Category Archives: Theatre

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.


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.


Two Musicals That High Schools Shouldn’t Be Performing

By Chris Peterson

With the school year wrapping up, it’s a great time to see the incredible talent that’s being fostered in our schools with their annual musicals. It’s always fantastic to see schools take on bold and challenging work. But there is a point where things can go too far.

Here are two musicals that should not be gracing high school stages for a variety of reasons ranging from content to messages within the shows themselves.



When it comes to theatre, I hate seeing material censored. My view is that you either perform the entire show as written, or don’t do it at all. In the four high school productions of Cabaret I’ve seen, not once has the entire show been performed as it was originally written.

Either the homosexuality is toned down or erased completely, dialogue is changed and complete scenes and songs are cut. If a high school production has to go to these lengths just put on the production, there is no point in doing that particular show.

I’ve never seen the educational or entertainment value for a high school to attempt Cabaret. It’s an incredibly dark story line to begin with a depressing finale, although most high schools soften it a bit.

If the only reason why high school directors choose this piece is so they can have their students perform such iconic songs such as “Maybe This Time” or “Willkommen”, feature them in a musical revue. If they want their students to be introduced the works of Kander & Ebb, there are plenty of works in their catalog perfect for high school audiences such as Steel Pier, Curtains, Woman of the Year and the less risque Chicago.



I mentioned this in a column a while ago but it occurred to me that high school theatre directors really need to start paying attention to messages in their productions. I talked about how when you look at Oklahoma! from the perspective of the character “Jud”, it becomes a musical about bullying someone with a mental illness to the point they lash out violently.

Another musical that has a dark message, is Grease. The show is performed annually in area high schools all over the country. But when closer looked, I can’t understand why.

In Grease, Sandy has a summer romance with a boy named Danny. Upon returning to school Sandy gushes about how wonderful her summer was while Danny describes her as the biggest slut ever, to his friends. When they meet later in the day, Danny pretends not to know her so he can look cool in front of his friends because she obviously doesn’t live up to the description he told them, cue Sandy heartbreak #1.

Later in the act, Sandy arrives at a picnic in the park only to see that the entire cast has been making fun of her(“Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee”), Danny once again shrugs her off and Sandy leaves the picnic in tears, cue Sandy heartbreak #2.

In Act 2, Sandy stays home from the prom and sings about how she still inexplicably loves Danny despite the horrible way he’s treated her. But she finds enough courage to go to the dance only to be ignored by Danny, who is too busy celebrating winning a dance contest. Cue Sandy heartbreak #3.

Further along in the show Danny takes Sandy on a date, hiding from his buddies the entire time and basically attempts date raping Sandy. Cue Sandy heartbreak #4.

The show ends with Sandy making the decision that she needs to completely change herself in order to fit in and be accepted by the boy she loves. She does this and now Danny can proudly show off his new and improved girlfriend and Sandy is finally accepted by her “friends”.

In high schools all over the country, students are already feeling the horrors of peer pressure and struggling to accept who they really are. But don’t worry kids, this year your school is putting on a production that says if you simply change yourself, you’ll get the boy/girl and have all the friends you could ever want! Shoobop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom!

High School theatre is obviously meant to educate and inspire students to become interested in getting involved. However, when schools select these productions, they must be sensitive to the fact that family members of all ages are going to come to these productions to support these students. They also have to be sensitive to what messages these shows promote as well.