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.
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.
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.
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.
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.