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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.

    CAREER

    Farmer: Some Off-Broadway theaters, like the Public, have union contracts, so you’re always governed and secured by a union contract. And what that means is that the Off-Broadway shows have a clause in that contract, which is the right of first refusal. So if you’re hired to do an Off-Broadway show in a theater that has a deal with the union, the producers have to offer the show to you if the show proceeds to the next level, meaning Broadway. It’s less a question of Am I going to take this? or Am I going to take that? It’s more, I’m going to take everything and see how the schedule works out. Up until March, I was freelancing every day.

    Silverman: Doug has two kids. I have two kids. You’ve got to keep working.

    Brausa: I’ve learned to take nothing for granted within this business. I’ve been freelancing since I was finishing my Master’s. Like, gigs have fallen though when you’ve already set aside those dates. Tours have been cancelled. So I try to take each day as it comes, and then just appreciate it.

    Derryberry: When you freelance, you get fired every other week. Gigs end all the time. Like my wife always says, Why doesn’t that person hire you to do that other project? Well, when I did that record with that person, that was a moment in their growth and their trajectory as an artist, and now they’re at a different moment.

    Silverman: The freelancer’s identity is a tricky one, because I think a lot of people have a kind of insecurity that, you know, you say “no” one too many times they’ll start calling somebody else. I think that a lot of times people do, in fact, lose some sight of relaxing and breathing a little bit, just because of the relentless need to kind of feel like you’re a part of it. Especially with children, you really try to make a good balance. Actually that’s one of the things that makes playing a Broadway show so good, because you can take off a couple shows a week, here, there, basically no questions asked, as long as you have a good, competent sub, or take off that Sunday and be with the family, or take off a weeknight so there’s not a babysitter putting the kids to bed again. It’s a balance. It’s a kind of lifestyle. It’s a little bit of an insecure lifestyle for many, until you become quite established, but even when you’re established you feel like you need to maintain those relationships.

    Derryberry: I have those phases where everything just dries up, and as old as I am – I’m 47 – by now I know that that’s part of it. I just don’t worry about it, you know. I batten down the hatches. I keep my powder dry. When you’re not fighting, the most important thing is to keep your powder dry. And so that’s how I think of it. It’s like if I’m just sitting in my room, practicing my instruments, maintaining my gear, not making any money, that’s fine, you know, because that’s all part of it.

    Hadfield: You have to have multiple things going on. I do sessions, other gigs, you know, recordings, rehearsals. It’s non-stop. I’m doing a private gig tonight before Fun Home from 5 to 7:15, then I have to get down to the subway, go down and play the show.

    Brausa: I personally am of the mindset that I need to be doing multiple things just for my soul. I still have that part of me that needs to play quartets every now and then, and I love playing rock cello, too. Part of the great thing about a Broadway show is that you have the liberty to take off to go and take other gigs, and still have something here. That gives us some stability, which is nice. I just like being able to do a lot of different things.

    Silverman: If you’re really doing eight shows a week, I think everybody does need a mental health moment. And especially when you have kids, you know, you want to spend time with them and have that joy, or whatever that brings to you, but that energy that gets you away and reminds you of really what the important things are in life, and it’s beyond just playing a show.

    Farmer: My primary goal, as a musician, is to play. When I play or where I play is not really that important. I have genres and styles of music that I gravitate towards because that’s where my heart is, and then I also have genres and styles of music that I know very well because that’s what I studied. And very often the two are interchangeable. That is never written in stone. As you progress as a musician, as you get older, if you’re lucky to get older, your tastes change, and therefore if you’re active as a musician hopefully you will improve. It’s both. It’s what I have to do. It’s what I like to do. Because, again, my priority is to be playing.

    IN THE ROUND

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    Silverman: I know that Jeanine had mentioned that she wanted to make sure, once we were in the Circle, that the band was seen and felt and heard, and, you know, part of the experience. I suspect that had it been in a more traditional theater we would’ve been in the pit, as it had been in the Public.

    Fenwick: It’s different than in, say, something like Chicago where the band is very prominently featured. For me it’s a beautiful thing in Fun Home, the way it’s been staged and designed, because you can always see the band, but it feels like a very organic component of the stage picture. You know, having sat out and taken notes on the show a couple of times while someone else conducted it, it was sort of stunning to me how much I could pay attention to the musicians, or how little I could pay attention to the musicians. There was never a distraction. It was only sort of a beautiful addition to the picture.

    And I think the piece’s unusual and complex construction lends itself well to sort of an abstract idea, like the orchestra being onstage with the actors, but it not feeling like a concert, or it not feeling presentational in any way. For me the orchestra and the motifs that get tossed around the orchestration feel very comfortable in that space, because it is a memory play. The characters are wandering in and out of memory, past, present, future, and the band is there sort of providing a lot of musical material and themes and motifs that just inform that

    Reza: There’s a big difference of playing in the pit versus being onstage in a theater in the round, where the audience is around you 360 degrees. I’ve performed onstage in many other settings, but all of them have been proscenium. The audience is only in one direction. So taking what the actors have described about being in the round, there’s a sense of vulnerability that’s created, as opposed to whenever you’re in a proscenium. And so as a result, I think, as a musician, I feel that as well, although I think that sense of vulnerability has subsided the more we perform the show. But you’re constantly aware of the fact that there are 700 people around you. By just looking up you see them.

    I think that, especially early on, there’s a greater sense of pressure because there’s nowhere to hide, you know, if something doesn’t go the way you want it to. If you’re in the corner of the pit, and if the audience can’t even see, there’s a sense of anonymity. But there’s nothing here. You’re the only reed player in Fun Home, so therefore you’re much more noticeable. Having said that, I have asked a number of people who have seen the show if the band is distracting at all, and the unanimous answer has been No, not at all, which is a relief, but still, keeping that in mind, we try to minimize our movement as much as possible so that the band never does become a distraction.

    Silverman: There’s really a choreography to the guys that have a lot of instruments. Sometimes you only have enough time to put it on your lap. Sometimes you have enough time to put it on the stand.

    Fenwick: It demands that you’re present at all times. It demands that you’re engaged on all levels. There’s a tremendous sense of responsibility to the audience, to the actors, to the material, that being onstage sort of demands. I think it’s great.

    Derryberry: Everything there is functional, and that is a function of being on the stage. Earlier in the previews, and then in rehearsals, everybody had personal items around, but they really want that area to be devoid of anything that could be a distraction. Like the creative team, whether it’s the set design, the lighting, the director, whoever it is, you know, the consensus is that we want that area to be as devoid of any potential distraction to the ticket holders as possible. And I completely understand and support that, whereas if it was a pit, sure, I would have probably a magazine. I would have my phone. I would have some cards or photos people gave me. Definitely in a regular pit you would have little tokens, but on this show, where you’re on the stage and you’re so exposed, that’s frowned upon.

    Silverman: I don’t know if Doug told you, but he was constantly getting little notes about his guitars being in the set and all of that. You know, the difficulty of just trying to do your job while also being in a visual kind of scenario as well. He has a lot of instrument changes and a lot of pedals, and they were on him, not aggressively, but they kept on coming back to him with requests and this and that, so he, I’m sure, got a little self-conscious about it.

    Fenwick: I hope that the audience is not focusing solely on me at any point in the show, but I do feel like, when I’ve gone now to see the production, I was very taken with how luxurious it is to sort of have an orchestra there as another component of the telling of this story, that you could possibly wander over and check out, and that instead of that distracting you from the telling of Alison’s story, it would actually inform the telling of Alison’s story, so that when you heard certain musical things, you could maybe glance over at the orchestra and sort of maybe see how they were connected to what’s happening with the actors or what’s happening with the lighting or what’s happening with the sets. The band is very, very sensitive about limiting movement, so that it is not a distracting experience, but I feel like it’s a pretty intrinsic part of this production.

    Derryberry: I definitely have it as part of my process to try to get my movements done in the moments where it’s least impactful on the show. And then I try to sit still, which is a challenge because I’m a fidgety guy.

    Reza: I’ve practiced meditation for a few years now, and so I’m totally comfortable with sitting still.

    Farmer: Being in front of an audience is great. It’s fantastic. You cannot hide. You cannot hide from people’s expectations. I absolutely prefer it.

    Brausa: I think it’s a great thing. You feel more involved with the actors and the whole production. And, you know, the monotony sinks in at a certain point, and so to be able to see people’s reactions is really beneficial. You remember why you’re doing this and how important it is.

    Silverman: I sometimes do watch, or notice some people at some times. I think it’s just more of an experience thing. I’ve been playing in live settings enough to be fairly impervious to feeling like I’m being watched (laughs).

    Hadfield: Would you want to play your instrument in a room in the back?

    Fenwick: I think that all of us feel that this piece was always bound to live in the round, and I think that having the band onstage and visible has been a really valuable component to the production.

    Hadfield: There are pros and cons. It feels like I go and I do a recording session. That’s what it feels like. It’s a recording session. You know, I’m doing a session. I know what the session’s going to be. I want to do a great job. I want do it flawlessly. I can wear a t-shirt and jeans, and tennis shoes.

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