Interview: Theatre Life with Stephen Oremus

The crazilly talented musician/orchestrator/arranger/conductor on tick tick BOOM! and more.

By: Jan. 31, 2024
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Interview: Theatre Life with Stephen Oremus
Stephen Oremus. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Today’s subject Stephen Oremus has been living his theatre life for many years now as a music director/pianist/orchestrator/arranger/musical supervisor. His career is something many of us dream of having but very few of us actually achieve. His current project brings him full circle. Stephen is the Musical Supervisor/Arranger/Orchestrator for Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage production of tick, tick..BOOM! which is running through February 4th in the Eisenhower Theater. Stephen was the show’s original Orchestrator/Arranger/Musical Director in 2001. His work can be heard on the original cast recording.

Stephen’s career started the way most theatrical musicians’ careers go. He worked his way up through the ranks playing local theatre productions and summer stock. La Cage aux Folles at Gateway Playhouse is just one example of Stephen’s early musical directing credits. He later worked at NJ’s George Street Playhouse on a wonderful unknown musical called Off- Key.

Off Broadway credits include Assistant Musical Director/Key 2 for Zombie Prom and Musical Director for Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party.

Stephen’s Broadway credits would make any theatre fanatic’s jaw drop. He was the original Musical Director for some unknown show that somehow has been running for twenty years called Wicked. He is still the show’s worldwide Musical Supervisor and was the co-Arranger with Alex Lacamoire. Other Broadway credits include being the Tony Award winning co-Orchestrator with Larry Hochman on The Book of Morman besides also serving as the show’s original Musical Director. He also orchestrated and arranged Cyndi Lauper’s musical Kinky Boots and the naughty and hilarious Avenue Q. On the latter he was also the original Musical Director.

Broadway isn’t the only place where Stephen’s work has been heard. He has conducted The Oscars, done arrangements for several live Broadway productions on NBC and has worked with the likes of Lady Gaga. He was also the song conductor for Disney’s Frozen and Frozen II. How did he do that??

In a career that just keeps going and going, Stephen Oremus’ talents just keep getting better and better with each project he is attached to. Stay with his interview to the end to see what BIG projects await him in 2024 and beyond.

Sometimes you just know someone is going to hit it big. Stephen Oremus went to my high school. He was a year or two behind me. Trust me, the talent was flowing even then. He is a true musical artist who is living his performing arts life to the fullest. “Come to Your Senses” and hear his fine work on tick, tick..BOOM! before it disappears this weekend.

At what age did you know you wanted to work in the performing arts?

I don’t think this became a reality until right after college when I was offered my first job playing piano at a dinner theater. The thrill of playing and conducting a full live performance was powerful— what a bonus it was to get paid for it.

Who would you say had the biggest influence on you becoming a musician?

Barry Manilow. He’s the reason I wanted to play the piano. And then as I got older, Dennis DeYoung from Styx and Billy Joel figured prominently as well.

Where did you receive your training?

My musical education was at Berklee College of Music. My theatrical education was forged ant every summer stock and regional theatre I worked at prior to any professional production in NYC.

What was your first professional job as a musician and as an orchestrator?

My first professional job as a musician was as a pianist/conductor of Meet Me in St. Louis at Neil’s New Yorker Dinner Theatre in NJ.

My first show as a music director in NYC was The Wild Party by Andrew Lippa at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2000.

My first show as music director/arranger/orchestrator in NYC was tick, tick..BOOM! in 2001 at the Jane Street Theatre.

Interview: Theatre Life with Stephen Oremus
Stephan Oremus on the original 2001 set for tick, tick... BOOM!
Photo courtesy of the artist.​​​​

How did you get involved with the original off-Broadway production of tick, tick... BOOM!?

I was part of the Rent family as the music director of the second national tour in 1999- so when they began developing ‘tick,tick…BOOM! in 2000, I was recommended based on my work on Rent on tour and I knew Scott Schwartz as well as the two lead producers, Robyn Goodman and Victoria Leacock.

When you started work on the original production, what were you given in terms of music to create the orchestrations from? Was the music fully realized or was it more of a lead sheet situation?

There were a few very basic lead sheets that Jonathan had written out, as well as numerous cassette tapes and VHS tapes of Jonathan performing various versions of tick,tick…BOOM!. I took great pains to preserve the exact piano parts that Jonathan played as I arranged the music.

You’ve had the good fortune of co-orchestrating on Broadway with our dearly departed Michael Gibson for All Shook Up and the very talented Larry Hochman for The Book of Mormon. The latter garnered you both with well-deserved Tony Awards. While working with them, what would you say was the biggest lesson you learned about orchestrating?

I first worked with Michael Gibson all the way back to the Off-Broadway production of Zombie Prom in 1996- which I was the Assistant Music Director on. We collaborated on several shows after that- not just on Broadway. He was a true mentor. And taught me so much about writing for smaller ensembles and rhythm sections. He taught me about economy and lots of tricks of how to make the most of a smaller ensemble. His voice is in my head on every show- I miss him dearly. Truly one of the greats.

On The Book of Mormon, Larry and I had opposite schedules. I would take the night shift and write the rhythm section and expanded orchestration ideas and then he would write all day while I was in rehearsal and then we would get together and finesse the ideas together. It was really a brilliant collaboration- we got to be so playful and witty in the work and there were a lot of laughs as we did.

Interview: Theatre Life with Stephen Oremus
The company of Kennedy Center's Broadway Center Stage
production of tick, tick...BOOM!.
Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Why do you think the work of Jonathan Larson still endures with audiences and if he were still alive, do you think he would still be writing groundbreaking work for the theatre?

Jonathan’s work endures because he was such a great facilitator of creating authentically modern pop/rock/soul songs for the stage. Compositionally, the work holds up with wonderful melodies and excellent lyrics. It’s not just the style of the songs- it’s the care he took in constructing them and fleshing out characters authentically within those styles while keeping it inherently theatrical. If he were here today, he would absolutely be pushing boundaries.

What does 2024 hold in store for you workwise?

I am Music Supervisor for Smash, which is currently in development prior to a Broadway bow next year, and I am Executive Music Producer on the film version of Wicked- the first part of which is coming in November.

Special thanks to Kennedy Center's Director of Public Relations Brendan Padgett for his assistance in coordiating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.


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