Jenny Cartney on conducting Chess

It was definitely the right move when Jenny Cartney was made the conductor of the extraordinary group of musicians that comprise the orchestra of the musical Chess at Signature Theatre. Jenny talks about working with David Holcenberg, who provided the lush orchestrations for the production, her work as both conductor and keyboardist, and her love for the cast of Signature’s new production of Chess.

Jenny Cartney with Chess star Jill Paice (Photo: Joel Markowitz)

Joel: How did you first get involved with Chess at Signature Theatre?

Jenny: I sent an email to (Musical Director) John Kalbfleisch that I was available to play for the season, and he emailed me and said I was going to do Key 2 (Keyboard 2)/conductor for Chess, and for a second I was like, “Wow”! I do conduct and play for the show. Key1 plays more than Key 2 for the show.

Joel: How do you do that?

Jenny: I told someone it’s like driving a stick-shift car with your cell phone in your hand. You have to do a juggling act.

Joel: Well you are certainly coming through in the clutch.

Jenny: Thanks and exactly. It’s complicated, but it’s taken me a long time to get used to it, but I feel totally comfortable now with it.

Joel: Explain to our readers what a conductor does. Are you the Musical Director?

Jenny: For this show I am the conductor. David Holcenberg is the Musical Supervisor.

Joel: David also did the orchestrations.

Jenny: Yes. David did the orchestrations that are based off the original orchestrations but it’s reduced because we only have 10 pieces, instead of a larger orchestra. It’s more like a rock band with a string quartet. We have the two keyboards like I said, a drummer who is actually on ‘V-Drums’ which is mostly electric, although he does also have timpani. We have a bass player who plays both upright and electric bass. We also have an electric guitar, two violins, two cellos, and a reed player who plays oboe, English horn, flute, piccolo and clarinet. I am so fortunate to be part of this amazing group of musicians.

Joel: What has been your working relationship with David in this production?

Jenny: David was here and then gone for a couple of days because he was working on something else. So Gabe and I – when Eric was blocking the show – and when he said, “We need underscoring here”, we’d say, “Let’s see if we can try” – like using one of the Molokov themes here. David if he agreed with what we did – and David would then run with it.

Joel: This is one of the best orchestras I have ever heard in a Signature musical, and you have a lot to do with it, so congratulations on your fine work.

Jenny: Thanks so much!

The Chess orchestra (Photo: Chris Mueller)

Joel: How would you describe the score from Chess?

Jenny: It’s interesting because I knew some of it but not all of it before coming into this, and it’s kind of two-sided. There’s the rock part of it that’s really fantastic, and I love it, and there’s the other part that is more operatic and more traditional musical theatre, so it’s a little bit back and forth, and that’s why I enjoy doing it. It’s got some gorgeous ballads, and when Jeremy (Kushnier), who plays Freddie, sings,  his stuff is very rock and very loud – which we love!

Joel: There were some songs that were taken out and moved around in this version. Tell us about that.

Jenny: When I told my friend that I was conducting and playing in this production, he asked me, “Which version?” I told him that I’d have to find out and get back to him. It’s mostly based on the Broadway version, with some insertions of the British versions, I believe. I know we flipped two of Florence’s songs. Originally “Someone Else’s Story” was earlier where “Nobody’s Side” was originally earlier in the First Act.

The first recording I went out and bought was the recent PBS concert version with Josh Groban, Idina Menzel, and Adam Pascal. And when I was listening to it in my car, I said, “Jeremy is going to sound amazing on this!” He’s perfect for the role of Freddie. I really believe this is a perfect cast.

Joel: What had been the greatest challenge for you?

Jenny: For me, it was mostly during rehearsals. Gabe Mangiante, who is playing Keyboards 1 – had been playing rehearsals. I played a little bit in rehearsals, not much. For most of the rehearsals I was just conducting with my hands, but then when we started band rehearsals, I had to do both playing and conducting. Never seeing your part beforehand and trying to do all the keyboard sounds and doing everything – took a long time.

Joel: Is there a monitor back there where you are watching what’s on the stage?

Jenny: I do have a monitor. There’s a television monitor that sits on my left side on the floor, so I can see what’s happening on the stage.

Joel: Does the orchestra have a monitor too?

Jenny: They do not! They only can hear, but some of them can see a little bit of the stage. We have the vocals coming into one my speakers.

Joel: So they are totally depending on you.

Jenny: Yes, totally depending on me!

Joel: What is your favorite song in the show?

Jenny: Definitely “Nobody’s Side” hands down. Every night when we get to it – I love it! It’s a ‘killer’, and that’s what wakes up the audience every night, and by the time we get to that song, the audience goes crazy! And Jill knocks it out of the park every time.

Joel: What makes this production of Chess so unique?

Jenny: I’ve actually never seen it before, and as I said before, I only watched the PBS concert before, and I didn’t know that we were going to do it when I watched it at that point, but talking with people who know the show and have seen our production, they say it’s much shorter, it’s been streamlined – and I believe that is what Eric does best. I think he just takes from the nuts and bolts of the show what he needs to get the story across. What he wanted to do was to focus the story around Florence and the love triangle. It’s what makes it so beautiful, so emotional, and that’s what I think really works.

Joel: I think getting Freddie away from the show is good too.

Jenny: Yes. I think that helps as well. What I had heard before was that the past versions were really about the chess game itself, and not so much about the relationships, and again, I think that’s why I think this production works so well.

Joel: That explains why Eric took out the song “The Game of Chess”.

Jenny: Yes. He also took out the location, and a lot of the chorus stuff is gone. It’s very different from the other productions and I really love this one a lot.

Joel: What have the reactions been to the show?

Jenny: I haven’t heard a bad thing about the show. I have gotten so many compliments about the orchestra and of course that makes us feel like we are doing a great job. Everyone just comes out saying how great it is.

Joel: Now, let’s talk about you. (Jenny laughs!) Talk about your training?

Jenny: I grew up in Laurel, MD, close to Columbia, in Howard County, and that’s where I was in school. I went to Hammond High School, and I had great music teachers growing up. I started playing piano when I was about 4 years old, and I begged to learn piano so my Mom began teaching me.  I sang as a kid… I did everything. I always wanted to be a performer as a kid, but I knew I would have to pay bills… so I knew I needed to be more. I went to Shenandoah Conservatory where I landed up majoring in composition – of all things. I still have life-long friends from there – Stephen Gregory Smith and Matt Conner – two of my good friends, who work here as well. I always played for the theatre department and we had a great time at Shenandoah.

Joel: What other shows have you played, conducted, and musical directed?

Jenny: It’s a long list! I started working professionally in 2002, with my first gig was The Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Festival celebration. Not a bad start in my career! My first job was the rehearsal pianist on Company, and worked on A Little Night Music as well, as the associate conductor.

They my friends asked me, “Where do you go from here?” So I landed at Signature, which was a nice transition. I started on Christmas Carol Rag, did Follies, run spots, and have done almost everything. At Signature I musical directed Nevermore by Matt Connor, the 2 piano version of My Fair Lady, because Eric said it would great for me to do, and I did the premiere of Rooms at MetroStage, and the co-production at Geva. I had a lot of fun with that show. I’ve usually been an assistant here at Signature, which I love actually doing because I occasionally get to conduct as well. For Kiss of the Spider Woman, I was John Kalbfleisch’s assistant, but then I got to conduct the entire run. I then got to play Keyboard 1 for The Visit with Chita Rivera and George Hearn – not a bad thing! It was a dream come true. I got to work with John Kander and Michael John LaChiusa in The Highest Yellow. I told my friend who was down from NYC yesterday that I love working here. I got to places where I thought I could never get to – without working here.

Joel: Do you still do cabaret work?

Jenny: I do. I love doing cabaret work, and I like to write when I get a chance. That’s my basic training, and I always played for the theatre department when I  went to Shenandoah Conservatory.

Joel: What’s next for you?

Jenny: I will be working on Liberty Smith at Ford’s Theatre.

Joel: That’s exciting working on a new musical.

Jenny: Yes. It’s very exciting.

Joel: Why do you think Chess is so popular, even though the book has always been a problem?

Jenny: It’s the score that does it for people. When I was growing up in the 80’s, I knew “One Night in Bangkok”. That’s the one song I knew, and when heard my Mom was coming to see the show I said to her, “You’ll know that song!”. The score is why it’s such a cult classic.

Joel: Why should DC theatergoers come and see this new production of Chess at Signature Theatre?

Jenny: The cast is amazing from the ensemble to the leads. I love hearing our cast every night. Eric’s vision was to make it look like an MTV video, and with the lighting, it comes across.


Chess continues at Signature Theatre thru Oct 3, 2010.  Click here for details, directions and tickets.


Interview with Jill Paice
DCTS review of Chess


  1. Yet another David says:

    Go Jenny!  You do a great job.
    Where’s the fabulous Aron Rider (cellist) in the photo????
    “Comprise” needs to be retired.  Nobody uses it right, because even when they do, it sounds wrong.  The musicians compose the orchestra, and the orchestra comprises the musicians.



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