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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

Australian “Angel” Saves Lives at Suicide Spot

By Kristen Gelineau (Associated Press) / CBS News

In this photo taken May 25, 2010, Don Ritchie looks out his window at his home in Sydney, Australia. For almost 50 years Ritchie, widely regarded as a guardian angel, has used simple kindness to shepherd countless suicidal people away from the edge.

In this photo taken May 25, 2010, Don Ritchie looks out his window at his home in Sydney, Australia. For almost 50 years Ritchie, widely regarded as a guardian angel, has used simple kindness to shepherd countless suicidal people away from the edge.

In those bleak moments when the lost souls stood atop the cliff, wondering whether to jump, the sound of the wind and the waves was broken by a soft voice. “Why don’t you come and have a cup of tea?” the stranger would ask. And when they turned to him, his smile was often their salvation.

For almost 50 years, Don Ritchie has lived across the street from Australia’s most notorious suicide spot, a rocky cliff at the entrance to Sydney Harbour called The Gap. And in that time, the man widely regarded as a guardian angel has shepherded countless people away from the edge.

What some consider grim, Ritchie considers a gift. How wonderful, the former life insurance salesman says, to save so many. How wonderful to sell them life.

“You can’t just sit there and watch them,” says Ritchie, now 84, perched on his beloved green leather chair, from which he keeps a watchful eye on the cliff outside. “You gotta try and save them. It’s pretty simple.”

Since the 1800s, Australians have flocked to The Gap to end their lives, with little more than a 3-foot fence separating them from the edge. Local officials say around one person a week commits suicide there, and in January, the Woollahra Council applied for AUS$2.1 million ($1.7 million) in federal funding to build a higher fence and overhaul security.

In the meantime, Ritchie keeps up his voluntary watch. The council recently named Ritchie and Moya, his wife of 58 years, 2010’s Citizens of the Year.

He’s saved 160 people, according to the official tally, but that’s only an estimate. Ritchie doesn’t keep count. He just knows he’s watched far more walk away from the edge than go over it.

Dianne Gaddin likes to believe Ritchie was at her daughter’s side before she jumped in 2005. Though he can’t remember now, she is comforted by the idea that Tracy felt his warmth in her final moments.

“He’s an angel,” she says. “Most people would be too afraid to do anything and would probably sooner turn away and run away. But he had the courage and the charisma and the care and the magnetism to reach people who were coming to the end of their tether.”

Something about Ritchie exudes a feeling of calm. His voice has a soothing raspiness to it, and his pale blue eyes are gentle. Though he stands tall at just over 6’2″ (an inch shorter, he notes with a grin, than he used to be), he hardly seems imposing.

Each morning, he climbs out of bed, pads over to the bedroom window of his modest, two-story home, and scans the cliff. If he spots anyone standing alone too close to the precipice, he hurries to their side.

Visitors walk around a notorious suicide spot called The Gap in Sydney, Australia.

Visitors walk around a notorious suicide spot called The Gap in Sydney, Australia.

In his younger years, he would occasionally climb the fence to hold people back while Moya called the police. He would help rescue crews haul up the bodies of those who couldn’t be saved. And he would invite the rescuers back to his house afterward for a comforting drink.

It all nearly cost him his life once. A chilling picture captured decades ago by a local news photographer shows Ritchie struggling with a woman, inches from the edge. The woman is seen trying to launch herself over the side – with Ritchie the only thing between her and the abyss. Had she been successful, he would have gone over, too.

These days, he keeps a safer distance. The council installed security cameras this year and the invention of mobile phones means someone often calls for help before he crosses the street.

But he remains available to lend an ear, though he never tries to counsel, advise or pry. He just gives them a warm smile, asks if they’d like to talk and invites them back to his house for tea. Sometimes, they join him.

“I’m offering them an alternative, really,” Ritchie says. “I always act in a friendly manner. I smile.”

A smile cannot, of course, save everyone; the motivations behind suicide are too varied. But simple kindness can be surprisingly effective. Mental health professionals tell the story of a note left behind by a man who jumped off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way to the bridge, the man wrote, I will not jump.

By offering compassion, Ritchie helps those who are suicidal think beyond the terrible present moment, says psychiatrist Gordon Parker, executive director of the Black Dog Institute, a mood disorder research center that has supported the council’s efforts to improve safety at The Gap.

“They often don’t want to die, it’s more that they want the pain to go away,” Parker says. “So anyone that offers kindness or hope has the capacity to help a number of people.”

Kevin Hines wishes someone like Ritchie was there the day he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. For 40 agonizing minutes, the then-19-year-old paced the bridge, weeping, and hoping someone would ask him what was wrong. One tourist finally approached – but simply asked him to take her picture. Moments later, he jumped.

Hines, who suffers from bipolar disorder, was severely injured, but eventually recovered. Today he says if one person had shown they were not blind to his pain, he probably would never have jumped.

“A smile can go a long way – caring can go even further. And the fact that he offers them tea and he just listens, he’s really all they wanted,” Hines says. “He’s all a lot of suicidal people want.”

Don Ritchie

Don Ritchie

In 2006, the government recognized Ritchie’s efforts with a Medal of the Order of Australia, among the nation’s highest civilian honors. It hangs on his living room wall above a painting of a sunshine someone left in his mailbox. On it is a message calling Ritchie “an angel that walks amongst us.”

He smiles bashfully. “It makes you – oh, I don’t know,” he says, looking away. “I feel happy about it.”

But he speaks readily and fondly of one woman he saved, who came back to thank him. He spotted her sitting alone one day, her purse already beyond the fence. He invited her to his house to meet Moya and have tea. The couple listened to her problems and shared breakfast with her. Eventually, her mood improved and she drove home.

A couple of months later, she returned with a bottle of champagne. And about once a year, she visits or writes, assuring them she is happy and well.

There have been a few, though, that he could not save. One teenager ignored his coaxings and suddenly jumped. A wind blew the boy’s hat into Ritchie’s outstretched hand.

He later found out the teen had lived next door, years earlier. His mother brought Ritchie flowers and thanked him for trying. If you couldn’t have talked him out of it, she told him, no one could.

Despite all he has seen, he says he is not haunted by the ones who were lost. He cannot remember the first suicide he witnessed, and none have plagued his nightmares. He says he does his best with each person, and if he loses one, he accepts that there was nothing more he could have done.

Nor have he and Moya ever felt burdened by the location of their home.

“I think, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we live here and we can help people?'” Moya says, her husband nodding in agreement.

Their life has been a good one, they say. They raised three beautiful daughters and now have three grandchildren to adore. They have traveled the world, and their home is decorated with statues and masks from their journeys. Ritchie proudly points out a dried, shellacked piranha – a souvenir from their vacation to the Amazon, where he insisted on swimming with the creatures (to Moya’s dismay).

Until about a year ago, the former Navy seaman enjoyed a busy social life, regularly lunching with friends. But battles with cancer and his advancing years have taken their toll, and now he spends most days at home with Moya, buried in a good book. His current read: the Dalai Lama’s “The Art of Happiness.”

Every now and then, he looks up from his books to scan the horizon for anyone who might need him. He’ll keep doing so, he says, for as long as he’s here.

And when he’s not?

He chuckles softly.

“I imagine somebody else will come along and do what I’ve been doing.”

He gazes through the glass door to the cliff outside. And his face is lit with a smile.

For more info:
suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Source: cbsnews.com