It Always Starts With The Music: The Music Director

In this series of blog posts, I’ve been having conversations with people involved in the development of new musicals in all different capacities. This week I spoke with Carmel Dean, the music director of If/Then, the new musical by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt. Ms. Dean has worked on shows including American Idiot, Hands on a Hardbody, and Everyday Rapture. She is also an accomplished composer, whose music can be purchased on this site. I caught up with Carmel three days before the opening of If/Then.

Rob Hartmann: Were you onboard as music director from the first readings of If/Then?

Carmel Dean: I had done two shows with Tom [Kitt] before this one — Everyday Rapture and American Idiot. Tom showed me the first draft and asked me to be involved, which was a huge honor. I was very excited that he trusted me with it.

RH: What exactly is the music director’s process?

CD: It’s pretty much the same on every piece, especially if it’s the very first time anyone’s heard it. It always starts with the music. Obviously I get the score ahead of time and make sure I know what Tom’s intentions are. But from day one in the rehearsal room, it’s about getting the vocals down.

For this piece we have an amazing vocal arranger, AnnMarie Milazzo. Once she came in, the process changed a little, because she is really nontraditional in her arrangement style. We would do a lot of playing around with different sounds in the room. She doesn’t read or write music, so it’s all in her head, and it’s all in her ears. She’ll say, “No no no, you try this, you try that.” And I think she and Tom and I work really well together — we’ll just bounce ideas off each other in the room.

RH: When the orchestra comes in, is there a point where you’re less focused on the cast?

CD: It’s like creating space in my brain for something that’s hugely important while still trying to keep track of something else that’s equally important. It’s like suddenly trying to expand my brain to twice the size.

It’s actually extraordinary how quickly it comes together, because the band is sightreading these charts for the first time. There isn’t a lot of time to perfect things, so I really have to be so on my game, knowing exactly what I want the result to be.

In this show I’m in the traditional orchestra conductor position, down center with a cutout in the stage. So I get to physically see the cast in front of me and also see the band down in the pit. I get to literally split my focus between the two.

Watch this video on YouTube.

An interview with Carmel about If/Then.

RH: On your Twitter feed you’ve recounted some funny things the front row audience members have said to you.

CD: I don’t make any of those things up. I swear to you, these are things that people actually say. I always turn around and say “Hi” so I guess I open the door (laughs.)

RH: I’m always interested in the ways people have a sense of whether something is working or not working. For me, if I’m watching a show of mine, and if I can only look at the actors’ feet, that’s how I know that something is not right with the writing. Do you get a gut sense about things?

CD: I think there are several ways that you feel that something’s not quite right yet. Just on a gut level musically speaking, during the DC run [at the National Theatre in late 2013], there were some musical moments that just didn’t feel right, and I didn’t look forward to conducting them. You know, I love everything Tom and Brian write. But there was something about these few moments that weren’t as filled with elation. And funnily enough, we got to New York, and those moments had been cut or reworked. Tom and Brian are not precious at all about throwing songs out.

RH: It’s hard not to fall into the trap of “change for the sake of change.”

CD: You can get into that rabbit hole very easily, especially when there is a lot of pressure on – you know, “Oh my god, something’s not working, change something, just anything!” (laughs) But I think Brian and Tom and [director] Michael Greif and [producer] David Stone are just so smart. They’ve been good about changing what they need to change, but some things haven’t changed a note because they know that they work.

RH: Is it a challenge being both a music director and a composer?

CD: After American Idiot I decided to take a break from music directing, and I started up my song blog. I’ve been working on a piece with Dick Scanlan — A Girl Called Vincent, about Edna St. Vincent Millay. We’ve had two readings in the last six months, so I actually have something, you know, sitting in the oven. It may be just a warm oven, it’s not hot yet (laughs) but it’s on its way to becoming something.

In fact, yesterday morning we had a presentation for some producers, and I went from playing through my whole score, with Dick acting every part, to running over to the theater to conduct this new Broadway show (laughs).

But it is a big, big challenge, because music directing a show like this is a huge responsibility, so I want to be focused on that. It’s just inspiring and motivating because I’m working with the cream of the crop, and I’d like to think that I somehow soak up their creative talents in my own stuff.

This is the kind of industry we get into because some kind of passion was ignited in us at an early age. There’s that sort of sizzle of excitement in this field — that’s what we all thrive on. We get to put on plays for a living. Really kind of absurd when you think about it. (laughs.)

Watch this video on YouTube.

An edition of Carmel’s song blog featuring Michael Winther.

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