BWW Interview: Scott Bell of BANDSTAND at American Theatre Guild
Bandstand is a musical that most people are not familiar with, but should be. Its plot deals with a group of musicians who come back to the U.S. after serving in World War II and finding it difficult to re-enter American society. Traumatized by their experiences, they form a band in hopes of reaching the top of the entertainment world. The show only lasted a few months on Broadway during 2017 but won a Tony Award for its choreography, designed by Andy Blankenbuehler, who also directed the show. Bandstand, staged by American Theatre Guild, comes to Thousand Oaks as part of its first national tour.
Recently, we chatted with Scott Bell, who plays trumpet player Nick Radel in the show. Scott is a professional freelance trumpet player from San Mateo, California who started playing trumpet at age 6. Since then, Scott has traveled the globe performing with various groups and has opened for artists such as Boz Scaggs, George Clinton, and Herbie Hancock. He recently graduated from Berklee College of Music studying trumpet performance but never dreamed he would soon be performing in a national tour as an actor as well as a musician.
VCOS: Has being a musician always been your first choice for a profession?
SCOTT: Yes. My dad started teaching me when I was little and as I got older I got more involved in community groups and school groups, then all-state honor band, and by the time I got into my sophomore and junior years in high school, I decided I wanted to do music full time. So I got into Berklee to help fulfill that dream.
VCOS: Did you have any idea as to what kind of work you wanted to do, be it studio work, playing with a band or being a solo performer?
SCOTT: Kind of a mixture of all of those. I feel like that, as a musician, I wanted to play a bunch of different roles and have different tricks that I could do. For instance, when I went to school at Berklee, I did some things other than trumpet playing. I was also involved in a cappella singing as well as doing radio work, learning how to produce and engineer in a studio, and doing some DJ-ing as well. So I've always had a few different avenues that were open to me at the time. I think that my overall goal was to always do some sort of solo performance or studio work.
VCOS: I noticed in your bio that you've worked with some real heavyweight names like Boz Scaggs and Herbie Hancock. Is jazz your music of choice?
SCOTT: Jazz definitely encompasses a lot of what I do, but I also play a lot of R&B and funk, I've worked a lot with soul bands, but I did grow up with a jazz background. The spine of everything I do goes back to jazz, because that's how I was brought up. But I love playing other genres as well, I've done Top 40 pop stuff, I like to do a little bit of everything.
VCOS: Are there any specific musicians who are your favorites or who you may have modeled your style after?
SCOTT: Oh, man. In terms of strictly trumpet players, when I was younger I went to see the great Maynard Ferguson, I got to see him and see what was possible in playing in the ultra-high register. I've seen people like Roy Hargrove, Arturo Sandoval, Wayne Bergeron; those are some of my favorites. Other jazz artists I've loved include Sonny Rollins, Pat Metheny, and a bunch of other artists contributed to my musicianship. I'm trying to think of some others on top of my head. Also, some of the more modern artists like the band Moonchild, Flying Lotus, and some others that are kind of outside the jazz realm.
VCOS: I see that you also do a lot of transcribing of music. What's the toughest piece you've ever had to transcribe?
SCOTT: There are quite a few, actually, to be honest with you. I recently did one of a musical genius named Jacob Collier. He's an absolutely phenomenal musician, a 25-year-old musical prodigy, and he did this crazy little Instagram video that had a really complicated solo that got reposted on a bunch of different sites. I always try to challenge myself by transcribing something that nobody else would really attempt. I did one of a group called Tennyson; they're a brother-sister group, that took several hours, but mostly, I've been doing a cappella transcriptions of the group Take 6. I've been working several whole-song transcriptions of theirs which take me weeks to figure out.
VCOS: Can transcribing me a lucrative profession or is this more of a hobby of yours?
SCOTT: It's actually been a hobby of mine since I was in high school. But I've found that it helps in the professional world, especially if you're trying to pick up songs on the fly because of your ability to listen and hear what they're doing. But when I was in high school, I belonged to a group and we wanted to perform songs that had been done by other a cappella groups at that time, so instead of digging through our music library of outdated songs that we preferred not to perform, I took it upon myself to try and figure out what these other groups were singing to bring more of a modern type of a cappella sound to our group. It hasn't become a career kind of thing for me to do but it does attract a lot of business through social media and also to show more tricks of my trade.
VCOS: Musicians who act aren't really all that commonplace. How did you fall into that part of your career?
SCOTT: It's funny, and I'm very, very grateful for it, but Bandstand is the very first acting thing I've ever done at all. So this show is my debut of anything in that realm. I've been telling people that of all the things that I would be touring for, musical theater was one that never crossed my mind. It all came about because of my old trumpet teacher at Berklee. He knew the casting director for Bandstand and so the director and producers reached out to me and asked me to audition. Then I got a callback to come to New York for a few more rounds of auditions and ended up landing the part. Even though I don't have an acting background, I did have playing and singing experience as well as doing a lot of shows in the orchestra pit.
VCOS: I imagine it's easier to teach a musician to act than an actor to play an instrument.
SCOTT: I guess so. I did take it upon myself, with the help of the casting director, to do a few months of acting coaching before starting the rehearsal process. So I definitely didn't go into it completely blind. But I've been learning on the fly with some of the most amazing musicians on stage and actors who are so incredible at what they do. It's been a learning process and a very, very fun one at that.
VCOS: Tell me about Nick, the character that you play in Bandstand.
SCOTT: Nick is kind of full of himself. Nick believes that he is the best trumpet player there is. In the story, he came back from World War II after being a prisoner of war, and had been subject to some very, very cruel punishment after enlisting in the army. And after coming back, he joined this band of brothers who are all war veterans. And they all are able to bond with each other through the power of music and try to pick up the lives that they left behind when they went off to fight. So Nick is kind of stuck up and definitely pushes people's buttons and is prone to be very outspoken. But he wants things to work out and does it through his own unique way of being a hard ass.
VCOS: Without giving away any plot elements, does Nick experience any kind of growth in the show?
SCOTT: I think he absolutely does. When you first meet him, he's this very brash, egotistical guy, which is stereotypical of many trumpet players, by the way (laughs). But over the course of the play, and through the hardships and conflicts that they experience in getting to the level of stardom that they want to get to, I think that he finds that he has connected with the other musicians in the band in a way that he hasn't felt in a long time. After wanting to be the best there is, he finally settles into being satisfied where he is instead of being angry and resentful all the time.
VCOS: Are you able to identify with Nick?
SCOTT: I had a lot of friends joke around with me when I got the part. And they'd say, "Oh, yeah, you fit that part perfectly." (laughs) But seriously, it's a side that I've had to grow into, just being that guy who likes to push buttons and start drama and challenge anyone who opposes him. So it's definitely a role I had to get into. I'm more of a guy who's a little more passive and doesn't want to get into conflict with people and likes to go with the flow.
VCOS: I know you play and you act, but do you do much dancing as well? I noticed that Andy Blankenbuehler was the director of Bandstand and he has gotten more credits as a choreographer.
SCOTT: Oh, absolutely. I never saw the original Broadway version, but with the help of Andy and Marc Heitzman, who is re-staging Andy's choreography, they put together an incredible piece of work. It's a visual masterpiece, I would say. For me, personally, it's not unfortunate that I don't do a lot of the dancing. We have a lot of great dancers who are incredible at what they do, so I wouldn't be able to do it justice. I have a few steps here and there but I leave the dancing to the professionals.
VCOS: Are there any veterans in your family who have experienced the things your character and the other characters in the show went through during war time?
SCOTT: Both my grandfathers are war veterans. My family came from Kansas, originally. My grandfather on my mom's side drove from Kansas to New Jersey and signed up to be a radio operations communicator. And he lived in New Jersey from the time of Pearl Harbor until the end of the war in 1945. Afterwards he moved to the Bay Area, which is where I'm from. and worked at Pan Am for a long time. On my father's side, my grandfather served in the Korean War and my dad was actually born in a military hospital in Germany. My grandfathers have since passed on, but I talked with my parents about it because my grandfather on my dad's side was actually involved in combat. My dad, however, doesn't know too much about what his dad went through and my grandfather never really shared a lot of with me either, when I was growing up. I'm not sure why, but there's a big plot element in Bandstand when a lot of the characters are asked to talk about experiences in the war, they kind of hold back because they don't want to talk about it. So, the characters in the show kind of are like my grandfather, who are just reluctant to share any of it with anybody. It's hard for people to open up about their experiences because they were so traumatizing to them.
VCOS: So are you able to use that personal experience to help motivate your identifying with your character?
SCOTT: Yeah, absolutely.
VCOS: Bandstand is still a fairly new show. It made its debut in 2017 and had a short run on Broadway before going out on tour. How do you think it will be received as it progresses?
SCOTT: Well, we're hitting about 75 cities in over 30 states on the current tour, and the fact that we get to share this with a big part of middle America, I think they're going to love it. Before every show we always acknowledge all the veterans in the audience and ask them to stand up and be recognized. It seems like wherever we went - and so far, we've done about 7 or 8 shows - it's been received very, very well. When we meet members of the audience they tell us stories about family members who have served in the military and how our storytelling, through music and dance and a serious plot has been very important to them. The show deals with the veteran's experience in a very honest way, and I think it's impactful both to the older generation and modern audiences alike, just because it's an ongoing struggle. Veterans are always coming back from war and struggling to cope in everyday life once again. And I think that the more we share this very honest message with the entire country, I think Bandstand is going to get a lot more recognition.
VCOS: One final question. Since you've gotten your feet wet in acting, do you see yourself performing in other shows, with or without your trumpet?
SCOTT: Yeah, I hope so. During the two months I spent taking acting lessons in Los Angeles, acting is something that I definitely enjoy but never really thought about it until I got this opportunity. So I'm taking it a day at a time with this tour and do as top a level of performance as I can throughout this run, but I am thinking about what the future holds me right. So I'm keeping the door open and see where it takes me.
American Theatre Guild's production of Bandstand plays from November 19-24 at the Kavli Theatre. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.