Interview: Musical Director Joseph Thalken Playing A LIFE IN NOTES with Patti LuPone

Broadway legend Patti LuPone performs her first solo show A Life in Notes w/the LA Opera April 20th @ the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

By: Apr. 01, 2024
Interview: Musical Director Joseph Thalken Playing A LIFE IN NOTES with Patti LuPone
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Interview: Musical Director Joseph Thalken Playing A LIFE IN NOTES with Patti LuPone

Broadway legend Patti LuPone performs her first solo show A Life in Notes with the LA Opera April 20, 2024, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Patti’s long-time musical director Joseph Thalken took some time between their second and third tour stops (respectively, Morristown, New Jersey’s Mayo Performing Arts Center and Houston, Texas’ Hobby Center for the Performing Arts) to answer a few of my queries.

Thank you for taking the time again to be interviewed by me, Joseph! I interviewed you for your concert Don’t Monkey with Broadway at Segerstrom just over a year ago. Can you tell us what Patti LuPone aficionados who’ve seen that show can expect different in A Life in Notes?

This is a more personal show, centered around the music that Patti grew up with, starting with early rock ‘n’ rock from the 1950s and 60s, and extending throughout her adult life.

Her incredibly extensive repertoire provides so many song choices her fans expect to hear. I can think of quite a few myself that I would say have to be in her show. Do Scott Wittman and Jeffrey Richman lock in her song choices before you get to see the song list?

Not exactly. They start with a lot of ideas and possibilities -- it’s a very collaborative process, starting with Scott and Jeffrey having intense discussions with Patti, and then we work on a lot of new material and start to whittle it down. Eventually, we settle on a set list, and I get to work arranging it for whomever we’ll perform with — a band, symphony orchestra, chorus — or just the two of us. This time, there will be three of us onstage.

Interview: Musical Director Joseph Thalken Playing A LIFE IN NOTES with Patti LuPone I like that the titles of Patti’s concerts (Don’t Monkey with Broadway, A Life in Notes) can easily encompass her variety of song selection. Can you share part of Patti’s set list?

Hmmm… I don’t want to give too much away. We want you to be surprised! I’ll just say that it’s music of her generation, which made an impact on her throughout her life. Some of that music includes Broadway show tunes, plus some classic rock ‘n’ roll, pop/rock songs from the 80s and 90s, a few older standards… All the music was very important to her as she grew into the artist we know and love today.

How much rehearsal time do you spend with Patti pre-show?  Do you go over trickier songs? Help her with her vocal warm-ups?

In this show, we feature a wonderful instrumentalist, Brad Phillips, who plays five different string instruments during the evening (violin, guitar, mandolin, etc.). He also sings backup vocals with me, so before every show, Brad and I work a bit together and then Patti joins us, and we all rehearse a number of the songs. Yes, the trickier ones will often get more attention!

Some might consider it a badge of honor to be called out by Patti from the stage. Have you ever witnessed that bestowing?

I would not consider that a badge of honor, actually. The few times I’ve witnessed it, the person in question was acting inappropriately, like texting during a show, which you can easily see from the stage because of the light a cellphone emits in a dark theater. It’s distracting onstage, and it’s just as distracting to the audience. And it’s rude.

You and Patti are playing Carnegie Hall April 8th. What do you remember of the very first time you stepped onto the Carnegie Hall stage?

I was a teenager visiting New York City for the first time. This was before the big renovation of the hall in 1986, and on a hot midsummer afternoon, I naively walked into the back entrance of Carnegie Hall and asked if I could see the hall. To my surprise, the man at the desk said, “Sure, kid, just make is quick. Walk up those stairs, and then pull on the nail sticking out of the door.” (Yeah, a nail! I saw they seriously needed that renovation.) So I walked up the stairs, pulled on the nail and opened the door… and my breath was taken away as I walked on to that beautiful, empty stage all by myself. I’ll never forget it. I’m sure their security is much better these days!

Interview: Musical Director Joseph Thalken Playing A LIFE IN NOTES with Patti LuPone In our last interview, you gave me one word or one sentence on the Who’s Who of artists you’ve worked with. So we can’t repeat that. How about you share with us some of the times you’ve worked with your multitude of artists that things didn’t quite go as planned?

One of my favorites was during the pre-Broadway tryout of Victor/Victoria. We were in Chicago, and the set broke down in the middle of Act 2 in a scene where Julie Andrews and Tony Roberts were supposed to perform a charming song called “You and Me.” So the curtain came down, and Julie and Tony, both such ultimate pros, came out in front of the curtain and explained to the audience what was supposed to happen in the scene… and then they performed the song in front of the curtain. It was a magical moment, and by the time they finished the song, the set was fixed, and the show continued!

You’ve performed at a plethora of venues from 54 Below to the Kennedy Center. Do you prefer performing in smaller venues vs. larger ones?

I love both, whether it’s an intimate music salon or Madison Square Garden at the Grammys (which was wild, by the way). For me, it has more to do with the quality of the piano, the acoustics and the people controlling the lights and sound. If all those elements are good, it makes an enormous difference.

You told me that you started learning piano at the age of five. What genre were the first pieces you learnt to play? (Classical? Jazz? Pop?)

It was all classical. 

Who were your musical idols growing up?

Gosh, so many! In no specific order: Beethoven, Gershwin, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Martha Argerich, Stephen Sondheim, Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Elton John, Queen, Aretha Franklin… I could go on and on, but I’ll stop! 

How do you juggle teaching music theatre composition at Yale with all your commissions and musical director commitments?

Interview: Musical Director Joseph Thalken Playing A LIFE IN NOTES with Patti LuPone I haven’t taught at Yale for several years. I enjoyed it immensely, but the schedule and the commute back and forth to New York City was very difficult to maintain.

If you had to choose just one field of music (chamber, choral, theatre compositions, musical director) which would you be gratified to focus your musical talents in?

Theatre compositions.

When I interviewed you last year, you had a number of projects in the fire (Harold & Maude, Inventions For Piano, Fall of ’94, a commission to write a multi-movement choral and instrumental piece for a church in Chicago). What’s the latest status on these undertakings?

The multi-movement choral and instrumental piece had a successful premiere last year in Chicago. I’m finishing up a revised draft of the musical “Inventions for Piano.” And Hugh Panaro just released a wonderful CD from a live performance we did at 54 Below where he premieres a song from the show. The song is called “You Have Never Failed Me.” You can find the CD on Spotify here.

The other projects you mentioned are also still in development. I’m also excited about the upcoming CD release later this year of a chamber orchestra piece called “Chasing Home,” which was commissioned several years ago by Bruce Wood Dance, an innovative dance company in Dallas, and has been recorded by the Dallas Chamber Symphony on an album that also includes Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” I’m honored to be in such good company.

How far in advance does Joseph Thalken’s schedule get booked?

Sometimes it’s a year or more in advance, and often at least half a year.

Thank you again, Joseph! I look forward to seeing and hearing you and Patti again.

Thank you so much! I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to me. Having grown up in Southern California, I’m excited to be playing the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the first time after attending so many performances there as a kid.

For tickets to Patti LuPone’s first solo show with the LA Opera (accompanied by Joseph) April 20, 2024; click on the button below: