High School Musical 2 at Barrington Stage Company
Meet Music Director Brian Usifer, Young Artist on the Rise
By: Larry Murray - Jul 23, 2009
When every member of the team does their job, you get a winner, and Barrington Stage Company could proudly hang some bright banners from the rafters of its main theatre to mark the achievements of their Youth Theatre. The sponsors of this effort, Wendy Laurin and Jeff Konowitch, BankNorth and The Berkshire Eagle all deserve their own applause for sticking with this worthy project through these tough economic times.
The fifteen members of the Youth Theatre were chosen during very competitive auditions last winter, overseen by Christine O'Grady and Brian Usifer. Ms. O'Grady watched over the staging and choreography, Mr. Usifer over the musical aspects, often coaching the individual singers and helping them find their characters through song. The final result is now live and on stage at St. Joseph's High School in Pittsfield through August 16 for all to see and enjoy.
We had a chance to catch up with Brian Usifer who, with Christine O'Grady, are on their second take of the Disney franchise, having previously presented the SRO Berkshire premiere of High School Musical for Barrington Stage audiences in 2007. High School Musical 2 marks the 10th year of Barrington Stage's Youth Theatre program, and Usifer's fifth season working with Artistic Director Julianne Boyd.
"My first involvement came as a result of working with Darren Cohen on the musical Parade while I was at NYU. That production showed me what incredible possibilities the theatre held for a musician like myself. Darren invited me up to the Berkshires to be the Assistant Music Director on Julie's Follies, and we have been working together ever since."
As a child, Usifer began climbing up to the piano keyboard at age four, and soon was playing the melodies from commercial jingles he heard on television. History repeats itself even today, when he tutors another four year old, theatre marketer Carolann Patterson's equally young son, though with results that are yet to be determined. Mom and son were recently at a performance of HSM2 "and he was glued to that bleacher for the first act. During the break, Brian took us into the pit to show us his piano and the drums and now the kid is hooked" Patterson reports.
At the performance I attended, there was a youngster in front of me who was clearly loving every moment of the show, and figuring out how all the magic was created. He was totally entranced by the many lighting changes and began to swivel his head back and forth to watch the lights and the resultant effects on the stage when they shifted. It was clear that this was going to be someone who enjoyed future performances, and might even eventually become an electrician or lighting designer. Theatre offers dozens of skilled jobs beyond acting.
Carolann finds that "Brian is incredibly talented. Incredibly disciplined and focused. He is also very generous with his talent - so that when he is working with younger talent, future talent - he is very able to teach them and help them along just by being sensitive and making it fun while also showing them the hard work, professionalism and dedication that is required."
Usifer continued to develop his musical abilities all through his school years, even taking to writing about his life through songs he composed during those years. "I also learned to tie a tie in less than thirty seconds in High School, and decided I wanted to be a front man in a rock band, seemingly conflicting roles. " But it turns out that the rock star role is less appealing these days than that of a music director, where the ability to tie a cravat is sometimes useful.
"I stopped writing songs about me once I finished school and recently have become excited about writing music again. I prefer to set music to other people's lyrics, and find that very rewarding." He has yet to find a regular collaborator to partner with in the long term, and is still on a quest for music that matters. "I am very taken by the songwriters Rachel Yamagata and A Fine Frenzy." Listening to their music in its simplest form, without excessive busyness of popular music arrangements, it is clear that he is honing in on songwriters who speak to the heart through meaningful lyrics that could quite easily be sung from a Broadway stage. One by A Fine Frenzy was every bit as good as anything Sondheim has written: " Goodbye my almost lover, goodbye my hopeless dream...the sweet sadness of your eyes." Heartbreaking stuff, that.
"I have done a lot of writing lately, and there is a new CD which will be released some time this fall." You can find Brian on MySpace and FaceBook.
"After decades of male writers like Billy Joel and Elton John, it seems that the women are starting to come out with their own experiences through song," he notes appreciatively. It is a trend to be watched. Perhaps the future of theatre is in the hands of women songwriters who will see new possibilities through fresh eyes.
Although songwriting for the theatre is clearly on his agenda, Usifer is no slouch on the piano - or synthesizer - either. He won a Concerto Competition playing Beethoven's Third c minor Concerto. For HSM2 however, the job of music director also required him to do a bit of computer programming for the electronic instruments used to produce the shows music.
He was careful to note that "it is all played live, there are no taped tracks or anything. The computer elements are strictly for coloring the music as it is played." He might have picked some of these techniques from Altar Boys, the off-Broadway musical that has been playing forever, to the point where regular fans are called Altarholics, and the cast has changed many times during the run. Usifer is one of the regular substitute musicians in the band, which plays on stage with the singers. "There is no bass in the music group which makes the playing that much more difficult, and the synth changes are all pre-programmed so that if I miss even one note, the whole score can go off track. It's complicated but it is incredible fun, and very inventive." He has brought a similar level of complexity to the HSM2 production.
Putting High School Musical 2 Together
"I did High School Musical" a couple of years ago, and I just loved the show, and it sold out every performance. So last Fall, I was retained as Music Director for North Shore Music Theatre's full bore production of HSM2 - their last show before they closed. At North Shore there were 35 in the cast and 11 in the band vs. 16 in the cast here in Pittsfield and three in the pit: me plus a drummer and a percussionist.
At North Shore it was cast with regular actors. "But there's something more honest and interesting about age appropriate actors playing these roles. It's different, and challenging, especially vocally. We cast this in the middle of winter and then crossed our fingers." Anyone who sees the show will agree that they made some great choices. "Everyone has grown so much in the last four weeks."
Music Directors have a large range of responsibility, though the extent of their involvement can vary. "Some just play, others can be more colloborative, and that's what I love the most, helping to make it all happen, to make a show come alive. I get involved in coaching the performers, working closely with gifted directors like Christine to get things right. It's more than just singing, there's dramatic motivation behind every lyric. Disney hired Bryan Louiselle to adapt all the music from the movie to the stage version. His work is top notch so that on stage this sounds like a musical, - a pop, contemporary musical - and not a movie rehash. Live on stage it is more dramatically driven."
I wondered if the familiarity of the Disney name, the fan base of Zac Efron etc, caused more teens to come out and audition. Usifer said that surprisingly that is not the case. "It's interesting that a lot of our cast members have never seen either of the two movies. In fact, some still haven't, wanting to model the material on what it is rather than copy the roles on screen. Besides, we cast some of the roles differently from the movie.
"It's a life changing experience for many of the young actors, most have not worked professionally, so we modeled the program after the real world, rehearsing 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. Unlike school shows which are usually 2-6 shows, they have a incredibly long 45 show run. This enables them to really grow into the roles and polish their skills.
"In terms of discipline, the first couple of days are shocking to some of them because it is so intense. They're the most important too, since that is when you are learning the music, the choreography, and you are getting a feel for the script and your characters. It's not like their school productions where they have six months to rehearse it, it's intense from the first moment. It's like getting shot out of a cannon.
"The young artists are often experienced and most already have the basic discipline down cold. If not, they soon learn to be on time, to focus, to take a note if it is given as as way of improving their performance, not as criticism. A note is not that you are doing something wrong, just a way to help you make it better. Seven in our cast have done the program before, and all are self sufficient, so the only time I have actually met the parents is at the gatherings after opening night or something like that."
I wondered what was up next for him. "Well, before this run is even finished, I will begin working with composer/writer Rob Broadhurst, Lyricist Brent Black and Director John Simpkins for the world premiere of I'll be Damned here at Barrington Stage." It is slated for a run from August 13-29 with more details to be announced later.
Following the Barrington summer, Usifer returns to New York City where he teaches at NYU, but will also be doing a new musical show. "I just got aboard a week ago, and while I don't know a great deal about it, it's a funny show called Fantasy Football, the Musical, and starts just as soon as I get back."
Fantasy Football, The Musical, is part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMTF) and its 12 Next Link Shows. What is fascinating is that the show is typical of the creative theatrical ferment taking place mostly out of sight to Berkshire audiences. Everyone involved in this and similar productions tends to be very young, incredibly talented, and not adverse to risk taking.
The Book, Music and Lyrics for Fantasy Football are by David Ingber, a 2007 Harvard graduate, and will be directed by Adam Arian whose resume includes stints at Williamstown Theatre Festival where Adam "assisted directed". The concept is original in that it combines sports and theatre in new ways. "It's September 1991, New York City. An unemployed stats geek and a small-time bookie realize that their passion for sports is keeping them from maintaining a job or a girlfriend. Combining forces, they set out to create the ultimate sports fan experienceÂ—and, in the process, pull their lives togetherÂ—in this bromantic comedy of a musical." You can find some early excepts on YouTube by the composer. It will play from October 1-8 at the TBG Theatre in Manhattan.
At the end of High School Musical 2, there is a moment - as there are in all shows with music - where the players in the pit are acknowledged. For a moment, the spotlight and the audience's attention focus on those who have kept the proceedings moving forward all evening. We clap. And then the spotlight returns to the actors, the curtain closes, and we all go home.
While the director and choreographers work was completed once the show opened, it is the music director whose continued presence assures the high energy level of a running show is maintained every minute of every performance. And that is why musicians like Brian Usifer deserve every bit of applause they get. They've more than earned it. When you see this show, you too will send your thanks not only to Brian, but to the other musicians, Jeffery Robert and Andrew Smith and to everyone in the superb cast:
Christopher Herr (Lee) as Troy
Jesse Rothschild (NYC) as Gabriella
Tory Berner (Greenwich, CT) as Sharpay
Kevin Escudero (Schenectady, NY) as Ryan
Sara Newman (Great Barrington) as Kelsi
Colin Mackey (Pittsfield ) as Zeke
Natalie Sala (Pittsfield) as Taylor
Mitchell Despain (Adams) as Jack
John Beshaw (Lee) as Chad
Will Carey (Glen Ridge, NJ) Ensemble
Jackie Duchette (Pittsfield) as Peaches
Kelsie Fairchild (Dalton) as Blossom
Evelyn Mahon (Williamstown) as Martha
Owen Marks (Pittsfield) as Ensemble
McKenna Powell (Housatonic) as Violet
Jonathan Slocum at Mr. Fulton
The design team for HSM2 comprises Kelly Syring (scenic design), Krissy Sneshkoff (costume design), Ashley Mills (lighting design) and Luke Lytle (sound design). Thomas J. Coppola is Stage Manager. They have done a great job making the gym at St. Joseph's work as a theatre, fighting the battle of the boxy acoustics all the way.
Performances of Barrington Stage Company's Youth Theatre production of Disney's HSM2 take place at St. Joseph High School, 22 Maplewood Avenue, Pittsfield . Performance times are: Wednesdays at 7 pm, Thursdays at 2 pm & 7 pm, Fridays at 7 pm, Saturdays at 2pm & 7 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. General admission tickets are $15-adults, $10-students. Group discounts are available. For tickets visit www.barringtonstageco.org, call (413) 236-8888, or purchase in person at 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA.
For more information on the award-winning BSC Education Program contact Education Director Cynthia Quinones at 413-499-5446 x114.