Interview: Eric Sciotto And Brian J. Marcum of ROCK OF AGES at Music Theatre Wichita

Opens May 31, runs until June 4, 2023

By: Jun. 01, 2023

Interview: Eric Sciotto And Brian J. Marcum of ROCK OF AGES at Music Theatre Wichita

On Tuesday, May 23, 2023, I had the excellent opportunity to sit down with Eric Sciotto, Director and Choreographer of Rock of Ages at MTWichita, and Brian J. Marcum, Artistic Director at MTWichita. It was a wide ranging interview, with a very stream of consciousness feel, and they were gracious enough to grant me an hour over a lunch break during rehearsal last Tuesday. The energy was high, and I was able to get some excellent insight into Eric’s choreographic process. I also spoke to Brian about leading MTWichita into a new era.

This interview was edited for time and clarity, but hopefully I’ve captured the spirit of these two gifted artists.

PAULA:  Eric, there is a tremendous amount of researchable information about you on the internet. During your storied career, you were in 12 Broadway shows, the most recent being William Shakespeare in Something Rotten! In your first show on Broadway you worked with Bernadette Peters in Annie Get Your Gun. You’ve worked, directed, and choreographed regionally, you studied at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and currently you’re a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Utah! Looking at your pictures, dance reels, and your show history, you are such a chameleon and so versatile when it comes to dance. There are so many things I want ask you.

BRIAN: Well, he got his start here at MTW in 1996-1997! The 1996 Season was Man of la Mancha, My Fair Lady, Wizard of Oz, Guys and Dolls, and Crazy For You. In the 1997 Season he did four shows: Brigadoon, Meet Me in St. Louis, Oliver!, and The Most Happy Fella; and then he left to do A Chorus Line National Tour. Then he did one more Regional gig before Broadway happened. He also choreographed Wizard of Oz last season at MTW.

PAULA:  So Brian, did you and Eric meet at MTW?

BRIAN: We did not! We both had similar careers! We both worked here, we both worked at Disneyworld, but never together. We knew each other in New York, and the first time we worked together was on the National Tour of Annie Get Your Gun, and then we did the Broadway company of 42nd Street together as well.

PAULA: Eric, in 1999, your first show out of the gate on Broadway was Annie Get Your Gun! You got to work with Bernadette Peters! What was that like?

ERIC: One of my biggest dreams in life was to sing on the stage with Bernadette Peters. There’s this really great song called Moonshine Lullaby which is a tight harmony trio for Bernadette’s character and three men, and I got picked to do that!

My first Broadway show was in the same theatre that I’d seen her do the Goodbye Girl in, and now I’m suddenly singing with her! It was MINDBLOWING - it was absolutely Varsity Level Dream Unlocked. It was thrilling - and she’s lovely and kind, and it was a really exciting way to make my Broadway debut.

PAULA: Wow! Absolutely! How did you keep it together? Were you freaking out or was it..

ERIC: No, I was freaking out! When I first saw Bernadette in Goodbye Girl, I was in the back row in the balcony of the very same theatre we were now performing in and I remember every night the curtain would go up, I would look at that seat and say “Don’t forget what you wanted!” And it was very, very emotional for me. I’m a big sap like that anyway. It meant a lot to me.

PAULA: That is just really so cool! I would've been totally plotzing!  So I want to know  when you two started working together. Did you become fast friends, or did you just know of each other from shows? How did you stay in touch?

BRIAN: Iin New York we were both ensemble auditioners - we auditioned, auditioned, auditioned - and we traveled in packs. You see the same people at auditions and you get to know each other! Then we got cast in the shows together and you travel around the country with a group of people and you become friends. My wife (Jennifer Marcum) was on the Annie Get Your Gun tour too. We have lots of great friends from that time period that we talk together still, twenty-something years later.

ERIC: And then when you’re in a show in New York, you’re sharing dressing rooms and sweating on each other, and when you’re not onstage ,you’re changing next to them,  and you really get to know people very well!

BRIAN: And actually we were neighbors! We bought a house in New Jersey, and a few months later they bought a house 4 blocks away from us. We would dog-sit, house-sit, and baby sit! We have a picture of Eric and his husband David holding my daughter when she was three months old.

PAULA: How old are your kids?

BRIAN: My son is 8 and my daughter is 16; and Eric has two kids…

ERIC: 14 and 11

BRIAN: My greatest joy in this job is being able to bring my friends here, who are REALLY GOOD at what they do! Eric was here last year to choreograph Wizard of Oz and his work was spectacular. And our process is fast here. You have to be a special kind of creator to be successful. Now he’s both directing and choreographing Rock of Ages and we are into the second week of rehearsal. It’s Day 7 and the show will be completely blocked and choreographed by lunch time Wednesday.

PAULA: How did you choose this show Brian? How did you come to choose Eric to be Director/Choreographer? What is it about Eric’s work that made you choose him?

BRIAN: When we looked at the venue, it’s very limited in what we can do. Anything that can live on a scaffolding minimalist set is great out there. Smokey Joes, Grease, Jersey Boys - the set lives in one space. When I saw it in New York it was the funnest night of theatre I ever had. It’s like an adult theme park show - its hilarious! I grew up on this music, so I loved it and wanted to do this show! AND THEN having Eric here last year and knowing him, his energy, and love of the show - he had done this show before and I knew he would have a good take on it. AND I was RIGHT!

This is all original choreography and he’s restaging it so it’s Eric Sciotto’s version of the show. The set has been designed by Michael Downs, local set designer extraordinaire - and it is out of this world. It is a great set for any stage let alone one that has to be outdoors.

PAULA: Micheal is brilliant and his career has seen him design some incredible outdoor work. One work that recently comes to mind is his Creative Direction for the outdoor environment of BEDAYAT 2023, Saudi Arabia’s Founding Day, which took place in Riyadh.

Eric, what’s your vision for the show? Please talk to me about that,

ERIC: I love this show! When I did it on Broadway it was the funnest time I ever had, quite frankly! I hadn’t seen it before I got cast. I did the show and I loved it there! However, it was a very small theatre with a very small stage and a very small cast, so coming here we had to expand it a little bit. The original show is written for five ensemble, and we have eight.  I love the original version but it’s not mine, and it was also thirteen years ago, so it’s not like I remember what we did. To get a chance to take something I love - and that incredible 80s music, which 80s thrash music - I love how that feels, so it’s fun to get to invent my own version on a show you know already works like gangbusters that totally will make the audience go absolutely crazy - but then to put my own energy on top of it, it’s super fun. So it’s not like some brand new concept, it’s still very much the bar and the show and the music that you know, but it’s a fresh version. So if you’ve seen the Broadway version, the characters are the same, the lines are the same, the vibes are the same, but we’re reinventing it with them as well, and in a super fast process. It’s all been in here (indicates his brain) for months, and now I just come in and teach it as fast as I can.

PAULA: When did you start working on choreographing it? As soon as you knew, probably.

ERIC: Well, when Brian mentioned it to me, my brain kind of works like, as soon as there’s just a seed planted it can’t help but start spinning it around. In between, about 2 summers ago, I did Rock of Ages School Edition, which is a little cleaned up and the songs are in different keys for younger voices, for an educational program in Atlanta that I love, so I had already touched it and begun my version of things. However that’s a very fast thing (the School Edition) The students are younger, and the choreography can’t be as hard core as it can be here, plus some elements of the plot are a little different. So I had Eric’s version A in my brain that I then could take to expand and put on the professional grade of people they hire here at MTW, in all departments! The cast here are Broadway ready, and I could bring all elements, including choreography, up to extremely fun, hard, flashy standards.. Brian’s ability to find people who are the best of the best makes it easy for me to just show up with this idea, which the cast and designers then take and make it even more than my idea - it just explodes! It’s been thrilling to watch it come to life right in front of me.  If it’s not perfect in the first moment, I can tell an actor “You’ll figure it out” and then the next time you see it it’s like they spend 25 hours on it, and all of a sudden it’s just really great! You trust them to do the work, and then they bring it back better than you left it! But it’s editing right, it’s the choreography, it’s happing with scene work. It’s been so collaborative and so fun, plus the show is a blast. Everyone seems like they’re having a great time in the room and the work is getting done and I’m a little ahead actually. It’s the funnest time and the audience will have fun too because they’ll feel it from the cast. I like that the show has this scrappiness about it that’s kind of infectious. And with these tunes the audience is going to go nuts.

PAULA: It takes a special kind of actor/vocalist to do this show

BRIAN: Lemme tell you, THIS CAST IS OUT OF THIS WORLD. The guy playing Drew,  Benjamin Camenzuli, was a student of mine years ago at OCU. He was brilliant then and the nicest person! I haven’t seen him in 15 years. He auditioned for me and he blew it out of the water. His voice is incredible, he’s a great actor and a sweet, sweet guy.

Emma Ogea, who’s playing Sherrie, was in our ensemble last year. She’ll be a Junior at Roosevelt College in Chicago. Her voice is insane. Brett Stoelker, who is playing Stacy Jacks, is another incredible voice. He’s also from New York. Lonnie is being played by Tim Shea, who has an incredible voice and is also the most hilarious comedian you’ve ever seen, next to Wichita’s own Monty Wheeler, who is insanely hilarious too. And of course Injoy Fountain, another local Wichitan with an amazing voice who had great success on The Voice!

And our Ensemble, like Eric said, they are the best of the best of the musical theatre kids from around the country who have come into Wichita dancing and kicking their faces, and singing their faces off, and having a great time doing it. And of course we have Thomas W. Douglas, who’s Music Director, so he’s working his magic as well, with Chuck Koslowski, who is the associate music director, who is just brilliant! We also have those other incredible artisans who are putting together the costumes, lights, and sound, and they’re all doing their wonder work

PAULA:  Brian you took over as Artistic Director last year, and I wonder if it was difficult for with so many expectations sitting on your shoulders because Wayne is an icon here in Wichita, and is well-known and respected in both New York and LA Theatre circles. As you’re putting new seasons together, I know you chose Rock of Ages for the amphitheater but the shows you’ve chosen to date are such a bold stroke for MTW. Rock of Ages is an an awesome way to kick off the summer, but why this show now? How are you dealing with the subject material? I remember Wayne telling me when he did produced Big Fish and Billy Elliot that those were big steps for him and not all audience reaction was positive. How are you dealing with this?

BRIAN: It’s true, you’re right, stepping in Wayne’s shoes has been great and Wayne was wonderful in helping me with the transition, and he guided me, but with shows like Kinky Boots and Jersey Boys last season, those are two shows that everyone was a little nervous about around here because there were some F bombs, and in Jersey Boys there were a lot of them. And Kinky Boots is about a cross dressing boxer, but the audiences loved it. We got no complaints on either show. Everyone loved the shows. The first time Mary Delgado dropped the F bomb in Jersey Boys I watched to see who was gonna get up and no one did. I think we’re in a different time now. With all the streaming services, people can see things and hear things on TV that are much worse than they’re going to see on the stage. We’re also trying to attract a new, younger audience and I think with the new titles, theatre is changing quite a lot, especially after the pandemic. We are building back here, too. We lost quite a few patrons and a lot of them don’t - it’s not so much the show titles, it’s the fact that we have to be outside, which people are not loving, Most people do, but we have some people who don’t want to be outside, and understandably for whatever reason that is, so we’re happy that next season all five shows will be indoors.

Rock of Ages is a show that if you’re of a generation of people who are in their 50s or 60s, or even in their 40s will love it because it’s their music. It’s their music, the show is hilarious, and while the show is set around strippers, it’s not vulgar, there’s no one swinging around the poles. It’s really about this girl and her vision - she wants to be a star and finds out who she is. It’s really funny and ironic that she’s from Paola, Kansas. That is the story,

I don’t think it will be offensive to people because the tone is set from the very beginning that’s its a tongue in cheek, cheeky, funny, smartly written musical about these characters. Like I explained to the audience for Jersey Boys, you can’t take their language away from them, you lose the story about who they - they wrote the story.

There will be some people who don’t like it. There are sone people who don’t like Beauty and the Beast. You try to cater through the season to everyone and open people’s minds. I think Kinky Boots was a great example of this. I had men coming up to me with tears in their eyes saying I had no idea what this show was about and I’m not my father’s son either. Just because Simon dresses up and becomes Lola, we are still the same people underneath, we still have the same feelings and that’s really the reason I chose Ragtime, because it has potential to change people’s minds. That’s what theatre does! We entertain, we inspire, we change people’s perceptions. I say it all the time to everyone in the rehearsal room, we are the poetry! I’m so glad that there are people who are Accountants, and Doctors, but Theatre Artists bring beauty to the world. That’s our job, and it’s important, and we shouldn’t let anyone take that away from us.

PAULA: Thank you Brian, that was eloquently said. Eric, you got to work with Renee Fleming in Light in The Piazza! Please tell me about that.

ERIC: That was thrilling. It was December 2019 and I had just moved to Salt Lake City and I got a call from my agent that they were bringing the London Production to Chicago for a very short run, and would I be interested in playing Giuseppe? I was like, sure!  What do I need to do, and they said no, do you want to do it? And I said yes! It was one of those magical phone calls out of nowhere. I was thrilled. I had been in for the original production but as a replacement but for the younger brother, Fabrizio, and I had always looked up to Michael Berresse and what he had created there, and I thought it was really cool, but I never really saw myself like that and then all of a sudden, I realized I’m a 40 something, so alright, of course!

I hired people in Salt Lake to teach me everything, teach me how speak Italian, teach me how pronounce everything, and learn the music so I could walk right in.

They were putting the show back together, so I had some rehearsals with the Assistant Director and the Musical Director, and they were plugging in all the new talent, including me, Suzanne Kantoski as Franca, and Solea Pfieffer, who was coming in for Clara - so there were rehearsals. Renee was absolutely lovely and kind, and responsive onstage. She knows who she is and what she’s there for and what people want from her. She was kind and human, and would socialize with us.

One of my favorite things was attending Renee’s master class where she coached opera students. I’m not from opera, but it sits in the same place as musical theatre, and has a different sensibility about it. She speaks the same way that I do and my teachers did about finding truth, emotion, and breath. Listening to her made me understand just how much the same we are, and even thought she’s a Kilowatt Star, at the core it’s the same simple truth whether it’s Opera, Musical Theatre, or Dance - if you do it right, it’s finding truth in the style. That’s what I tried to do with this show, because it’s outrageous, funny, crazy, and the music is great. You can just do that and it will work, but if you work on the core of the show, if you find the truth, it’s that much better. What is the core, the truth of Rock of Ages? Everybody has a dream and they’re just fighting to find the thing that makes them happy, but they get derailed as they go. Why? Because other people push Drew and Sherrie into standards, thinking they are helping and doing the right thing. They’re not bad people. They’re just finding out that they need to give each other grace to be what they need to be and to follow their dream. So that for me is the nugget of truth we’re trying to hold on to the whole time. What dream are you chasing? Where are you in that process? Did you have it and now you’re here? Did you lose sight of it? I think that’s what makes Rock of Ages not only fun but impactful and touching to the whole audience, because they can see different stages of their life represented through all these different characters as they try to find their way to the thing  that makes them happy

How did we get from Renee Fleming to Rock of Ages? You’re welcome!

PAULA: I LOVE the way you tied that together, that was AWESOME! Eric when I saw  your dance reel, I was really impressed with how many influences you’ve had. You’ve been on Broadway for quite some time, and you got to work with some really cool people: Wayne Cilento, Randy Skinner, Christopher Wheeldon, Graciela Daniele, Kelly Devine, Ross Coleman, and Casey Nickelaw; of the choreographers you mentioned whose influence stands strongest when you put this show together?

ERIC: I don’t know if I had an influence.

I’m a product of everyone I worked with, all the way back to the great choreographers I worked with here at MTW, like Patty Columbo and the late great Peggy Hickey. The person who’s inspired me a ton is Wayne Cilento, especially with his movement and back pocket stank that he puts on everything. I danced for him in Aida, an Industrial for Toyota, and Sweet Charity. I’ve taught and choreographed for years, and when I look back at my work, I see these moments that are Wayne Cilento accidental trickle downs. He’s everything, so I don’t want to say I’m like him. Some of the guys who are in our Rock of Ages who have done it before say It feels so much the same as what Kelly Devine created but yet none of the steps are the same. The feel of the show was imparted by what Kelly created as the choreographer of the original; I’m not using her steps, but the feel is exactly the same. I think because I’ve been an actor for so long, I work through how the actor and character would move in that moment, which is to me very Graciela - she doesn’t have an ego, she doesn’t have an iconic signature - she wants whatever the character needs to serve the piece, and wants you to act and dance from the perspective of the characters you’re going to see.

PM: That’s so cool.  You such a chameleon, you can work and feel at home in all these different styles, finding your voice in all these styles you adapted to.

BRIAN: Eric choreographed the Wizard of Oz last year and the numbers he created were so classical musical theatre, classic Broadway jazz style numbers, and this show is pop rock 80s thrash, it’s all just brilliant, he’s so versatile, he can do all the things. I could give him a tap show and he could choreograph that as well!

ERIC: Great, let’s do it!

BRIAN: And he also comes from not just a dancer background He went to CCM, which is a huge MT school where they teach you intent; what’s your purpose? Everything is told through a story, everything is done with purpose. It not just they’re dancing just to dance.

PAULA: Brian, is there anything else you would like patrons to know?

The house is open two hours before the show. There will be food trucks, and there will be pre-show music from the Rising Stars Youth ensemble, formerly known as the Teen Choir. There will be a costume contest on opening night. There will be the VIP Experience; you can have dinner and then be taken from the dinner spot to venue, but for the VIP Experience, chairs will be set for them wherever they choose to buy their tickets.

The venue is really fun. This will probably be the last time we appear at the venue because we are hoping next year we will be inside. I really do love this venue, it is so much fun, so it won’t be the last time we will be there, we will hold some special events there in the future.

ERIC: Show up with an open mind and be ready to have a really great time. I think there’s some preconceived notions about what this show is. To be really honest, I didn’t see the movie version, but it’s my understanding they wrote it completely different from the musical, so if the audiences think that’s what they’re seeing, it is NOT the movie version, and should just be ready to have a great time. It’s a little PG-13, if you will, but there are no F bombs, it’s just gonna be a blast, and song after song they’re gonna be like “NO WAY”!!!

One of the things I love is that these songs are not really rearranged or repurposed. They sound like they are meant to sound and they’re gonna laugh because they don’t know how hilarious this show is, while grabbing your heart at the same time. AND it’s not Oklahoma! We love that too, for different reasons, It’s gonna be a blast!

BRIAN: We also have five amazing local musicians in the band and they’ll all be costumed like an 80s Hair Band!

PAULA: Who’s in the Band?

We’ve got Thomas W. Douglas on Keyboards, Steve Hatfield on Drums, Randy Zellers on Guitar 1, Rod Martins on Guitar 2, and Eric Crawford on Bass. They’re so excited to play this music because it’s their music. Some of them have full sleeves of tattoos, and some of them are shirtless! It’s so much fun!

BRIAN: This guy’s gotta get back to rehearsal.

PAULA: Thanks for letting me eat up your time today! I really appreciate it!

ERIC: Yeah, we’re gonna get this thing done!

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