Let The Music Play │ Music Director Joshua Zecher-Ross gives us the tone of “The Marvelous Wonderettes”

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis celebrates the music of the ‘50s and ‘60s with their production of The Marvelous Wonderettes. The show follows a fictitious girl group of the same name as they perform at their prom. Ten years later, the girls reform the group to play their 10-year reunion. With such gems as, “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” “It’s In His Kiss,” and “Respect,” this show is a sure-fire winner for all music lovers.

I got a backstage pass to speak with the Music Director of the show, Joshua Zecher-Ross. We chatted about his role as Music Director and how he plans on tackling this jam-packed (27 songs!) musical behemoth.

In typical Rep fashion, they have planned supplementary events including a Talk Theatre presentation on January 8th at The Opera Theatre of St. Louis located at 210 Hazel Avenue. Hair and makeup artist Marcy Ann Wiegert will discuss the cosmetic style of the ’50s and ’60s. Tickets cost just $18 and can be purchased through the Rep’s website.

They will also have a docent-led tour at The St. Louis Art Museum focusing on the four colors highlighted in the show on January 6th at 11:00 am; January 14 at 2:00 pm; and January 27th at 11:00 am. The cost of the event is free!

As usual, The Rep will be hosting their Post Show Discussions on January 10 (matinee), January 11, January 18, and January 24. This is where you get to ask the cast and crew questions about the show. Having attended the Post Show Discussion for Miss Bennet – Christmas at Pemberley, let me tell you—this is a theatrical experience you don’t want to miss.

Jim Ryan: I’m always interested to see how people got to where they’re at in their lives. How did you become a music director?

Joshua Zecher-Ross: I was a performer at a theater I grew up working at and I was there for the summer as sort of an actor/intern. I had been playing piano for a couple of their after-show cabarets and they ended up needing an assistant music director for the remainder of the summer. They came to me and asked me if that would be something I’d be interested in doing. I had been playing piano since I was six years old, so I had been playing piano for twelve years at that point. And I thought, “You know, why not?”

Joshua Zecher-Ross.

I like playing piano and I had never thought about being a musical director and to be honest, I didn’t realize that that was a job. It was nothing that had ever really occurred to me that people are musical directors in their lives. I had never taught anyone music before, I had never dealt with a band or with keyboards or anything that the job entailed except playing piano and I ended up loving it.

I was in school at that time for vocal performance in musical theater, so I ended up finishing my degree in musical theater performance and I did audition for a little bit after I graduated, but from that moment on, I never performed professionally as an actor. All through college, even though I was studying musical theater performance, during the summer when a lot of my schoolmates were seeking jobs performing as actors, I was working as a musical director.

St. Louis has a very savvy theater community, but people seem to focus on the list of actors in the program. I’m equally intrigued by the behind the scenes people. In order to educate people, would you describe the main role of a music director?

I would say that depends on the level of the show, but that’s not entirely true as it also depends on the size of the staff. So for a show like The Marvelous Wonderettes, my job is going to be—before the show even starts—communicating with the director about anything that the director would want me to know about the shape of the show and the direction of the show. It’s communicating with the sound people about the requirements that we will have for the band. It’s communicating with the artistic director about the size of the band and who we can hire. So it sort of involves contracting and pre-production as far as pre-show.

Then when we get to our rehearsals, it involves teaching the actors the music. It’s partially teaching the notes and then teaching them the shape and the styles of the music. Helping to marry the acting with the vocals and that’s the beginning of the rehearsal process.

Then the musical director sort of becomes the rehearsal pianist—for lack of a better term—while the director and choreographer, who for The Wonderettes is the same person, puts the show on its feet. Honestly, there’s a lot of sitting around and speaking up when it’s appropriate, but mostly playing piano and sort of helping rehearse the show.

Then when we get into the tech rehearsals, I will rehearse with the band, so then I take off my music director cap and I take off my rehearsal pianist cap and I put on my conductor cap and I work with the band in a similar way that I worked with the cast. We learn the notes together, we talk about shaping and phrasing and how we want the music to sound. Then when we start putting the show together with the actors and with the cast with the technical aspects of the show, I am back from my music director cap with the actors and I’m back to pianist cap as well because I’m almost all always I’m playing in the band as well. So, between the stage manager and myself, we’re really steering the show from behind the scenes once the show opens. It’s really a multi-faceted job.

Another thing I am doing for Wonderettes is I am the keyboard programmer. There are two keyboard books in the score, I’ll be playing a keyboard and another gentleman will be playing a keyboard, so I’m also in charge of programming the keyboards which sometimes it’s part of my job and sometimes there’s a whole team of people who were doing that. So, the music team can be as small as one person, which is me now for The Wonderettes, and that is most often the case in regional theater of excellent caliber.

Is this your first experience with The Rep?

I’ve never been to The Rep before. I’m really excited to come to St. Louis. I’ve only been once before. I worked at a theater in Illinois for three years and we came to St. Louis to see a show at The Muny. I’ve known about The Rep, my partner went to Webster Conservatory and always spoke so highly of The Rep. It’s exciting for me to be able to come and sort of experience all of the excitement. I’ve been so impressed with everyone that I’ve spoken to—it seems like such a well-run but also a friendly place—which you don’t often get both of those things in a theater. So I’m really looking forward to coming to St. Louis and seeing what it’s all about.

The Marvelous Wonderettes on Broadway had 27 musical numbers. Are you going to do all 27 or did you modify the score?

Oh no, everything is as it was. It is a huge undertaking, musically, because in normal musicals not only are there not 27 songs, but also people do solos or duets. In this show, almost every song has all four women singing. There is a lead singer, there are the backup harmonies, they play an instrument, they are dancing around, so everyone is on stage the whole time—it really is wild. Where normally one singer comes for an hour and learns their solos, then another one comes for an hour and learns theirs, in this show we are all sitting in a room together learning 27 songs together.

The songs in this show are timeless and treasured. How are you taking a fresh approach to this body of work?

One of the interesting things about this show is that it already has its own spin on a lot of the songs that people know so well. It was written with such specific care to the styles of the songs but in a way, it’s also written with its own spin already. So where sometimes if I’m doing a show I really do look to how I’m going to put my mark on the show, musically, so when people hear it they’re going to say, “Oh, Joshua worked on that show.”

My goal for this show is really for them to hear the music and say, “Oh that’s the Marvelous Wonderettes.” Because the style it’s sung in is so specific to the show. So my work really is in honoring the style that Roger Bean, the creator of the show, worked to achieve when he created the show.

The amount of singing must be daunting to your cast. Do you have any vocal tricks or tips to keep them in tip-top shape?

Well, because I studied musical theater in college, I do feel like I come to the rehearsals with a really keen knowledge of how the voice works and how the human body works with the voice. I don’t know anyone in the show, I don’t know any of the actresses, so it will take a few days for me to sort of understand the way that their voices work and the way their bodies work. Some people are full out all the time and that’s just the way that their voices are and they can do it and it doesn’t bother them. Some people need to sort of ebb and flow with the amount that they’re able to give with their voice to make sure that they’re ready for performances.

As far as any specific tricks, it really depends on the person. Chances are because there’s so much singing in the show, I will spend time with each of these women talking about how their voices are doing, how they’re feeling, but it really has to be, in my opinion, individualized for each performer as to how their voices are doing. A lot of them are going to come with a lot of vocal training, so my job has sort of changed in that I am able to learn from all these actresses and everyone that I work with about different vocal techniques and different tricks that they have. But it really, I think, has to be individualized for the performer in order to make the show the best it can be and to keep the longevity in their voice.

St. Louis is a deeply rooted musical town. Does that add any pressure to your performance?

Well, I mean only in that I’m very excited to come to St. Louis and make music in a town with the kind of history and the kind of culture that St. Louis has. One of the great things about my job is that I get to travel to all sorts of different places and all different kinds of venues and make music with all different people so I don’t feel the pressure per se, but I do feel excited about it.

Since we’re both music people, I’m always curious to ask what are the first three songs on your favorite playlist?

That is such a good question. I will have to say it changes every single day. Definitely going to start with a song from The Marvelous Wonderettes because when I’m getting ready to do a show that show is on constant repeat. I want to listen to it all the time so that I could sing the album from top to bottom and know it.

Today the first three songs are going to be Wonderettes songs but I am a diehard Barbra Streisand fan and her new album is definitely at the top of my list right now. I love Whitney Houston, so she is there for sure, and I really love musicals. I listen to musicals more that more than I listen to anything. I could not tell you three specific songs I love, but there’s always musicals and there always excellent vocals on the music I listen—I can’t listen to bad singers. │ Jim Ryan

The Marvelous Wonderettes plays the Rep’s Virginia Browning Mainstage Theatre from January 3rd through Jan 28th. For show times and ticket prices, please visit www.repstl.org

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