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

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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.

    ~

    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.

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