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Interview: Theatre Life with Ted Sperling

Interview: Theatre Life with Ted Sperling
Ted Sperling

Today's subject Ted Sperling is very well represented this holiday season here in DC. He is the Musical Director/New Orchestrator for Fiddler on the Roof which plays through December 15th at the National Theatre. Beginning December 17th his work as Musical Supervisor can be heard on My Fair Lady at Kennedy Center's Opera House. That show runs through Jan 19th.

Ted's career has taken him on a musical journey that included many Broadway and Off-Broadway productions.

Select Broadway credits include My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, The Light in the Piazza (Tony and Drama Desk awards), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Full Monty, Titanic (actor), Kiss of the Spider Woman, How to Succeed...,My Favorite Year, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Sunday in the Park with George. Off-Broadway credits include Red Eye of Love, The Other Josh Cohen, Striking 12 and See What I Wanna See (all as director); A Man of No Importance, Saturn Returns, A New Brain, Floyd Collins, Romance in Hard Times, and Falsettoland (as music director). He is the Artistic Director of the renowned choral group MasterVoices.

You might have also seen him accompanying Audra McDonald on her Live from the Donmar Warehouse Concert or heard his handy work on many recordings.

As an actor he played one of the musicians that played the ship down in the original Broadway production of Titanic.

When not in an orchestra pit Ted can be seen conducting such symphony orchestras as the San Francisco Symphony performing a wide array of programming.

Ted Sperling is one of those artists that stays consistently busy and has done so for over 35 years now. This December you have two chances to hear the work of this incredibly talented artist and why he is living his theatre life to the fullest.

Growing up, did you know you wanted to work in the theatre?

I knew from an early age that I wanted to make music. I started lessons at age six. I played Perchik in a summer camp production of Fiddler on the Roof not long after (I think they cut my song!). I did some more acting and singing in high school musicals (Schroeder in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Shem in Britten's Noye's Fludde and the Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas. I also was musical director for Jacques Brel...and an evening of PDQ Bach, both of which I helped organize. But it was really at Yale that I started getting more interested and serious in musical theater, educating myself at the Drama School library, and organizing many productions with my friend Victoria Clark.

Where did you receive your training?

I studied music privately as kid, and did the above-menioned shows and operas at Horace Mann School. I also studied viola and harpsichord in the Juilliard Pre-College program near the end of high school, then to Yale College as a music major, where I also studied conducting. In terms of the theater I was pretty much self-taught, reading big reference works, lots of scripts, studying published scores, and listening to cast albums. I then was lucky to be mentored by many wonderful professionals as I started to work after college. The list is long, but includes Robert Kapilow ("What Makes it Great"), Roger Nierenberg ("The Music Paradigm"), and Paul Gemignani (Sondheim's longtime musical director.)

What was your first professional job as a musician?

I worked professionally as a singer and harpsichordist starting in high school, performing in church choirs, and performances of oratorios. When I came to NYC after college, I earned money for a few months as a professional chorister and audition pianist. Then I was offered two great opportunities: being the assistant conductor with the Stamford Symphony in Connecticut, and being a rehearsal pianist and pit musician for the upcoming production of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George on Broadway. I took both! But ultimately, the Broadway career is what felt more interesting to me, so I decided to put my energies in that direction. I've recently returned to classical symphony work, and had a nice reunion with the Stamford Symphony, thirty years later!

Interview: Theatre Life with Ted Sperling
The company of the current national tour of Fiddler on the Roof.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Can you please tell us what makes this current production of Fiddler on the Roof different from other stagings?

Well, I think the production feels like it was conceived in today's world, so it has a certain simplicity and sparseness about it. It starts with a man in the present, looking back at a world that's vanished, and then makes a conscious choice to explore the past. And the choreography by Hofesh Schecter is a departure from the Jerome Robbins original that has been present in pretty much every production until now.

You are credited with New Orchestrations on this production of Fiddler on the Roof but much of the show sounds like the original Don Walker charts created for the original production. Was that a conscious choice to honor Don Walker's work on this production?

Yes, I had a number of challenges in preparing the new arrangements for this production. One was that the new staging and new choreography required new music to accompany them, which I did with our dance arranger, Oran Eldor. Then we also had a wonderful actress playing Golde who needed her songs in drastically different keys, which means rethinking the accompaniments. And thirdly, with a touring band, the orchestra is considerably smaller. So we still wanted the show to sound like the Fiddler people remember, but with this smaller group, I also wanted to treat each player as a soloist, as if playing in a really great Klezmer band. So we tour with the whole musical ensemble, treating the orchestra more like a big chamber music group.

I also want to acknowledge how much I admire Don Walker's work on this show and so many others. And also the work that Larry Hochman did on the previous revival of Fiddler, which also used Don Walker's work as a jumping off point. Both were available to us as references.

Interview: Theatre Life with Ted Sperling
Ted Sperling in the original Broadway production of Titanic.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

You were seen onstage as an actor in the Broadway production of Titanic. If the opportunity presented itself would you consider getting out of the orchestra pit for another show?

Sure. I recently did a cameo appearance on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, playing Steve Allen. It was only two days of shooting, but it required quite a bit of preparation, as I had to improvise piano playing on a song that doesn't really exist, while saying my lines! And hopefully being somewhat consistent from take to take. I'm pleased with how it came out, and my scene partner, Luke Kirby, won the Emmy for his performance as Lenny Bruce!

You were Musical Director for an underappreciated (in my opinion anyhow) musical called My Favorite Year. While the show did get a cast recording you don't see it performed very much now. Why do you think this show is still underappreciated by producers and theatre companies?

It's frustrating that this particular show didn't come together as we had hoped it would. I do think there's great stuff in it, but I confess that I don't think we really solved all the challenges in the time we had. Once you start previews for a show, there's very little time to make changes, and we didn't have an out-of-town tryout. You really don't know if something is truly funny until you're in front of a paying audience.... What gets laughs in the rehearsal room is not always a good indicator! I know the authors did a rewrite a few years ago, and I believe there's interest in revisiting it. It was my first show at Lincoln Center Theater, and the first time there was an orchestra pit in that space. It does hold a special place in my heart.

Interview: Theatre Life with Ted Sperling
L-R Director Bartlett Sher, Fiddler on the Roof Lyricist Sheldon Harnick and Ted Sperling.
Photo by Walter McBride.

You have worked several times with director Bartlett Sher. What do you enjoy the most about collaborating with him on a production?

There are so many things I like about working with Bart! He's a real collaborator, and loves to figure things out as a team. He's enormously sensitive and respectful to the music, which probably has something to do with his background directing operas. He trusts me, and I trust him.... That sounds simple, but it's actually hugely important. And he also trusts the text.... We never start from the place of "what can we do to improve this play?" Instead it's always how we can honor the play, and bring it to life in a way that feels connected to who we are now.

After all these years, why do you think Fiddler on the Roof still resonated with its audiences?

I think family stories are always a strong place to start.... Most of us have complicated family relationships, and are interested in how others manage theirs. I also think that we live in a country and a time where the strong bonds of family and place are harder to hold onto.... Kids moving away from the rural homestead to find a new life is something that is still very much happening today, and it can be exciting and heartbreaking. And unfortunately, the immigrant experience is still a fraught one, and threatens to become increasingly so.

What does 2020 hold in store for you?

I'm helping mount the national tour of My Fair Lady right now....we're in tech in Syracuse, where the Fiddler on the Roof tour started. In April, I'm conducting a production of Carmen in English, translated by Fiddler's own Sheldon Harnick, with my group MasterVoices at Lincoln Center. I'm very excited about the production, which will return Bizet's work to its musical theater roots, with spoken dialogue. And I'm excited be conducting the Boston Pops this summer in a program of Danny Elfman music composed for the films of Tim Burton. A lot of variety, which I love.

Special thanks to National Theatre's Director of Marketing and Sales Ashley Birdsell for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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