Kevin Roland Begins his New Column ‘A View From the Pit’

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I didn’t choose to be a Musical Director. It chose me. And thank God it did, because I can’t imagine much else I would be good at. I told my mother for years I didn’t want those silly piano lessons but she thought she knew best. 30 years later, the secret is out, she did. People ask me all the time how I became a Music Director for Theater. I am still not sure I know the answer entirely, especially since I did not even see my first full length musical production until I was in college and that is if you count a Gilbert & Sullivan production as a “Broadway Musical”. Admittedly I was a theater late bloomer. Growing up in the deep south, the arts ain’t…er….aren’t exactly promoted like they are here in DC.

Kevin at the piano.
Kevin at the piano.

After somehow making a name for myself and convincing people I could play the piano, and after many years of accompanying and directing all sorts of people in various productions, and I do mean all sorts, I have been able to carve out a niche job for myself. This brings me back to my point on how I got to where I am now.  Since my current musical production is Jason Robert Browns  (JRB) The Last Five Years, it is only fitting that I tell my story backwards in time like Cathy Hiatt, Big-Time star.

As a Music Director and pianist, you will find work. There are too many high schools, middle schools, dinner theaters, and just plain mediocre theater companies out there and not enough pianists and MD’s to adequately serve them all. But like day laborers waiting outside of Home Depot, MD’s often have to seek out their employer before an employer seeks out them. Timing is everything in this business. Someone worse than you will get a job better than yours based on this fact alone. Having just finished an 8 show a week 12 week run of My Fair Lady at Arena Stage in January, I didn’t have the “next big show” lined up right after we closed. That’s when I went on the prowl. Sure, I get lots of calls to do jobs I am not very interested in, but once you commit to a project or a show, that’s it. You are off the market for weeks if not months, so you have to be very careful about saying the yes word. If you say yes to the first show that comes your way, you most likely will not be working on the production you truly want, and if you say no too many times, well, they just stop calling. In this line of work, commitment is dangerous but rewarding when timed just right. Right around the holidays I heard that a local theater was seeking a Music Director for JRB’s The Last Five Years at Spotlighters Theatre, in Baltimore, MD. I said, “Merry Christmas to me!” I knew I had to be the one.

Pianist’s fall into one of two categories with JRB’s music, you either run like hell because no one can ever play his music like he does, or you jump in feet first and accept the challenge like a Kamikaze warrior during WWII. Producers and Directors seem to take you much more seriously when they find out you have directed and played a JRB show. It didn’t matter to me that this theatre, like many others, was/is cash strapped and survive season by season. <side note: please donate generously to local theater!>  One of my colleagues even commented to me that they did not realize this theatre was still open for business. Even if the theater was closed, I would have still accepted this job. This is every serious theater pianists dream.

last 5 years spotlighters logo

Once I had convinced the Artistic Director to hire me and that I was worthy of a raise before I had even held the first rehearsal, the fear set in. Could I really pull off playing this score? Could I play those blues riffs in “Moving Too Fast” which could not have been titled more accurately? Can I lock into that 2 beat groove in “Goodbye Until Tomorrow”? Can I conduct the band AND play this music all at the same time? It takes a certain hubris to think you are going to play a JRB score like JRB does but it never really stops you. Wait a minute, did I say band? The Artistic Director had to beg the Board of Directors of this theater to pay me enough so that I wouldn’t lose money by doing this production. How were they ever going to pay for musicians or an orchestra? That’s when it hit me….they weren’t going to.

Now, most pianists and MD’s love to be seen. I am no exception. After all, it does take a certain braggadocio to do what we do, but do I want to be seen and heard THAT much?  There is no dialogue between songs or breaks in this show. It’s basically a staged concert with many songs segueing into the next with not even a pause for applause. Applause to actors is like spinach to Popeye, but there is just not much room in this show for that. This musical/song cycle has so many layers and colors to it that even in my most bumptious of moments, even I could not convince myself that 90 minutes of just piano accompaniment would relay the depth of this score or would not lull the audience into a deep meditative state much like the constant humming of a train zipping along the tracks. I had to have musicians. I had to recreate what JRB envisioned at any cost.

Every MD has a bucket list of shows that they would secretly do for free. This was one of mine. I won’t disclose the others for fear that producers will call me to try to take advantage of my “bucket-list” kindness. If you have the chance to do one of the shows on your list, you will do anything to do it and do it the right way, with every bell and whistle. Sometimes you realize you don’t even know all the bells and whistles and then there is the internet. Nope, I didn’t go to YouTube where the entire original Off-Broadway cast performance can be seen, I didn’t scour every online review I could find, I went straight to the source, to JRB himself.

Composers are a lot like the Wizard of Oz. We see them as great and almighty powers, almost untouchable and certainly unapproachable, but in fact, they are ordinary people who just want their show to be done as well as it can be. He was very amenable to discussing his vision with me and without that conversation, my experience with this show would certainly be much different. Who knew that he wanted a fretless bass instead of an electric bass even though no distinction is ever made in the materials that are sent? It is the small details like this that separate good from average, passion vs. ambivalence, and right from wrong in the composers eyes.

Like an actor in a callback, I took Jason’s notes one by one and tried to incorporate them, but I still needed a band. And with no money, this started to look impossible. Further complicated was the fact that I live and work in DC and had no connections to the Baltimore theater or musician scene where this production was being done. It was going to cost me at least $3000 to hire 5 competent musicians for the 13 performance, 4 week run of our show and even that barely scratches the surface of what good musicians should be paid. I wasn’t going to let my vision for the music slip away. How often does a MD get to use the full orchestration from a Broadway….ok, Off-Broadway show the way the composer intended?

Owning a business is a powerful thing. I am lucky enough to own a music teaching studio for my “day job.” Because all of the lessons my teachers and I teach are in the student’s homes, we naturally become a part of each family we teach, a big brother so to speak. I see young students get scolded by their parents for doing something wrong, I see teenage students rebel against the adults in the household, and I see adult students running around in their housecoats trying to feed everyone before their lesson begins. It’s a nutty world for sure, but they are family. And who do you turn to when you need help? That’s right, family. I am not sure if my students are happy that I do theater or resent it since I have to cancel many lessons for rehearsals and performances, but like any good family member, they support me even if they don’t believe in the cause as much as I do. So I did what any respectable Music Director would do in order to do a bucket-list show, I begged….er….I mean I fund raised.

Jason Robert Brown.
Jason Robert Brown.

Back to the internet thing, there is a website for everything you know? Kickstarter.com is my latest fascination because it allows people with no knowledge of raising money other than how to spend it, to raise cash for any project that the Kickstarter team deems legitimate. That’s a pretty nebulous term, but they do make it clear you can’t raise funds for your next scuba diving vacation or add to your comic book collection, but apparently funding an orchestra for a community theater was “legit.” And there it was, now armed with a conduit to raise money and the “family” to support me and my cause, I started the begging process. After a few mass emails, numerous Facebook posts, and many puppy dog eyed conversations, we were able to raise $3000 to fund the band. Good thing too because I had already “hired” the musicians before raising the money. Remember, I told you it takes a certain braggadocio to do what we do. The stars were starting to align and everything was coming together. Between Craigslist, the Peabody School of Music, and the Baltimore Musicians Union, I had my very own pit band and now I had money to pay them.

As an audition pianist, I had played nearly every one of JRB’s songs at least once or twice in my life for various cabarets, for my own enjoyment, and of course for auditions, but always alone. Certainly never with a fretless bass. Or a Cello. Or a Blues Guitarist. “I’m a Part of That” became art imitating life, or is it the other way around? The first rehearsal was an experience I will never forget. I was like a kid riding his first roller coaster, not quite sure what to expect but hanging on for dear life and anticipating every twist and turn. People ask me all the time do I prefer doing local community theater or the big professional productions that I have been so very fortunate to be a part of. The answer to that question reminds me of my college days when I had no money and very few resources, yet those were some of the best days of my life. Those were the glory days. We made our own fun and we still survived and often wish we had those days back. There is a reason it’s called “Community” Theater. So even though some say “I Can Do Better Than That”, I say “See, I’m Smiling.”




Next article: The Audition Process.