As you may or may not know I was recently in the wonderful NYC soaking up the atmosphere, being a typical tourist and seeing lots of shows. And as I was sitting watching HAIR ,with the orchestra on stage I thought to myself – what would it be like to be part of a Broadway Show as a member of the orchestra. We are always bringing you news and views from dancers so I figured it would be cool to explore the world of the “muso” and see what one of them has to say.
Enter Brian Usifer – the perfect candidate for my interview having just landed a gig on Broadway with the amazingly popular sell out WICKED!
Christine: So Brian, what is your current position on Wicked? And what does it entail?
Brian: I’ve just joined the show as one of the rehearsal pianists. Basically my job is to be at rehearsals for new cast members, understudies/swings, etc. and try to sound like a huge orchestra. It’s one of the hardest scores I’ve had to play, so it’s been a great challenge working on it. There are a few people who also do this, so how much I play depends on what new cast members there are or what understudies are going on for the first time as well as the other pianist’s schedules.
Christine: Apart from playing keyboards, I believe that you also play drumkit? Do you have any other specific musical skills and do you think they had a role in landing you this gig?
Brian: Yeah I have played drums and guitar in bands since I was in high school. I don’t get to play them often anymore but every once in a while I’ll get to sit at a drum set and rock it out. I do a lot of writing on guitar, so I get around to that more often. It’s very important to know about other instruments that are used in theatre orchestras because it helps you communicate with the musician better if you have an idea of how his instrument works. I also played trumpet and clarinet when I was in high school so I have a good sense of them as well.
Christine: For dancers/singers the competition to get a job on a Broadway Show is huge and usually involves many auditions and call backs etc . Does the same apply to musicians? Or is it a gig you get through recommendation? Basically – what was the process for you to land this job?
Brian: It’s actually really difficult for musicians to get a job on and off Broadway. There usually are not any auditions for those jobs, and there are many ways that one can come about it. There is a contractor from the union on every show, and they will work with the Music Director to find the best musicians for the job. As it is in any other industries, everyone has “their people” that they know and trust and like to work with, so usually the first bunch of jobs go to those people. From there, the contractor may ask around for other musicians that may fit the part better. A Broadway music team is typically large; there’s often a Music Supervisor, a Music Director, an Associate Music Director, sometimes an Assistant Music Director, and then rehearsal pianists, and music assistants. The way to get on that team is to know someone close to the top, like the contractor or Music Supervisor. In terms of Wicked, I’ve been lucky enough to work with the guys in the music department in a few different capacities and on a few different shows. There was an opening and they asked if I was interested, and I said “of course I am!” They are some of my heroes in the industry so I feel very lucky to be working with them.
Christine: What advice would you give to a musician out there whose dream is to get a job on a show in NYC?
Brian: I know it sounds cliche, but you have to be willing to practice, work really hard, and be excellent to work with. Those are traits that not every performer has at an equal level, so it’s important to figure out where you’re lacking and get to work on it. In the end, you have to be a good enough player to play the part and also be consistent. Shows typically have 8 performances a week and you have to be able to basically do it the same way every time. That takes lots of training and skill. It’s also very important to be flexible in terms of style. Theatre today runs the gamut stylistically, and you have to be able to play things like jazz, pop, rock, traditional music theatre, classical based music theatre, hip hop, polka…the list goes on. Nobody is equally as awesome with every style, but it’s really important to at least be familiar with them.
Christine: Where do you see yourself taking this career path and do you still keep other projects going at the same time?
Brian: Since playing rehearsals for Wicked is a part time thing, I’m able to keep other projects going. New shows take a lot of time to develop, so I’m attached to a few that are in different stages of development. I’m hoping my career will continue to develop and grow! There are so many different things that I like to do in theatre, I’d be happy to do any of them at the highest level possible. Orchestrating and Music Directing are really where I’m focusing my energies right now, and I’ve been lucky enough to get to do them a lot.
Christine: What do you think makes a good musician?
Brian: It’s like anything else, you have to care about your craft. And, well, you have to love music, and you have to love your instrument! Musicians are communicators-it’s your job to make people feel something. I don’t care if people love or hate my music, as long as they feel something. In the professional world, communication and collaboration is the key. You have to be great at your instrument and always be willing to learn something new, but when it comes down to it, if you want to get a job people need to like to work with you.
So there you have it – next time you are sitting watching a show and enjoying the fantastic music that goes with it. Give some attention to the passionate musicians who contribute so much to the feel and emotion of the production.
There is always so much going on in every aspect of a show and without every piece of the pie the result just wouldn’t be the same.
And a huge shout out to Brian for taking the time to talk with me whilst I was in NYC!
LET'S HEAR FROM THE ORCHESTRA – A CHAT WITH BRIAN USIFER, FROM WICKED ON BROADWAY!