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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Love Never Dies’: For conductors, pleasing the composer is a labor of love

By Andrea Simakis

CLEVELAND, Ohio — It was one of those make-or-break moments for Dale Rieling. The stuff of anxiety dreams you can never wake from fast enough.

It was this past October in Detroit, the day of the official opening of the U.S. tour of “Love Never Dies,” the sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Rieling was set to conduct, and he was nervous — and not because it was opening night. He’d done countless openings throughout his career, many as a music supervisor and a conductor of “Les Miserables” from 1997 to 2003 during its Broadway run. He’s also an old hand on the road, having taken the podium for numerous national tours, including “Les Miz” and Diane Paulus’ “Porgy and Bess” that visited Playhouse Square in 2014.

He’d be in Playhouse Square again with “Love Never Dies” for three weeks beginning Tuesday, a lovely bit of timing that would allow him to spend his birthday with wife Victoria Bussert, head of the music theater program at Baldwin Wallace University.

But first, he had to make it through opening night in Detroit. He’d learned the day before that a VIP would be in attendance: Andrew Lloyd Webber, arguably the world’s most successful living composer of musical theater.

The Brit’s hits have spanned four decades, from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the rock opera Rieling bought on vinyl at age 9 or 10, to “School of Rock,” recently celebrating its second year on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre, where Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” opened in 1982, closing after nearly 18 years.

But it’s “Phantom,” the longest-running production on the Great White Way and one of the top-grossing Broadway musicals of all time ($1 billion and counting), that made him a legend. Queen Elizabeth II named him a lord in 1996.

May it please the lord

Lloyd Webber is known to be exacting, hands-on and mercurial, keeping even longtime associates, such as “Love Never Dies” music supervisor Kristen Blodgette, on their toes.

The Cleveland native raised in Fairview Park, who learned to love musicals going to shows with her parents in downtown Cleveland, has worked on Lloyd Webber’s productions for most of her career, starting with “Cats” as a pianist in 1984. (In a poetic dovetailing, she was music supervisor for the 2016 revival, which closed in December.) Still, she never takes their more than 30-year collaboration for granted.

“Andrew’s expectations, tastes, requirements change,” she says. “I know his musical style — he varies it and changes it — but I understand how he writes. I understand, I think, how his work should sound and how it should be conducted. But it’s ever evolving.”

Is it any surprise that he’s as enigmatic as the Phantom, retaining an air of mystery, and a touch of menace, even for those who have known him for decades?

“I believe he trusts me,” she says. But, she adds, her role is still very much a pressure cooker.

As music supervisor, Blodgette champions the wishes of the composer in all aspects of the production, working with musicians, weighing in on casting decisions and conducting the show herself or relinquishing the baton to a musical director of her choosing.

“It’s a huge decision,” she says. As weighty as a birth mother giving up her baby to an adoptive parent.

And she’d decided on Dale Rieling.

(As he takes “Love Never Dies” from city to city, she’ll be breaking in a new Phantom on Broadway and working the show when it turns 30, Jan. 26.)

“Every piece is important to Andrew, but ‘Love Never Dies’ has always seemed to hold special significance to him,” she says. Rieling’s performance would be a direct reflection on her.

“My life depends on how he conducts,” Blodgette says. “Let’s put it that way.”

An opening night to remember

Lloyd Webber had been at the Fisher Theatre earlier that week to make last-minute tweaks at a sound check and catch two preview performances Blodgette had conducted. If her boss was displeased with what he heard, she wanted his criticism to be directed at her, not Rieling.

He was, by all accounts, delighted by what he heard — then departed. Or so they thought. The Lord works in mysterious ways, and word came down he’d be coming back for opening night. But Blodgette wouldn’t be able to conduct — she had jury duty in New York that same day. The baton would fall to Rieling.

Though Lloyd Webber had blessed Rieling’s hire from afar and had been “really pleased,” says Rieling, after seeing him conduct a revamped version of “Phantom” at the Kennedy Center in 2016, it was anyone’s guess whether he’d give thumbs-up to Rieling’s interpretation of “Love Never Dies.”

Production team members had been trying to get Blodgette out of jury duty for months. After all, who wants to miss the American premiere of a new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical?

(There is talk of a Broadway production, but for now, the only way you can see it in the United States is on tour.)

“As we were rehearsing in August, the company managers were writing letters to the jury board,” Rieling says.

The city of New York remained unmoved. “They said, ‘If you get out of jury duty, we’ll lock you up,’ or something subtle like that,” says Blodgette.

Still, she had every confidence in Rieling. “I knew that he would be fabulous,” she says.

“Just go out there and do it — you do this better than I do!” she told him. “Not true,” adds Rieling, “but that’s what she said.”

He conducted the opening number. “That was good,” he thought. “Keep going.”

In New York, Blodgette assumed all was well. Had Lord Lloyd Webber felt otherwise, “I would have known before the show ended,” she says.

The composer was so pleased, he came onstage for the curtain call, sending the audience into the stratosphere.

Afterward, Rieling ran upstairs to his dressing room and sent a text to Kristen: “We both get to keep our jobs!”

For composer, it’s personal

When “Love Never Dies” opened in London in 2010, the reception hardly brought down the house, or the chandelier, for that matter, an effect in “Phantom 1” that still thrills Broadway crowds after nearly three decades.

Ten years after disappearing from the bowels of the Paris Opera House, the Phantom resurfaces in New York’s Coney Island as the mysterious impresario of “Mr. Y’s Phantasma,” an elaborate, seaside production populated by gifted freaks not unlike himself.

The Phantom lures Christine, now a renowned diva and mother to a musical prodigy, to America with promises of a big payday. She needs the money, as she is married to the profligate Raoul, who is drinking and gambling away their savings.

“Right away, either you’re gonna like the fact that it takes place in Coney Island or you’re gonna go ‘Bwah-ha-ha! It takes place in Coney Island!’ ” says Blodgette.

Most critics brought forks and knives and dined on its bright, feathered carcass, one labeling it “Paint Never Dries.”

It was a painful rebuke for Lloyd Webber, whose most famous creation has always been known as his most intimate work.

“The relationship between the Phantom and Christine — I think that it has personal resonance for him,” says Blodgette.

Sarah Brightman, the composer’s second wife, who originated the role of Christine, is widely recognized as Lloyd Webber’s muse.

The late Maria Bjornson, who designed “Phantom’s” opulent costumes and baroque interiors that helped fuel its smash worldwide success, once hinted that the couple’s relationship had similar contours to the tortured affair between the disfigured genius and his songbird, saying, “If they had been truly happy, we would never have had ‘Phantom.’ ”

Surely little interesting art would exist without some of that “Bad Romance” Lady Gaga sang about. (For the record, the exes are friendly today, Lloyd Webber calling Brightman his “Angel of Music,” the name Christine gives the Phantom, at a 25th anniversary gala in London.)

Like its dark antihero, “Love Never Dies” sought reinvention, not in the States but Australia, where it was reworked and greeted more warmly, though it has never received the passionate embrace enjoyed by its predecessor. (Variety summed it up nicely, calling “Phantom 1” “hokum cordon bleu.”)

How does Blodgette think “Phantom 2” compares? It’s akin to asking her to announce which family member she loves best.

While both shows are “equally joyous to conduct” and vocally demanding — “you have to be able to sing to do Andrew’s work. It’s really rangy,” she says — there’s no charge quite like working on a new piece of art.

“Maybe because ‘Phantom of the Opera’ is so, like, in my DNA, the newness of ‘Love Never Dies’ is thrilling.”

The thrill never dies

Finding actors who could sing opera tinged with rock and fill out a freak show was an especially fun nightmare. “We need someone who is 6-foot-4, who has an interesting look, who can move, who can dance, who can lift and who is also a bass,” she recites drily.

The score is “just stunning,” she says, reminiscent of the Lloyd Webber’s “The Woman in White,” “one of my favorite shows to conduct — ever.”

So, she adds, is ” ‘Till I Hear You Sing,” one of the Phantom’s numbers in the new show Lloyd Webber has called “probably as strong a song as I’ve ever done.” Stronger, he says than “The Music of the Night,” a “Phantom of the Opera” classic.

” ‘Til I Hear You Sing’ is probably one of the most exciting things I’ve ever conducted in my life,” says Blodgette. “The storytelling in it, the passion in it, how it starts, how it’s built, the architecture of that piece and the vocal challenge of that piece, are profound.

“I’m incredibly inspired by the way our Phantom sings it.” That’s Icelandic opera singer Gardar Thor Cortes, who starred as the Phantom in the Hamburg, Germany, production of “Love Never Dies.”

” ‘Till I Hear You Sing’ is just a killer — it’s gorgeous,” says Blodgette. “Once it gets in there, it never leaves you.”

Rieling also relates to the thrill of the new — “Love Never Dies” has the lushness of the original but is still evolving.

“To quote another show — ‘Everybody wants to be in the room where it happens,’ ” Rieling says. ” ‘Phantom’ has happened — once you have done that, it’s something that can never be taken away from you. But we didn’t all get into this business to just get a hit show and stay with it. That can often be the golden handcuffs. I’ve done that.

“It is very nice, at this point in my career, to be with a newer show that’s still unproven, that’s still in process.”

And, it’s especially nice that the show is written by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Rieling still has that old copy “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

“I’ve worn it out,” he says.

Source: cleveland.com

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.

Source: newyork.com

The Lunatic Behind the Dictionary

By Sean Braswell

James Murray

The return address on the letters read simply: “Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.” But what they contained was a treasure trove of illustrative quotations for Dr. James Murray, the first editor of what would eventually become The Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Compiling a comprehensive dictionary — a project Dr. Murray and his colleagues were engaged in during the late 19th century — requires, rather like Wikipedia today, an army of volunteer contributors, some more competent than others. Rare is the volunteer like Dr. W.C. Minor of Broadmoor who can provide tens of thousands of illustrative quotations for OED entries, and even deliver examples for certain desired words on demand.

Rarer still is the valued contributor who is also a certified lunatic and murderer. But that’s exactly what William Chester Minor was, though it would take Dr. Murray nearly a decade to learn the true identity of his angel wordsmith.

The full address of Minor’s residence was Cell Block Two at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. He may have been a guest of the English authorities, but Minor, born in 1834, was actually an American, descended from a distinguished family of Connecticut aristocrats. A clever young man with all the advantages life has to offer, Minor earned a medical degree from Yale in 1863, and the young surgeon enlisted in the Union Army just four days before the historic battle of Gettysburg. But, as Simon Winchester chronicles in the best-seller The Professor and The Madman, Minor was a sensitive, gentle man, not one cut out for soldiering and the horrific scenes he witnessed on the front lines of the U.S. Civil War, including at the bloody Battle of the Wilderness.

After the war and less than a decade before he would arrive at Broadmoor, Minor continued to rise in the Army ranks, becoming a captain and regarded by some as one of the best surgeons in the country. But his behavior became increasingly erratic and unpredictable; he grew paranoid of plots against his life and spent most evenings frequenting prostitutes in the Tenderloin districts of New York and other cities where he was stationed. Army doctors concluded he had been “incapacitated by causes arising in the line of duty” — what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder today. After being released from the Army, Minor left for London in 1871 with his books and watercolor paints in the hopes of starting a new and more peaceful life.

What he found instead were the same old fears and delusions. One night in February 1872, Minor, convinced that someone was trying to break into his room, wandered into the streets of London with a gun and shot and killed an innocent man in cold blood. Found not guilty by reason of insanity, Minor was committed as a “certified criminal lunatic” to Broadmoor, where he would spend most of the next 40 years.

The well-heeled former Army surgeon enjoyed some special treatment at Broadmoor, including a two-room suite in which one of the cells was lined floor to ceiling with books, Minor’s passion and solace. And when James Murray, a Scottish lexicographer, sent out a press release in the early 1880s asking for readers to assist with the painstaking work of finding example passages to accompany the great dictionary’s definitions, Minor quickly volunteered, though it would be years before they received his first submission.

With nothing but time on his hands, and buoyed by the chance to contribute once again to society, Minor pursued the enormous task — but from an unusual angle. His was “a working method,” writes Winchester, “that turned out to be different from that of all other volunteer readers, but that soon marked him as uniquely valuable in the making of the great dictionary.”

Meticulously combing over his private library, Minor wrote down every single word of interest as he came to it, making extensive annotated word lists that took years to compile. Minor’s system meant that rather than just sending in quotation slips for rather arbitrary words (as most volunteers did), the committed inmate could find out which words Murray and the OED editors needed examples for and then supply the relevant quotations — tens of thousands of them over the years.

For almost a decade, Murray assumed that his favorite volunteer was a somewhat reclusive doctor at the asylum who had spare time on his hands, even if it was a bit odd that he consistently declined invitations to attend events at Murray’s Oxford headquarters less than 40 miles from Broadmoor. When Murray finally learned the truth about his volunteer, from a passing remark made by a Harvard librarian who knew Minor’s backstory, he set out to visit Broadmoor in 1891. And for the next two decades, Murray continued to visit Minor, and the two men developed a longstanding friendship. “So enormous have been Dr. Minor’s contributions during the past 17 or 18 years,” Murray said of his lunatic friend’s accomplishments in 1899, “that we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone.”

In the end Minor’s illness did not appear to compromise the integrity, or enormous utility, of his lexicographic work for the OED project — demonstrating yet again how in certain human undertakings, there can be a fine line between madness and innovation.

Source: ozy.com