Acclaimed Broadway conductor David Chase makes his Lyric debut leading the amazing cast, orchestra, and chorus in the brand-new production of Carousel. Chase was nominated for an Emmy for his music direction of NBC's The Sound of Music Live and has been music director or supervisor for countless musicals that have been hits with audiences and critics alike, including Nice Work if You Can Get It, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Billy Elliot, The Pajama Game, Flower Drum Song, The Music Man, Side Show, Little Me, and Damn Yankees.
He took some time out of the busy rehearsal process to answer questions a few days before the April 10 opening. Read on to learn more about his long history with director/choreographer Rob Ashford, his circuitous path to conducting, and how his baton once flew out of his hand mid-performance, only to be returned to him by the audience!
You actually have a degree in biology from Harvard—how did you get interested in music and conducting more specifically?
I took piano lessons as a kid. Hated every minute of it—the practicing, anyway. But I always loved playing, and that led to an interest in the power of music as an emotional conduit for story-telling. In high school I became very involved—onstage and off— in the Drama Department where I had an amazingly inspiring teacher, Joan Bedinger. In college, I became involved in the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, both as a performer and writer, and that led to an interest in arranging and the way that musical shows are structured. I knew fairly quickly that I didn't want to spend my life doing medicine, but I loved the cathartic power of music, and so continued to pursue it in various forms—first as an accompanist, then eventually as an arranger and music director.
I had never had a particular interest in conducting, but in 1993 I was working with the brilliantly talented James Raitt (nephew of original Carousel star John Raitt) when he was offered the position of music director for the Broadway revival of Damn Yankees (eventually to star Jarrod Emick and Charlotte d'Amboise). James was a huge supporter of young musicians, and he offered me the position of associate conductor on the show with the very frank statement that he thought I should be a conductor and that he himself didn't have long to live. The show opened in March of 1994 and James died of AIDS in April. I have been music director and/or arranger on 30 Broadway productions since then, and for every single performance I've ever conducted, I have used his baton.
Jarrod Emick and Bebe Neuwirth in Damn Yankees on Broadway
You have been a frequent collaborator with Rob Ashford on How to Succeed… and the NBC live musicals, among others - can you talk about your partnership and why it's so gratifying to work with him?
I've known Rob since 1990. I had just moved to New York and was tapped to play rehearsals for the new Radio City Spring Spectacular. Rob was one of the dancers in the ensemble. We honestly can't remember if we ever talked then! But our paths kept crossing—a few years later, Rob was the first replacement in the Crazy For You, where my wife was an original cast member. Then in 1999 we worked with Kathleen Marshall on Kiss Me, Kate—me as dance arranger and Rob as associate choreographer—and had a grand time. That led to Rob asking me to work with him on his first choreography assignment, Thoroughly Modern Millie. We've done numerous shows since then and we've developed an amazing shorthand. We both value truthful story-telling above all else, and have a very complementary understanding of the ability of music and movement to further that story-telling. There's an implicit trust to the way we work together, and an immediate ease. I also know that he will always have a strong point of view when approaching a piece of theater, and to me that's the most important factor in shaping something dramatically. It's deeply gratifying to know that you're working towards the same goal and Rob keeps everyone moving forward with clarity.
Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway starring Sutton Foster
Can you talk a little bit about the cast assembled for the show, and what strengths they bring to the production vocally?
I'm very proud of this cast, and how beautifully they bridge the world between the musical theater and the opera world. They're all first rate actors as well as singers, and that is vitally important to the world of Carousel, which is quite the intimate dramatic play set against the backdrop of huge meditations on the nature of community, salvation, and self-respect. I've known Laura since she auditioned for (and eventually won) the reality TV show, You're the One That I Want, and I'm constantly astonished by the depths of her talent. I've always known her to be a first-rate musician with a crystal-clear sound (she's often been called the modern-day Julie Andrews, and for good reason), and I'm thrilled to see how beautifully she's handling the darker complexities of Julie Jordan. I've known Jarrod and Charlotte for over 20 years and they're both brilliant and always fascinating to watch. I haven't worked with Steven, Matt or Jenn before (Matt did the recent revival of Side Show on Broadway whereas I did the original in 1997), but I'm thrilled to get to do so here. Steven is an incredible musician—like me, untrained—and brings a rawness to his performance that's very exciting. I've mostly known of Matt's pop side, and was very happy to discover that he has a true legit voice. And it's great that Jenn has played the role before in a much smaller setting (Goodspeed Opera House) and now gets to bring it to a much larger stage.
Carousel cast in rehearsal; clockwise from top left: Charlotte d'Amboise and Jarrod Emick; Jenn Gambatese and Laura Osnes; Jenn Gambatese and Matthew Hydzik; Tony Roberts and Steve Pasquale
How is the rehearsal process going so far? For those who might not be familiar, can you take us through the steps of how you musically prepare such a huge ensemble?
Rehearsals have gone well; although we all wish we had more time to develop the details! Maestro Black [Lyric's chorus master Michael Black] has done an amazing job of preparing the ensemble, and my focus has been to help them have a point of view. Written music, like any written language, is a highly inexact record of an aural experience. There's no way to sing notes and lyrics without knowing why they're being sung: by whom and to whom, and to what end. Yes, we want lovely sounds and well-shaped vowels and clean cut-offs, but more than anything else, we want the music to do what only music can do: connect us to an ineffable emotional response. And yes, that comes from rehearsing, and it comes from a common understanding of the reasons for why we sing when we do. Ultimately, that's as important if not more important than the simple learning of the notes and words.
The ensemble for Carousel in staging (top) and dress rehearsal (bottom)
What makes the music of Carousel so special? Where do you think it fits in the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon?
TIME magazine named Carousel the greatest musical of the 20th century, and for good reason. It was, especially in its time, an incredibly audacious undertaking, arguably more thematically aligned to grand opera in its musical ambitions, but wholly and fully grounded in the American musical theater traditions in its focus on the drama that plays out in the lives of these two seemingly insignificant people. Oklahoma! was a huge achievement for Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was hailed as the first musical drama where every element of the show—book, music, lyrics, dance, design—served the greater goal of telling the story. And so their next project, Carousel, had to push the boundaries even further. The musical sequence that leads to "If I Loved You" is rightly regarded as one of the greatest achievements in writing for the musical theater, and "Soliloquy," Billy's meditation on impending fatherhood, is undeniably the closest thing to a true aria in the musical theater canon. And R&H put these huge musical gestures into the mouths of a simple factory girl and a rough and uneducated carnival barker as if to let us know that their hearts are equally huge, equally full of music, equally deserving of attention as the princes and aristocrats of grand opera. And we haven't even touched on the simple power of "You'll Never Walk Alone" or the immediate visceral joys of "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and "Real Nice Clambake."
If you had to pick just one, what is your absolute favorite moment in Carousel?
I don't know yet. Ask me again in a few weeks! There is one staging moment that is new to this production that leaves me in awe of the power of live theater. But I won't tell you what it is.
What has been the most interesting, hilarious, or memorable moment from your career so far?
Wow. Don't know that I can answer that. Here's a minor one: conducting a Broadway performance in the mid-nineties when my baton flew out of my hand and into the audience. About three songs later, it reappeared, having been passed back from seat to seat. Then, reading about it 10 years later in an online blog where someone was recounting the weirdest moment they'd ever experienced in the theater when the conductor's baton flew out of his hand and landed in their lap.
One unforgettable moment was the extended audience applause before the downbeat of the final performance of the original Side Show. It seemed to last forever, and was a deeply moving recognition of the ephemeral nature of this business.
While you're in rehearsals for Carousel, you're also the music supervisor for Finding Neverland, which after several pre-Broadway productions is transferring this month. How do you balance multiple major projects like this at once?
I have no idea. If I thought about it too much, I'd probably crumple up into a little ball. You never plan for schedules to collide, but sometimes they do. Honestly, though, the key is being passionate and fully committed to every project, and the work gets done. And it's important to have excellent people working with me—I couldn't have done both projects without the incredible talents of Valerie Maze, associate conductor of Carousel, and Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the music director of Finding Neverland.
What have you enjoyed most about being in Chicago for Carousel? Any restaurants, museums, or other attractions that you have experienced that you'd want to recommend?
Well, I have to admit that I haven't had time yet to experience Chicago, but one thing that has struck me about this city is the way that it struts. The architecture is monumental in scope, and is bursting with civic pride. That's exciting.
- David Chase photo credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago
- Damn Yankees on Broadway
- Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway
- Carousel rehearsal and production photos credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago