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June 3, 2010

Broadway Brain: ‘Promises, Promises’ plays best when music director Phil Reno’s mother is in the audience

by Jesse North

Phil Reno music directorWhile Jonathan Tunick might be a Tony nominee for Best Orchestrations for the revival of Promises, Promises, music director Phil Reno has to implement his work every night while conducting the show. Having previously conducted shows like The Producers (for a whopping 1,383 performances!) and The Drowsy Chaperone, Reno is no stranger to Tony-winning productions. Presiding over an orchestra of 18, as well as stars Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes (this year’s Tony host and nominee), Reno is entrusted with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s famous score.

Reno sat down with Stage Rush in the house of the Broadway Theatre, where Promises is showing, for a chat about Tonys, career destiny, and conducting for his mother.

Explaining it to me as if I’m a 3 year old, what does a music director/supervisor do?
We’re responsible for teaching all the cast members the music. That all happens way before we ever add the orchestra. We usually rehearse a show like Promises, Promises five or six weeks before we go into tech rehearsal. I supervise and oversee the scene-change music and underscoring and introductions of numbers. I write and make suggestions for those pieces to make the whole musical flow of the evening go as smoothly as it can. As the show progresses, I’m responsible for maintaining the musical integrity of the show. How people sing, interpret their songs, make sure group numbers are still tight, and that the orchestra is still playing well. For those of us that are involved in a long run, it can be very easy for some people to get complacent and casual with it. I consider my job to keep them enthused and energized to do it, making it as good or better than the last performance. I try to inspire energy and emotion from the musicians and the cast. I never wanted to be one of those “Here we go again” kind of conductors.

How did you get to be where you are? How does someone become a music director?
In some ways it was by happenstance. I was a piano player in Ohio who loved musicals. I went off to college to be a music education major. I was going to be a high school choir or band director. The school I went to, The University of Cincinnati, had a very high-powered musical theater program. I got involved with playing in the shows there. I figured all those students were going to pack up and go to New York and try to be on Broadway. Why shouldn’t I do that too? When I was still in college, I was lucky to get my first big conducting job. There was a big summer stock producer in Ohio who had a circuit of few theaters and brought in huge TV and Broadway stars to do these summer stock tours. I ended up conducting a show for him when I was a junior in college. The next summer he invited me back and asked me to do the first show of the season, which was in fact Promises, Promises. I’ve been a fan of Burt Bacharach’s music since I was a kid, and this show in particular. It just so happens that one of the dancers in that show, it was how he got his Equity card, was [Promises director] Rob Ashford. It just shows what a small world our business can be.

Do you have to know more than just piano to be a music director?
Because I was a music education major, I had to take all these classes and learn to play most instruments on a basic level. I had to study brass instruments and learn trombone and trumpet, very perfunctorily, but I had to learn the fingerings and the same with all the woodwinds and strings. It was a fortunate thing that I had to learn all that stuff while I was in college. I took a lot of conducting classes too, and was able to get a job at a very young age because of it. I still play constantly. I do readings of new shows and performances where it’s just me at the piano. Here at night I conduct, and the rest of the day I play the piano.

Jonathan Tunick is a Tony nominee for Best Orchestrations for Promises. Do you feel you share in that nomination?
I think in some instances I would jump in and say I feel very much a part of that. But in this instance, Jonathan did the original orchestrations in 1968 for this show. Even though we have a smaller orchestra now, the overall sound of the show is very similar to what he had done 40-something years ago. In a new show, we have to spend a lot of time describing what the sound is that we’re looking for, but this was already there to a large degree. When we added new numbers and new underscoring, we had discussions of those sounds. Yet in this instance, not as much as another show. And that’s not to take anything away from Jonathan. He’s arguably one of the greatest Broadway orchestrator ever.

In what ways did you make Promises fresh for 2010?
We added two new songs [“I Say A Little Prayer” and “A House Is Not A Home”], and I would say the show is more of a musical now than it used to be. It was a little more scene-song-scene-song before. One of our goals was to make it more fluid and make the ins and outs of a scene go into the next one musically. We underscored scenes where characters sing and then go on to a scene and then sing more—we made it more of a sequence.

What’s the difference between working on a revival (Promises) and an original show (The Drowsy Chaperone).
On its road to Broadway, there were a lot of songs in The Drowsy Chaperone that either went away, were replaced by another song, or even came back in ultimately. We didn’t have that with Promises. We added two songs, but didn’t throw out any existing songs from the show. With a new musical, you go through a lot of phases. Songs in the show can be reordered, replaced, or have a complete new set of lyrics to the same melody. With a new show, there’s a lot more of that going on and it’s a longer process, with readings, workshops, and out-of-town tryouts.

Music director Phil Reno rehearsing Promises, Promises. Photo: Joan Marcus

Do you prefer that added work that comes with working on a new musical?
It’s exciting, it’s inspiring, and it’s fun. It’s hard to compare the two. But it’s fun to try a new song and be there the first time an audience sees it, and you just rehearsed it with the orchestra an hour before the show.

The Broadway schedule is tough, and you say you conducted 1,383 performances of The Producers when you were working it. Describe what that’s like.
It’s about trying to find a way to keep it fresh and interesting for yourself. At every performance, the audience hasn’t been there before. I am always excited when my parents come to see the show. When my mom’s there, I tell the orchestra, “OK, Carol Reno is here—mom’s listening! Play well!” I try to think in my mind that somebody’s mother is in the audience every night and we should really do our best every night. Schedule wise, you do your eight shows a week, but it’s much more complicated than that. With a long-running show like The Producers, there are replacements that come in and out. I think I did that show on Broadway with eight different Max Bialystocks. There are also understudies and replacements, so there are rehearsals to do and recasting every time someone new comes in. With a show that just opened like Promises, Promises, we have an appearance on The View on Thursday, we have a pre-record for the orchestra for the Tony Awards on Friday. There are all those kind of events to fill up your days and evenings that are essentially your time off—but not really during this time of year with the awards season. It’s a lot more than 8-11 p.m. five or six times a week.

You’re part of the group that shapes the show. What’s it like collaborating with the director, producers, and all the other behind-the-scenes players?
It’s really their vision that I’m trying to help the music accomplish. I spend a lot of time listening and suggesting. It’s fascinating to hear their ideas and see what we can do to make the show work more smoothly.

Typically, conductors aren’t seen that much by the audience, but you are quite visible in Promises.
That’s one of the ideas of the show that Rob Ashford and the producers had—to make it seem like a big, fancy night out on the town, like going to a big Broadway show in the 1960s would have been. I am a little more visible in this show than in others, but it’s also a tribute to the classic music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. That’s one of the reasons people do this show—because of the hit music.

What’s next for you? Do you still look for other projects?
You’re always looking for the next show to do. I have two other musicals that we’ve done workshops and out-of-town tryouts for that hope to be on Broadway within the next year or later. I’m doing a reading of another new musical next week. That’s one way to keep your work at your main, current production fresh. When I’m printing out new music and I know I have to learn to play the piano part in 35 new songs in the next five days, that keeps my mind fresh and my originality going.

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