How to Conduct Magic on Broadway with ‘Wicked’ Musical Director Bryan Perri

What does it take to keep one of Broadway’s long-running hits sounding fresh? We talked to the man behind to baton to find out how he made it to the head of the orchestra pit — and why he thinks all aspiring conductors should raise chickens

By Garth Wingfield

When the audience members take their seats in the Gershwin Theatre and settle in to see Wicked, their eyes are locked on the stage. After all, that’s were a giant dragon roars, Glinda descends from the proscenium in a silver bubble and Elphaba rockets skyward by way of theatrical magic. There is a whole other show going on out of sight, though, in the orchestra pit. That’s where conductor Bryan Perri is leading a 23-member team of seasoned musicians who bring Stephen Schwartz’s score to life. Conducting one of Broadway’s biggest hits sounds pretty intense, and there’s so much more to Perri’s job than just signaling the first upbeat. The lifelong musician also fills the role of musical director, and works with everyone from new cast members to replacement orchestra members to ensure the sound is true – and that the audience is left in awe. He also has some pretty his philosophical advice on just what it takes to create art these days.

‘Wicked’ Musical Director Bryan Perri at the Gershwin Theatre (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

‘Wicked’ Musical Director Bryan Perri at the Gershwin Theatre (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

What made you fall in love with music?
I started playing piano at five. My aunt had a piano, and I’d play at her house. And then my parents started me on lessons. I did theater growing up. I sang in church. I actually got my undergraduate degree at NYU in voice. And I supported myself for many years playing the piano. I’ve always loved theater. I did lots of it in my undergrad life. But then I started auditioning for shows as an actor, and I realized that wasn’t what brought me joy. A voice teacher from NYU moved to the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music and told me about an assistantship there in theater and opera conducting. I applied and got in, earning my masters in orchestral conducting. It was amazing. I conducted Brigadoon with a 60-piece orchestra. It was a profoundly inspiring and life-changing experience. I was hooked.

So how did Wicked happen?
A lot of it is who you know. I had a connection to the first national tour of Wicked in 2005. I became an associate conductor on the tour, and then I took over as musical director. Then I took over the Los Angeles and San Francisco companies. I had a three-year break, where I did other shows. And then I took over the Broadway company as musical director and conductor two years ago. So I’ve been involved with Wicked on and off for the last 10 years.

Bryan Perri works with a new ‘Wicked’ performer (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Bryan Perri works with a new ‘Wicked’ performer (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

What’s a typical day like for you on this production?
The best thing about it is there’s no such thing as a typical day. Anything that’s musical in the show is my responsibility. So that means maintaining the production and conducting as well as working with new cast members and ensuring how the ensemble sounds. Today I was working with new company members. I had a half-hour music rehearsal, and then during the day, we were rehearsing staging in the theatre. There’s a put-in tomorrow [where a new actor rehearses with other company members before going on for the first time in front of an audience]. And then tonight, I’ll conduct the show at 8pm.

How do you work with a new principal performer who joins the production?
Sometimes they’ve done it on the road, but not always. We’ve had instances where people have auditioned and gotten the role on Broadway or as a standby. So, if say, it’s Elphaba. I — or someone on the staff of people who help me — will teach them the notes and the nuts and bolts of the song. Then I help shape the performance. We work on the intentions of the song. It’s all about fitting the song onto the performer. There are certain marks to hit, but it has to be unique to each person. It can’t be a cookie-cutter performance. We’re making sure the actors are truthful to themselves, or else the magic goes away. So we’re looking at the lyrics, understanding the story of the song. And of course, I’m making sure it sounds amazing, that it’s Broadway-quality. Plus, they have to be singing healthfully. The stage manager and I work closely together. The stage manager teaches the new actor the blocking. And then we combine all departments — dance, stage management, music. We work together to tell one story. There are a lot of people working for the common goal — show staff, an associate conductor, several assistant conductors, rehearsal pianists, voice teachers.

The orchestra pit is filled with monitors for the musicians (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

The orchestra pit is filled with monitors for the musicians (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Let’s talk about the orchestra. That’s your domain as well.
There are specific chairs in the orchestra. There are 24 total, including me. It’s each musicians responsibility to find subs if they’re out, which they’re completely allowed to do. I don’t audition the replacements, but I can approve them and give notes. The musicians take great care and pride in choosing who represents them. There’s also something called auditing. Broadway pits are interesting in that they’re spread out, with the string section tucked away in a corner or other sections only able to see me through a video monitor or hear me well by wearing headphones. So the person who is going to be subbing sits next to the player and watches the book. I’m there to answer questions. It’s complicated — some musicians play five or six different instruments, like bassoon, bass clarinet and piccolo. Some people audit for months before they feel comfortable enough to sub. And that’s fine. We want them to feel ready.

What’s your favorite part about this job?
Conducting the show is pretty amazing. Yes, it’s doing the same thing over and over, but I love the show, so it never gets old. “Defying Gravity” and the moment where Elphaba flies away is a huge thrill. I love turning around and seeing the audience. They’re crying or they have their mouths open in awe. It’s very satisfying. It takes people out of their lives for the moment. Part of this job is remembering that you constantly have to inspire excitement. Many people are seeing Wicked for the first time. There are kids growing up with this show and the cast album, but they’ve never actually seen the show, and they’re finally seeing it, and it’s a brand-new thing. We have to tell the story as if it’s the first time we’re telling it.

Seating in the ‘Wicked’ orchestra pit (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Seating in the ‘Wicked’ orchestra pit (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

What do you do if something goes wrong mid-performance?
I always try to stay very calm. If the show has to stop, I get on the phone and talk to the stage manager and ask, “Are we stopping?” You take care of it and start again. You can never look in the rear-view mirror. And a lot of things can happen. There can be actor injuries. Once we were doing the show, and the power went out. That felt like the universe was telling us to stop the show.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your tracks?
There isn’t one path. Listen to as much music as possible. See as much theater as possible. Put yourself in a position to meet people. People write me and ask if they can sit in the pit and observe, and I usually say yes. Training is a given, but that can happen lots of different ways. Some people have formal degrees, but others have created their own schooling by taking lessons or even dance classes. Whatever path you take, you should. I’m a fan of school, but if that’s not your thing, I honor that as well. In terms of being a conductor, if you’re not nurturing your whole self, it’s hard to nurture other people. So meditate, concentrate on your home life, garden, raise chickens. It’s easy to be consumed by music or your career, and then you’ve suddenly lost perspective. Maintain your whole self. Otherwise, how can you be a reflection of humanity, which is what I think the arts are.


Freeing the Pipe Organ from the Usual Grind

By T.R. Goldman

NEW YORK — It was a simple remark over a casual lunch. But for organist Paul Jacobs, it represented everything wrong with the state of organ-playing today and the mind-set that has kept the pipe organ chained to the confines of academia and the church, and away from its rightful due in the concert hall.

“What happened to the 16-foot in the Franck?” Jacobs, 39, recalled being asked dismissively by a fellow juror at an international organ competition, in which the judges were also required to play.

It’s easy to imagine Jacobs, who exudes a fervor for the organ that is almost disconcerting coming from his choir-boy face, carefully pausing in mid-bite to look up from his meal. “I decided not to use it,” he replied.

The 19th-century Parisian organist and composer César Franck’s Prélude, Fugue and Variation does call for an eight-foot and a 16-foot pitch to be played simultaneously in the pedal. But Jacobs wanted a more “transparent, ethereal texture,” he said, so he chose not to pull out the stop that would have sounded the same note one octave lower.

“A liberty had been taken with the score,” he explained, again over lunch, but this time in New York at a restaurant across from the Juilliard School performing arts conservatory, where he has chaired the school’s organ department since 2004. “There is a moral imperative imposed on how to interpret organ music. There is a fussiness that is lamentable and stifling.”

Every instrument has its particularities, its guardians of tradition, its often-peevish, internal debates over bowing or embouchure or breathing, vibrato, dynamics, articulation and a hundred other esoteric choices. The organ, steeped not only in ritual and religion but academia, as well, has more than its share.

Jacobs, as one of the pipe organ’s foremost performers, wants to get beyond what he calls “the usual revolving door of academic organists with fancy résumés who in the end do not know how to connect with a general audience. Many organists aren’t committed to arousing an audience,” he says. “We need to play the organ in a more compelling way.”

How? “You do it through interpretation,” Jacobs says. “A willingness to take musical risks, to interpret the music creatively and personally with passion.”

In short, Jacobs wants to free the mighty instrument up, to show it off in the country’s great concert halls, an increasing number of which, including the Kennedy Center, have their own great organs. Because the truth is, there’s a lot more organ music than Bach.

There are 19th-century solo organ “symphonies” and rollicking organ concertos by Francis Poulenc, Aaron Copland and Lou Harrison, to name a few of the most extraordinary. Many composers, such as Ottorino Respighi, favor the low, powerful notes of the pedal to “fatten up that bass line” in a piece such as Respighi’s 1928 Roman Festivals, says composer Christopher Rouse, who just wrote an organ concerto that Jacobs will premiere this year.

Jacobs came to prominence with a gambit (detractors might call it a gimmick) when he was still in his early 20s: playing from memory all the solo organ music of Bach and Oliver Messiaen, the great French organist and composer, each in one marathon session. He has been on a singular mission to expand the pipe organ into the broader classical music world ever since, to have, as he puts it, “a seat at the table.”

In November, he’ll premiere the Rouse concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a three-movement piece with brass, percussion and strings but no woodwinds — “I let the organ cover that,” says Rouse, who is a Grammy and Pulitzer Prize for music winner.

Jacobs is scheduled to play the Rouse concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2017. But on Wednesday, he will play a solo recital on the Kennedy Center Concert Hall’s Rubenstein Family Organ — and in a happy marketing quirk, every seat is $15. There will be Bach, but also Brahms chorale preludes and a piece by the 19th-century German composer Julius Reubke, whose Sonata on the 94th Psalm in C minor, written in 1857, has become one of the masterpieces of the organ repertoire.

There are lots of concert pipe organists. But even the most successful — such as Nathan Laube, who played Steven Paulus’s Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra on this year’s Grammy award-winning best classical compendium, and who performs as often in Europe as in the United States — play almost exclusively in chapels, churches and cathedrals. By definition, these are almost always solo concerts, which are a niche market in the already niche world of classical music.

“Ninety-nine point nine percent of organists make their living at a church job, with some teaching and the occasional concert,” says David Higgs, who chairs one of the country’s biggest pipe organ departments at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., with some 35 students.

Jacobs, too, discovered the organ at a local Catholic church in Washington, Pa., where he grew up, starting lessons there when he was old enough for his feet to reach the pedals and becoming head organist of a local parish at 15.

But since coming to Juilliard, Jacobs has consistently tried to push the organ in another direction, as a legitimate instrument in the rarified world of the classical concert artist. He has a publicist, and he’s represented by a major management company that handles musicians including pianist Till Fellner and the Juilliard String Quartet. Jacobs actively seeks commissions and remains the only pipe organist to have received a Grammy, for a solo recording of Messaien’s dense and monumental “Livre du Saint-Sacrement.”

“The point is to recognize we are isolated from the broader world of classical music,” he says. “We’re not part of the classical music industry. And the minute you step out of our world, out of our bubble, you begin to see how isolated and small the organ profession is. It’s daunting and it’s intimidating to do this, but getting to that point, getting conductors and the classical music establishment to listen to you, is something I have been fighting for for a lifetime.”

There are reasons that Jacobs’s career-long quest for broader acceptance of the pipe organ is an uphill struggle.

Although the pipe organ predates Christianity by a few hundred years, it is so intimately associated with a church environment that it’s often hard for audiences to conceive of the instrument playing anything but a hymn.

“I have in my earworm the sound of an organ I heard as a child when would go on summer vacation every year. And it was always, always in a church,” says Charlotte Schroeder, the president of Colbert Artists Management, where Jacobs is the only organist represented. “So every time I hear it, there is a religious association.”

There are also the instrument’s physical liabilities, including its biggest impediment: You can’t move the thing. Every great pipe organ is built expressly for and into the hall in which it is played — and the result is that each organ is a slightly different instrument with a somewhat different sound.

“Composers are afraid of it; it’s really complex, and each instrument is so different,” Higgs says. For performers, “when you go to play a concert, you can’t just go the night before or day of, like a singer or a pianist,” he adds. And most conductors “haven’t been trained to deal with it regularly; it’s different and strange, almost like bringing in another orchestra.”

To add to the complications, organists, composers and conductors all have to adjust to the pipe organ’s vast physical expanse — from a few hundred to several thousand individual pipes, some the size of a pencil, others as big as a small water main, and sometimes bent in the middle because they otherwise wouldn’t fit into the cramped spaces where most of the pipes are lined up, unseen by the public, row upon row.

Different divisions (the major sound groupings of pipes that correspond to a particular manual and the pedal board) can be hundreds of feet away from the organ console (organ-speak for the keyboard) and the orchestra. Different pipes, especially the longer ones, do not always “speak” at the precise instant a note is depressed; there’s a momentary delay, one accentuated by the relatively slow speed at which sound travels.

Layered on top of the individual differences are huge stylistic variations: There are French, German and American-style organs, Baroque, Romantic and modern. “An organ reflects the geography and the society in which it exists, so when you say ‘organ,’ you’re covering a multitude of possible realizations,” says Michael Barone, who hosts the program “Pipe Dreams” and has been presenting organ radio shows for 45 years. “The basic aspect is wind through pipes. But it’s like saying ‘automobile’. There’s a huge swath between an Isetta and a Rolls Royce.”

The lack of a standard, reproducible organ sound from one hall or church to the other is in fact a real problem, says Cameron Carpenter, a former student of Jacobs’s at Juilliard and the organ’s reigning enfant terrible. Carpenter’s solution, which has hardly endeared him to the greater pipe organ community, is to use an immensely sophisticated electronic version with a five-keyboard console —his International Touring Organ — that follows him around the world.

“If one expects to be competitive globally as a musician, you need exactly the same material played in exactly the same way with the same dynamic impact in South Carolina and South Korea — and both of those performances have to match YouTube,” says Carpenter, who was in Wheeling, W.Va., preparing for a concert. “The infrastructure of the pipe organ forbids this.”

Carpenter, in fact, says he took Jacobs’s viewpoint to heart. “The big lesson I learned from Paul is that it’s incredibly important to leave the organ community. And it’s illuminating that two people who have arrived at diametrically opposite solutions to their own musical ambitions end up coming to the same conclusion: the parochialism of the organ world.”

The merits of the small-town atmosphere of the organ community might be open to debate, but the instrument’s mechanical ingenuity is not. Until the industrial revolution, the pipe organ and the astronomical clocks on the steeples in village squares were the world’s two most complex human-made objects.

If this mechanical aspect of the organ creates a slight edge of mistrust, and even condescension, among other instrumentalists, it also heightens the difficulty of achieving that shimmering sound of incipient possibility that the best organists create.

And for Jacobs, there’s still more. The pipe organ, with its power and intensity and clarion sound, is an antidote to the superficiality of modern culture, “of people glued to their tech contraptions, of the inability to develop any interior life.” Played at its highest level, Jacobs says, the pipe organ can “carry the listener out of the mundane and into the realm of the divine — to the face of God.”


5 Things Alex Lacamoire Has Learned About Being a Music Director on Broadway

By Alex Lacamoire

Alex Lacamoire

Being a successful Broadway Music Director requires some skills that have nothing to do with actually making music. While the basic foundation of strong “chops,” time, feel, and repertoire is essential, the qualities that make an MD great pertain to attitude, planning, and camaraderie. My favorite aspect of working in musical theater is the collaboration. Here are some tips that will help make you a strong team player and a powerful leader.

1. Look at the Big Picture

Even though a show is called a “Musical,” it’s not just about the music. It’s about all the elements working together to put on a show: the actors, the band, the lights, the costumes, etc. If you get too caught up in your own world, you’ll forget that everyone around you is working toward the same goal. Be courteous to those around you and be a respectful representative of your department.

2. Be a Master Scheduler

Much of the gig is about time management. Take note of how long it takes you to teach a song to the cast, how long it takes you to rehearse the band for a tune, or how many days you need to arrange a chart. Plan ahead, know your limits, and factor in meals and sleep! Once you get the feel for the amount of time needed, you’ll be able to manage expectations for yourself and the people above you.

3. Give Positive Reinforcement

As an MD, you’re constantly giving corrective notes while critiquing people. It’s important to also let folks know when they’re doing well. You’d be surprised how infrequently some leaders say “Hey, good job!” It should never be lost on you how hard and vulnerable it is to perform music for a living. Everyone who’s working on the show is there because of a talent they possess that you don’t. Recognize this!

4. There’s Always Another Idea

I once saw a dance arranger bring in a chart that he had worked on for hours on end. The composer of the show didn’t love what the arranger had presented. Instead of making a stink about how much time he’d spent on something that was about to be thrown out, the arranger smiled genuinely and said, “No problem, let’s try something else!” That was the a huge lesson for me. Don’t get too precious about your work. If people aren’t feeling what you’ve contributed, don’t take it personally. It just means that you have to dig deeper for the next idea, the one that will be brilliant and even better than the first one. Your art has to resonate not just with you, but with the people that you’re working for.

5. Serve the Piece

Your biggest duties are to serve the composer and the story that’s being told onstage. Have you done everything in your power to make the composer’s music shine as brightly as it can? Are you avoiding putting “clever” fills in your chart that could distract from the lyric or the dramatic moment? Are you running a tight ship from your podium so that the music is clean and emotional and passionate, so that the show can therefore sound amazing? Aim to answer, “Yes” to all of these questions.

Alex Lacamoire is the music director for the Broadway show Hamilton; he also serves as the production’s orchestrator, co-arranger, conductor, keyboardist, and producer of the cast recording, out now on Atlantic Records. He won a Tony and a Grammy Award for In the Heights, and has worked on other Broadway shows, including Wicked, Bring It On, and 9 to 5. Follow him on Twitter @LacketyLac.