BWW Interviews: Brent Crayon Discusses the Life and Crazy Schedule of a Music Director
Ask Brent Crayon what it's like to music direct for composers such as John Bucchino and Stephen Schwartz and the answer may surprise you. Though he's known as the emergency guy, and plays for auditions and cabaret shows all over town often at the last minute, he says that when it comes to music directing, he's still learning. And that's the way he likes it. Brent is working on Musical Theatre Guild's upcoming concert reading of John Bucchino's A Catered Affair and his rags to almost riches, as he laughingly calls it, may surprise you.
Brent, is this the first time you've music directed an MTG show?
It's my first time as music director but I played keyboards for A New Brain last spring. Gerry Sternbach was the musical director for that project and that was my first experience with them. What they do is pretty crazy. They put these readings together so fast but their company members are some of the best around so it really works.
How did they decide to have you do A Catered Affair?
I've worked with a good number of the company members over the years, either as an accompanist or as a music director in shows that I've been in, but it was my connection to John Bucchino, who wrote A Catered Affair, that I think sparked their interest.
Have you worked with John before?
I was the music director for the world premiere of It's Only Life, which he composed, at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura in 2008, and that was a really amazing experience. The whole team was a kind of a who's who of musical theatre. Daisy Prince directed the show, John wrote it, Jason Robert Brown wrote some of the vocal arrangements, Bruce Coughlin (who did Light in the Piazza) was the orchestrator. Being given that opportunity, as pretty much an unknown person in town, was amazing.
Okay, so back up. How did you become involved with It's Only Life?
I've done a few shows at the Rubicon but the first show I did in Los Angeles as a music director was the world premiere of Songs For a New World. When I was at CalArts, I studied with some really excellent people and one of my piano teachers was playing the pre-Broadway run of Flower Drum Song at the Mark Taper Forum. He couldn't play the extension of the run and he remembered that I played for some community theatre productions back home in New Orleans so he asked me if I wanted to take over for him. That was my first gig. At the Taper.
That's a pretty auspicious beginning.
I was just the second keyboardist but Jennifer Paz took over for Lea Salonga because Lea couldn't do the extension either. At the end of the run Jenn's next project was to star in and co-produce the west coast premiere of Jason Robert Brown's Songs For a New World at LATC. It turned out we had a mutual friend who recommended me as music director and she remembered me, so I became the music director on that show. Jon Rivera directed it and Karyl Lynn Burns and Jim O'Neil from the Rubicon Theatre saw it there. They decided they wanted it for their next season so within just a few months we picked it up and moved it up to the Rubicon where it was an enormous hit. The next musical I worked on with them was the west coast premiere of Tick, Tick...Boom by Jonathan Larson, which was directed by Scott Schwartz.
What happened next?
When it came time for It's Only Life, the producers were friends with Daisy Prince and John Bucchino, and since I'd already worked with the Rubicon as music director on previous projects, they thought of me. My background is as a classical pianist and they saw that I had the chops to play Jason's music so they figured I was the guy to play It's Only Life.
Now I did have to essentially audition for Daisy Prince and for John and it was kind of a funny story because I had gone out of town with Stephen Schwartz working on Snapshots. I believe I was in Dayton, OH and I literally got off the plane, got into a cab, drove to Daisy Prince's apartment, who I'd only met once, and I had to audition Billy Porter for Daisy and John.
While there was an enormous amount of pressure just because of who was in the room, the challenge for me was that John's music is incredibly difficult to play. He has enormous hands. Where I can barely hit a tenth, I think John's reach is 13 notes across. And he's written all of his piano music for him to play. Once I had the gig, I practiced every day for four months before we even went into rehearsal to just be able to play it. I had to come up with some really creative ways to make it work.
How would you describe John's musical style for A Catered Affair?
I could talk about John's music for days. I'm a huge fan of his music. He really writes modern day art songs. It's incredible to find someone who doesn't read a note of music, like John, who writes very, very intricate music. There are a lot of intricate inner lines and complicated rhythms. For It's Only Life, it was like giving a piano recital every night. There's so much depth and richness in his musical material and then his lyrics are so personal and oftentimes really heartbreaking. There's a song on the Grateful album called "Temporary" that I can't get through playing without just breaking down. When you get to the very end and you see what the song is about, I lose it. It's so moving.
A lot of A Catered Affair is like that. It's a story about a couple planning a wedding for their daughter and discovering the unfulfillment in their own lives. Parts of it are funny and parts of it are very heartbreaking.
It sounds like you love the show.
I got to see it on Broadway, which was a complete joy. I was in New York rehearsing It's Only Life with John and Daisy while A Catered Affair was playing. So to thank me for all of my hard work, I got to see it on Broadway sitting third row center, next to the composer. And then he took me backstage to meet Tom Wopat, Harvey Fierstein and Faith Prince. It just kind of blew my mind. That was one of the highlights of my life.
Let's talk a little bit about being a music director. What kind of responsibilities do you have when you work on a show?
It really depends on the budget of the production. In large productions they'll have a copyist; they'll have someone who does the arrangements; they'll even have someone else play the piano. But for many shows in town that aren't million dollar productions, when I end up being the music director, I play piano; I make new arrangements if they're needed; I'm the copyist; I make the actual sheet music. There's a bit of work involved behind the scenes and I think people don't really know what we do. They don't realize that we're just expected to make it work, and it's countless hours.
People often equate the music director with the actual music in the show. Even though you may not have written it, if they like the music, you get a good rap. If they don't like the music, you can get a bad rap.
I've had that experience. I did a production where I had to essentially re-orchestrate the entire show because the sheet music was a complete mess. And it was a well-known show. I did all kinds of things. I learned to play the clarinet. I had to sing in a trio at one point. I had to make new arrangements of all the songs. But because not everyone understood the director's vision of the show it didn't get the positive recognition it deserved. People didn't see how much we did to make it work.
That's the tricky part. As an audience member, you don't always know what kind of work has gone into a production.
I think a lot of times people assume that the music we get from the publisher is exactly what we use and that we just do it by the numbers - play this note, sing that note - but that's not always the case. While productions are certainly true to the original version of the show, necessary changes are always made to fit the needs of the performers. It can be something as simple as changing the key but somebody's got to write the sheet music for that. Someone has to put it together in a program like Finale or Sibelius and make all the charts. And while that's not terribly difficult, someone still has to do it on top of their other duties. It's another hat to wear, and then you have to adapt to whatever the director's vision of the piece might be.
How is being a music director for a 29-hour staged reading different than for a full production?
Working on A Catered Affair is certainly faster. We have minimal rehearsal. I've essentially worked with everyone once - to play their part, to correct rhythms. Then we'll have three days of rehearsal before putting it up on Monday. I am in charge of hiring and rehearsing the band. I have to learn how to play the show. With It's Only Life there were so many more people involved who contributed to the final product.
Does being a good sight reader help?
Absolutely. I've gotten the reputation of being the emergency guy here in L.A. When people are stuck, I'll get a phone call because I sight read so well from so many years of playing auditions. I think I can read music faster than I can read English.
It think it helps that you also like what you do.
As a solo pianist you spend a lot of time in the practice room and it gets lonely. Growing up as a classical pianist and going to competitions, I used to practice 10 hours a day. So I started doing community theatre in my early twenties just to get out and meet girls and to play with other musicians. As a pianist you tend to live kind of a solitary life. That's why I enjoy playing shows. I like playing for singers and I've gotten to where I can follow any slip up that happens. If a singer skips an entire verse I can find it right away and communicate to the band. I really enjoy being able to do that. And I really enjoy performing with other people. It can be stressful at times but I'm always learning new things and that keeps it interesting for me. For example, right now I'm learning Ableton Live and Logic, different recording programs to play live in different situations.
Maybe it's that desire to always keep learning that has helped you succeed.
I've been very, very fortunate that within a handful of shows I was picked up by Stephen Schwartz. I've been touring with him and his show Snapshots. I get a lot of calls from New York to play auditions for different companies there. I do have the reputation for being a solid player and a good enough musician that other companies feel confident to call me to come in when their music director or pianist can't make it.
I'm also working on Bubble Boy the Musical directed by Scott Schwartz, based on the movie Bubble Boy, and it's so much fun. We did a reading of it in New York last November and in Rahway, NJ. I played the show on a 12 foot Bösendorfer, which is an enormous luxurious piano. I'm the music director, pianist, score supervisor and copyist. I am the entire musical team (laughing), but it's a show I really believe in.
Have you played any unusual gigs?
I've had a pretty eclectic career with the types of gigs that I play. A couple years ago I played for a rapper and we opened up for the Wu-Tang Clan at House of Blues. And then last Halloween I played the Theremin with a band for a pole dancer. My tastes are very varied. I just enjoy performing.
It's all about connecting with people, isn't it?
For me it is. I play a lot of cabarets around town which is always terrifying, and exciting, because we'll run through the song once and then put it up. The way I got to do Snapshots was from playing a Stephen Schwartz Tribute for Ryan Black's 88's Cabaret in Los Angeles. It was full of amazing people like Bruce Vilanch, Deborah Gibson, William Katt, and the cast of Wicked. Luckily for me, I don't get star struck. Well, I did get nervous working with Stephen Schwartz at first because he's Stephen Schwartz.
It sounds like when the opportunity has presented itself you've been ready.
I think there's a level of bravery involved. You just have to do it. If I'm going to be in music theatre - something I never thought I was going to go into - I'm going to jump in with both feet. I'm going to learn how to do it. Now fortunately, and unfortunately, the opportunities that I've had have been enormous. So you have to step up to the plate. It's been terrifying but what better learning experience than that. If you're going to play the game, play with the big boys.
Always surround yourself with people who are better than you so you can learn something, right?
Well, that's the thing...I never want to be the best person in the room. To be the nobody in the room or to have people say, 'who's that guy from LA?' is a great place for me because I never want to feel comfortable. The moment you feel comfortable, it's over. So I'm always learning. I'm always trying to get better in everything that I do.
What other upcoming projects are you working on?
Well, literally the day after I get done with A Catered Affair I'm assistant music directing for Sleepless in Seattle over at Pasadena Playhouse. David O. is the music director and I'm going to be his assistant music director and rehearsal pianist.
And from there you'll just keep on flying by the seat of your pants.
That is the story of my life. I get thrown into these situations where I have to just improvise. You learn to roll with whatever they give you, which is why I do so many cabarets and auditions. If somebody wants me to play "Baby Got Back" in a lounge style I'll do it. And that has happened.
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