Musical theatre lovers along the Eastern seaboard have begun to buzz about what’s been menacing the team over at 1st Stage in Tysons Corner, VA. On tap for the ambitious young company is a brand new, re-envisioned production of the rarely produced Flora the Red Menace, the very first theatrical collaboration of legendary songwriters Kander and Ebb, beloved by audiences for a body of work which most famously includes Cabaret, Chicago and The Kiss of the Spider Woman.
I had the chance to lob a few questions at Paul Nasto, who is music directing – and music directing, I should say, in every sense of that phrase, as Nasto is not only rehearsing the musicians and singers, but also undertaking the genuinely rare feat of creating entirely new orchestrations for the show. Kudos to 1st Stage and the production team for having the vision to create a little bit of theater history, right in our own backyard!
Jason: What will make seeing this show a worthwhile experience for DC theatergoers?
Paul Nasto: This production of Flora The Red Menace is historic. It has a brand new score, created in the style of the Kander and Ebb show Chicago. Hopefully, this production of the show will become the standard!
DC theatergoers will experience the wonderful Kander and Ebb music, sung by local, young actors developing their career – some of whom will inevitably be on Broadway someday. This is the opportunity for DC theatergoers to enjoy a great show which is rarely produced while being part of the first production, getting the bragging rights to say they were there when this was new again.
1st Stage has commissioned you to compose new orchestrations for this show. Any idea what happened to the original ones?
I have no idea what happened to the original score. It was written in the early 1960s for the original opening of the show in 1965. I contacted Samuel French, the organization that controls the rights to the show, and they only had the piano/vocal book from the 1987 revival of the show.
From listening to the CDs, I discovered that the original show was orchestrated for a standard pit orchestra of the day – about 26 players. The revival was rewritten for piano and banjo, adding some music and removing some. When I learned that the score was in need of a re-write, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. I listened carefully to both CDs and used the available piano/vocal score, to create a new score which combined the best of both shows. Most of the songs are from the 1987 revival, but for the opening of the show, the first number, I chose to revert back to the 1965 version. I felt it was more in-line with the director’s concept and vision.
What are the challenges specific to turning a piano score into a fully orchestrated one?
When arranging/orchestrating, I begin with an understanding of the instrumentation available. 1st Stage was extremely generous in allowing me to orchestrate for a pit orchestra size of 7. I chose Keyboard (piano, strings, harp), Bass Guitar, Drums, one reed player performing on Piccolo, Flute, Clarinet, and Alto Saxophone, one reed player performing on Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, and Tenor Saxophone, Trumpet and Trombone. This represents a standard (and slightly extended) jazz ensemble.
I then went about converting the piano/vocal book into a jazz score à la Ralph Burns Chicago style. I listened again to the CDs and chose to combine parts of the orchestrations on the CD with my original orchestrations, producing a score which has the essence of the original 1965 score, the energy of the 1988 score, and the Burns-influences I developed over the years.
Also, I like to work with the choreographer – in this case Stefan Sittig. I work with them to ensure that the dance numbers are orchestrated in such a way which they compliment the dancers. Too often, this is forgotten. Tempos, styles, even melodies must be crafted to allow the best within the dances to emerge. Often, a choreographer will want to add a bit of music to extend a wonderful dance number or cut some music because the performance space is smaller than a Broadway stage. Stefan and I made a few changes to the new score and he was extremely helpful in setting tempos and working with the new music.
Flora is historically important for being Kander/Ebb’s first musical comedy, and also for the fact that Liza Minnelli won her first Tony Award in it at 19. That said, it’s often seen as a “problem” show in which the music holds up better than the somewhat wacky plot. What’s challenging about working on a “proven” show vs. one which takes more polishing?
Actually, I love working on a show that is not proven. Don’t get me wrong, I love working on some of the greats – Chicago, West Side Story, Nine, Sweeney Todd – but working on a show which has not been done by every local theatre and high school is a great opportunity. First, it provides me with the opportunity to work with the director – in Flora, director Susan Devine – on developing the concept of the show – often very different from the original. Second, it provides me with the challenge to help the singers do their very best. I was an opera major in college and studied singing for many years. Often, I find that the singers do not know any of the music from a “problem” show, so I have the chance to assist them in developing a vocal technique specific for the show.
When working on a proven show, I think there are 2 major challenges:
A) The audience expects a certain production. There is a level of comfort an audience expects. I just finished working on The Fantasticks – again with director Susan Devine. Susan chose to not use the typical setting for this show, but to place it in modern times in the inner city. She even turned the mute into a “bag-woman.” Most of the audience, and the critics, enjoyed the fresh approach! I’m sure some left the show somewhat mystified.
B) Singers start rehearsal singing the songs they know in the style THEY developed – not necessarily what the director and I have conceived. Sometimes it’s hard to move them from their pre-conceived notions of how a song should be sung to what we want them to do.
But let me make one point. Director Susan Devine and I have worked together for over 14 years. I have seen her take a “problem” show (or a problem scene) and create a great work. I really believe that it is the director’s vision which makes or breaks a show – especially a musical - and that it is my job to support that vision. Given all that could happen, it must be the job of everyone on the show and connected with the theatre to support the director and the director’s vision and present the best show to the audience. That’s what makes a great show.
Tell us a bit about your background in music.
Music has been a part of my life since I was very young. I grew up in a household in which music was regarded as “the” art form. I had two brothers, both older than me, who were into music. One brother played the reed instruments (clarinet and saxophone) and the other played the brass instruments (trumpet, trombone, tuba). But I really did not get fully hooked until I was about 13 years old. At that time I started learning piano. I tried taking traditional piano lessons and soon lost interest. Then I was introduced to a jazz pianist with whom I studied for 5 years. He taught me not only piano technique, but all about jazz and how to play jazz. At 16, I was working the clubs and theatres in New York and New Jersey.
It was there that I started writing orchestrations. I was working in an 18 piece swing band, playing songs from the 1940’s (Miller, Dorsey, Atkins, Kruper, etc…) and began arranging tunes for the band. Sometimes, one of the sax or trumpet players would speak to me about his part and how I could have written it better. I listened and learned from some of the best musician in NYC and began honing my orchestration and arranging skills.
It was also during that time that I fell in love with Broadway. I saw my first Broadway musical. I began playing in small theatres and working nights - it was great fun – and some great music. I soon learned that Broadway music was different from anything else – often combining classical, jazz, pop, ethnic, and many other forms of music to get the sound needed for the shows. Then I found an arranger named Ralph Burns. In the early ‘70s. I heard the score he wrote for Chicago and became an immediate fan. I began analyzing everything I could get my hands on and started imitating his style of arranging and orchestrating while trying to imprint my own personal style.
Is there anything specific in the score (or plot) which draws you to this show?
Well, it is Kander and Ebb, probably the greatest modern Broadway team. But what brought me to this show was the vision of Mark Krikstan. It was his choice and vision to produce the first Kander/Ebb show – even with all of its issues.
“A Quiet Thing” is probably the best-known song from the score, and for good reason.
This was the first song I orchestrated for this new score. I realized it was the signature song from the show and had to be treated in a special way. I decided to try to keep as close to the orchestration on the original Liza Minnelli version. I studied the music, both the piano/vocal score and the CDs, and created an orchestration which closely resembles the original. Obviously using only 7 musicians instead of the larger pit from 1965 had its challenges. I think, however, that the audience will be pleased.
Please allow me to thank director, Susan Devine, choreographer, Stefan Settig, and 1st Stage artistic director, Mark Krikstan, the entire cast, and all the people that have been a part of this wonderful experience. It is not often that a composer gets the chance to develop a brand new work (in this case, orchestration) and work with wonderful, caring people. I am blessed to have had the opportunity.