Mark Stoddard: Welcome to our fourth podcast of influencers of music in the CS Music world. Our guest today is David Evans. I’m going to let him tell us a little bit about himself. First of all, welcome David.
David Evans: Thanks very much.
Mark Stoddard: Tell us what you’re doing.
David Evans: Well, right now, I am the associate conductor of Wicked on Broadway. I have been with the show since the very beginning, which was 2003. We opened in 2003 and it’s a long running Broadway show that’s still somehow selling out. We’re actually in our 15th year. It’s very unusual to be connected to a show that’s that popular and runs for that long. It’s been very unusual to have that steady a job in the kind of fickle world of musical theater. But there you have it, I lucked out.
Mark Stoddard: What do you do as an associate conductor?
David Evans: For my job I conduct the show and so I’m there at every performance. When I’m not conducting, I play the keyboard. So I’m there pretty much all the time. I’m either playing in the orchestra of 24 people and I play the keyboard or conduct at pretty much every performance. We have eight shows a week. And as I said we’ve been running for 15 years.
Mark Stoddard: Does it ever get boring?
David Evans: I wouldn’t say boring. I mean conducting the show is still always a little bit of a challenge because different things happen every night and we have different cast members going on. So there’s different timing. We have different people in the orchestra sometimes. So it’s still an active part of my life.
Playing the keyboard part, I have to admit, is now almost automatic. I mean, I sit down and I play it, I don’t really have think much about it. I don’t use the music anymore. I don’t actually use the music when I’m conducting either because I just know it so well. And so when you’re playing like that, you just sort of let your fingers and feet to the walking. They somehow do it without me even being conscious that I’m there. But it seems to always go well. I count on the muscle memory.
Mark Stoddard: It is a live show, so automatically that’s bound to produce a few tense moments.
David Evans: Yes, I mean with the competitiveness of musicians in New York, there are so few jobs and so most of us have quite a bit of experience but things do happen. I mean, things go wrong on stage or sometimes timings are different every once in awhile. You have to be alert and even when I’m kind of like on automatic, as I said when I’m playing the keyboard part, if something is radically different it wakes you up right away and you just adapt.
Mark Stoddard: Any performers that were particularly problematic when it came to a meeting and other sorts of fun little exercises?
David Evans: You’re talking about at the show, Wicked? No, everybody’s a little bit different and sometimes the timings are a little different. We have a big moment at the end of act one, if anyone knows to show where the lead character Elphaba flies and it’s sort of an amazing thing. It’s in the middle of the song or towards the end of the song Defying Gravity which ends act one, every once in a while the apparatus doesn’t work correctly and so it all happens a little differently. It doesn’t really change musically, but the whole staging is different.
So little mishaps can happen and you have to be alert to that, especially as a conductor. I’m also involved in rehearsals. We have rehearsals almost every week for understudies, sometimes brush up rehearsals for the dancers or for the cast. And so there’s a lot going on. We have had cast replacements a lot over all these years. We don’t really have anyone left that was in the original cast so there’s a lot of turnaround so you just have to sort of always be on alert because everyone’s timing is a little bit different and that’s part of the conductor’s job, to be alert to differences in performance and in the performers.
Mark Stoddard: Why the turnaround, why so much replacement?
David Evans: Well, I think that in the case of the principle performers, they’re always on a limited contract, either nine months or a year or something like that. And I think it’s a deliberate thing in terms of the producers to sort of keep the show fresh. There are several cases where people have done the show for like a year and then go away and do something else and then come back. Or we’ve had many cases where the show has a touring company and very often we’ll get someone from the tour to come in for a while, then go back on tour or go off to do other shows. So it’s kind of almost a deliberate thing in terms of the producers wanting to just keep things fresh and always have new people coming in and it seems to work out pretty well.
Mark Stoddard: Sounds like most of the “new” people coming in might be new to your scene but they’ve got Broadway experience, or do you get people from “down on the farm” coming in?
David Evans: Well, we do have open calls every year, open equity calls, where anyone can sign up and audition. I’m not that involved in the auditions anymore, but we do occasionally get someone who has not that much experience, there’s so many talented people. So it’s not unheard of that this is their first Broadway show. We’ve had many people in the cast who are making their Broadway debuts at Wicked.
Mark Stoddard: What is going to happen after Wicked for you?
David Evans: For me? Well, I am also a composer and I’ve had several shows running off Broadway and a regional theaters and I write for TV every once in awhile. And so I have a bunch of ongoing projects that are my own creative projects. Wicked is, in a sense, my day job even though it’s at night most of the time. So I have a feeling that it’s gonna be in my life for a long time coming. One of the nice things about being a musician on Broadway is that you do get to take time off and so I go do other projects sometimes. Every year I do a big benefit gala for an organization called Drama League that honors stars in the field. This year we did Steve Martin and last year it was a David Hyde Pierce, Bernadette Peters, Audra McDonald. I get to work with a lot of different people.
David Evans: So I’m pretty happy sticking with Wicked. I know that Wicked is probably going to last longer than I do at this point. So I have no plans to leave at the moment because it enables me to have my days free to do creative work and to take off when I need to do other musical directing and playing projects
Mark Stoddard: You took off recently and went to China?
David Evans: I did.
Mark Stoddard: Tell us about that.
David Evans: That was an incredible experience. I was hired to go play for the Classical Singers competition in China. I had worked with some of these Chinese students before because my wife and I run a yearly musical theater summer intensive called Broadway Triple Threat and we had the pleasure of having about 25 students from China come last summer and work with us in our program for the six day program in July.
It was so great to work with them because they were so enthusiastic about musical theater. We had assigned them songs to learn and they came and learn them and they were terrific. The challenge always with them is pronunciation because a lot of them weren’t really English speakers, but they were very diligent and had worked very hard and learned a lot.
So I went to China. I was there for eight or nine days and we participated in the competition and heard some very, very talented performers. I got to play with them and work with them a little bit. It was just a pleasure and also an adventure to be on the other side of the world. I had never been to the Far East at all and we had a wonderful group of people, including Alex, your son. I also got to meet some fantastic teachers from all over the country from different universities that we got to be very close to and had a lot of fun with it. So it was all in all, a great experience.
Mark Stoddard: How did the competition run? Was it well done?
David Evans: It was very well done. There were really two groups. There was a group of musical theater students and a much larger group of classical music performers. I dealt pretty much mostly with the musical theater performers. There was a first round then there were finals and then there was a final concert at the end. I know that some were given offers from some of the colleges and awarded scholarship money. So it was, all-in-all, a great experience. We got to do a little bit of traveling. We went to Hong Kong and we were in Ghanzhou, which used to be called Canton, in the very southern part of China. We were treated really, really well. We had great food and we had a tour, one day, of the whole city so it was a great experience.
Mark Stoddard: So the CS Music competition in the United States is now going international. I would take it that’s good for musical theater?
David Evans: Oh, absolutely. I mean it’s challenging. There’s still challenges in terms of casting diversity in Broadway, for people of other ethnic backgrounds to sort of break through the casting barriers. For example, Hamilton has a very multi-ethnic cast. I just noticed that the revival of Carousel that just opened last night has a black Billy Bigelow which was very unusual, but no reason why that shouldn’t be. Actually for the Chinese, the Asian population, there are certain obvious shows, Miss Saigon, Flower Drum Song, and shows like Pacific Overtures that have really all Asian casts. But you start to see it more and more that people are breaking through and casting people, and directors are being more open to that kind of casting, which is very encouraging.
Mark Stoddard: I think I heard that in the Hamilton show touring in Salt Lake City, Utah, George Washington was played by an Asian person. He was a good foot shorter than what George Washington would have been.
David Evans: Theatrical license. Why not? I think it’s very encouraging. We have quite a diverse cast in Wicked and they always looking to try to cast in unusual ways. We actually had Telly Leung who is a Chinese American actor, came and spoke to our Chinese students last summer at Broadway Triple Threat and gave our students a lot of encouraging insight. He’s playing a Latino right now on Broadway. I worked with him years ago in a revival of Flower Drum Song and that was his first Broadway show and now he’s staring in Aladdin. So it was very encouraging for those students to hear his story.
We’ll be going to the Classical Music [CS MUSIC] Convention in Boston coming up in May and hope to see some of our old friends there and we’ll be looking for students for our summer program there as well.
Mark Stoddard: How important is it for classically trained and musical theater people to go to the CS Music Convention in Boston?
David Evans: Well I think it’s a great opportunity to be seen by a lot of people. Especially people who are looking for academic programs to be there because I know there’s a lot of representatives from those schools. And also for summer, I hate to publicize our own program, but summer programs like ours [Broadway Triple Threat], they can really get exposure, especially if they’re not from New York, or the whole Broadway scene. We bring them to a Broadway show. They get to do a talk back with the cast of the show. We bring in broadway stars to work with the kids. Last year we had Kelly O’hara and Danny Burstein. Lin-Manuel Miranda came a couple of years ago who wrote Hamilton.
I’m sure there will be other programs there that are sort of “hawking their wares” as well. But we’re always looking for talented students and it’s just a great opportunity for them to be there in one place to get exposure to all of these different programs, schools, and summer intensives.
Mark Stoddard: There is a lot of great energy at Convention.
David Evans: I’m sure. This will be our first time in this one, but even in China you could sense that. Also what happens at these things, and I know this happens in our program in New York, there are people who come from small towns or people from all over the country that are the only person that they know where this is their obsession. We find that when people come together, even for our little six day program, they suddenly have found their tribe. All of a sudden everyone around them has the same passion. Sometimes people who are musical theater kids or even classical music kids who feel a little bit like outcasts or are the only ones they know who cares about this. Suddenly they’re in a room with everyone who feels the same way. And that’s very empowering and encouraging to them. It’s a great thing to experience for all of them.
Mark Stoddard: I think also, as they begin to discover, as they listened to other people they learn techniques. They learn, “oh, somebody else could do this too. I thought that was the only person that could do this”. It pushes them higher and higher.
David Evans: Absolutely! Like in sports, you do as well as your competitor. So people get the idea of what’s out there and sometimes it’s a reality check. When they’re the most talented person in their small town and then find out what’s out there, it’s sort of like say, “oh, I’ve really ever got to up my game”. So it’s all of those things but it’s a great sort of safe place to see what’s out there and see where you are in terms of the rest of the world at that. It’s very valuable for everyone.
Mark Stoddard: How did you get into this business?
David Evans: How did I get into it? Well, I started out in the classical world. I was a music major at Harvard. As a matter of fact, one of my good friends there was Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist, who lived across the hall from me in our dorm and we used to play together and were friends in college. I was on the road to being a classical musician. I was writing some contemporary music and playing and doing a little conducting. I was in that whole trajectory. At college there was an improv comedy review company called, The Proposition, that was kind of like Second City. They did comedy reviews and improv and I used to go see them and I loved them. I thought they were great and they were looking for a new pianists, musical director.
I thought, how much fun would that be? Oh my gosh, I can’t even believe it. So I ended up getting that job. And so while I was working on my graduate degree in piano, at the conservatory of music, I was at night playing at the comedy reviews. I started to sort of fall in love. It’s sort of like what I said about people finding their own tribe. I started to really love to be around these actors and these performers and they were so funny and so talented and I started to just get into the whole theater scene. I wrote songs for them. I ended up coming back to New York to join a musical theater writing program that was just starting at NYU and it was the first sort of academic program in musical theater writing that had ever been.
The teachers were an amazing array of people who were still around. We’re talking the early eighties. So I was taught by a Julie Stein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Arthur Lawrence. Leonard Bernstein came for two weeks to work with us and all of the greats of musical theater that were around in that era. I just started falling in love with that part of the world and all of my classical training helped in terms of technique and playing and writing and theory and all of those things.
I had just started getting into the whole world of musical theater and that’s sort of how it transformed into that world. I started getting little jobs playing and conducting and I wrote a musical in that program that ended up running off Broadway that Arthur Lawrence, who’s the writer of Gypsy and a West Side Story. I ended up directing and so I had contacts with all of those kind of greats. And that’s sort of how it happened. I started doing more off-broadway and Broadway shows and ended up here.
Mark Stoddard: It sounds very much like so many people I’ve interviewed and discussed with their kind of path, is that the number one thing is you have to be there. You have to be in the mix doing things and sometimes our singers don’t want to solely themselves with outside work, but work is work.
David Evans: Yeah. I mean, I usually advise people, especially younger people who are just starting out in this, just do everything. Just whatever you’re asked to do. I often tell the story that one summer early on in this process when I was already in New York. I got a call to play with some rehearsals for a show at Lincoln Center and it was just a workshop of a show, a new composer named Michael John Macusa. I almost didn’t do it, but I sort of thought, well, why not, there are people I don’t know. I did know a couple of people in the cast. I went and played rehearsals and I ended up walking into a situation where they were very happy with the way I played for whatever reason. And I kind of hit it off with the composer.
And that led to when that show ultimately had a productional at the Lincoln Center, I was asked to be musical director and then I did his next show that was with Audra McDonald, called, Marie Christine, and it started a whole relationship that I could have almost missed because I wasn’t sure whether I want it to be like the third rehearsal pianist, but it all lead to great things.
It’s very much about talent, but it’s also about personal relationships and just being easy to work with and you have to just sort of like put yourself out there and see what happens because you never know. Even when I got a call about doing Wicked I had a couple of other things lined up that we’re going to conflict with the very beginning of Wicked. And so I really thought about it. I had just come off being the conductor of two Broadway shows and this was not the main conductor. It was to be the assistant and play keyboards and it was a slightly, I guess officially, a lower rung that I had been doing. So I really thought about it, but boy, I’m glad I did it because here we are and who knew it would be a job for life, but that’s what it’s turned out to be.
Mark Stoddard: Our time’s about up, but I wanted to ask you one last question: What’s hot on Broadway and how is Broadway trending? It does change from time to time, obviously.
David Evans: It does. I think there are a lot of really wonderful shows out there right now. A lot of new musicals and a lot of revivals. I mean, right now we’re seeing Carousel just open. My Fair lady is about to open at Lincoln Center. I’m all for that because there’s whole generations that are not familiar with those shows. And for those shows to be done in in a fantastic way is great. It’s a struggle for playwrights and composers. It’s so expensive to get shows on. It’s so risky of an investment for producers and investors. I know from personal experience that I’ve had several shows that it’s a struggle to get your shows on but there are a lot of theaters around the country that are doing great work on and off Broadway and regional theaters.
I think, at least for writers, Broadway is no longer the, I mean it is the ultimate goal I guess, but I think people have realized that there are great rewards to be had all over the place. And if you focus only on Broadway, it’s often disappointing. But there’s a lot of great work being done all over the country, all over the world. As I said, even with musical directing, conducting, you have to just sort of be open to all possibilities. And if the work is really good, it’s gonna get on somewhere and audiences will get to see it.
Mark Stoddard: Well, we thank you for your time and we enjoy very much your work and look forward to talking with you another day.
To listen to the Podcast of the interview with David Evans, click here: https://player.pippa.io/csmusic/episodes/davidevans