One of the joys of “Spring Awakening,” which on Thursday is starting up the second and final weekend of its impressive run at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium, is the live band. There’s nothing quite like the energy experienced when you pair live actors and musicians together on stage.
And the Fresno theater scene is doubly blessed this month when it comes to live music: Essentially the same band for “Awakening” will pop again in StageWorks Fresno’s production of “Next to Normal,” which runs July 13-29 at the Dan Pessano Theatre.
I caught up with Anthony Taylor, who conducts both shows, to talk about what it’s like to bring live music to the theater experience.
Are the players the same for both productions?
Answer: Two differences. Jason Wada, my second guitar player in “Spring Awakening,” is not being used in “Next to Normal.” Also, Michael Antaramian is the keyboard player on “Next to Normal,” so Jared Eben is only doing “Spring Awakening.” Otherwise, the instrumentation is almost identical.
In “Spring Awakening,” the live band adds an incredible impact to the show. Do you think performances are more spontaneous because the actors aren’t relying on a recorded track?
Absolutely. One of the first things I told the actors was to ditch the Broadway recording of the show immediately. I wanted them to be really free to express themselves through the music as much as possible. This show, and specifically the music, is so much about the inner expression of these characters. It was important to me that they not rely on other actors’ interpretation and truly create music themselves. Anything else would simply be karaoke singing and I wasn’t interested in conducting a karaoke band. I believe the actors are more than rising to the occasion every show.
How tough is the “Spring Awakening” music to play?
The music is not technically challenging, but requires a great deal of musicianship to play well. I have a core group of musicians I pull from for shows because I have a great deal of trust in them. Jared Eben is one of the finest pianists and musicians I’ve ever met. I’ve performed with and conducted with Michael Antaramian a number of times, so having him rehearsing “Next to Normal” while we finish “Spring Awakening” is perfect. Alexis Holladay is the funkiest little bass player on the planet. Ben Drury is the rare unicorn of a drummer who both plays with amazing feel and is an incredible sight reader. These are players I’ve worked with in the past and trust. The players who were new to me really came through as well. Clayton Briggs is an incredibly talented young cellist, composer and conductor himself. Jason Wada is a guitar player who plays in local rock bands and came in at the last minute to fill a chair and has been a rock in the rhythm section. Joshua Anderson is fantastic young guitar player who managed to wrangle 6 guitars in the pit with precision. From the moment I realized I would be conducting this show I knew I needed a top notch violinist. Not because there was a ton of notes, but because the melodies in the violin book are so plaintive and require a beautiful musician to bring to life. Having a violinist and musician of Matt Mazzei’s caliber makes a conductor’s job easy. With this group, I never worry about the technique and can just focus on making music with them.
I could have sworn you stood throughout the entire performance. Was that your choice, or was director Skyler Gray punishing you?
No, though with the space as tight as it is back there I’m not sure where a stool or chair would go. The reality is that with the band spread straight back and away from me, it’s important that I can see them all and that they can see my eyes and hands. Plus, I felt that it would be less distracting if I was standing the whole time, rather than prairie dogging throughout the show.
Because you aren’t in a traditional pit in front of the singers, is there any kind of monitor used to keep things in sync?
We do have monitors so we can hear ourselves and the singers. All of the instruments are run directly through the sound board, which means much of the balance is in the hands of the sound engineer. It’s great for us, because we can really play out and worry about over powering the singers.
Using the monitors I’m able to listen in for phrasing. The cast is full of fantastic musicians who make very smart choices, so they are an easy group to follow. I also read a lot of body language. I can see their shoulders softly rise when they breathe which helps me ensure our entrances are together when we’re coming out of silence.
What are the similarities and differences in the scores of “Spring Awakening” and “Next to Normal”?
Considering they are both considered “rock musicals,” surprisingly little.
“Spring Awakening” is much more “pop rock.” Lots of synth sounds and rough, jangly playing. The Spring Awakening band definitely feels like the backup band to these teen rockstars. Our job is to primarily act as a solid place for them to play with phrasing and style over the top of us without trying to follow them too precisely.
“Next to Normal” on the other hand is more of a rock opera. There is easily twice as much music and the styles are incredibly varied. It is more technically demanding and requires a great deal more push and pull between the singers and the band.
Anything else you’d like to share from the perspective as music director?
One of the great joys of this experience has been the compliments I collect from audience members after the show on behalf of this fantastic group of musicians I’ve been blessed enough to have collaborate on these projects. That, and the experience of helping young actors, some of whom have never played with a live band, truly CREATE music and not just sing-a-long for the first time. Being that conduit between actor and band is exhausting, but incredibly rewarding.