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Teaching Artist Leah Reddy spoke with music supervisor David Chase about his work on 1776.

Leah Reddy: What is your theatre origin story?

David Chase: Here’s a secret: I don’t have any formal music training. I took piano lessons for five years as a kid, but I hated every minute of it. Hated the practicing, hated the metronome, hated the recitals. I especially hated having to play exactly what was written on the page. But I LOVED to play piano as long as I got to make up what I wanted to play. I accompanied (and sang in) a lot of school choirs and church choruses. The turning point for me was during freshman year of high school when my mother offered a ride home to a student she saw walking along the side of the road. She of course got him talking: he was deeply involved with the high school drama group, and adored the drama teacher, Joan Bedinger. My mother came home to tell me that I should get involved in the drama group, too, so I did.

They were doing a musical that spring, Pippin. Not knowing anything about how these things happened, I walked up to the drama teacher and said, “Hi, I'm David Chase. I know how to play piano. Can I play piano for Pippin?” She said, “Well, we already have somebody playing the piano part,” but brilliant teacher that she was, she said, "But if you want to make up your own part, sure." So I went to a local music store — I can't believe I did this — and convinced them to lend us an organ for free, and I made up my own part. By sophomore year, I was performing onstage (debut role: Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady), and designing posters and sets. But most importantly, Mrs. Bedinger allowed me to arrange and orchestrate music before I even knew what those terms meant. We did a production of Cabaret in 1982 and, 15 years before the Roundabout revival did a similar thing, I transcribed, arranged, and orchestrated all the songs from the movie and added them to the stage play, and rewrote the script to accommodate them. (Which was, frankly, illegal, although John Kander gave me his blessing long after the fact!) That wouldn’t have happened without a wonderful teacher like Joan Bedinger recognizing and encouraging that potential.

Despite all that, I never had any intention of pursuing theatre or music. I didn't know anybody who did it professionally. My degree is in biology, although I knew early on that I didn’t want to be a doctor like my dad. Much of my college time was spent doing theatre as an extracurricular — writing and performing in the Hasty Pudding [The Hasty Pudding Society at Harvard University], and in fact my last onstage role was in Candide at the Loeb Drama Center, the same stage that 1776 played this past spring at A.R.T. But after college I continued to play piano while trying to figure out what to do with my life. I ended up playing four years of Forbidden Broadway in Boston before finally deciding to make the move to NYC. Forbidden Broadway had taught me how to play the piano and make it sound like an orchestra. In my first couple of years in New York, I played hundreds of auditions and rehearsals (including for the Rockettes), and subbed on piano at a couple of Broadway shows, one of which was Crazy For You. (I particularly liked being there at the Shubert. Paula Leggett was in the original cast, and she and I started spending more and more time together.  We will have been married for 30 years as of December.)

Eventually I met James Raitt, who's probably best known in the theatre world for having done the musical arrangements for Forever Plaid. Brilliant man. He was John Raitt's nephew and Bonnie Raitt's cousin. He was of the AIDS generation. He had been offered a revival of Damn Yankees as the music director and arranger. And he said, “I want you to be my associate. I won't be around for very long and you should be a conductor.”

We did the show first in San Diego. When it came to New York, James conducted the final dress rehearsal and two previews and then was too ill to continue. He died about six weeks after the show opened. But he gave me this huge gift. I conducted almost continuously for the next 20 years on Broadway. I still only use his baton.

That's my theatre origin story. I never dreamed of being in the theatre. I never had any particular intentions or plans to do this. I’ve always tried to do whatever seems most interesting and most challenging.

LR: On 1776, you're credited as music supervisor. Can you give us a little primer on the role of a music supervisor? How does it differ from an arranger?

DC: There was a time when most Broadway shows had a living composer. Revivals were rare, and if they did a revival, it was usually a carbon copy of the original. Two trends started about 30 years ago: the ‘revisal’ which essentially began with the Jerry Zak's Guys and Dolls, and the ‘catalog show,’ which started with the ‘new’ Gershwin catalog shows like My One and Only and Crazy For You. In both cases — a revival of an old show or a catalog show — the composer is often either no longer alive or simply not involved. So without the composer present, you need someone to make the  musical decisions. Not just what the notes are per se, but how is the music shaped? How does it function dramatically? How does it aid the storytelling? What is the musical point-of-view? Most importantly, you’re collaborating with the director(s), choreographer, designers, actors, music team, all with the goal of making the music happen in the framework of a particular show and particular vision.

There’s lots of overlap in the roles of music supervisor and arranger.  In the simplest terms, arranging is the specific act of shaping the songs and score. Other than the melody, every other element of the music can be considered the arrangement — the vocal harmonies, the accompaniment, whether there's an intro, whether there's an interlude for action or dialogue underscoring, whether there's music for dance — all those things are components of arranging. For 1776, AnnMarie Milazzo did the brilliant vocal design, and I arranged the score (with a shout-out to Nadia DiGiallonardo for her excellent input). The most important lesson here is that as theatre artists, we’re all story-tellers. Music — like words, like movement, like design — is simply one of the tools we use to convey story and emotion. Our job is to take you on a journey, and to use every tool at our disposal.  

LR: How did you approach the music supervision of 1776?

DC: One of the key things on 1776 was going back and looking at Sherman Edwards, who wrote the music and the lyrics. Sherman Edwards was a Brill Building composer. The Brill Building was the premier factory for pop music in the ‘50s and ‘60s. All the pop composers of that era had offices and recording studios there. (It’s where much of the Carole King musical Beautiful takes place.) It was also a source for new Broadway talent such as Adler and Ross, of Pajama Game and Damn Yankees fame, and, of course, Sherman Edwards.

I've had some lovely chats with Edwards’s son, Keith, who is a wonderful visual artist and a composer himself. One of the things I came away with in these conversations was that Sherman was aware that his music had been “Broadwayized” in 1969. Not that he was unhappy with it, but it was pushed into what a Broadway show was ‘supposed’ to sound like in 1969. Keith shared with us some demos that were made in the Brill Building of some of the 1776 songs. “Till Then,” for example, was one that particularly fascinated me — in the demo, it’s reminiscent of a Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley song, with ‘James Bond’ chords — very ‘60s!

I realized, “Oh, so he was actually writing ‘60s pop music,” and obviously he was doing it with a Baroque flair to match the late 18th century setting of 1776. But at its heart, so much of this is pop. So I listen to everything I can that’s relevant, I read anything that’s been written about it, and I do all I can to get into the composer’s head so that I can ask, “How would they do it in 2022?” Not “How do I make it contemporary?” or “How do I make it different?” But if I can even approach understanding why he made the choices he made, then I can honor them and respect those choices, and respect Sherman Edwards in this case, by saying, “Well, I'm guessing based on what I know of him, that he would've maybe gone in this direction.” Not that I can ever really know what he would've done. But I try to understand why he did what he did in the moment he did it, and try to strip away the things that are not endemic to the storytelling.

It’s important to understand that playing next door to 1776 in 1969 was Hair. In many ways, these two shows are extremely similar. They're both shows that are questioning what our government is doing, that are using pop music from the ‘60s, that are pointing fingers at the horrors of the Vietnam War, and that are doing it in a way that is accessible to a commercial audience. What's fascinating to me is when people look at 1776 and say, “Oh, it's so old-fashioned.” And I think, “No, you have to try to be in their shoes in 1969. This was never perceived as a patriotic show.” This was Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards taking what is essentially a static view of these founding fathers as represented by the Trumbull painting and saying, “Let's not look at these men as gods. Let's look at them as human beings. Let's point out their faults. Let's point out their self-doubt. Let's point out their sense of humor. Let's point out their sexuality. Let's show them as human beings.”

I love how this show and this production are challenging the audience in ways that they don't even realize. You're hearing words and lyrics from people that you are not used to hearing those words and lyrics from. And that's going to challenge your perception of those words and your knowledge and understanding of these songs.

To me, it's always about “How do you get back to the power and strength and the theatrical impact of what any show was when it was first performed that invariably gets lost with time?” The goal is to make people hear things as freshly as the first time it was performed. Not to subvert it; not to twist it into something it's not. It's just to give it the oomph and the immediacy of what it must have felt like when people experienced it.

LR: What advice do you have for people who are interested in pursuing a career in music supervising or arranging?

DC: Follow your passions. If something interests you and  challenges you, do it. Don’t be afraid.

Be nice, be kind, be fair, be a good person, be good to work with, be someone that people like to have in the room. Because at the end of the day, the joy of musical theatre is that it's a collaborative art and it takes people from every discipline: movement, staging, design elements, costumes, lights, sets, all the musical elements. We all should and must have the same goal, which is to tell the story.

Have a point of view. Don't just sing it this way because it sounds good. Don't just write that chord because you like the chord. Write it because it helps tell the story. Everything needs a purpose. Everything needs a point of view. Every detail matters.

Collaborate, This is a business full of people who are extreme experts in very specific and narrow fields. Don't be afraid to be the expert in your field, but collaborate. 

Never stop learning.  There is so much I don’t know, and I’m excited at the prospect of how much there is to be learned.

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