BWW Interview: For The Record Music Man Jesse Vargas LOVEs Making Music ACTUALLY
For The Record returns to The Wallis with their holiday show LOVE ACTUALLY LIVE December 4th through 31st. Headliners for this multi-media concert (backed by a 15-piece orchestra) include Rumer Willis, Steve Kazee, Kelley Jakle, Rex Smith and B. Slade. LOVE ACTUALLY LIVE's music supervisor and arranger Jesse Vargas offered up some of his infrequent down time to most graciously share his history with FTR, as well as, his encompassing musical expertise with me.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Jesse!
When did you first connect your musical talents to For the Record Live?
In the summer of 2016, while I was in Vegas for a gig, I got an opportunity to see FOR THE RECORD: BAZ, when it was running at Mandalay Bay. At that point I'd never seen a For The Record production, and I was blown away. The talent on stage, the structure, the direction-it was all so amazingly unexpected. I'd only known FTR to produce hip, small musical revues based on film soundtracks. I'd met Shane Scheel through mutual friends years before, and after the performance I turned to him and said "Anytime you need another hand in the music department, call me!" Two months later, he did call. Six months later, I was flying out to Los Angeles and taking over the music supervision of two FTR projects - THE BRAT PACK LIVE on Norwegian Cruise Lines and BAZ in Vegas, both which were being re-imagined for new, larger venues.
What other For The Record Live shows have you been involved with?
In addition to musically supervising and creating new arrangements for BAZ, which just completed a two-year run in Vegas, I've worked on SCORCESE: AMERICAN CRIME REQUIEM (which I also won a 2018 Ovation Award for). and a reboot of TARANTINO, both at The Wallis. I did the "radio play" concert of LOVE ACTUALLY last holiday season, and I created a bunch of new arrangements for THE BRAT PACK LIVE, which I still oversee. I've also been working on a few new FTR projects, including developing a series for television.
So, in LOVE ACTUALLY LIVE, I hear you're using movie clips. Is that a first for a LIVE production? Just another aspect you easily deal with your arsenal of musical abilities?
I've worked on shows that had video design in them many times, but never on a show where a film was being shown within the live production. It's been a learning experience. The scenes are what they are, so all of the music around the singing has to be set and timed to the film. First, I create demos of all of the song arrangements, and then they get pieced together with the film clips. I'm essentially re-scoring the film, as if it were a musical, but setting all of the incidental music to the length of each film clip, in between or within the songs that are being sung by our live singers.
Will Wallis audiences expect to hear most of the 17 songs of the film (20 on the UK CD)? Or songs you've selected to fit the LIVE storyline?
I believe we are using 95% of the pop songs on the soundtrack, as well as all of Craig Armstrong's instrumental pieces, in some new and fun ways. I'm hoping the audiences are pleasantly surprised with the new arrangements and how they are used within the storytelling.
Looking through your bio, I see a variety of creative positions you've done - music director, arranger, orchestrator, music supervisor, pianist, keyboardist. Can you delineate the different responsibilities of a musical director, arranger, orchestrator, music supervisor? You often take on more than one position in a gig, so responsibilities overlap, right?
Ah, a very tricky question with a very long answer. I'll start with the easy explanations. The Music Director's PRIMARY function is to oversee the performance of the music within a musical production-both vocal and instrumental. The MD is in the rehearsal room with the director and writers, helping to mount and execute the production, and more often than not, conducts the performances. Sometimes the MD also plays keyboard or piano. The orchestrator takes the basic piano/rhythm arrangements of the score/songs as they've been set in the rehearsal room, and creates instrumental parts that elevate the music in various theatrical and emotional ways. Sometimes it involves losing the piano part all together, and re-purposing the chords and harmonic structure for other instruments. An orchestration can be done for four musicians or twenty-five musicians. It's all about what story you're telling, what the genre of music is, style, feel, etc.
Now it gets muddy. "Music Arranger" is a vague term, but could also be considered a "music designer." Often, an arranger contributes to a song in ways that are similar to a composer/songwriter. An arranger might take a melody, sung by a composer, and create all the music happening under the melody-sometimes alongside the composer; sometimes independently. Or an arranger may receive a fully-produced demo of a song, and be asked to give it a different feel, tempo, a new intro, instrumental break, etc. The song arrangement will influence what the orchestration ultimately is. In theater, the arranger is often the person taking a bunch of songs and making them an actual musical score-taking input from not only the writers, but the director, choreographer, and MD. Sometimes a song arrangement leaves the melody intact, but the elements around the melody shift. A vocal arrangement might simply add harmonies to an existing melody, or create new vocal content, and sometimes lyrics to a song. As my friend and colleague AnnMarie Milazzo would say, "arrangers are the 'unsung' heroes of musicals."
No one really understands that when you listen to a song in a musical in 2018, 75% of the time it's got more hands in it than the people credited as the composers.
You can see how all of the positions can overlap or blur: I'm at the piano playing through a song, understanding what the director or writers want to accomplish. I arrange it. I work with singers. I set the arrangement and then I color it in with orchestration. Oh, and a Music Supervisor often functions in one of the above positions, but also oversees the music department. A Music Director/Arranger who does not conduct the show, and perhaps doesn't sit at the piano during the rehearsal process, might be called a Music Supervisor. When dealing with pre-existing music and no composer in the room, the MS can function as the surrogate composer on the creative team-the 'rep' of the all the music.
Any of these creative roles you prefer over others? Or just depends on what's the most challenging at the time?
Orchestration is something that I probably love the most, followed by arranging songs and collaborating with a vocal arranger. And that's always AnnMarie Milazzo.
I don't usually like conducting long runs of shows, especially on a new show that is changing a lot. I prefer to be with the rest of the creative team, seeing the performances from the audience's point of view and understanding what can strengthen the show as a whole. That said, I DO enjoy conducting, and I will be conducting LOVE ACTUALLY LIVE, especially since I get a nice fifteen-piece orchestra.
Do you have to re-focus/re-group your musical abilities contributing to concerts vs. theatre? Recording must be much more concentrated than both, yes?
All mediums work the same muscles in various ways. Theater is storytelling-based and the music must function dramaturgically. You're also answering to a lot of people. Obviously, there isn't literal storytelling in concerts, but that's not to say the song arrangement can't be telling an emotional story. Recording is a whole different world. A lot of the time, you're working with musicians in a studio to build arrangements. Then there's the production of a track and a lot of consideration to genre and who your audience is intended on being. They are all forms of music creative services.
As music supervisor, are you involved at all with your sound engineer in pre-production when a new venue gets set up?
Very much so, possibly more hands on than some of my contemporaries. When creating arrangements and orchestrations, I need to make sure all the hard work is being communicated to the audience. Or else, why bother? Too often, I don't get to hear orchestrations on a musical until I listen to the cast recording. I think that's rude.
So, unless you're the musical conductor or playing keyboards, you don't have to be present at all the actual performances, right?
Correct. After the opening, I'm usually jumping onto the next project. If a show is running for a bit, I'll pop in from time to time and give notes to the cast and the MD, who will pass them along to the musicians.
One correction - the Barry Manilow show I did was in fact a musical, so Barry was not there. I was 21, and I don't remember much else. With Clay, I was not really involved with the sound, other than consulting a bit on the back line and gear needed. Sometimes the venue sound engineer handled the house mix, and other times we traveled with a sound engineer. The thing is, major live-music sound engineers are bred to get the best mix in the house. If there are strings, they turn up the strings. You hear the vocals, but you also hear the kick drum. They want the music to be in your face. In theater, there's dialogue, there's storytelling in lyrics, and there's also a lot of bad taste in sound mixing, so you gotta be a bit more hands on.
With all the various venues you've played, what place had the best sound for your music?
Gosh, that's tough. I often don't get to sit out and listen. With the right sound engineer/designer (and budget), any room can sound good.
Do you prefer touring or having a residency booking?
I like to bounce around. I like to make new things. I like to create, and then put it out into the world. I was part of a band for a while. It was actually a LOT of fun, but gigging is hard and momentum is even harder, especially today when we are oversaturated with original music. So much of it is amazing, but there's still SO much. A residency might have been nice then, but I'm sure something will always come up, and I'll want to create something new. I probably wouldn't want to tour for too long ever again, unless it was internationally.
If you could combine the best Broadway theatre with a Las Vegas showroom, what qualities of each would you mesh together?
I think Vegas has huge stages to offer, with tons of backstage space. But the intimacy of a Broadway house I feel is important.
Describe the optimum venue you'd love to musical direct a production at?
I can't say I'd mind Radio City Music Hall or the Nokia.
How do you juggle being musical director to currently touring The Midtown Men with being music supervisor and arranger on LOVE ACTUALLY LIVE?
My side gigs as a MD have lessened greatly since becoming the full-time Music Supervisor at For The Record Live. I still work with my dear friend Daniel Reichard on his solo acts, and I'll pop out here and there to work with The Midtown Men, but I try to stay in L.A. as much as possible. I also had the great opportunity to orchestrate for the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which was so much fun. I'd like to do more musical TV stuff. From time to time, a project in NY will come my way. If it makes sense with timing and its trajectory, I'll do a little double duty. There're also exciting things brewing in L.A. AnnMarie and I started arranging songs for LOVE ACTUALLY LIVE in early August, so that nothing was rushed. It's given our director Anderson Davis a chance to chime in as well. As I cross over into orchestration land (with our first orchestra rehearsal coming up; LOVE ACTUALLY LIVE is top of the priority list. So, no more juggling for the time being.
What's the most commitments you taken on at the same time?
Not exactly sure, but there have definitely been times there were TOO many. I try to only 'lose sleep' for worthwhile reasons these days. I've only got so much in me.
What reactions would you like The Wallis audience to leave with after LOVE ACTUALLY LIVE's curtain call?
Well, I, of course, want them to be absolutely blown away with the music; the songs that they know (and don't know) re-imagined for this production. Not only the arrangements, but the performances, both vocal and instrumental. FTR is famous for having kick-ass vocalists and this production will be no exception. And did I mention the 15-piece orchestra?
On top of that, though, I hope that the incorporation of the film into this live theatrical concert rings memorable to the audiences. I'm hoping they can't stop thinking about seeing Hugh Grant dance on a large screen while four women are belting out "Jump For My Love" (spoiler alert?). It truly is unlike anything else out there, and I'm very hopeful that both fans of and newcomers to the film will have an amazing and unique holiday theater experience. We all hope this can become a new live holiday tradition; the new A CHRISTMAS CAROL of the millennium.
Thanks again for doing this interview, Jesse. I look forward to hearing you work your musical magic at The Wallis.
For ticket availability and schedule through December 31, 2018; log onto www.thewallis.org/love