BWW Interview: For the Ladies That Make up the Band of Signature Theatre's GIRLFRIEND, Life Truly Rocks

BWW Interview: For the Ladies That Make up the Band of Signature Theatre's GIRLFRIEND, Life Truly Rocks
Top row L-R- Britt Bonney and Nicole Saphos. Bottom row L-R Beth Cannon and Erika Johnson. Photos by Christopher Mueller.

Nowadays, when you go a musical on Broadway or elsewhere, chances are the orchestra isn't in full view. Gone are the days when you were able to look in the orchestra pit and see the musicians. For all you know, they could be playing in a totally different room.

One of Signature Theatre's current productions is the DC premiere of the pop rock musical Girlfriend. It utilizes the songs from Matthew Sweet's 1991 album of the same name with a book by Todd Almond. The production is directed by Signature Theatre's Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner. The show has been extended and now runs through June 17th.

The two character musical features Jimmy Mavrikes and Lukas James Miller in the acting roles, but it's the female contingent of musicians in a glass enclosed booth which you can see that really kicks this show into high gear.

The four-member ensemble features Britt Bonney (Musical Director, Keyboard, Guitar, and Tamborine), Beth Cannon (Guitar), Nicole Saphos (Bass), and Erika Johnson (Drums). The quartet also provides backup vocals.

As you will read, one of the members of our merry band is making her theatrical debut while others have been playing on various productions on Broadway and elsewhere for many years. They all share one thing in common though - they truly make beautiful music together.

It doesn't matter if you know the work of Matthew Sweet going in to Girlfriend. After hearing this band play his music along with Mavrikes and Miller's performances, you will be a fan. For something a little retro that still is relevant today, Check out Girlfriend at Signature Theatre. Remember to keep your eyes on the ladies in the glass booth. They really rock!!

At what age did you start playing an instrument and are instruments you play in Girlfriend your original choices?

Nicole Saphos (NS)- I started playing when I was eleven, and sort of - I started out on upright bass in middle school, (which is my primary instrument), and then picked up electric bass around fourteen or fifteen - around the time in high school where it becomes necessary to have a rock band. :-)

Erika Johnson(EJ)- To the best of my recollection, I started piano when I was eight or nine. I only really took piano to get a foundation to start percussion a few years later.

Beth Cannon(BC)- My first instrument I ever learned was guitar at the age of twelve, which happens to be the instrument I play for Girlfriend!

Britt Bonney(BB)- My Girlfriend track is actually a mix of many instruments: keyboards, guitar, tambourine, and vocals!

I began piano studies in earnest around age twelve, though admittedly playing keyboards for a show like this is a very different animal - less Chopin and more B3 rock organ. Until Girlfriend, I hadn't picked up a guitar since high school - my friend Micah Burgess plays guitar for School of Rock on Broadway, and he gave me some pointers. Luckily, I've been singing since before I could speak, so the vocals were not too much of a stretch.

Who had the biggest musical influence on your career?

NS- Fiona Apple's a pretty big one. I would also have to say Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, and The Ahmad Jamal Trio.

EJ- The Beatles and Sondheim.

BC- My biggest musical influence would be my first guitar teacher, Pete Durand. I really wanted to get better at playing guitar solos and improving my technique, and Pete was the perfect teacher for that! He was very encouraging and pushed me to achieve more than I thought I could with my playing and inspired me to diversify my playing by exploring other styles of music.

BB- The composer in me is influenced by the musical theater greats: Stephen Sondheim, Frank Loesser, John Kander, and Fred Ebb, etc. As a music director, I was greatly influenced by working with Alan Menken's music team (music supervisor Michael Kosarin and conductor B-A Huffman). From them, I learned to appreciate elegance over heavy-handedness, as well as the fine details that elevate music to become greater than the sum of its parts.

Is Girlfriend your first time playing a "legit" show - meaning an eight times a week type of situation?

NS- Yep!

EJ- Nope. Most of my gigs involve opera or musical theater.

BC- Yes! The last time I did anything in musical theater was when I participated in my middle school's musicals. I regularly play music at local venues in the DC area, but it doesn't compare to the amount of shows I get to play with Girlfriend.

Were you familiar with Matthew Sweet's music before starting rehearsals for Girlfriend.

NS- No, which surprised me, because I love 90's music. I'm definitely a fan now though!

EJ- Well, before the first rehearsal, yes. I definitely listened obsessively once I got the gig. Before that, I was aware of Matthew Sweet, but really only knew the song, "Girlfriend" and only knew it from playing "Guitar Hero/Rock Band."

BC- I was familiar with the song "Girlfriend," but wasn't familiar with any of this other music.

BB- I wasn't, but I certainly am now! I wish we had about seven more guitars to do justice to the multi-layer shredding on the record, but luckily our guitarist Beth Cannon is a prodigy: she brings the house down all by herself.

Britt, are the charts for the show more lead-sheet-style or is everything scored out for each of the musicians?

Generally speaking, the charts are more guidelines than specific instructions: lots of lead-sheet-style slashes plus a few written-in figures designed to give the musician a jumping off point, all of which are typical of a rock show. We listened carefully to the Matthew Sweet album and tried to balance it with the demands of the show: some of the songs, like "Girlfriend" and "I've Been Waiting," are designed to sound like the record; others, like "Looking at the Sun" and "Evangeline," have been re-conceived musically to tell the story of these two boys. I had lunch with Girlfriend creator Todd Almond before rehearsals began, and he told me we were welcome to fit the music to our band. For us, that meant elaborating on the back-up vocals, as we have four killer singers (I believe the original Berkeley Rep production only had two). The endeavor has been quite a success: Most audience members think our band must have been playing together for years and are surprised to learn that we were strangers until a few weeks ago.

Erika, as a very versatile percussionist, what is the most unusual instrument in your arsenal of percussion instruments?

One of the best parts of percussion is the sound and weird instruments that composers need. But, just the instruments I own, I guess unusual would be a lot of the drums and shakers that my father has brought me from his travels. AND, maybe the kazoo that was a wedding favor from my brother's first marriage. Maybe I should get rid of that one. I've stolen my dogs' squeaky toys too.

Nicole, some bass players prefer playing upright over electric bass or vice versa. Do you have a preference?

Not a strong preference. The upright will always feel like "home" for me. Largely because that's what I started on, and it's hard not to feel incredibly attached to an instrument of that size and command.

But, I love the bass in all its forms, and am happy to play whichever one best compliments the music. I will say, I certainly prefer to sing with the upright (as opposed to electric). The way you hold an upright it really complimentary to relaxed/open singing.

Beth, besides being a guitarist you are also a songwriter. Which came first?

Songwriting definitely came first. I loved to sing and play songs when I was younger, but I didn't know how to play an instrument to accompany my songs, so I picked up the guitar! Within the first week I was hooked and found myself practicing for hours upon hours every day because I was so excited to learn and get better. It made songwriting a lot easier and allowed me to experiment with songwriting in different genres.

After Girlfriend concludes its run where can we see you perform next in our area or elsewhere?

NS- I have a new EP out - "Buzz & Bloom" (released March 30 with Local Woman Records). The EP is a collection of seven original songs with a style reminiscent of Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, and Aimee Mann. The EP, and a list of all upcoming shows can be found on my website.

EJ- I'm in the process of working out a few gigs after my arms get a break. The one I am most looking forward to is guesting (singing and playing marimba/vibes/kit) on my friend Brian Calhoon's Marimba Cabaret in Provincetown on July 17th. Check out my website for more info.

BC- I perform a lot around the DMV area with my band Elizabeth II! I've got some shows coming up throughout the summer at Black Cat and Slash Run, and I hope to have a lot more booked by the end of our run! I also perform with a couple other musical projects in the area and often fill in as a guitar player, but the best way to keep up with any performances is to follow Elizabeth II's Facebook page, Instagram, or go to my website since dates are always being spontaneously added!

BB- I'll be headed back to New York to work on my new musical Montgomery, I also have a residency at the Rhinebeck Writers Retreat scheduled in early July. There are plans in the works for a DC-area reading of the show this fall as well.

Here is the trailer for Girlfriend featuring our rocking interviewees.

Special thanks to Signature Theatre's Deputy Director, Creative Content and Publicity James Gardiner for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

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