In the Moment: An Interview with 1st Stage’s ‘Old Wicked Songs’ Musical Director Walter “Bobby” McCoy and Artistic/Managing Director Alex Levy

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1st Stage’s production of Old Wicked Songs by Jon Marans has opened to high praise from reviewers and audiences alike. After seeing the show I wanted to learn more about something very specific; the live piano work. The live music was truly remarkable – like a personal concert taking place in an atelier overlooking a lovely urban setting. And there was no absolutely place to hide for the two cast members, Aaron Bliden and Philip Hosford. The two actors were always in character as they acted, sang and played live piano with great skill and inter-personal chemistry while closely surrounded by an audience leaning forward each time a piano key was touched.

Since I was aware that the script would allow for use of an electronic player piano of sorts, I decided to ask Musical Director Walter “Bobby” McCoy how the music scenes were accomplished.

This column is based upon interviews with Bobby McCoy and Alex Levy, Artistic/Managing Director of 1st Stage, located in Tysons, Virginia just off the Silver Line metro stop. The show plays through May 3, 2015.

David: What is your role as the musical director of Old Wicked Songs?

Walter Bobby McCoy. Photo courtesy of Mr. McCoy.
Walter Bobby McCoy. Photo courtesy of Mr. McCoy.

Bobby: The role of musical director for Old Wicked Songs has been very unique to me. I am so used to working with large ensembles in Musicals; so taking a step away from that mindset and working on a play has been wonderful. This production has required me to teach piano, vocal coach and do musicology research. Teaching the piano has been the most time intensive part of the process for me. Thankfully we casted two brilliant actors who could play the piano!

Is there specific musical guidance in the Old Wicked Songs script?

There is very specific guidance in the script for us to work with. Schumann’s song cycle the Dichterliebe (The Poets Love) is the piece of music that the play is centered around. The script lists what songs of the song cycle to play and when to play “pre-recorded” music vs. live music.

That being said, we did make some choices that differed from the original stage direction. The biggest factor that I think sets this production apart from others is that the actors are actually performing the music live. The script suggest that the production be performed with a Yamaha Disklavier; which is Yamaha’s electronic version of a Player Piano. There is no hiding behind the piano the way Michael Chamberlin has brilliantly staged the show. You are right there in the Viennese studio from the wistful opening bars of the prelude till the last delicate bars of the andante expressivo.

Tell me a bit about the rehearsal process for performing the Schumann pieces and the “homework” required.

One of the most important issues related to the performance of a piece is how to shape musical motion in time. The aspired shape usually emerges gradually during the performers’ rehearsal process, which includes experimentation with timing, articulation, dynamics, and so on. Schumann requires all that and more! I put the most emphasis on proper practicing. It is so important to practice with emotion and technically from the very start of the process. Most of the initial learning of the notes was done individually by each actor. My role was to shape and bring out the musicality in each of their playing.

As musical director, what are you proudest of?

I am proudest of Aaron Bliden and Phil Hosford. This show is a marathon when all of the puzzle pieces come together. They have learned a lot of music and the way they are able to incorporate it into the show is great. They are both rock stars in my book and deserve huge audiences.

(left to right) Philip Hosford and Aaron Bliden in "Old Wicked Songs" at 1st Stage.The show runs through May 3, 2015 in Tysons Corner. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
(left to right) Philip Hosford and Aaron Bliden in “Old Wicked Songs” at 1st Stage.  Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Do you have any other thoughts for our readers?

This show is extremely engaging for me because the music is the third character. It really shows how music is more powerful than words at times and that it can transport you to another state of mind! If you love classical music; don’t miss out!

Tell me a bit about the audition process for Old Wicked Songs given the piano skills displayed in the 1st Stage production?

Alex Levy.
Alex Levy. Photo courtesy of  The Fairfax Times.

Alex Levy: The audition process was one of the most extensive we’ve ever had.  The truth is, there are only a handful of actors in the city that have the skills we were looking for.  To be excellent piano player as well as an actor who can get to the necessary depths and levels that is required for a two person show.  And then, we needed them to sing opera as well.  We saw a number of very talented people but we kept bringing Aaron and Phil back because they so clearly stood out.

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Old Wicked Songs plays through May 3, 2015 at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in McLean, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.

LINKS: 
Chuck Leonard reviews Old Wicked Songs on DCMetroTheaterArts.

David Siegel reviews Old Wicked Songs in The Connection.