BWW Interview: 6 Questions & a Plug with SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE's Mark Hartman
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE has been on a successful summer run on Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage, quietly charming theater-goers with beautiful pictures and music. While we often hear from the actors and get the on-stage perspective of many productions that play Minneapolis' famed theatre, we seldom hear from the maestro. That's changing now! Mark Hartman came to Minneapolis to music direct this lovely production of one of Stephen Sondheim's great shows -- and he's actually also on stage! Learn more about his process and next project in this 6 Questions & a Plug:
Let's start with SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE itself - it has a beautiful score and some memorable songs that are very much Sondheim. As the music director, can you tell me more about the show from your perspective behind the baton?
It's such a wonderfully rich score. The thing that strikes me each performance is how intentional every note is. The score simultaneously reflects Sondheim's commitment to a rigorous compositional idea as well as the emotional journeys of all the characters. It's challenging--and rewarding--because it's just that smart.
With the orchestra revealed at the top of the show on stage, you're a part of the scene set for the production vs. being in a pit where no one sees you. Do you prefer one over the other, and do you feel more or less connection to the cast and action on stage on your perch behind the scene?
I've done a lot of conducting from the piano both in front of and upstage of actors. I've even conducted shows remotely from the basement below the stage. It's just a different set of muscles, depending on where you are in relation to the actors. Sometimes you can make eye contact with the actor when you're in front and give a cue (either to the actor or the orchestra) based on live mutual communication. When you're dealing with monitors or being able to physically see the actors but being behind them, a lot more things have to be rehearsed in advance and planned as to how the cues get taken. Often I'm relying much more on what the actors to do and responding to them rather than having them follow me. Either way works and works well, but you have to plan carefully during rehearsal for what your eventuality is going to be once you get on the stage.
As music director, are you involved in casting and hiring musicians to achieve your vision for the production?
I'm certainly involved in casting. I flew to Minneapolis to audition the local actors, and was also in the New York auditions. We also saw several actors on video auditions that they self-taped. The director and the choreographer and I had discussions about casting both in terms of physicality, singing, and of course acting. As far as the musicians go, since I'm not from Minneapolis, I rely on our wonderful orchestra contractor, Victor Zupanc, to hire the musicians that I need for the show. Generally months before the production, I will send my contractor a list of the orchestration and what instruments are required for some parts that may require more than one instrument, as well as a full percussion list. I will then discuss with him or her what what each part demands. For instance, one of the woodwind books in SUNDAY IN THE PARK requires a lot of bass clarinet, so the player for that book needs to be a stronger bass clarinet player. Conversely, another woodwind book requires a lot of piccolo. I rely on my contractor to hire the best local musicians for the requirements of each part. And this orchestra in Minneapolis is stunning! They have exceeded my expectations on every level. I'm so happy to be here playing with them every night!
Randy Harrison (George) by T Charles Erickson, courtesy of Guthrie Theater." bheight="450" src="https://newimages.bwwstatic.com/upload11/1654603/files/fullphoto_george306.jpg" width="800" />
You worked on SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM - did you work directly with him and what was that like? Did your work on that show or other previous Sondheim productions influence your work on this show?
The year we did "Sondheim on Sondheim" was Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday year, so there were lots of celebrations around the world with which he was involved. He would come into rehearsal sometimes to present a new song, for instance, and then we wouldn't see him for three weeks because he was in London, but he was heavily involved when we were in previews and leading up to the first performances. He's an excellent coach of his own work, and his insights on the material in that show have informed every Sondheim show I've done since. Which, fortunately for me, has been quite a few!
I read that you majored in Communication Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. How and when did you turn to music directing as a career?
I was always a pianist and always wanted to be a music director and conductor. I realized early on that I was going to be a musician, but I also realized I was never going to be a concert pianist. I was searching for a liberal arts major that would not require so much of my time devoted to classical music. I wound up with a Communication Studies major because a theater director in the performance studies area of the Communications department was working professionally quite a bit in the Chapel Hill area. He hired me to music direct all of his shows, and was a major influence in my development as an artist. I took one of his classes every semester. It worked out well!
You've had the opportunity to work with some amazing Broadway talents in your career - what was the most memorable experience you've had thus far, and why?
Working with Stephen Sondheim and David Shire have to be two of my top experiences. They're both composers that I respect and admire and whose work I had enjoyed playing for decades before I worked with them. In addition to just being in the room with these fantastic minds, the music supervisors I work for on these shows, David Loud and John McDaniel, have been tremendous educations in themselves. These are people that are giants of the industry, and it's just a joy to be around such generous and beautifully creative people.
Once you close SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE next month, what will be next for you? And, do you hope to return to Minneapolis and the Guthrie for future productions?
I would come back to the Guthrie as soon as I was asked! Next up, however, is a production of EVITA at North Shore Music Theater in Beverly, Massachusetts, directed by Nick Kenkel. As sad I will be to see SUNDAY close, I can't wait to get going on the next one!
More information and tickets to SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE are available at www.guthrietheater.org. The production closes Aug. 20.
Mark Hartman, courtesy of Guthrie Theater.