Feature: MICHAEL HEAVNER helps bring shows to life through music

BWW's Theresa learns the history and background of Maestro Michael Heavner and what's next

By: Jul. 29, 2022
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Feature: MICHAEL HEAVNER helps bring shows to life through music
Photo courtesy from Danny Grace

Often when talking about a performance, the ones that get the spotlight in articles and reviews are generally the lead actors and actresses, sometimes the additional characters, possibly the director and choreographers and, if there is any room left, the light and sound and musicians. But the truth is, without the behind-the-scenes artists, these shows would fall apart. One such person in Arkansas that holds the productions together, and frankly, enhances the artistry, is music performer extraordinaire-Michael Heavner. However, with the multitude of plays and musicals, concerts, classes, and music productions, catching a moment with Heavner is no easy feat. At any point in time, he may be music directing at a university or theatre, music producing for anyone ranging from theatres to international singers, or playing piano at a festival, concert hall, or smoky honky-tonk. He is truly a musical master and Central Arkansas theatre is lucky to have his talents within reach.

I wanted to interview Mr. Heavner, because almost every time I went to review a play or musical, his name kept appearing in the Playbill. It was like I was professionally stalking him. He is everywhere. To date, Heavner has been Music Director for 30 musicals/shows, orchestrated 28 productions, played in four national tours serving as Musical Director in three of those productions, sound designed for four shows, was a guest artist for four shows at two different universities, was musical arranger for three shows, conductor for two shows and, as an added surprise, has played country music in bars for over 35 years. When not haunting the various theatres, he is audio producing for other people or being a featured player on other musical endeavors. How has he fit in all of that? Good question. I had the privilege to sit down with Mr. Heavner to discuss his extensive career and what brought him to my attention for Broadway World.

In the Beginning.....

Michael Heavner's career did not begin in an orchestra pit but still began similarly to most musicians. Starting with formal piano lessons at the age of seven, Heavner naturally blossomed his musical skills, was gifted a guitar by his mother before her passing, and practiced every chance he was given. "I grew up playing in a band starting at the age of 14 with two older brothers, John and James, and within a couple of years we were playing at some really nice places," Heavner said.

Things seemed to be going so well for their band RENEGADE, that he dropped out of highFeature: MICHAEL HEAVNER helps bring shows to life through music school in the eleventh grade to pursue the band full-time. "Our band was doing really well, and I dreamed of the big time," Heavner says with a laugh. With stardom eluding him in his youth, he corrected his educational detour after a few years. "When I was around 21, I realized what a BIG mistake I had made by quitting school, so I enrolled myself in the Little Rock Adult Education Center for four months and obtained my GED."

Heavner did not stop there. "When I was 22, I wanted to gain more musical knowledge and heard I could go to University of Arkansas, Little Rock, to take piano, guitar, and voice lessons. So, with my very long rock-and-roll hair, I went to UA Little Rock with my Gibson Les Paul in hand. I never dreamed of what happened next." Heavner was greeted by UALR Piano Class Coordinator Martha Ann Edwards, who took him through the audition process which resulted in a full scholarship to study music and piano. "I played her a couple of Styx songs on the piano and was offered the scholarship. They never did hear me play my guitar."

With classes underway, the music life came calling. "Almost immediately (after starting at UALR) I get a call from the Red Gate Supper Club out on Highway 5. I played country music at night and studied classical and jazz during the day, and practiced every chance I could," Heavner said. "I loved it. It was refreshing, and just what I wanted at the time." Heavner graduated with his Bachelor of Music in piano performance.


In the summer of 1988, Heavner found a new, additional passion. "I took a class with a visiting guest artist called Intro to Synthesizer, and I was bitten hard by the music technology bug. Soon after, I bought the best music computer on the market, a Yamaha C1 MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) computer," Heavner said with a glean in his eye. "That's when I began orchestrating and recording."

Gigs kept coming for Michael Heavner. After playing for a few bands and then doing a stint in a house band at the Holiday Inn in Jacksonville, Ark., Heavner joined up with recording artist Jeff Bates. "I played on his debut CD, and played with Jeff for two and a half to three years while he was here in town."

On The Road

Finally in 1995, Heavner was offered his first opportunity to play in theatre. Always...Patsy Cline was in its infancy when Heavner was approached to join. "Ted had just written it, and it had done a small run at the Ryman in Nashville. Then they brought it to the Arkansas Rep." Because Heavner had a lot of country music background, he admitted, "I was the Feature: MICHAEL HEAVNER helps bring shows to life through music perfect fit. I already knew most of the material anyway, so I was able to jump in." After finishing the show at the Rep, he joined the national tour as their pianist. "Then they did a remount the following year, and they gave me the Musical Director position. We toured coast to coast, border to border. It was incredible."

After he finished touring with Always...Patsy Cline, Heavner joined the touring company of IDOLS OF THE KING. "It was written by Ronnie Claire Edwards, the store keepers' wife from the Waltons. It was a big deal," Heavner smiles saying. IDOLS OF THE KING is about how fans imortalized the king of rock-n-roll, which was interwoven inbetween songs sung by "Elvis". "IDOLS was a rock musical. It was great."

His next national tour was BLUES IN THE NIGHT, a revue of blues songs around three women who are seeing the same man and sing about their lives, memories and music on a lonely night. "BLUES IN THE NIGHT is more of a jazz musical and it is written out note for note." Heavner talked about his struggles with the almost illegible handwritten score but was pleased he stayed with the company. "Director Brad Mooy convinced me to stay with the show, and I'm so glad I did. We toured everywhere, and it was incredible."

When Heavner finished his run with BLUES IN THE NIGHT, he took a resident gig in Mackinaw City, Michigan, with LOST IN THE FIFTIES, which had a collection of 1950s songs with the cast dressed as if they were going to the hop. "We were the only theatre in town. We did two shows a day, six days a week."

Personal tragedy hit the Heavner family in between his two seasons with LOST IN THE FIFTIES. "Josh, my brother John's four-year-old son, was hit by a U-Haul truck and killed, and then two weeks to the day, my dad was killed turkey hunting." Even with the heartache, he went ahead and did another run in Michigan with LOST IN THE FIFTIES, before returning home to stay for a while.

Member of the Country Club

When not touring, Heavner spent his time playing piano at Jimmy Doyle's Country Club, which he continued through 2021 when the venue in North Little Rock, Ark. closed, and "I Feature: MICHAEL HEAVNER helps bring shows to life through music also did many, many shows at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre either as a keyboard player or musical director." When asked what he loves to do the most, he openly admits, "My favorite thing to do is play piano in a honky-tonk band. I think it comes from the stress of doing theater shows-whether you play live or you are recording/producing it." He continues saying, "It's my release. It's an acquired taste. It grows on you."

Longtime friend and Tragikly White Sound Engineer Bobby Wood said, "Our last gig together was at Jimmy Doyle's Honky-Tonk. Jimmy and Patsy Gayle thought Mikey hung the moon. Everybody looked to Mikey as the band leader, even though he will tell you he was not the band leader but he was, he just didn't know it." Respect emitted from Wood as he kept saying, "Everybody kind of leaned on Mikey for what was going on. Mikey is one of those sweetheart guys...you know what I mean? He's absolutely non threatening..super nice guy."

Education on the Next Level

Education started pursuing Heavner shortly after the turn of the century. "Around 2003 I was at home and my former chairperson from UA Little Rock called me and asked if he could bring someone to my home and show them my music computer recording techniques," Heavner explains. "My chair person along with two faculty members from the music department picked some guy up at the airport and drove straight to my house! The gentleman asked me to demonstrate things like making one side of the stereo recording go in reverse, and much more, and of course I did. Ultimately their visit led to my full-time appointment at UA Little Rock as an instructor of Recording Arts Technology."

Indeed, Heavner was invited to teach Music Technology and Beginning Piano at UALR in 2006. His love affair with audio recording started in the late 1980s due to his rock-n-roll band days. "I was always interested in the latest gadgets, so I was actively recording and working with music technology during this whole time."

Heavner's audio program of choice is Cakewalk by Bandlab, and because of his involvement with it throughout the years, he continues to have early access to the updated releases. "In 2008, Cakewalk gave me an offer. They chose me as a prelaunch candidate #6 for their new release of Cakewalk SONAR PLATINUM because of all the reviews of me telling them about possible bugs. They gave me everything they had for free...all their plugins, all their virtual instruments, and they have kept me on to this day," Heavner proudly says.

Working in the theatre department at UALR was a surprise to Heavner. "When I was hired, I was kind of tricked into working with the theatre department; they never mentioned it." He served the music department from 2006-2010 concurrent with the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance. In the Fall of 2010, UALR began offering a BFA in dance, so he switched to the Theatre Department as a full-time dance musician for ballet and modern dance, instructor, and musical director.

Feature: MICHAEL HEAVNER helps bring shows to life through music "I had never accompanied a ballet before. I worked with choreographers and other dancers, but never a ballet, so I reluctantly said yes." The students seemed to have won Heavner over during his time there. "I would have done anything for any student in my 16 years at UA Little Rock-music or dance students."

His co-worker Dr. Karen Kuralt noticed the difference he made with his students.

"As a teacher, his most noticeable quality was how much he supported his students. He was always there for them, supporting their performances," Dr. Kuralt said. "He was enthusiastic in a field where many students are harshly criticized as they try to become professionals. His smile could lighten any student's day." Heavner retired early from UALR when the university dismantled the dance program in 2021.

Before he retired, though, Heavner decided to take advantage of the opportunities offered at UALR. "Part of my benefits for being fully vested at UALR is that I got a 90% discount on classes that I wanted to take. So as if I didn't have enough to do already, I decided to get a Master's Degree," says Heavner. "There were a lot of changes at UALR-different computing systems as technology moved forward and online classes began to form. I thought I want to know what it's like to be a student; I want to know Blackboard, which is what they use now, and what better way than to take online classes myself." Heavner graduated with a Masters in Interdisciplinary Studies with emphasis in Music and Rhetoric and Writing in 2018. "It enabled me to be a better employee."

As part of his Master's education, Heavner created a website specifically for dance. "I have an educational website. It's called Music for Martha (musicformartha.com). It's a collection of dance recordings," Heavner said. "It's very specific to Martha Graham beginning dance technique, but it's also an educational portal. It has resources for online research geared toward music and dance." Heavner beams, "My Music for Martha collection has sold all over the world, which has blown me away at times. But, music for dance classes is a very niche market, especially for Martha Graham dance classes."

Again, Heavner's attitude didn't go unnoticed. "He was fun to have in class as a student, because he was passionate about learning, and not just in his own specialty," Dr. Kuralt said. "He took my Document Design class, which gave him a great outlet for his creativity and communication skills."

Demands for Orchestration

While the demands of academia monopolized his time during the day and the honky-tonk filled up his nights, Heavner switched from playing live at theatres to orchestrating productions.

"A lot of the theatres that ask me to orchestrate shows are smaller venues who simply cannot afford or have the space for a full orchestra." So, because budget is always a concern with any theatre, Heavner's production talents have been in high demand.

"The orchestrations that I produce, I always hire a drummer who does the drum tracks," Heavner said. "I pay him very well, and even though I play guitar, I bring over a guitar player after I've orchestrated things." Heavner definately has a musician's heart when it comes to orchestrating the music for a show. "I'm mindful not to cut other musicians out of work. It's for theaters that simply cannot afford or have the space to hire a full orchestra or band. On a typical production, I can save the theatres thousands of dollars."

Feature: MICHAEL HEAVNER helps bring shows to life through music

Heavner says he has the orchestrations ready before rehearsals begin, and explains what it takes to get the music completed. "What it takes to orchestrate a show-you have to be able to read music; You have to know all the instruments; You have to know the articulation; and you have to know transposition and all the transposition instruments." He continues, saying, "You have to know music theory; You have to know orchestration and have computer skills."

I mentioned to Heavner that one of the more frustrating things as a reviewer that I see is when a performer doesn't know when to enter the song and misses their cue. He explained that to remedy that, "I usually play the first two bars or give a bell cue, or I'll go the extra mile in the middle of the song and add a piano cue so they know that's their cue to come in."

Michael Heavner Live

After his time at UALR and Jimmy Doyle's Country Club, Heavner and the house band, now called the Joseph Logue Band, are currently out and playing at different venues around Central Arkansas. "We've had a great time playing together, we've done Feature: MICHAEL HEAVNER helps bring shows to life through music good." Heavner also plays with the rock band Just Sayin'. "We play at many venues and festivals across the state and are supporters of the Boys and Girls Club of Saline County. In 2022 at the Memorial Day Celebration, we head-lined a big show at the Hot Springs Airport, which drew a crowd of around five to six thousand people and ended with a big fireworks display. During Fourth of July weekend, we played another big show at Dam Site Park in Heber Springs, Ark."

Regrets....I Have a Few

Because of his loyalty to UALR there have been several missed opportunities that he now ponders from time to time.

During the winter of 2003, he was offered a position at Shoji Tabuchi in Branson. "I got there, but I didn't feel comfortable. It did pay a lot of money, but I had to pay for my own housing. So, I found a cheap hotel on the strip for $500 a month. But during the short rehearsal period-3 weeks-things just went really bad for me," Heavner laments."I came down with the flu really bad; My hotel room got ransacked; It was late winter and my serpentine belt broke on my car, which made my windows fog up because it controls the fan, and then I pulled into Walmart and ran over one of those stop signs that are posted in tires that have concrete holding them up." Heavner continues saying, "I was one of three keyboards, they didn't have a three key book per se, but there was a big orchestra, and I just didn't fill it in my heart, so I quit. But on my way home, I received a call from The Rep to play Key 2 for Caberet, so it was meant to be."

Then in 2008, just two years into UALR, Branson calls again. "I received a phone call from the Shoji Tabuchi Theater asking me to be Musical Director and would I be interested. I laughed and explained that I was fully vested at UALR, and that I just couldn't do it. Afterwards I felt so bad."

Heavner even turned down world tours because of his loyalty to UALR. "I've missed so many opportunities...Key 3 for the world tour of Cats-- I was called for that. I was asked to audition for the world tour of Beautiful the Carole King Musical. It's touring the world right now. Those are the kinds of missed opportunities I had staying at UALR."

Moving Onward

At the beginning of 2022, Heavner was invited to be Musical Director for LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS at the University of Central Arkansas, while also orchestrating THE WIZARD OF OZ for The Argenta Theatre. Also, he has been working with an international recording artist.

"Recently I have been producing music for a girl in Poland. Magdalena Meisel was #2 in The Voice of Poland-It's a pretty big deal," Heavner said, as he was talking about the process. "I do the orchestration. She kind of writes the songs, and then she will sing to a piano part. I will rearrange the music following her vocals, send it back, she sings her vocal part and sends it back clean, and then I produce it."

Heavner takes it personal when he produces for others. "When I record for individuals, I try my best to see inside the person's mind and play whatever is given to me (spiritually) at that moment in time. My goal is always to serve and please any client I work with, rather it is face to face or from a faraway country."

Hopes and Dreams

Heavner still has goals he would like to achieve. "I would love to join a world tour."

And according to Mr. Wood, Heavner has a good shot at achieving whatever he sets out to do. "He's a self-made man. He grew up hard, he really did. He's an inspiration to others, because he pulled himself up out of nowhere and made himself somebody, and everybody I know that knows him feels the same way about him. I'm being real honest. He's rare."

For more information and to see what all Michael Heavner has to offer, check out his website at michaelheavner.com.

Feature: MICHAEL HEAVNER helps bring shows to life through music


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