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Fun Home: The Oral History of an Undersized Broadway Orchestra in an Underdog Broadway Musical

on June 01, 2015, 4:00pm
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Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Rob Trucks goes inside the Broadway play Fun Home, nominated for 12 Tony Awards at this weekend’s ceremony.

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Fun Home debuted Off-Broadway at the Public Theater on September 20, 2013, moved to Broadway’s Circle in the Square on March 27th of this year, and officially opened on April 19th. Its source material is the eponymous graphic memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who has since won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. The musical begins in the Bechdel family funeral home in Pennsylvania and follows Alison to college where she discovers she’s a lesbian. She comes out to her parents by mail, then returns to Pennsylvania to learn of her father’s homosexuality, which just barely precedes his untimely death.

The play, performed in the round, and in and around and through present time, features three different actresses, Sydney Lucas, Emily Skeggs, and Beth Malone, as Small Alison, Medium Alison, and Alison respectively. All three have been nominated for Tony Awards for their roles. Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn, who play Alison’s mother and father, have also been nominated for Tonys, as have lyricist Lisa Kron (Best Book of a Musical), composer Jeanine Tesori and Kron together (Best Original Score Written for the Theatre), scenic designer David Zinn, lighting designer Ben Stanton, director Sam Gold, and orchestrator John Clancy. Fun Home has also been nominated for Best Musical, its 12th nomination, which ties An American in Paris for most Tony nominations this season.

In the metaphorical background, six musicians at the end of the Circle in the Square stage, plus a drummer seated well backstage, collectively create every note of Fun Home music. This is the story of how they got there, what they do, and how they do it.

OUR CAST

Chris Fenwick is the conductor of the Fun Home orchestra, as well as its keyboardist. Fenwick grew up in Minnesota and this time last year was conducting Rocky at the Winter Garden. His favorite movie is All the President’s Men.

Antoine Silverman plays viola and violin at the end of the Fun Home stage. He is the only member of the current Broadway orchestra who was not a member of the Public Theater group (he was playing Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark at the time), even though, as music coordinator, he helped put that band together.

Guitarist Doug Derryberry toured with Bruce Hornsby for 16 years and is thus a relative newcomer to Broadway. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, two children, and recording studio.

Emily Brausa earned two degrees from Juilliard but has, on occasion, taken her cello into the world (she’s performed on three continents) and into the world of rock ‘n’ roll, playing with Beck and Ra Ra Riot, among others.

Originally from Vienna, Austria, George Farmer has been working in New York City as a musician for the past 20 years. He plays five different bass guitars within Fun Home’s 100 minutes.

The sound of Chris Reza’s solo English horn opens every performance of Fun Home. The Texas native also plays tenor sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, and flute within each show, and as many as four of those instruments in a single song. He is the composer of “Killing Mr. Softee”, which recently debuted at Symphony Space.

John Hadfield teaches at NYU, but when in Midtown, he plays percussion, including a full drum set, xylophone, and a literal ring of keys, in a black-walled room well behind the onstage action. As such, he is the only regular member of the orchestra not required to wear black for every performance. He follows the action by watching three video screens: one focused on the stage and two on conductor Chris Fenwick.

THEIR STORIES

Silverman: I studied classically all throughout my training, but also my father’s a folk guitarist and musicologist, and I’ve been playing fiddle tunes, bluegrass, you know, since I was three years old. Right after college I moved to Nashville. Broadway, playing in a pit, was certainly not part of my consciousness in the slightest.

Fenwick: I started taking piano lessons when I was about three years old, and I was always really interested in music. At the same time my parents started taking me to the theater. I grew up in Minneapolis, which is an incredible theater town, so I really fell in love with the stage, and with actors and with plays and with the theater in general. So for most of my childhood those two interests sort of ran parallel to each other, and it was very clear to me, when it was time to go to college, that I really wanted to focus on the musical theater.

Brausa: When I was 11, I went to visit my sister at Interlochen Arts Academy in the summer; then I saw a Yo-Yo Ma master class, so I think the initial impulse was when I heard him play Bach. That was sort of when I knew I wanted to be a musician. I’ve always enjoyed being a part of something more than just like a symphony concert, whether it’s theatrical or dance or something weird (laughs). I like being a part of bigger events.

Farmer: My father was a musician. My mother came from a very musical family. And when I was six I started getting piano lessons, and shortly thereafter I decided I wanted to play in a band. The electric bass came into my life when I was 14, I believe. I had stopped having piano lessons and I started playing guitar, and bass has four strings instead of six and that was easier, so that’s what got me started.

Derryberry: I started piano lessons when I was five, and I was a decent piano student, I think. I stuck with it the whole time, all the way to high school graduation anyway, but I think the first time I thought, This is what I want to do, was toward the end of high school, when my high school band – this is a rock band; this is not like the stage band or school band – got to where we felt we were good enough, and our songs were good enough to keep doing it.

Reza: Broadway was not in my initial plan. I guess I decided to pursue music as a career when I was in high school, probably my sophomore/junior year. It’s not the best reason to pursue music: the best being out of pure love or passion for it. My initial longing, truth be told, was to prove something to myself and others. I always made great grades and had a strong work ethic, and some of my peers in high school could solo and improvise in jazz better than I could. And I figured, You know what? If they can do it, I can do it, and so it was kind of more of a strong head than anything else that got me, initially, into wanting to pursue music as a career. Once in college and what not, particularly my Master’s, is when I started to become more aware that there’s more to music than external validation (laughs).

Hadfield: My dad’s a musician, so I kind of always thought I wanted to play music. I didn’t really get into musical theater, or even participate, until I was probably 30. I’m 39 now, so about nine years. I started subbing then, and then I actually didn’t play any shows for a couple years just because I was busy doing other things. And then Clancy talked to me about Fun Home, and that’s how I ended up here.

ASSEMBLY

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Fenwick: Years ago, Jeanine Tesori and I did a production of Mother Courage and Her Children, the Brecht play, in Central Park with Meryl Streep. And I was sort of instantly smitten with her and her process and her work, and was just sort of counting down the minutes until we could work together again, for a few years. And then she called me to go to Sundance, in Utah, with this piece and develop it a couple of years ago, and it was a no-brainer. I mean, if Jeanine calls me to do something, I am there no matter what it is.

Silverman: Not only Jeanine, but also the orchestrator, John Clancy, is a close and long-time friend, who I also worked with on Jeanine’s show Caroline, or Change, so I’ve also known him as long. I, in fact, hired him to play on Spider-Man, so we’re a little bit of a team, in that sense, when we can be.

Brausa: I was a part of the Public run. Antoine hired me. I’ve known him from other working situations in the city, and I was real excited because I knew who Jeanine was, and I loved her music. I didn’t know anything else about it. It was just a job at the beginning.

Reza: I remember precisely when I got the phone call from Antoine. He called me saying me that I was going to get a phone call from the orchestrator, John Clancy, to talk about this show that Jeanine Tesori was writing, and was curious to know if I had any interest in doing it Off-Broadway at the Public. This, of course, was way before Broadway ever came into the picture. And I was just super thrilled that a) I was getting a phone call from Antoine Silverman who I had met when I subbed at Spider-Man. He was the violinist there, as well as the music coordinator, and b) getting offered a job, because jobs help pay the bills and student loans and what not, but c) it also sounded like a phenomenal opportunity. I mean, it was my first Off-Broadway show. I had no idea how long it would run, but, you know, with those involved, like Antoine, Jeanine Tesori, I was totally on board. But I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know the name of the musical. I didn’t know what it was about. At that time, to be honest, I didn’t even know who Alison Bechdel was, so it was purely based on being interested and available for a job and seeing it as a great opportunity.

Derryberry: I think since I moved here in 2000, I was open to the idea of doing musical theatre. I mean, playing in the pit band. I thought if that ever happened I would be happy to try that, among the other things that I do. And I think just after living here for long enough you meet enough people who do that. Specifically, the orchestrator on the show, John Clancy, is a terrific musician that I’ve had the good fortune to work on numerous projects with, mostly in a recording studio, but also we’ve toured as a band with other artists, and I think that when he was starting to write the arrangements for this show. You know, he’s a friend, so we’re talking about what we’re doing, and he’s like, Hey, do you have an acoustic twelve-string? And I was like, Yeah, I have a great twelve-string. Well, how would this part play on a twelve-string? Yeah, totally. That’s great. And then I think when it came time to recruit people, you know, I was in his mind. And so he said, Do you think you might want to try to do this? And I said, Yeah. I would say I didn’t do it because I had nothing else going. I’d say I did it in spite of having too much else going on.

Farmer: I got approached by the orchestrator, John Clancy. I’ve known John since 2006, and we’ve played together in a variety of settings. He’s also a very good drummer. And he originally approached me to do this show when the production was being put up downtown at the Public Theater. At the time I was doing a show called Memphis, and Memphis had closed in 2012. From 2012 until 2014 I was subbing, and I was freelancing as a musician, playing nightclubs and doing recordings, the occasional out-of-towner, so when he asked me whether I would be interested in this, I said, Sure.

Hadfield: Clancy was involved and I like him and I like Jeanine, and that’s kind of all I really needed to know.

CAREER

Farmer: Some Off-Broadway theaters, like the Public, have union contracts, so you’re always governed and secured by a union contract. And what that means is that the Off-Broadway shows have a clause in that contract, which is the right of first refusal. So if you’re hired to do an Off-Broadway show in a theater that has a deal with the union, the producers have to offer the show to you if the show proceeds to the next level, meaning Broadway. It’s less a question of Am I going to take this? or Am I going to take that? It’s more, I’m going to take everything and see how the schedule works out. Up until March, I was freelancing every day.

Silverman: Doug has two kids. I have two kids. You’ve got to keep working.

Brausa: I’ve learned to take nothing for granted within this business. I’ve been freelancing since I was finishing my Master’s. Like, gigs have fallen though when you’ve already set aside those dates. Tours have been cancelled. So I try to take each day as it comes, and then just appreciate it.

Derryberry: When you freelance, you get fired every other week. Gigs end all the time. Like my wife always says, Why doesn’t that person hire you to do that other project? Well, when I did that record with that person, that was a moment in their growth and their trajectory as an artist, and now they’re at a different moment.

Silverman: The freelancer’s identity is a tricky one, because I think a lot of people have a kind of insecurity that, you know, you say “no” one too many times they’ll start calling somebody else. I think that a lot of times people do, in fact, lose some sight of relaxing and breathing a little bit, just because of the relentless need to kind of feel like you’re a part of it. Especially with children, you really try to make a good balance. Actually that’s one of the things that makes playing a Broadway show so good, because you can take off a couple shows a week, here, there, basically no questions asked, as long as you have a good, competent sub, or take off that Sunday and be with the family, or take off a weeknight so there’s not a babysitter putting the kids to bed again. It’s a balance. It’s a kind of lifestyle. It’s a little bit of an insecure lifestyle for many, until you become quite established, but even when you’re established you feel like you need to maintain those relationships.

Derryberry: I have those phases where everything just dries up, and as old as I am – I’m 47 – by now I know that that’s part of it. I just don’t worry about it, you know. I batten down the hatches. I keep my powder dry. When you’re not fighting, the most important thing is to keep your powder dry. And so that’s how I think of it. It’s like if I’m just sitting in my room, practicing my instruments, maintaining my gear, not making any money, that’s fine, you know, because that’s all part of it.

Hadfield: You have to have multiple things going on. I do sessions, other gigs, you know, recordings, rehearsals. It’s non-stop. I’m doing a private gig tonight before Fun Home from 5 to 7:15, then I have to get down to the subway, go down and play the show.

Brausa: I personally am of the mindset that I need to be doing multiple things just for my soul. I still have that part of me that needs to play quartets every now and then, and I love playing rock cello, too. Part of the great thing about a Broadway show is that you have the liberty to take off to go and take other gigs, and still have something here. That gives us some stability, which is nice. I just like being able to do a lot of different things.

Silverman: If you’re really doing eight shows a week, I think everybody does need a mental health moment. And especially when you have kids, you know, you want to spend time with them and have that joy, or whatever that brings to you, but that energy that gets you away and reminds you of really what the important things are in life, and it’s beyond just playing a show.

Farmer: My primary goal, as a musician, is to play. When I play or where I play is not really that important. I have genres and styles of music that I gravitate towards because that’s where my heart is, and then I also have genres and styles of music that I know very well because that’s what I studied. And very often the two are interchangeable. That is never written in stone. As you progress as a musician, as you get older, if you’re lucky to get older, your tastes change, and therefore if you’re active as a musician hopefully you will improve. It’s both. It’s what I have to do. It’s what I like to do. Because, again, my priority is to be playing.

IN THE ROUND

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Silverman: I know that Jeanine had mentioned that she wanted to make sure, once we were in the Circle, that the band was seen and felt and heard, and, you know, part of the experience. I suspect that had it been in a more traditional theater we would’ve been in the pit, as it had been in the Public.

Fenwick: It’s different than in, say, something like Chicago where the band is very prominently featured. For me it’s a beautiful thing in Fun Home, the way it’s been staged and designed, because you can always see the band, but it feels like a very organic component of the stage picture. You know, having sat out and taken notes on the show a couple of times while someone else conducted it, it was sort of stunning to me how much I could pay attention to the musicians, or how little I could pay attention to the musicians. There was never a distraction. It was only sort of a beautiful addition to the picture.

And I think the piece’s unusual and complex construction lends itself well to sort of an abstract idea, like the orchestra being onstage with the actors, but it not feeling like a concert, or it not feeling presentational in any way. For me the orchestra and the motifs that get tossed around the orchestration feel very comfortable in that space, because it is a memory play. The characters are wandering in and out of memory, past, present, future, and the band is there sort of providing a lot of musical material and themes and motifs that just inform that

Reza: There’s a big difference of playing in the pit versus being onstage in a theater in the round, where the audience is around you 360 degrees. I’ve performed onstage in many other settings, but all of them have been proscenium. The audience is only in one direction. So taking what the actors have described about being in the round, there’s a sense of vulnerability that’s created, as opposed to whenever you’re in a proscenium. And so as a result, I think, as a musician, I feel that as well, although I think that sense of vulnerability has subsided the more we perform the show. But you’re constantly aware of the fact that there are 700 people around you. By just looking up you see them.

I think that, especially early on, there’s a greater sense of pressure because there’s nowhere to hide, you know, if something doesn’t go the way you want it to. If you’re in the corner of the pit, and if the audience can’t even see, there’s a sense of anonymity. But there’s nothing here. You’re the only reed player in Fun Home, so therefore you’re much more noticeable. Having said that, I have asked a number of people who have seen the show if the band is distracting at all, and the unanimous answer has been No, not at all, which is a relief, but still, keeping that in mind, we try to minimize our movement as much as possible so that the band never does become a distraction.

Silverman: There’s really a choreography to the guys that have a lot of instruments. Sometimes you only have enough time to put it on your lap. Sometimes you have enough time to put it on the stand.

Fenwick: It demands that you’re present at all times. It demands that you’re engaged on all levels. There’s a tremendous sense of responsibility to the audience, to the actors, to the material, that being onstage sort of demands. I think it’s great.

Derryberry: Everything there is functional, and that is a function of being on the stage. Earlier in the previews, and then in rehearsals, everybody had personal items around, but they really want that area to be devoid of anything that could be a distraction. Like the creative team, whether it’s the set design, the lighting, the director, whoever it is, you know, the consensus is that we want that area to be as devoid of any potential distraction to the ticket holders as possible. And I completely understand and support that, whereas if it was a pit, sure, I would have probably a magazine. I would have my phone. I would have some cards or photos people gave me. Definitely in a regular pit you would have little tokens, but on this show, where you’re on the stage and you’re so exposed, that’s frowned upon.

Silverman: I don’t know if Doug told you, but he was constantly getting little notes about his guitars being in the set and all of that. You know, the difficulty of just trying to do your job while also being in a visual kind of scenario as well. He has a lot of instrument changes and a lot of pedals, and they were on him, not aggressively, but they kept on coming back to him with requests and this and that, so he, I’m sure, got a little self-conscious about it.

Fenwick: I hope that the audience is not focusing solely on me at any point in the show, but I do feel like, when I’ve gone now to see the production, I was very taken with how luxurious it is to sort of have an orchestra there as another component of the telling of this story, that you could possibly wander over and check out, and that instead of that distracting you from the telling of Alison’s story, it would actually inform the telling of Alison’s story, so that when you heard certain musical things, you could maybe glance over at the orchestra and sort of maybe see how they were connected to what’s happening with the actors or what’s happening with the lighting or what’s happening with the sets. The band is very, very sensitive about limiting movement, so that it is not a distracting experience, but I feel like it’s a pretty intrinsic part of this production.

Derryberry: I definitely have it as part of my process to try to get my movements done in the moments where it’s least impactful on the show. And then I try to sit still, which is a challenge because I’m a fidgety guy.

Reza: I’ve practiced meditation for a few years now, and so I’m totally comfortable with sitting still.

Farmer: Being in front of an audience is great. It’s fantastic. You cannot hide. You cannot hide from people’s expectations. I absolutely prefer it.

Brausa: I think it’s a great thing. You feel more involved with the actors and the whole production. And, you know, the monotony sinks in at a certain point, and so to be able to see people’s reactions is really beneficial. You remember why you’re doing this and how important it is.

Silverman: I sometimes do watch, or notice some people at some times. I think it’s just more of an experience thing. I’ve been playing in live settings enough to be fairly impervious to feeling like I’m being watched (laughs).

Hadfield: Would you want to play your instrument in a room in the back?

Fenwick: I think that all of us feel that this piece was always bound to live in the round, and I think that having the band onstage and visible has been a really valuable component to the production.

Hadfield: There are pros and cons. It feels like I go and I do a recording session. That’s what it feels like. It’s a recording session. You know, I’m doing a session. I know what the session’s going to be. I want to do a great job. I want do it flawlessly. I can wear a t-shirt and jeans, and tennis shoes.

THE MUSIC

Silverman: Obviously “Come to the Fun Home” is a lot of fun to play. It’s kind of like an old style, sort of Motown-y Jackson 5. There’s no horns, but that’s about all that’s missing. It’s got a great bass line and kind of fun string parts, so that one’s good. I mean, I enjoy, really, playing all of it, but that one sort of stands out, just as kind of a standalone chart. But the sequence at the end, which is actually three numbers, sort of back to back, and kind of the emotional crux of the show, basically it’s the crushing reality of what’s about to happen, and then what has happened, and then kind of the lift off at the end. That’s satisfying, because number one it’s challenging to play well. It’s very well-written, but also just what’s going on and the intensity of the show, you feel like you’re really a part of that emotional drive to the conclusion of the show.

Fenwick: The song that’s always hit me the hardest is “Maps,” that the character of Alison sings about her father. And I don’t have any particularly personal relationship with the circumstances of the song. I think that the song is a really pointed, but deeply felt observation that Alison makes about her father. When she examines her father topographically, shall we say, and takes a good look at the size of his life, and had he been born later the potential size of his life under different circumstances, I find it sort of the heart of the show, and a particularly shattering sentiment. I feel so deeply for all of the characters in this musical, and I feel incredibly deeply for the character of Bruce, and I think that her sort of ruthless, critical eye in examining the parameters of his life, for me, it’s really heartbreaking. I just feel intensely for him and for his circumstances, so I think that’s the song that hits me the hardest. I think the music’s fantastic and I think Lisa’s lyric is extraordinary, when she’s talking about the highway that runs just four miles from their house, running from the Castro in San Francisco to Christopher Street in New York. It doesn’t get any better than that. It doesn’t get any more heartbreaking or better conceived than that lyric.

Brausa: I love Sydney singing “Ring of Keys.” It’s just so pure in the way it’s staged, in the way it’s sung, and the song itself. It’s sort of pure emotion.

Reza: “Raincoat of Love” is fun for me because I always love looking over to my right and seeing everyone rocking out with all of the lights. It’s the production number of the show. The whole cast is onstage dancing. And then, of course, I think the irony of that is they’re imagining everything is all right when things are not, and I think everybody has experienced that. At the same time, everyone loves that sense of blissful ignorance in those moments while they last, even though it never does last. I think, though, the one that touches me most, with more gravitas, would be “Telephone Wire. It’s just when Beth stands up and is belting to her father, like Say something, talk to me. That song is about not saying something when you really needed or wanted to. It’s a missed opportunity to say something, and I think everyone has felt that. And this particular case is perhaps one of the most profound moments of not having said something, or most profound moments of having missed an opportunity to say something. I think that that touched me most.

Hadfield: I like “Raincoat.” I like “Come to the Fun Home.” I like the ones where I get to play the drums energetically. Those are just a lot of fun to play.

Derryberry: Probably “Days” or “Edges of the World.” Those are two of the main pieces that I play classical guitar on, and that was my first love in guitar. And it’s challenging to try to play lyrically on that instrument. I don’t get to practice, since I only have one classical guitar and it’s at the show, so every time those two come around I’m like, Ok, let’s do this well. So it’s a challenge like that, but also they’re the most emotional pieces to me. See, that’s the thing. How this show is personally different is that it provokes so much self-analysis, and analysis of your family, because she’s sitting there analyzing her family and, you know, I’ve played this show like 200 times now, and even though I’ve played it 200 times it still makes you think about how your life went, and what if it went some other way, or What did that mean to me? What does that mean to me now, when my mom said, X, Y, Z, when I was 11? Or when my dad said, A, B, C, when I was 17? You know, What does that mean to me now? How does that affect my life? I would even say it’s cathartic, and I hope that it would have some measure of that for people that just see it once. And I imagine it would.

EMOTION

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Reza: “Telephone Wire,” sung by Beth Malone, and “Edges of the World” sung by Michael Cerveris, those songs, actually, whenever I would pay attention to the vocals, pay attention to Beth and Michael, I would actually start to cry. It could actually be somewhat problematic with seeing the music, but fortunately I was familiar enough with the music to be able to play regardless. But it’s a bit distracting to your playing whenever you’re bawling, you know? However, I think a combination of having had that kind of catharsis, it allows me to kind of overcome some of those emotions that have perhaps been built up, and so once I’ve kind of found a peace or come to terms with some of those emotions, they didn’t have the kind of effect on me that they had initially. In addition to that, in doing it over and over again, I also, actually, to be honest, I at times force myself not to really listen to the vocals if I know that they’re going to particularly affect me or interfere with the playing. The book itself does require a lot of concentration. It’s very chamber-like. It’s very exposed. And the nature of the instrument switching, as well as the double reeds, is fairly complex, and it requires a lot of attention to make sure that your response and tone is at 100 percent every time. So I think the book does call for a lot of attention, and that allows me to focus on that. And whenever I’m not playing I love to look to my right and enjoy what’s going on onstage. It’s a real blessing.

Fenwick: I’m always pretty deeply emotionally connected to the play every night, and that means that I’m connected in different ways in different moments, show to show, which I guess is similar to what some of our actors would tell you they feel. For me the show is so well-written and constructed that the ride that I go on every night in bringing the show to the stage to me feels fairly similar to the ride that the audience goes on every night. So by the end of the show I’m definitely in a place where we have our wits about us and can make music successfully, but I find myself very affected. Obviously you have to be in that place where you can still function (laughs), but I really do find myself quite overcome and I think that if the piece were not so beautifully constructed that might be problematic. But I find that it’s so tight and it’s paced so brilliantly, and we’re sort of giving the whole thing a reading that is not overly sentimental, it seems really grounded in reality. So I find it very grounded, and also sort of profoundly moving.

Brausa: Particularly when we first came back – it had been like a year or a year and a half since the Public run – I noticed having the impulses in the same places. I know if I had been an audience member I would cry there, you know. I think when you know things are coming it turns your emotions in a different way. Not that it isn’t affecting, but that it’s maybe not quite as unexpected. 

Derryberry: I think you gradually desensitize over time, but there were definitely periods in doing the show where I was quite misty-eyed at numerous times in the show. I wouldn’t say it was in the beginning of the run at the Public. It was during rehearsals, toward the end of rehearsals that I began to realize how profoundly unique and special this felt to me. And as we got extended, and got extended again and again, I felt more conviction that it was special, because it wasn’t just special to me. It was clearly special to a lot of other people because we got booked for three weeks and it ran for nearly five months, or whatever it was. But when I was in the pit at the Public, and you couldn’t see the show, I don’t think it got to me in terms of crying. I think I cried a couple times when we were rehearsing.

You know, first you rehearse for a week with just the band. You never hear the words. And then when I finally heard the words I was like, Holy cow! That’s what this is about! It’s like she has that line: Oh God, please don’t let me be a lesbian. Like there are lines in there where I’m like, Oh God, please let me be a decent dad. Please don’t let me be a bad parent. Please help me to avoid those situations where you get so frustrated at your kid. But the time when I was the most emotional was when we started rehearsing at the Circle in the Square, because we’re on the stage so you see it all, and those pivotal moments of dialogue, when she’s like, No, Daddy. I like the one you drew. Oh God, if I look at her, I’m going to cry. But you know what? At this point it doesn’t matter because I know the music so well I can see it through the tears. After 200 or so shows, I’ve toughened up.

Farmer: Focus is first and foremost. And my focus needs to be on the music that I’m playing. If you’re presenting a piece of music that has emotional content, your focus will bring out that emotional content, if you’re a good musician. So you have to stay focused on the music that you’re playing. Also you have to understand that you’re a small wheel in a big machinery. This small wheel has to run not good, not very good, it has to run excellent for the big picture to work out. So if I stay in focus on what I’m doing, by being authentic, and playing the best that I can I possibly play, by doing that I’m contributing to the emotional output of this show. I’m able to take in more and more of the show as our run progresses.

If you had asked me the same question when we were in our first week of previews, I would’ve probably told you, Listen. I’m not really sure what’s going on onstage. I know the story. I do connect with the story. I think the story’s very valid. We all have families. We all have situations that could be better or it could be worse. I do get that. But I didn’t necessarily see which actors were moving most at what time because, again, my focus needs to be on the music in front of me. It’s a funny thing. You’re trying to hit the moving target, you know? The more you play it the more focused you are, and the more you play it the more it opens to you.

Hadfield: I’m a callous, callous person (laughs). Yeah, I don’t know. It just doesn’t affect me. I mean, I appreciate the acting, but it’s not like I’m devastated.

BROADWAY

Silverman: I would say that we’re not quite there yet because, even though it’s doing quite well, at the moment we’re still in that initial flush of the great reviews, and just the Tony nomination buzz, etc. etc. But as we also know, it is a bit of an unusual story, and even though we feel is that this show is about families and family relations, which is something that everybody in the world shares (laughs), it’s not an overtly what one would call a touristy show. I’m not actually a skeptic, but I’m cautious. I mean, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that you never really know anything until you actually know something.

Farmer: I pay a lot of attention. I read all the reviews. I pay a lot of attention to how many people are coming in. My first show where I had the chair, where I was not a sub, was Spring Awakening, which was nominated for eleven Tonys, and won eight. The second show that I did was Memphis, which was nominated for five Tonys and won four, and both of them won Best New Musical Tonys. The next show, which was last year, which was technically a play with music, was Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, starring Audra McDonald. It was nominated for two Tonys and won two Tonys. So far I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work on shows that have gotten a lot of critical acclaim, and have won Tonys and have won Grammys and, as was the case with Lady Day, has made history because Audra won her sixth Tony. All that’s to say I play very close attention to if people are coming in, if they’re connecting with with the music, what the reviews say about the music. That’s very important. Our field of choice is not necessarily as direct, especially in a theater context, as, say, the actors, but from the reviews I can sort of get a general idea that what I’m doing as a musician, which is working with people’s emotional state, trying to convey emotions, trying to convey feelings that are sometimes subconscious, you know, I get from the reviews whether that actually works out.

Derryberry: With the largest view on it, I’m pleased that a show that is so provocative has met with such broad acceptance, because it signals a change in the culture to maybe more tolerance and understanding, which we can always use more of. So there’s that. But then in terms of the money theme/job security theme, I’m pleased at the prospect that it may run longer than I expected, but I’m not going to count my chickens before they hatch because as a freelancer things can end when they end, and when they end you will cast about to your network of previous clients, hoped for future clients, peers, friends, associates, colleagues, and, you know, prime the pump and find some more work. I make no presumptions. I don’t count my chickens before they hatch when it comes to this show or any other job.

Brausa: Obviously Fun Home is doing rather well so there is a sense of comfort. (laughs) At least we got a couple months out of it, or I hope, because people seem to be really loving it. I’ve never seen before, in a Broadway theater, the standing room tickets. In college I used to get standing room tickets for the opera, so it’s kind of cool that they have it here, too. I think they’re thirty bucks or something, which is great. Even when there will be some empty seats in the house there will still be a bunch of people standing on the side.

Reza: Let me put it this way: anyone interested to know more about what their financial and future job security may be would have some vested interest in knowing those things, or at least paying attention to them. So yeah, I absolutely do pay attention to the crowd size, and fortunately, from where I’m sitting, I get a good sense of the crowd size (laughs), because I can see them all. There are also websites like Playbill, and all of the grosses for every Broadway show and statistics that are posted online every week. And I do pay attention to those things, only to get kind of a sense of how should I start planning the rest of my year. For example, I need to know if the show does run for a long time, when am I going to take my vacation days? What other gigs might I take or turn down? So all of that stuff does have a direct effect on decisions that I need to make fairly soon. The other thing is, while I pay attention to all of those things, because I believe they’re important to me, that doesn’t change what I do with the show. I still go in and play the show precisely the way that I would at any other time. If it’s a smaller audience, which fortunately has not been the case as of late, it doesn’t affect the way I play compared to when it’s a full audience. So it’s important to aware of those things, just for planning purposes for the future, but it has no bearing on the present moment at the theater.

Hadfield: Zero. I’m not taking a vacation anytime soon. It’s unpredictable. I guess that’s the bottom line. The common misconception is like, Oh, you have a Broadway show. It’s like you have a steady gig, and I don’t think that actually is the case. It’s completely unpredictable. And what do they have to give us? Like, one week and then they can notify us that the show is closing? I don’t see that happening relatively soon, but then again this isn’t the Lion King. You know, kids from across the country aren’t going to be coming for the next 15 years. It’s like that’s reality.

THE GOOD

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Derryberry: This show is profoundly different in the way that it is presented, period. But it’s also profoundly different in how it resonates with me personally. I think the way that it’s profoundly different relative to all other musicals I’ve ever seen is that it’s not linear. And, okay, there are other musicals that are non-linear, but it’s non-linear in such a modern, jagged way, and kind of reflects the changes in our culture. Like one minute you’re like watching a TV show and then the next minute you’re on a web page looking at something else, and the next minute you’re looking at photos that you took ten years ago. Like sort of fragments rapidly placed together, the way they jump from the childhood, to the college student, to the grown-up, and yet by the end cumulatively they give you a picture of a life, and looking back and how you feel about it once it’s all happened. It’s really different like that.

Fenwick: I think it’s different on a lot of levels. I think that the material is very rich, and I think that it is a particularly galvanizing experience for the audience. And being onstage as an orchestra certainly informs that, or at least makes it easier for us to connect with. I also think that the way this piece has been composed and put together, and orchestrated, brings it close to the experience of playing chamber music. And I think that’s a very different sort of performance experience than, you know, like what I’ve done on other shows, which is sort of standing up in front of an orchestra and leading through the performance. There’s a lot of room for individual expression in this orchestration, and there’s a real necessity for musicians to listen closely. They’re not disconnected from the stage. I think they’re very aware of the singing that’s happening, the story that’s being told, the experience that the audience is having, and how they fit into that. So in that way it feels a lot more like chamber music and a lot less like a traditional sort of pit set up, because they have a heightened sense of the room.

Silverman: I’ve worked on some other excellent shows. This is a special, special show. Clancy did a spectacular job of orchestrating the score. It keeps you engaged, and really having to play well at all times. People around you are playing well. Obviously they’re good players, but it’s necessitated by what’s there. We can see how good these actors are night to night. Cerveris, you know, delivering lines slightly differently. It’s fascinating to see, or to hear, how he’s playing with stuff, kind of like a musician. He actually is a musician, and has a country band. He’s the real deal. But he plays it as a musician does. It’s like it’s not the same every night. You know, the overall is there, but the cadences are switching around. He’s constantly looking or reacting or improvising, as well as the others, but it’s really profound in him. So that’s a cool thing, to kind of feel like you’re kind of being immersed in just the sense that this is a really special, good show, and everybody’s glad to be a part of it.

Reza: I guess there are three things that come to mind about Fun Home. It was my first Off-Broadway show to ever play, and it is also my first Broadway show to play as a regular player, and that in and of itself is pretty special, but the fact that it’s Fun Home in particular makes it absurdly special. In fact, the way I describe it to others is that it feels like winning the lottery, not only because it is a beautiful show, but it resonates with me on a few different levels, one, actually, being the token gay band member, as I put it. There are many scenes and situations in the show that particularly resonate with me, or I can relate to.

But then, in addition, a few months before the Off-Broadway production started, I actually lost my father to cancer. So anybody’s who’s lost a parent, especially at, you know, a younger age, like Alison in her 20s, lost her father, and looking back at that relationship with your father, you know, there’s a large assortment of feelings that can come up. And seeing the show night after night, I’ve described it as being a bit cathartic, for myself. It’s a very powerful show, and it seems impossible that, again, my first Off-Broadway show, transferring to a Broadway house, and then it being this show, it seems unreal.


THE BAD

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Silverman: We haven’t really come to the toughest part yet, because we’ve only been doing this for about six weeks. The toughest part of any show is the grind of it, and we haven’t gotten to the grind here and so it’s a little hard to say. I think that this show is actually going to be less subject to that because of the kind of like one-off blast of intensity of it, and the length. You know, there’s no intermission. You just kind of have to be in it. I will say it’s a little bit of a different animal than most shows where you’re in a pit, you can check your phone, you can read a magazine, you can zone out or kind of not necessarily lose focus – you certainly can lose focus – but you can focus on other things.

Here there aren’t those kind of distractions. Or we’re not allowed to be distracted, which I think is entirely appropriate. I mean, can you imagine having people like flip out their phone and start texting (laughs) while some dark scene is going on? It’s just unthinkable. So I’m, as of now, mostly just enjoying the really high level of acting and performance onstage. It’s the kind of thing, if you ask me six months or nine months, like Do you get bored a little bit? I probably would say, Yeah, there was that Tuesday where I maybe should’ve taken the night off, but didn’t and I was there. But we haven’t come close to reaching that point. At least for me.

Brausa: I think always it’s the monotony. You’re showing up to play the same music every day eight times a week. I think that’s just in the territory. That’s difficult. One of the other good things that comes with Fun Home is that you’re involved. It’s easier to stay engaged. Also, it’s short (laughs). There’s no intermission.

Farmer: This show is deceptively difficult to play. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, something else comes along that makes it difficult, where you have to stay very focused during the entire hour and forty minutes. What makes this different from the other shows, at least from the bass chair, it’s very unusual to have five basses in one show. And I give a lot of credit to Clancy for putting that into the orchestrations. He put four into it, and then I added another one. And since we have history together, I was able to convince him and the composer, Jeanine, to keep it with five. So that’s very unusual. I mean, if push comes to shove, could you do it with two basses, one upright and one electric? Probably. Would it be the same experience? Absolutely not.

Derryberry: The toughest part is the days when you stayed up too late and your kids have gotten you up too early, and your directive from the people who are putting the show on is to be still, and you’re there in the dark and you’re trying to be still, and you’re fighting to keep still. That’s the toughest, to stay focused despite your fatigue level. Like when I was in the pit I could get down on the floor and stretch my legs out and then I’d be more awake, but when we’re here, onstage, you can’t do that. So I think I’ve actually attempted to get more sleep, as crazy as that sounds. 

Reza: The most challenging part of the show to me is how exposed it is. Trying to play at the level that I want to every single night, having my reeds respond and play with the tone that I want every single night, that is challenging enough. Even though that’s challenging enough, I think it’s made even more exponential by the fact that you’re onstage in a theater in the round when 700 people are surrounding you, and they’re paying a good chunk of change to see a high-level performance. So I think the most challenging thing for me is trying to deliver at the highest level night after night in a very high pressure situation. 

Hadfield: Lots of time I do these like improvisations with people, or I do a lot of sort of jazz performances where there’s a lot of improvisation, so the precise repetition, you know, it’s challenging. So is improvising, though. It’s a totally different thing, if that makes any sense. It’s like two different skills. It requires a lot of focus, actually. It’s like, Oh, it should be really easy to play the same thing. Don’t you know the music by now? But on some level it’s, like, easy initially, because it’s fresh. You’re engaged. Then after a while you know what it is, and so maybe your mind begins to wander, and that’s where it really becomes difficult. You know how to do it, so don’t blow it.

Farmer: There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of instrument changes. There’s a lot of musical changes, different meters, different tempos, different keys. Like I said, this show, at least as far as the bass book is concerned, is deceptively difficult. The minute you think you have it figured out, it switches genres, styles, everything, and you’re back at a starting point.

THE FUN HOME

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Silverman: When you do a show Off-Broadway, there’s a camaraderie that develops, and a kind of a spirit that develops between the musicians and also the actors. When you do a Broadway show oftentimes the actors and musicians are separate. You know, the musicians go downstairs, the actors go upstairs to their dressing rooms. There’s not that much contact necessarily unless you sort of make it happen. When you do an Off-Broadway show, everybody’s in the same room. You get to know each other and you kind of live and die together. And so for a show like this that was clearly a superb show, but also a little bit of an unusual show, so the prospects were uncertain, and then when it got this reaction, overwhelmingly positive reaction, I think everybody bonded even more.

Derryberry: I would say the best part, and this is a very small slice, but the most fun part for me is the hang with the whole company, whether it’s the actors or the musicians, or the production team, the creative team, the camaraderie that you can occasionally enjoy backstage. That’s the probably the best part, the hang.

Brausa: I would like to continue playing music with people that are talented and that I enjoy playing with, and I think that whenever you do a successful production as we do, interacting more with those people. I don’t know if you can tell, but I don’t try to expect too much from anything (laughs), just because it’s show biz, you know? But I’m just happy to have a job that I show up to every day that’s a pleasant environment, with talented musicians and actors. The material is great. It’s kind of a dream.

Farmer: I get tremendous satisfaction from playing the bass every night. A musician has to play. It’s not even a question of wants to play. A musician has to play and that’s first and foremost. That’s our first priority. Just like a painter has to paint and a writer has to write, a musician has to play music. So my first satisfaction is I get to play bass every night.

Reza: As a musician, you only live in the moment, or experience the present in that particular moment. And because of that I’m not doing this because I want any kind of awards or accolades. Sure, financial security is fantastic, especially if someone is trying to pay off student loans, but outside of that I get so much pleasure just playing every single day, eight shows a week, doing what I love to be doing, and doing it with a band that is not only incredibly talented but also amazing human beings. They’re just so nice and fun. Same with the cast. Incredibly talented, incredibly nice and just wonderful people to work with. Then the creatives, the show. I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful show to go to every night.

Fenwick: I think that doing Fun Home on Broadway is as good as it gets in our profession, and I think that when people come and see the show and respond in an honest and beautiful way, to it and to the music, I think that we all feel like that’s an incredible experience and feel very lucky that we get to do this show, and that it happened on Broadway. You know, there’s no honor that gets bestowed upon music directors or musicians, but the sort of pleasure and honor of doing Fun Home at night is really all we could ask for in our profession.

~

Rob Trucks is the author of a book on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk album for Bloomsbury Academic’s 33 1/3 series. His Internet home is Eyeglasses of Kentucky.

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