BWW Interview: Disney on Classic Retrospective - Through the years with Tony Clements
I recently had the opportunity to interview Tony Clements, Creative Director for Harmony Japan, New York. A native of Waterford, Wisconsin, Tony spent much of his early theater years in Milwaukee. He has been with Disney on Classic since 2007 and brings a very special perspective to navigating a career as multi-hyphenate artist.
How did you first come to DOC?
My friend Blake Ginther introduced me to Disney on Classic in 2007. My partner Rob Hancock and I were cast in the tour that year - on Blake's recommendation. In 2008, Harmony Japan asked me to take on more of a leadership position and in 2009 they made me Casting/Stage Director when we held our first New York auditions. My role expanded again last year when I became an Assistant Producer for Disney on Classic and the Creative Director for Harmony Japan, New York.
What songs have you performed through the years? Any stand out moments?
I honestly tried to perform as little as possible over the years since the people around me were so much more talented! That first year, I sang "Once Upon A Dream" (Sleeping Beauty) and in 2008, "A Whole New World" (Aladdin). In 2013, I played piano with the Tokyo Philharmonic on "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" (The Lion King). But a "stand out moment?" Singing "You've Got A Friend In Me" (Toy Story) with the maestro Brad Kelley, who has been a great friend over the years. I twisted his arm and convinced him to sing in the concert and it's truly one of my favorite moments on stage, ever.
How does working as a director of this symphonic concert differ from other chapters in your career?
Performing in this concert is different than performing in any other concert of its type and different than performing in a musical or play. The actors are often in character, doing full scenes of dialogue and songs, while wearing tuxes and gowns, carrying handheld, wireless microphones, and standing in front of a 60-piece orchestra (The Orchestra Japan) with a giant screen projecting images from Disney films behind them. Suspending our own disbelief is important, if that makes sense. When we feature an entire Disney film, every character is played by these eight actors, who go from singing choral underscoring, to doing "a number" in front of the band, to being a principal character in one moment and ensemble in the next. You want it to flow and move as gracefully as possible without being cluttered or "too much," remembering that ultimately it's a concert. You want to tell the story as clearly as you can, while your actors are constantly shifting from one reality to another. When it works, it's really effective.
How do you select the material year after year?
The executive producer Katsunori Kusakabe selects the material with input from the Harmony Japan team.
Favorite Disney movie, score, and character.
So many but off the top of my head: Movie - Pollyanna and Mary Poppins, Score - Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Tangled. And my favorite Disney character? My dad's name was Mickey so of course - Mickey Mouse.
When did you go from stage performer to DOC Creative Director? How is it on the other side of the table?
Until 2013, I toured with the group playing smaller roles and in 2014, I stepped away from performing in the concert to give someone else that opportunity and to expand my role as director. The shift to Assistant Producer/Creative Director officially happened in 2017. My main goal on "the other side of the table" has always been to make people feel as comfortable and welcome in an audition room as possible so they can do their best work. Having experienced my share of "bad auditions," it's important to me that people know we're on their side and we're rooting for them. And it's one of the best feelings in the world to be able to give someone a job.
You audition/rehearse in New York prior to both the Spring Gala and Fall Tour. What do you look for in a performer auditioning for DOC?
We look for strong singing actors who are versatile, reliable, and flexible. Beyond that, and almost more importantly, we look for team players. This is a group of people who have to take care of themselves and each other for four months in a country where one can sometimes feel a little lonely and isolated because of the language barrier. The ability to let someone have his or her space as well as reach out and offer a shoulder at the right moment is essential. I take personal responsibility for the folks I send over to Japan. They represent not only Disney on Classic but in many ways the United States. Nothing makes me happier than someone who soaks up the culture, food, and people in that glorious country.
You reside in New York City so how much of the year do you devote to DOC? Do you have time to perform or direct other projects?
I do. DOC itself takes up about 3/4 of my year but because some of that work is remote, I take on other projects whenever possible.
How do DOC audiences react to the concert? Are there main differences between American and Japanese patrons?
Japanese audiences are incredibly generous, loyal, and polite. A small but telling difference between a Japanese and American audience - I've never once heard a cell phone go off during a DOC concert. Over the years the singers have developed great relationships with the Disney on Classic fans (some of whom see the concert two, three, and four times a year!)
DOC has quite the following! What is your relationship to the fans?
The first couple years I often felt frustrated not being able to communicate with the fans because I didn't speak Japanese. Since then, my Japanese has improved a little and I've gotten to know many of the fans quite well. They are some of the dearest, kindest people in the world.
They really are the best! Do you have any favorite sights/experiences in Japan?
One year on a day off in Fukuoka my friends Tomoki, Brad, and I took a ferry to a small island to go hiking. On the ferry, a small, older Japanese man struck up a conversation. By the time we arrived at the island, he'd invited us to his home after our hike. Later, we arrived at his home tired and happy from the hike. He and his wife were cooking fish stock soup over an outdoor bamboo fire. They fed us, and we sat with them into the night, laughing and talking about life. When the firewood ran low, Tom, Brad, and I ventured out into the woods and literally chopped down more bamboo and hauled it to our new friend's house. He sat and smiled and said he was happy to have made three new friends.
Wow. What a special memory! Are there any future plans to mount DOC beyond Japan?
We are always looking for more ways to share DOC. I'd like to see a full DOC U.S. Tour happen and there have been some discussions about that. We've been to Korea, Taiwan, and we're hopeful about the possibility of further travel in Asia.
Where can our readers learn more about you, and what are you up to currently?
My website is www.tony-clements.com and I'm @tonebobb on Instagram/Twitter. I just directed a production of Fun Home for Southern Utah University (with a stunning cast, I might add) which opens November 2. Then, I'm excited to be back in New York to direct A Christmas Carol for Titan Theatre Company's 10th Anniversary Season. We've assembled an incredible cast that includes a female Scrooge (Carine Montbertrand), a female Marley (Laura Frye), and a male Mrs. Dilber (Wynn Harmon). Titan has a history of gender fluid casting and I'm thrilled to see these actors in these roles. Early next year, I head to Children's Theatre of Madison for How I Became A Pirate and work on Disney on Classic 2019 begins shortly after that.
How does one get involved should they want to appear in DOC?
General submissions for the 2019 Fall DOC Concert (headshot, resume, and recent video footage) can be sent to DOCcasting2019@gmail.com. Keep an eye on Playbill.com in January/February for more specific audition notices and a casting breakdown.
Headshot photo credit: Don Noble