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Interview with Robert Meffe, Musical Director

What do YOU think about when the curtain goes up on a brand new musical? Of course, the actors and director get the lion's share of the praise, but we're about to get some first-hand insight as to what goes on with a musical - from the months of advance preparation through each nightly performance.

Joining me is musical director/conductor, Robert Meffe. Mr. Meffe's Broadway credits include Les Miserables, as well as touring credits with the Broadway tour of The Phantom of the Opera and Sunday in the Park with George.

His Off-Broadway work includes The Prince and the Pauper, Violet, and Lighting Out. Regionally, Mr. Meffe has conducted productions of Candide and The Most Happy Fella. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Music Theater at Pace University in Manhattan.

Pati Buehler: What is involved in the birth of a musical and what role does the musical director's play?

Robert Meffe: A musical director is essential to the creative staff of a musical. We have the director, the choreographer, and the musical director. The producers, composers, and writers are one section of the piece. The producers basically put up the money, oversee everything, and then they hire the creative staff. The director is at the top of this creative team; then the music director and choreographer. Sort of on the next level are the costume, set, and lighting designers. But in terms of hands-on creating of the actual piece, the musical is sort of the composer's "voice." The music director is responsible for getting the cast and the orchestra to play and to sing the composer's intentions.

Like a script with words to say, a composer writes out notes for the actors to sing but it's not quite as easy as that. There are many ways you can say "to be or not to be," but there are twice as many ways that you can sing a lyric. The music director's job is to teach the notes, to teach the harmonies, to coach all of the principals with their individual songs, and to really get the intention of the lyric to match how they are going to sing the song.

This is a big part of the musical and the first few weeks are usually spent with the music director teaching everyone the score at the same time the choreographer is teaching them the dancing. There's a lot of collaboration because the choreographer will want changes done in the music; a cymbal crash here or something faster there. The musical director keeps track of this in his score so that he knows what he will tell the orchestra or the cast. The composers usually do not attend the rehearsals; that's why they hire the musical director. It's the music director's job to say, "I can speak for the composer and I know that he wouldn't want it this way" or " I can speak for him and let's try this or that." This is the first part of the job and probably the most important one.

Throughout the rehearsal process, the director leans very heavily on the musical director. In a show like LesMiserables for example, which is practically all sung, any direction has to go through the music director. For example, no one would sing the end of "Bring Him Home" full out. The song is a prayer to God and it ends with a very lightly-orchestrated floating note that sort of ascends up to heaven. So the music director strives to deliver the music with the composer's intentions at heart. Consequently, most music directors are very affable people and the most successful ones are usually very laid back. It's not like a symphony orchestra where the person in the lead has to be a type A personality because an orchestra is a dictatorship where everything has to go through the conductor. Musicals on the other hand, are completely collaborative art forms, so the very successful musical directors like Paul Gemignani, Dave Chase, and Michael Rafter are actually quite personable.

As the orchestrations are being done, the musical director is working with the orchestra to get it sounding the best that it can andt hen work begins with the sound designers and with the people running the soundboard to be sure all that was taught is transferred to the stage properly. Once the show is up and running, the music director is the only person from the creative team that stays. He is usually also the orchestra's conductor, and then is part of the maintenance team. After the first performances, the director and choreographer often move on to different projects, and periodically they may come back, but not very often.

In my six years of working with Les Miz, I saw John Caird maybe twice. Instead, they will hire a production staff for a long running show. When new people come into a show, usually the musical director and stage manager, acting on behalf of the director, teach them the music and blocking. The dance captain that's assigned will take the part of the choreographer. Since the musical director is really the only person actually watching the show every night, he is the one responsible to make sure things that are running smoothly.

Pati, I know I'm giving you a lot of information [laughing] but I know you will pare it down to where it needs to be.

PB: No problem. Perhaps we will all be thinking more deeply about musical directors from now on...

RM: Great! But that's not all. Many music directors are also excellent arrangers, orchestrators, or pianists, coaches and teachers. I've actually done all of these things. David Chase, who is also a wonderful music director, is also an amazing dancer arranger. I do a lot of concert work with vocalists too. We are kind of jacks-of-all-trades.

PB: This is fascinating. I would like to know what steps lead up to this? Where did you start?

RM: Well, I was always interested in musicals after I saw my first musical, A Chorus Line. I got into this as a pianist in high school. I tried the chorus and they wisely put me in the pit because of a lack of acting talent. [laughing] "Gee, let's put him in the pit." I was the assistant music director for West Side Story by my junior year, and the director for some of their other productions. Since it was a matter of saving money by letting the students direct, I was called on for this regularly. I also worked in community theater outside of Greensburg, Pa., in the Apple Hill Playhouse where I directed three shows.

I actually went to college and graduated for pre-med at Notre Dame in 1989, but I also got a music degree while I was there. It's funny, because the first thing you think of, of course, is the football team, but they actually had a very nice, but small, music department. Since I was one of five majors there, I basically got to do everything: student conductor of the men's chorus on campus, glee club, and orchestra - I got a lot of individual attention. I had so much leeway there that the school actually funded a musical that I had written called Simon. As a senior, I don't know why I thought I could write a musical, but nonetheless I was confident. We had a full production, that was reviewed by the local newspaper. The South Bend Tribune's reviewer actually compared me to Puccini, because he said, "Even Puccini bombed when he first wrote Madame Butterfly!" [laughing] It was actually very pretentious when he quoted, " A man's reach shouldn't exceed his grasp or else what is a heaven for?" What he was saying was "Here's this very ambitious kid biting off a little more than he can chew." He said though that he actually enjoyed the music of the piece, I just think that he didn't like the story or the book. That seems to be the history of much of musical theater to this day, doesn't it?

So, I went into my master's degree having a lot of experience in music theater. After graduation I was actually accepted into both medical school and two different master's degree programs. I chose conducting to see if I'd be any good at it. I went to Cincinnati because it was the premiere theater school and it was there that I met Kristen Blodgette, music supervisor for The Phantom of the Opera. It was just a lucky strike; a real meeting of the minds. Pretty much most of my professional jobs were a result of Kristin's influence. She eventually invited me to music direct the national tour of The Phantom of the Opera and that's where I met Craig Schulman. So indirectly, the concert this month with Craig in Taiwan, I owe to Kristen Blodgette.

PB: So, I think we're all thankful that you picked up a baton rather than a scalpel.

RM: [laughing] You know every once in awhile I've thought of going back to medical school. Then something comes up like going to Taiwan and I think, "Oh, no, I couldn't be a doctor" because medicine was a real passion of mine. It still is, but I think I've out run the statute of limitations on that.

PB: I think you made a wise choice. Speaking of choices, there are a lot of young talented musicians. What choices would you recommend to those who are interested in becoming a musical director or conductor?

RM: That's very easy. There's no one that becomes an overnight sensation as a music director. No one is plucked from obscurity to conduct a Broadway show. The best thing to do is to do it, in anyway at all that you can. Practice in high school; and give it your best for no money like I did. There are community theaters in every town. There's no college program for musical directors or performers, and while there are wonderful schools to teach you these skills, there's no substitute for doing it. Young people have lots of opportunities because every musical theater or house is looking for young people to fill up their chorus or orchestra. My advice is to do it, do it, do it!

Remember, every person that you meet is important to you because you absolutely never know when you are going to see him or her again. Ask any performer who's on Broadway and they will tell you, "Oh yes, I worked with so and so in a community production of Grease and now they are the lead choreographer for the next Broadway show." Even when you think completely untalented people surround you, [laughing] people grow and they learn. And if you don't learn, you will be the one left behind. This is a unique industry where very young people can become professionals. You can't practice dentistry before high school [laughing] but I know a lot of kids that are 8 and 10 years old that are professionals in this industry. It's about motivation, dedication, talent, and being prepared. All of these things are fully within the grasp of a motivated child or teenager.

PB: Rob, I know that you work with young people of all ages in this industry. Tell us about that.

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RM: Teaching is a big passion of mine. I consider the job of music director as being a part time teacher. I work in the public schools with different groups via Rosie's Kids, a program that goes into the public schools from kindergarten to sixth grade. They send a director, choreographer, and musical director into the schools and they teach them all about music theater. I also work with an after school program called TADA!, which is a workshop program for children. TADA! also has a company of about 20 children that put on about four or five shows a year that were written by local New York composers. They are absolutely wonderful! I do a series of workshops in upper Westchester, N.Y., for some extraordinarily talented high school kids and I'm also an adjunct professor at Pace University, where I teach the history of American theater.

PB: That sounds very rewarding and exciting. And on that note, what can you tell us about Little Women? I was thrilled to hear that you were invited to share in that creative team as the musical director.

RM: True! It's very exciting and I want everyone reading this to come and see it. We are doing the out of town tryout at Duke University on September 7, 2004, with about three weeks of performances. It closes there on October 31st. Between January 5th and 25th, 2005, we'll start rehearsals in New York City. We will start previews probably by the end of February and open in late March. We've been guaranteed a theater, but I can't say which one because it's now occupied with another show. But we will be coming!

Most extraordinary is that they have signed Sutton Foster to play Jo March. I worked with Sutton Foster before in Les Miserables. She actually understudied Eponine and my job was to teach the understudies the music. I had the great fortune to take Sutton through a music rehearsal and I recall that glorious voice and just being astounded at her stage presence, and at her acting and wonderful grasp of this complex character. What was great about her performance was that Sutton is very tall and usually that role is cast very small and skinny. Sutton had such a full sense of vulnerability about her. She is truly a delight to work with and I couldn't be happier for her much deserved success.

PB: Well, Rob, we have learned so much about the role of a musical director and the complexities of creating a successful musical. I am very happy for all of your success and excited about your future projects. Thank you so much for sharing so much of yourself with us.

RM: You are quite welcome, and thank you for asking me!

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