there. With a cabaret show, you can do anything. You can put songs together, you can rewrite things. I think there are a lot more opportunities for creativity. I feel like there's something else I need to say to not make it seem like theater is specific and cabaret is not. Because that's not true. You certainly can be creative in theatrical situations.

Ricky Pope

Tell me if you think this is true. It seems to me that in cabaret, the line between the musical director and the director of the show is a lot more blurry. It's harder to know where that line is.

Tracy Stark

I can absolutely agree with that. I usually, I would say 90% of the time, work very, very closely with the director. For example, when I work with Lennie Watts. If he asks me to write an arrangement, I actually prefer for him to be in the room because he's really quick and he'll have an idea that I would never have thought of. And so I go in a direction that I might not have gone. I love collaborating. I love discussions about things. I like even like disagreements. I like having to figure out ideas, flesh out why I feel a certain way, or why the vocalist feels a certain way. I love this conversation.

BWW Interview: THERE ARE NO ONE-PERSON SHOWS: Musical Director, Tracy Stark

Ricky Pope

Yeah, I do too. I agree with you. I've seen you work with Kim David Smith and Meg Flather and Alice Ripley. And so I'm assuming that you are someone who works with people who are very fine storytellers. How does that focus on storytelling influence your work?

Tracy Stark

Okay. This is not an answer to your question. I work with many different levels of people. The three people that you've seen me with are, you know, professionals. I also work with people who aren't, and I have also worked with people who are star quality. But I also work with people who are kind of beginners or people who used to do it and they're coming back into it. For me to help somebody who is beginning or whose skill level isn't as high, for me to help get them to a point where they are doing a show where they seem professional feels like an accomplishment. I'm really proud of somebody who has never been on stage or is scared or nervous. Getting them to the point where they can do a show and even sometimes be reviewed or something like that. I'm proud of my work with everybody, but I feel very proud of getting people to another level. As for your other question, yes, I love the story. I feel like that's music. I feel like no matter what you are singing, the more you get in involved in a lyric, the better storyteller you are, the more you can touch somebody. I think maybe I want to modify my cabaret answer. In cabaret, you want to touch people. I'm definitely attracted to people who can do that. When I am involved in the directional ability of music directing, that's what I try to put the emphasis on. When somebody sings a song exactly the way I know it or exactly the way somebody else sings it, my first instinct is to say "Okay, let's break this down. How would you say this that's not somebody else's way."

Ricky Pope

If you were talking to a young musician who wants to become a cabaret musical director, what advice would you give them?

Tracy Stark

Play for as many singers as you can. I'm a horrible business person, and I'm also not aggressive. So for me, it was just a matter of playing for as many singers as possible. I did a lot of piano bars, which introduced me to singers and also helped me with playing for a gazillion different types of singers. Excellent, mediocre, and all the others as well. Piano bar was sort of the old-school way of putting in my 10,000 hours. You know that saying that you have to do something for 10,000 hours to be a professional? For me, that was piano bar. And I'm sure I did way more than 10,000 hours. I did about eight hours a night for over a decade, maybe two decades. I feel like that was cutting my teeth and paying my dues for playing for singers. That's my advice for someone young. Take every job, make as many contacts as possible, play for singers, play for singers, play for singers.

BWW Interview: THERE ARE NO ONE-PERSON SHOWS: Musical Director, Tracy Stark

Ricky Pope

That is lovely advice. And I think we're going to leave it there. Thank you Tracy for taking time out of your very busy schedule to help us better understand what a musical director does.

To learn more about Tracy Stark, visit her website, tracystark.com or follow her @starktracy on Instagram.


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