BWW Interview: Theatre Life with John Bell
Today's subject John Bell is currently living his theatre life as the musical director for the Bartlett Sher directed touring production of My Fair Lady which plays in the Opera House at the Kennedy Center now through January 19th.
Do you remember the days when you could walk into a theatre and look into the orchestra pit to see anywhere from twenty to twenty five musicians sitting down there waiting to play a Broadway musical? You're lucky if you can even see the orchestra at all when you walk into a Broadway theatre now.
With this tour of My Fair Lady we are transported back to a bygone era of Broadway musicals. From the very first notes of Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang's (adapted for this tour by Joshua Clayton) orchestrations you will notice the orchestra sounds incredibly lush and non synthetic which is so refreshing nowadays. It's amazing what live strings can do. Read on to see how many players John has in his orchestra and read how literally in every city he has to rehearse a new orchestra.
John is no stranger to this production of My Fair Lady having conducted the show at Lincoln Center Theater. Other Broadway credits include Fiddler on the Roof, On the Town, and An American in Paris. He has been associated with twelve+ shows with the acclaimed City Center Encores! Series (Associate MD): Brigadoon, Me and My Girl, Lady Be Good, The New Yorkers and more. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, John has been Music Supervisor/Director for Finian's Rainbow, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and Meet Me in St. Louis. Other New York credits: Ordinary Days, Marry Me A Little, Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and Candide.
Here we have a very talented musician/conductor ready to bring a golden age musical to the masses as My Fair Lady is set to play across the country after it leaves DC. Thank you Maestro John Bell for keeping a certain kind of Broadway musical alive and well.
For a way to beat the January post holiday blues, grab yourself some tickets to My Fair Lady at the Kennedy Center. John Bell and the orchestra will hook you from the very first notes of the overture and "With a Little Bit of Luck" it will just bloom into a totally loverly experience from there.
Were you always interested in music as a child?
I have no memory of life without music. I was a shy child (which I quickly grew out of, mostly through music), but I used to hide in the bushes at the edge of our yard and sing at the top of my lungs. The whole neighborhood could hear me. My mom remembers that when I was a toddler, whenever she would play the piano, I would try to climb up to the keys and bang along. I guess I wanted to be the one playing. I never let her practice in peace!
Had you been playing any other instruments before you chose the piano?
I started the piano as soon as my hands were big enough to stretch across the keys (at about 6 years old). I studied the organ seriously in middle school and high school, and I think that it is an amazing instrument. Truly the "king of instruments" as Mozart called it. You can learn a lot about orchestration and instrumentation from working with the organ because the families of pipes have such different timbres and registers, and the possibilities of sound that can be created are so vast. I also played the steel drum, which is a wonderful instrument. You can have an entire orchestra of steel drums of various sizes and ranges, and can even play classical repertoire on them. I would love to play steel drums again!
Where did you receive your training?
I have studied music and theatre since I was six years old and am grateful to be a product of wonderful teachers in the Pittsburgh/Western PA area. I have a BFA in Musical Theatre from Ithaca College, and a Masters in Piano from the City University of New York. I have also spent a lot of time and energy studying conducting, which is an art form unto itself.
What was your first professional job as a conductor and as a pianist?
I am blessed to have been working for a long time, and I was a child performer too...but I would say it was probably summer theatre while I was in college.
This current tour of My Fair Lady picks up a good chunk of the orchestra in each city. How many musicians does the show tour with and how many do you pick up at each stop?
Including myself we tour with four musicians: Luke Flood is the associate conductor and plays keyboard, Dmitriy Melkumov is our concertmaster and plays all of the flashy violin solos, and Mark O'Kain is our percussionist. We pick up fourteen other players in each city. There are seventeen players total.
Along those same lines, can you please take us through the process of rehearsing a new orchestra in each city, and having your first performance within the same day? How does it work?
Tuesdays are very long days for us! I rehearse the orchestra for 5 hours (generally 10AM to 3PM). The music is sent ahead of time, as well as a video of me conducting the show, so that the musicians can practice and get used to the structure of the show (and to me) before we arrive. We have a 1-hour sound check with the orchestra in the pit and the cast on stage, and then we perform the show that evening. It takes a lot of energy, discipline, and professionalism on everyone's part to make it happen. But that is the magic of theatre. Depending on whether the show begins at 7:30 or 8PM, the curtain comes down roughly 13 hours after our day has begun.
You've worked a lot at the City Center Encores! series. That orchestra from the beginning has always been contracted by Seymour "Red" Press. Can you please talk about your experiences in having worked with someone who has been around since the 1950s on Broadway?
I love this question! Red is a legend and an institution. We are all so lucky to know him. Red has seen and done it all, in the truest sense of that term. We all feel very safe when he is around. Red is so wise and calm. He reminds me that, although it is important to have high standards, it is also important to realize that life continues on, and we must all keep a level head. The best is when you can steal a few moments with him to hear his stories from his long career. And also to go back and listen to him play on original cast albums like Gypsy and Mack and Mabel (which Encores! is doing this season).
Of all the productions you have worked on so far, are there any that stick out as particular favorites?
I hate to pick favorites...whatever I am working right now is my favorite. But I will say that I am very grateful to have done Bartlett Sher's revivals of Fiddler on the Roof and My Fair Lady, because they are actually my favorite musicals (and the productions are fantastic). I'm very humbled to say that I have conducted my favorite musicals on Broadway (and now on tour). On the Town was incredibly special because it was my Broadway debut, but also because the orchestral/dance music in that show (composed by Leonard Bernstein) is, I believe, some of the finest music ever written for the theatre. I hope to do it again someday. I did a revival of Finian's Rainbow off-Broadway at the Irish Repertory Theatre in 2016 that starred Melissa Errico. It is a wonderful show with a score filled with diamonds. It was incredibly timely and powerful to be presenting that piece during the frenzy of the 2016 Presidential Election. It resonated deeply with audiences, and was a moving experience for all involved. It could (and probably should) still be running. I did a beautiful production of Sondheim's Marry Me a Little with the Keen Company, in which we were allowed to delve into Sondheim's treasure trove of songs and interpolate a few different ones...it was such a treat. We recorded an album (available on iTunes!) where I am playing solo piano.
What are you most looking forward to about touring the country with My Fair Lady?
You can probably tell from my responses that most of my career is spent doing classic, golden-age musicals. This is the music that I grew up on, and it is in my DNA. These shows were groundbreaking in their time. They are not only a part of theatre history, but of American history. I look forward to bringing this beautiful show and incredible score to audiences around the country. It is actually a great responsibility. Maybe someone will see this production and fall in love with the arts in the same way that I did when I was a kid in Western Pennsylvania. The idea of doing these glorious shows gave me something to aspire to. I am grateful every day that I get to live my dream.
Special thanks to Kenendy Center's Senior Press Representative Brendan Padgett for his assistance in coordinating this interview.
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