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Interview: Theatre Life with Adrian Ries

Interview: Theatre Life with Adrian Ries

The Musical Director for the U.S. Tour of The Band's Visit on being hidden off stage while half of his pit is onstage in costume and more.

Today's subject Adrian Ries is currently living his theatre life as the musical director for the U.S. National Tour of The Band's Visit. The show runs through July 17th in the Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center. For those who can't see the tour in DC, it will conclude in Richmond VA playing from July 26th to the 31st.

Off Broadway Adrian played Sweeney Todd at Barrow Street Theatre.

Regional credits include productions at Gulfshore Playhouse, Axelrod PAC, Pioneer Theatre Co., Summer Repertory Theatre, North Shore Music Theatre, and Weathervane Theatre.
Adrian has arranged and music supervised for Norwegian Cruise Lines and The Randy Andys.

As you will read, The Band's Visit is a strange animal for a musical director. Half the band is in costume and onstage for much of the show while the rhythm section is hidden offstage. Read on to see how Adrian keeps the show running while being out of sight of the cast. Yes, there are conductor cams but it isn't the same.

Even though The Band's Visit is almost done with its tour, I am sure you will see Adrian's name on another project very soon. He is a very talented musician who is living his theatre life to the fullest. Grab some tickets and hear for yourself.

Who would you say was your biggest mentor in becoming a musical director/pianist?

It's difficult to pinpoint a single person as the biggest mentor, but I certainly think I've been lucky with having the right teachers at the right moments. Instead of one, I'd say I've got a trifecta of foundational mentors. My high school piano teacher Dr. James March instilled in me effective and efficient practice strategies and habits that could keep me motivated. My undergrad piano teacher Dr. Susan Gray can really hone curiosity, creativity, and musicality with her students. And my undergrad choir director Dr. David Holdhusen brought in the communal side of music like structuring rehearsals, conducting, communicating musical ideas to others, and working as a team. All three are unabashedly enthusiastic about their students' growth and curiosity, so I think they all have had a pretty equal hand in getting me to where I am today.

Where did you go to school to receive your musical training?

Well, I did a ton of musical/theatrical stuff in middle/high school. I grew up in a rather small town in South Dakota, so was fortunate enough to be able to do a hundred different things because those programs just needed people to participate. I took piano lessons, voice lessons, percussion lessons, and was in band, jazz band, choir, show choir, and community choirs in addition to doing as much theater as my town had. I ended up at the University of South Dakota where I did a bachelor's degree in piano performance. As I was finishing up my undergraduate degree, I still wasn't exactly sure where I fit in the world, so I decided to apply to a bunch of graduate programs. I ended up getting accepted into the University of Oklahoma's master's degree program in piano performance and pedagogy. Because I had played for a couple musicals in undergrad and had done some acting as well, I also earned an assistantship to play for the school of musical theatre's productions throughout my master's program.

That's really where everything came together for me, and I decided that that's what I wanted to be doing with my life. If you would have looked at my schedule in the second year of that program, it would have looked like I was a musical theatre student who was getting a master's degree on the side. I was playing for voice lessons, classes, shows, cabarets, everything. I came to NYC with that year's graduating senior class, played piano for their showcase, made some fantastic connections, and have been in the industry ever since!

Is The Band's Visit travelling as a self-contained production or do you pick up certain chairs in each city?

The first thing I tell most people when trying to explain our show, is that we're very unique.... on many levels. Our band of ten musicians is entirely self-contained. We have two keyboard players (including me!), bass, drums, violin, cello, reeds, oud/guitar, darbouka/percussion, and one swing musician (Alex covers both the oud/guitar and darbouka/percussion tracks, he's terrific!). Five of those tracks wear costumes onstage, have quite a bit of blocking, and have over half of the show memorized as they're playing their instruments onstage. It makes logistical and safety sense, then, that those folks travel with us. We unfortunately miss out on the local talent but have really been able to perfect our ensemble-ship as we've been playing together since September.

Interview: Theatre Life with Adrian Ries
The cast of the U.S. Tour of The Band's Visit.
Photo by Evan Zimmerman/Murphy Made.

On Broadway the main rhythm section was hidden from the audience. Is this the case on tour or are you in the orchestra pit? Does it depend on the venue?

As I said, our show is unique! We do have a 'pit' hidden from the audience just offstage but still on the deck of the stage. We call it The Calypso (you'll have to see the show to see where that easter egg appears!). The onstage musicians sometimes play in this space while the four rhythm section players (two keys, drums, and bass) play the whole show from there. Again, it's all for logistical reasons. Since each venue is different and some of them are rather labyrinthine, I think the image of a cellist running through random hallways with his cello for his next entrance encouraged our creative team to come up with the significantly more elegant solution that we've got. I find it incredibly impressive and inspiring how our sound team has been able to juggle half the band playing onstage live with the other half backstage and a whole company of actors singing as well.

With Broadway shows hiding the conductor in bathrooms and dressing rooms more and more, do you find that there is a disconnect between the performers on stage and you?

You know, I haven't been in a proper orchestra pit for a show in over five years, so I try to embrace each situation as it comes. All the musicians have our own headphone monitor system in which we can adjust the levels of each other and the actors. While I'm physically distanced from the action, I'm actually experiencing a very aurally intimate performance.

Additionally, since we're backstage we are still very much a part of the energy of each show. Actors pop their heads in to say hi, or I'll go watch a scene from the wings (there are several book scenes, I'm not slacking, I promise!). My favorite part of being backstage is watching our awesome crew seamlessly flow through the show. That's something musicians miss when we're in a real pit.

The biggest drawback of not being in a pit, though, is losing that tangible electric energy between the band and the audience. I try to live a little vicariously through the onstage band knowing that they're getting that relationship. There's certainly a little less glory to be had when you are not in front of a huge crowd, but you learn to trust in the material and, above all, trust in the actors and your fellow musicians.

You have worked on several cruise ships. Can you talk about that experience and how being an MD on a cruise ship is different from doing that same job on a specific production?

First off, cruise ships can vary widely from one to the next in terms of onboard entertainment. Some ships have book musicals on them - think Grease, Jersey Boys, or even Six - that may have been abridged to about 90 minutes. Others will have anywhere from two to five revue-type shows that are cohesive through their content rather than a story - think a night of 80s rock music or music from classic movie musicals. Sometimes the ships will even have cabarets that the MDs build with the cast. In general, though, everyone rehearses on land where the MD teaches the music, helps craft each performance, and occasionally arranges or orchestrates something new. Then everyone has a few weeks onboard the ship to successfully mount each production. After that, the MD leaves along with any directors, choreographers, and design team and bids the cast a successful contract! We're available if anything goes awry, of course, but help will typically be remote. Therefore, the MD typically doesn't conduct or play those shows, unlike most on-land productions where the musical director most often also acts as conductor and will actively see a production through from pre-production to closing night. Regardless of where a production is, though, I think a musical director needs to deeply consider what each show is trying to accomplish to determine how best to support everyone.

Why do think The Band's Visit resonates with its audiences?

First off, this entire company has such pride and care in everything they do that it's noticeable from the moment an audience member steps foot into the theater.
The show is about very specific people in a very specific time and place that run into a very specific problem, and yet, it somehow manages to touch on some powerful universalities of our humanity. There are these implicit tensions within the show that I think cause audience members to lean in and pay attention in a way that a show full of razzmatazz can't. The music happens when those tensions finally melt away, so there's something particularly rewarding or maybe even cathartic with each piece of music. It is somehow both rich in its simplicity and profundity. Oh, and we can't forget the levity. The show has something hypnotically fleeting that's very difficult to describe but keeps the audience hoping for just a little more.

I believe at its heart The Band's Visit is a show about our desires to communicate and our desires to connect, and especially where we are now in the world, that's going to ring true.

Special thanks to Kennedy Center's terriffic tag team publicity duo of Brittany Laeger Press Representative, Ballet/Dance and Education and Brendan Padgett Director, Public Relations for their assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.



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