By Joel Markowitz
There is nothing more orgasmic for this musical theatre lover than hearing the rat-tat-tat-tat of an exceptional trumpeter and drummer, and the sweet shimmering sounds of a great flutist and oboist playing one of my favorite overtures with so much heart and beauty.
And that is what happened to me when I attended a performance of The Washington Savoyards production of the 1966 Tony Award Winning musical Man Of La Mancha at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on Friday, April 25th.
How did this great orchestra, conducted by Shawn Burke-Storer, come together? Listen to the maestro Burke-Storer describe it for himself:
“When I was asked to be Music Director for the Savoyards’ production of Man of La Mancha I was eager to accept. Having worked with the great artistic staff, Colin Hovde, (Director), Stefan Sittig, (Choreographer), Elizabeth McFadden (Set Designer) among others, and the wonderful cast for several weeks prior to the first orchestral rehearsal, I had exceptionally high expectations of this orchestra.
Typically, within the first two minutes of the first orchestral rehearsal I will know how the entire run will go. And within the first two minutes of our first rehearsal, I knew that we had something special. The talent, dedication and enthusiasm were immediately apparent, and over the course of the rehearsal process the players showed their absolute dedication to providing the highest quality artistic product. This of course happened quickly because we only had one rehearsal, one sitzprobe, and two dress rehearsals.
Imagine how this was further complicated with what I called the “revolving door pit”. From the very first rehearsal to the closing performance we never had the exact same group twice. In fact, 38 wonderful musicians rotated through the pit to cover the 15 parts. (The score calls for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, 2 percussionists, 2 guitars and bass).
The orchestra was remarkable. This group, made up of musicians from vastly different backgrounds, poured their hearts and souls into every note of the exceptionally difficult score. And the most wonderful part, even better than their amazing playing, was the pride they took in being part of the group.
Heather Martley on flute said, “I think this was one of the very best things we’ve ever done. This company just made a quantum leap in terms of quality and professionalism. It was truly an honor and a privilege to be a part of it.”
Some of the musicians have been playing with the Savoyards orchestra for 30 years, while others joined this show for the first time. Bunny From, the orchestra’s contractor and a bassoonist with the Savoyards since 1978, wrote:
‘Some of our players have “day jobs.” They work for the federal government, various businesses and non-profit organizations. They teach music at all levels -elementary to college, or they’re in (or retired from) the various military bands.
Some actually earn their living playing music, but that’s a tough gig. They can challenge and stretch you and demand that you hone your skills, while at the same time, offering this fantastic experience.’
I have had the opportunity to work with some of the finest musicians in the US and abroad, from the Minnesota Orchestra, to members of the Baltimore Symphony, and I can say, without hesitation, this is one of the finest, most dedicated groups I have had the pleasure to work with. Every day, they came ready to play; eager to breathe new life into the amazing score; and it is their dedication that really made this show what it was.
The show itself is about hope, and about seeing life as it should be, not as it really is. My experience throughout was a wonderful atmosphere of collaboration. The artistic team was incredible and the collaborative efforts of everyone not only enhanced the show, but overflowed into the green room. Cast members and orchestra members shared space, went to lunch, helped coach, made suggestions, and really came together to make something wonderful.”
Mr. Burke-Storer holds a Masters Degree in Orchestral Conducting from the Peabody Conservatory, a Bachelors Degree in Music Education from the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, and furthered his training as an inaugural member of the American Academy of Conducting at the Aspen Music Festival.
A firm believer in the importance of Music Education for all ages, Mr. Burke-Storer is currently the instructor for Basic Conducting and Advanced Instrumental Conducting at Catholic University. He also served as Conductor of the Chesapeake Youth Concert Orchestra for five seasons and his course, Behind the Scenes at the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, offered through Johns Hopkins University Odyssey received outstanding reviews. Dedicated to the community in which he lives, he served for three years as a Mayoral appointed member of the Greenbelt City Council Arts Advisory Board.
Musical Director J. Michael D’Haviland on Sweet Smell of Success
Finally – Success!
We had hopes when we saw Sweet Smell of Success in NYC on a weekend trip to NYC with The Ushers. I mean, it had a score by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Craig Carnella, two of my favorites.
The musical, based on the 1957 movie with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, opened on March 14, 2002, at the Martin Beck Theatre, and closed without much success 3 months later after 109 performances and 18 previews.
Although the show received 7 Tony Award nominations including Best Musical and John Lithgow won the Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical as the snarly, – “I hate that man!” J.J. Hutzinger, our reaction was the production was overblown and boring. We called it “The Rancid Stench of Failure.”
I had seen many fine productions at TAP and looked forward to seeing would they would do with the show. It took courage and maybe insanity to mount a production of this show, so my hat was off to TAP for having the guts to do it.
But all concerns disappeared when, again, a great orchestra conducted by music director J. Michael D’Haviland (regular conductor Leah Kocsis was out that weekend) started playing the swinging, finger snapping, and jazzy Hamlisch overture. And boy could that orchestra swing!
A hard working cast which featured superb performances by Steve Block as Sidney Falcone, & Elizabeth Yeats as Rita O’Rourke. And, oh that great orchestra! It was so nice to hear a group of musicians who didn’t drown out the actors, and whose playing was as good as the Broadway pit of musicians who performed at The Martin Beck Theatre on that snowy and icy day in 2002.
So, Maestros Kocsis and d’Haviland, how did you pulled it off?
“The orchestra was comprised of some of the finest musicians in the DC community theater scene, including Randy Dahlberg (Reeds), Dana Gardner (Reeds), Virginia Gardner (cello) and Bob Weber (percussion). The orchestration chosen for this production was:
Reed I (flute, alto sax, piccolo, clarinet and soprano sax)
Reed II (alto sax, flute and clarinet)
Reed III (tenor sax, English horn, ob, clarinet)
Reed IV (tenor sax, flute, clarinet and bass clarinet)
Reed V( Baritone saxophone, fl, bass clarinet.)
Trumpet I and II
Trombone I, II
Keyboard I and II
Also, we combined the Keyboard books into one book.
We were able to rehearse the orchestra twice before the sitzprobe with the singers, and twice during tech week.
There were many challenges with Marvin Hamlisch’s score. First, TAP’s production was presumably, one of the few productions done after Sweet Smell of Success closed on Broadway. Therefore, the instrumental parts sent to us from the licensing agent Samuel French were copied with all of the original cuts/cross-outs/scratchings of the Broadway orchestra. In other words, ALL of the books were hard to read because the markings were the original, handwritten adjustments from the show’s orchestrators. Our challenge was to disseminate what was written and compare it to what was in the conductor’s score and recording. And speaking of the conductor’s score, one doesn’t exist. Leah and I both conduct from the piano/vocal score, with the instrumental cues written in.
Another challenge arose – the instrumental underscoring needed to line up perfectly with the dialogue on stage. The music of Sweet Smell of Success is written more like a movie score – there are specific orchestrations and voicings that punctuate the action and the dialogue taking place on stage. All of the cues lines must match the music in length. The challenge is for the cast, orchestra and conductor to line up side by side consistently. I can’t tell you enough how incredibly hard the whole production team, cast and orchestra worked to ensure consistent timing of dialogue and underscoring.
At the April 20th matinee, when you saw the show, Leah Kocsis, a dear friend and the assistant Music Director, was celebrating Passover, so I stepped in, of course, to conduct. The orchestra played wonderfully that weekend as was especially HOT on Sunday. Incidentally, for three TAP musicals that I have served as Music Director, Leah has conducted the orchestras.
I received my B.A. in Music (Piano) and M.A. in Music (Conducting) from George Mason University. I have played in numerous community theater pit orchestras, under some phenomenal Music Directors, like Gary Mead, Scott Richards and Elisa Rosman. And consequently have served as music director on many TAP shows, like Kiss Me, Kate, Guys and Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof and Thoroughly Modern Millie. Thus far, I have been fortunate to music direct about 32 musicals, garner five WATCH Award nominations and work with other great community theaters.
Leah received her Bachelor’s degree from the Eastman School of Music, at the University of Rochester and is completing her Master’s degree at the Peabody Conservatory.
It’s about time you won that Helen Hayes Award for Best Musical Direction for your fine work onTitanic.
You’re a Musical Director extraordinaire, and you have done great work for so long at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia and now at Toby’s Baltimore, and at Round House Theatre and Olney.
Everywhere I look, there you are either holding the baton or playing the keyboards or the accordion and having a great time with your fellow musicians. And watching you conduct Fiddler at Olney Theatre on the stage, you would have made a great Anatevka-ian! And what you and your orchestra did at Titanic at Toby’s Columbia this year was nothing short of miraculous.
So, to one of the funniest guys I know, Mazel Tov and L’Chaim! Well deserved my friend.