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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Kim Scharnberg and Christopher Youstra

Kim Scharnberg and Christopher Youstra.
Kim Scharnberg photo by Katherine Griswold.

Today's subjects, Kim Scharnberg and Christopher Youstra, are currently living their theatre lives as the orchestrator and musical director, respectively, for the Ford's Theatre production of Ragtime. The show continues through May 20th.

Kim Scharnberg's orchestration credits include practically any musical where Frank Wildhorn is listed as composer. These include Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Wonderland, and The Civil War. His past credits at Ford's Theatre include Hello Dolly, 1776, and the yearly Ford's Theatre Gala. His work has also been heard on Broadway in the musical Little Women and, in London, Doctor Doolittle. Select film credits include Miami Rhapsody, Made in America, and Quiz Show.

By day, Christopher Youstra is the Associate Artistic Director/Director of Music Theater (snazzy) at Olney Theatre Center. His many orchestration/musical direction/musical supervision credits for Olney include Carousel, The King and I, Camelot, Annie, The Sound of Music, Carmen, The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, and Evita. Other area musical direction/orchestration credits include Les Misérables at Toby's Dinner Theatre; Silence the Musical and Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson at Studio Theatre; The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Ford's Theatre; and Night of the Living Dead for Kensington Art Theatre.

Ragtime is a monster of a show both in terms of production and material. There is literally music from beginning to end. On Broadway, there was a 26-piece orchestra, but at Ford's it numbers nine. Don't let the smaller orchestra size fool you though. Kim Scharnberg's orchestrations are faithful to the original William David Brohn charts, but have their own distinct chamber sound that fit this staging perfectly. Adding to Kim's orchestra reduction, there are some additional choral arrangements by Christopher Youstra for additional audible delights. They are part of Director Peter Flynn's production concept and are welcome addition to the lovely score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty score.

Ragtime is one of those shows that packs an emotional wallop. Kim Scharnberg and Christopher Youstra's work certainly helps the production pack that wallop at Ford's Theatre. With singers like Kevin McAllister as Coalhouse Walker you can't lose. The musicians are dressed in period costume and in full view so not only do you hear them, you get to see them in action. That is what I call living on "Wheels of a Dream," and Kim and Christopher's work on Ragtime will make you feel the same way.

Where did you receive your training in orchestration?

KS: I took four years of arranging classes at the Eastman School of Music and orchestration was a part of it, but really I've been doing this since I was in seventh grade. I always try and do something that I've never tried before on each project-to try and expand my 'bag of tricks'.

CY: My training began in college at the University of Dayton and in graduate school at Eastern Illinois University. I also had a series of mentors that gave me a lot of real-world experience, and I continue to study orchestration as new shows come out. I have worked with Kim a handful of times and I have long been a fan of his - the first Broadway show I saw was Jekyll and Hyde and when I got to do that show, I spent a bunch of time studying his style.

What were your first professional orchestration jobs?

KS: For theatre, it was the musical Jekyll and Hyde. I started doing demos for it in 1986 and it made it to Broadway in 1997. I've also done a lot of film, television, and commercial work.

CY: I think the first piece I orchestrated professionally was "Ghosties and Ghoulies" from Meet Me at St. Louis at Montgomery College, right out of grad school. It was before I used Finale notation software, so I still have the illegible manuscripts somewhere in my attic. Since then, a lot of the shows I have done require re-orchestration because of smaller pit sizes.

The company of Ragtime at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Ragtime is wall to wall music. Were the orchestrating duties split evenly between the two of you? If so, how did you decide who would score what?

CY: Well, the duties were not split at all! They are ALL Kim's - he and I would talk often and bounce ideas, but he is the orchestrator of this production. It was great to have him do it because, for one, music directing the show took all of my focus; and, two, he's really great at it!

KS: Chris is the music director and, most importantly, he is our principal accordion player! Chris also added some amazing vocal arrangements that really expand this version. I would constantly consult him during the writing and rehearsal process since he was with the director and actors and knew what changes were needed.

Also, since the band is on stage we had to figure out how to make it work volume-wise, which was challenging at times.

How did you choose the instrumentation for this production and how closely was composer Stephen Flaherty involved in making these decisions?

KS: It starts with the size of the band. Ford's usually has eight players but added an additional player to make it nine. Since we didn't have a big orchestra like the original score requires I had a concept that it'd be interesting and fun to score it with more of an authentic ragtime band instrumentation. Stephen was extremely supportive of this especially since it wouldn't just rely on keyboards to get a big sound, which is the norm. We were fortunate to have great musicians, including our bass player who doubled on tuba- a rarity these days!

CY: We knew we wanted to capture the "Main Street USA" sound of the show, so that requires brass, reeds, percussion, violin, etc., which Kim was able to capture nicely. It was helpful that I had a friend who plays both tuba and acoustic bass and adding accordion was a fun touch.

The company of Ragtime at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Christopher, this production of Ragtime has some additional choral work in what used to be straight solos. "Back to Before" is but one example of this. Whose idea was it to add the additional voices on some of the songs?

CY: I wanted to do it because, with a smaller orchestra, it gave us another musical texture to use. Also, in this production, the ensemble is far more present throughout the show so I thought (along with Peter Flynn, the director) that it would increase their participation in the various stories. Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Aherns also gave us permission to tweak the ending, so that was a lot of fun.

Kim, when you are working on an orchestra reduction for a show like Ragtime or 1776, what is your philosophy about being faithful to the original charts by William David Brohn (Ragtime) or Eddie Sauter (1776)?

KS: I sort of have to go my own way since both were larger orchestras to start. For 1776, I followed the original version closer, but utilized keyboards to widen the sound of the orchestra, which was in the 'pit' in front of the stage. With Ragtime, I was given permission to go my own way and create a different sound. Stephen Flaherty was incredibly supportive of the entire process and we never really talked about what I did.

The Ragtime band stuff was pretty easy since that was the sound we had built in. The 'theatre music' was trickier because it still needed to get big at the appropriate times. I used the second keyboard to achieve that and certainly did reference Bill Brohn's wonderful charts. The other thing is that Stephen personally wrote every single note in the piano/vocal book so I didn't want to mess with that and actually went back to his original ideas in places that aren't in the original or the revival versions.

Both of you are used to taking the original orchestrations of a show and scaling them down for your respective theatres. Yet, when I go to see one of these shows, the orchestra always has a full sound to it. What are some of the tricks you use to make an orchestra of ten sound like 30?

KS: For me it's all about using the acoustic instruments appropriately so the score sounds full and all the chords and countermelodies sound complete. I like to use keyboards for good and not evil. I tend to use them to bolster and add weight to the acoustic instruments as well as piano and other keyboard sounds.

CY: I feel it's about using a bunch of colors - whatever you have available, and guiding the ear from color to color. Also, finding ways to reinforce the instruments creatively so that they support and blend with each other leads to a stronger and more confident sound. It also doesn't hurt that we have really great players for Ragtime.

Christopher Youstra and accordion. Photo courtesy of Christopher Youstra.

What is the most challenging orchestra reduction each of you has worked on and do you feel that any show can be reduced down to a smaller ensemble?

CY: The two most challenging reductions for me were two recent productions at Olney Theatre - Carousel and Evita. For Carousel, I wanted to do a reduction to twelve that still captured the lushness of the score. For Evita, it was an actual re-orchestration down to seven that gave the show more of a chamber feel. Most shows can be brought to a smaller ensemble, but in most cases, the smaller the orchestra, the less satisfying it might become.

KS: Ragtime. If I could do this I can pretty much do any show! Audience members come in with certain expectations and have usually listened to the original cast recordings with a HUGE orchestra so they'll inevitably compare if they're savvy theatre-goers. My job is to still give them the emotional pay-off that's required for each song. (And make sure the music director is happy with his accordion parts!)

Here is the official trailer for the Ford's Theatre production of Ragtime. It will give you a quick taste of Kim's orchestrations and Christopher's vocal work.

Special thanks to Lauren Beyea Associate Director of Communications and Marketing at Ford's Theatre for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.



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