I'm of the old school, having worked early on with Milton Rosenstock and Don Pippin and a few of Broadway's Old Guard. Ideally, the Musical Director serves as the composer's delegated representative in the artistic process, whether or not the composer is alive. The best musical directors are part musician, part director, part actor (delivering both spontaneity and consistency, like any good performer.) Strong, articulate, collaborative musical direction can make the difference between a proficient show and an exciting one. Fortunately, my experiences have shown that a few producers and directors still agree.

Recently, the position of Musical Director has been diminished by layers of bureaucracy: shows have a Musical Supervisor, a Musical Director, a Conductor, multiple assistants, etc., while the Orchestra Contractor has assumed far greater powers (and billing.) In many instances, the conductor has been reduced to what I call the Local 1 Electrician role – make sure we've got juice, turn it on at 8:05, turn it off at 10:40, and speak when you're spoken to. Meanwhile, the number of actual pit players has decreased by a half or more. I strongly advocate eliminating this staff inflation (staff infection, if you will) – and using the money to restore more players to the decimated pits.
"Why did I do it – what it get me?" Well, I wouldn't trade age and experience for happiness or all the tea in China.
My career as a musical director started at age eleven at Fiske Elementary School in Lexington, Massachusetts (The Wizard Of Oz – figures! – I transcribed the movie score off the LP by ear). This auspicious debut took me to Broadway, to major theatres around the country, and to internationally acclaimed off-Broadway productions.


CAMELOT (1994-5) starred Robert Goulet as King Arthur, and he deserved a better production of this traditionally difficult piece. Contrary to some critics' opinions, I thought his acting was first-rate, effortless, natural, and admirably economical (in a role frequently delivered as a pompous self-righteous hero, rather than the idealist confronting the limitations of human nature). Goulet has some musical phrasing idiosyncrasies, but who was going to step up and give him advice on his songs? (Stars are frequently surrounded by sycophantic cheers, bad advice, or no advice, distrust in all of which leads many stars to stop taking advice at all).  With some outstanding exceptions, the production featured one of the less experienced ensembles ever to achieve per diem, in a show that depends more than most on top-drawer legit acting skills throughout (here's one show I wouldn't mind seeing the Brits do – instead of lecturing us on Oklahoma!). This was a contentious cast that would call Equity if the backstage payphone was three feet from the drinking fountain in whatever Masonic Temple we played (the company manager and the Equity office fortunately had great senses of humor). The first time I conducted, I was trembling, but Goulet gave me a great handshake afterwards, and told me Judy Garland stories that night. I thought he was swell.

The Angel City Four
(Bob Walton, center, Monica Mancini, 2nd from right)
CITY OF ANGELS (1991-2): I was Associate Conductor of the West Coast production, an almost identical recreation of the New York show, in which I had subbed as keyboardist. James Naughton and Randy Graff repeated their roles under Michael Blakemore's brilliant direction (with a magnificent Stephen Bogardus assuming Gregg Edelman's role); Walter Painter repeated his under-rated musical staging, and the prize for me was assisting Manhattan-Transfer-arranger Yaron Gershovsky as he built a new Angel City 4 (the quartet).
Leslie Denniston and Randy Graff
in the LA production of City Of Angels
For a year and a half, I was custodian of the quartet, and though I loathe company warm-ups, I loved every minute of warm-up with those four superior, endlessly conscientious talents (including Monica Mancini, whose father took me into a corner once at his house and asked me if, as a Broadway aficianado, I thought he should do a Broadway show of Victor/Victoria – I told him I thought he should go for it! Sadly, he did not live to oversee the finished product). The West Coast City Of Angels had problems though; the supporting cast was not consistently up to the sky-high level of their New York counterparts, and the orchestra was not up to the New York pit, player for player, diminishing the show's top asset. LA's Shubert Theatre (since razed) was a wretched barn, a hostile, cold environment for an intricate and delicate Swiss watch like City Of Angels; and LA audiences are not the liveliest under the best of conditions. We lasted five months (they had projected a year). The subsequent tour was a grave disappointment to those of us who loved the original show:  its draconian downsizing did little to sell the country on this unusual Best-Musical Tony-winner. The set was stripped down to canvas flats and carts (with the tell-tale rippling and wiggling of the canvas frames as each piece lumbered across the stage); worst of all, that glorious band was decimated to Vegas-size – for a show whose primary Broadway assets included its endlessly ingenious, unfolding sets and its grab-you-by-the-throat sensational band. But I loved doing this show, on the keyboards and on the podium when I substituted for conductor Vinnie Fanuele. As usual, I had a swell time with the star, Barry Williams, who became a terrific friend and was swell in the part, too. In my future memoirs, I'll tell you about David Soul, who almost played the part, and eventually got great reviews in the London Mack & Mabel.

Ruth Gottschall, Joel Grey,
Sharon Lawrence
CABARET (1987-1989) taught me a critical lesson in how great shows and potentially exciting productions can go awry. I had the priceless opportunity to work with the original Dream Team: Hal Prince, Don Pippin, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Joe Masteroff, Joel Grey, Ron Field. I vividly remember Hal Prince reassuring a pessimistic cast at one point: "No one knows this piece better than we do!" – which may have been part of the problem, since they more or less created a carbon of the now-dated and problematic 1966 sensation. Ironically, Ron Field, whose terror-on-wheels reputation was drummed into us in advance by his dance captain, was amiable and articulate, at least in our conversations. He'd take me aside and confide what he was really thinking (a Broadway rarity) and vice versa. I remember one great conversation, in which I told him that I had been sternly advised to keep my trap shut when working on Broadway, and how difficult and frustrating that could be when I felt I had a valuable contribution. "No, don't keep your trap shut," he counter-advised – "someday someone like me will say, 'ah, there's a smart one.'" When the new "Money" song was running too long out of town, Ron Field and I sat alone on the stage one afternoon, and under his direction, I fixed the dance arrangement with a few simple cuts and segués, without copying costs, reorchestration, or packets to NY, and it went in that night in San Francisco to his relief (others read me the riot act for shortcutting the ritual bureaucracy, despite the huge savings and the happy choreographer). The original 1966 Don Walker orchestration did not stand up well in 1987; the producers weren't happy with the way the title song was landing, and I put a bug in various ears that a re-orchestration might do the trick. But it wasn't until I filtered the suggestion through the actress that a new orchestration appeared, which made the leading lady, and everyone else, very happy (for better or worse, I don't think anyone remembered I had suggested it all along... I was slowly learning the art of backroom diplomacy).
The cast was brutalized by an unusually maniacal, rehearsal-addicted dance captain for eight months before Broadway, nine months on Broadway, and for ten months after Broadway (dance brush-ups were held the day before we closed in New York – you know the type). The dance captain even made a point of visiting each dressing room, before we closed in New York, to articulate to each dancer why she was blackballing them from the subsequent tour (I'm sure she thought she was being helpful). Eventually, at understudy rehearsals out on the road, no one was left who had attended Hal Prince's original rehearsals but me; but of course even the most self-effacing proffer of crucial information had me tarred and feathered (I was in my 20's and still had much to learn about Broadway politics). A certain overcompensating female stage manager, new to the show, said to a friend of mine (after explicitly asking me for information): "My, doesn't Fred Barton have delusions of grandeur!" I instructed my friend: "Tell (name deleted) I don't have delusions of grandeur – she just doesn't know the real thing when she sees it!" (Sometimes you just have to.) I had my best and worst conducting experiences on this one – the third-rate New York pit orchestra played as lethargically as they had since opening night, as utterly blind to my baton as they were deaf to pitch; but the far superior San Francisco orchestra sat bolt upright, played like a son-of-a-bitch, and sent me surreptitious notes of relief and congratulations.

ZORBA (1986) marked my major conducting debut, at the Chicago Opera House, with Anthony Quinn and Lila Kedrova in the lead roles. I discovered a priceless secret of conductors, which they keep tight to the vest: the orchestra will play it anyway, so you might as well relax and have a ball. Anthony Quinn was my first star, the subject of endless warnings and dire predictions before I met him. The result you can guess: he thought I was smart, I thought he was smart, he liked me, I liked him, and he made me his first vocal coach to survive three nights; I spent eight months giving him his nightly vocal warm-up and developing a strange, completely non-verbal quasi-friendship of some kind. He signed a glossy to me, "To Fred Barton. Without you – no voice. Anthony Quinn" – and gave me a piece of his artwork, signed, "To Fred – What would I have done without you?" I made a lifelong friend on this show in Leila Martin, who understudied Lila Kedrova. I assisted Al Cavaliere, who gracefully accomodated my inexperience and gave me polish, technical advice, diplomatic tips, and was generally a prince to whom (Up There) I remain forever grateful. Launching my career as a feather-ruffler, I pointed out in the first two days of rehearsal that they had Quinn singing in Herschel Bernardi's keys, at least a third too high for Quinn's basso profundo (which partly explained the reviews he got musically on Broadway). Although choreographer Graciela Daniele took me to task for meddling in affairs above my 25-year-old comprehension, all the keys were lowered immediately. Add a little vocal coaching, and one other little orchestration adjustment I suggested to help keep him on pitch, and Quinn actually got a good vocal review from the Times on our last stop at Westbury Music Fair. I remember suggesting to director Joel Grey a major plot clarification in the staging which had struck me when I first saw the show under its previous director. The good news is that Grey changed the staging and the plot was clarified (I suggested a second knife – see my future memoirs). The bad news is that this episode encouraged me to think such presumptuous suggestions were welcome from Broadway associate conductors, which of course ain't true. Note to directors: listen to that young guy at the piano – you just never know. Note to young guys at the piano: go ahead, say something. You just never know.

REGIONAL THEATRE (large orchestra)
Donna Marie Asbury, Sebastian LeCause
in West Wide Story

AUSTIN MUSICAL THEATRE Everybody knows a kook or two who say they'll start a theatre somewhere, someday. My kooks were different in only one respect – they did it, in a major city, on a grand scale, with fabulous results and phenomenal success. Directors/choreographers/producers Scott Thompson and Richard Byron built Austin Musical Theatre from the ground up, from a pay telephone and a Yellow Pages full of millionaires. It was my privilege to pack my bags and build their music department from 16 less-experienced players to a lean, mean, musical theatre machine of 18 of the best pit musicians I've ever worked with (contracted by Mike Mordecai). AMT's crowning glory was their epic production of The Music Man, starring Larry Gatlin; as Doug Besterman was doing simultaneously on the Broadway revival, I reorchestrated the entire score from the very tame Don Walker originals (having already become a Don Walker skeptic from my work on the Broadway revivals of Zorba and Cabaret). Unlike the Broadway revival, though, I had a magnificent full string section (which used to be considered part of a Broadway ticket price). With a cast of 87 in an enormous hall, the orchestra effort was an enormous personal and critical triumph, as was the entire production for all involved (for you Variety wags, it earned over three quarters of a million in 10 days).

Other work at AMT includes that rarest of items, a well-acted (as well as danced and sung) Chorus Line; last-minute show-doctoring on Best Little Whorehouse In Texas (Summer 1999); musical direction and reorchestration of Fiddler On The Roof (the first production of that I ever liked, youthful, passionate, and alive – with Lorraine Serabian being typically fabulous in her first rendition of Golde); musical direction of Gypsy (with Pamela Myers in her first rendition of Madame Rose – if only another hundred Pamelas would get off of the train and come up through the ground); musical direction of Annie (the first time I ever liked that one too, with the irrepressible Ruth Williamson as Miss Hannigan – and yours truly as a last-minute replacement for Bert Healy, conducting the radio show from the stage – and I was very good, too...); musical direction of West Side Story (a show I love except whenever I see it; the inevitably inexperienced casts never pull it off the way that first inexperienced cast apparently did, and this production lacked the ballet which is the very heart and theme of the play); and musical direction and substantial rescoring of Peter Pan (AMT's maiden effort, far superior to the B- revival with Cathy Rigby, swell as she is – Kristi Lynes and Jonathan Freeman were our world-class principals).
Between Peter Pan, Annie, Gypsy, Fiddler, and Music Man, you might wonder where they got the kids. Well, this was a do-it-yourself shop – Austin Musical Theatre took an old storefront, gutted it, built fully-appointed studios, and ran its own Academy with over 200 children from 6-18 flooding the place seven days a week, soaking up dance steps, songs, scenes, and all things musical theatre with terrifying enthusiasm and Texas cheerleader intensity. You've never seen anything like it.

Damon Kirsche, LuAnn Aronson and Sheila Smith
in My Fair Lady
Fall 2002 saw a fine My Fair Lady, starring the vastly talented Luann Aronson, with solid gold performances from Damon Kirsche, the ultimate Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and the venerable Sheila Smith as Mrs. Higgins. Oklahoma! won a slew of the local theatre awards (including a nod to me as Best Musical Director); Man Of La Mancha, starring Kevin Grey, Pamela Isaacs, and Ken Page, played inspirationally just after the September 11, 2001 catastrophe; The Sound Of Music, starring Lauren Hathaway and Mark Jacoby, swept the local theatre awards (another nod to me); and June, 2002's Sweet Charity, starring the spectacular Leslie Stevens, was truly the crowning jewel in AMT's history.

Tragically, Austin Musical Theatre closed its doors in Fall, 2003, after winning more awards and playing to more audiences than any other arts organization in the city over its distinguished run. Between the owners of the glorious Paramount Theatre, the computer-biz millionaires who served on the AMT Board of Directors, and the increasingly complacent audiences, the community decided an ambitious and top-flight musical theatre company was a dispensible item in the city's post-9/11 arts scene (the Opera and Symphony hang in the balance as well, as is the case in many cities of our generation). But we went out with a bang – a million-dollar production of The Wizard Of Oz (back to my roots!), complete with flying witches, monkeys, and houses, fiery explosions and floating bubbles, dozens of Munchkins, and stand-out performances in the leading and supporting roles – and of course my terrific corps of eighteen pit musicians, the envy of any on Broadway, I kid you not. How I'll miss them.

Chris Manos of Theatre-Of-The-Stars in Atlanta mounted a first-rate production of The Will Rogers Follies, with virtually everyone in the cast reprising their Broadway or National Tour spots, including local belle turned diva millionairess, Marla Maples Trump, as Ziegfeld's Favorite. The orchestra in Atlanta is first-rate and I had the full-strength orchestration, and it doesn't get any better than full-strength Billy Byers/Cy Coleman. The show played its sister theatre, the Music Fair in Dallas, Texas, prior to Atlanta's Fox. I loved every minute.

In the fifth grade, my class was taken to The North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, MA, where I learned that Shakespeare doesn't suffer in the round, but musicals (frequently) do. Up at North Shore, we turned out extraordinary productions of two difficult-to-adapt shows: City Of Angels (1993) and Evita (1994). The prevailing minimalist view of musical direction (the shut-up-and-play thing) crashed headlong into my activist version (i.e. my if-there-'s-anything-I-can-do-to-help-the-show-I'd-be-a-criminal-not-to-bring-it-up thing – I'm from the Milton-Rosenstock-Stanley-Lebowsky-Don-Pippin-Jack-Lee tradition). But I blithely re-orchestrated my way through both formidable scores for their tireless 14 musicians, with particular urgency when I discovered that MTI had sent the wrong EVITA orchestration (days before opening, it took a last-minute charter plane to get us the proper tour reduction, which itself needed heavy doctoring).... since then, I've seen a show at North Shore with the orchestration played straight out of the box, without reduction, full of glaring holes throughout. Let me know when I can be helpful again, boys – I'd be a criminal not to bring it up...

REGIONAL THEATRE (small orchestra)

Cy Coleman called me in 2003 to music-direct and play a role in Lawyers, Lovers & Lunatics, which he and director-choreographer Pat Birch were preparing for a regional tour.  The show played New Jersey's Forum Theatre, Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse, and Palm Beach's Royal Palm, with Michael McGrath, Barbara Walsh, and Susan Mansur recreating the roles they had played in previous productions (most recently at the York Theatre under the title Exactly Like You). As in Coleman's I Love My Wife, the four-piece band was built both into the set and the cast – I even got up and shook a leg in my opening number and a duet with the smashing Susan Mansur.


CANADA DRY (1982, 1984): Doing Industrial shows is like pimping your favorite sister to a billionaire. Canada Dry hired Forbidden Broadway's Gerard Alessandrini and me to create the 1982 version. They're basically college shows for a multi-zillion-dollar company. Drop the name of the Board Chairman in a lyric and they fall out. The Canada Dry spectaculars had smallish bands, but they were an invaluable lesson in fast arranging and orchestrating and conducting to order. On the second one in 1984, I collaborated with a novice lyricist who had the inestimable advantage of being the producer's son-in-law: Marc Cohn (who later wrote "Walking In Memphis"). Who knew?


See the Forbidden Broadway page on this site. Rubbing two sticks together and getting a nuclear explosion would be slightly less remarkable than what occurred in the winter of 1981, when Gerard Alessandrini and Nora Mae Lyng asked me to play their two-night club act at Palsson's, an Upper West Side former-jazz-club-turned-piano-bar. I took a sheaf of leadsheets and Broadway-ized them – simulating the original Broadway arrangements and rendering them with the 25-piece-orchestra fury with which I had played showtunes since I was eleven. Original director Michael Chapman filled out the cast with Bill Carmichael and Wendee Winters (succeeded by Chloe Webb), and somehow word got around the backstages of the Broadway shows we parodied, and the casts started to show up. Harold Prince was the catalyst for the explosion – he told us he recognized the show as the love-letter to Broadway that it was – and he told his friends. The rest, as some figure lost to history once said, is history. We got national publicity, television appearances a-go-go, appeared at every benefit, and were easily the hottest show in town for several years, with a succession of Drama Desk Awards. I became de facto associate director for the show, involved in the casting and training of a succession of Forbidden Broadway discoveries (Toni DiBuono, Karen Murphy, Michael McGrath, Gregg Edelman among them, as well as my piano successors Philip Fortenberry and Brad Ellis). I trained the Boston company (which ran for many years) and the D.C. company (which didn't); assembled the hastily-recorded original album; and performed my various duties for Forbidden Broadway 1984, Forbidden Broadway 1985, and Forbidden Broadway 1986 – when I finally realized I'd better do real Broadway than its parody. But what a time it was. The show continues to run, 23 years after that first two-night club act engagement.

Like Forbidden BroadwayWhoop-Dee-Doo! was another Drama-Desk-Award winner that started as "let's put on a show." Director Phillip George brought me in to pull together the score of this shoestring Gay Follies, centered around Howard Crabtree's insanely inventive costumes. The songs, largely by Dick Gallagher and Mark Waldrop, were handed to me as scraps of scrawled leadsheets, and I provided my usual pseudo-orchestral piano treatment, and the vocal arrangements and incidental music (now administered by Samuel French; I notice one or two songs with my piano arrangements are being republished in showtune songbook collections to this day). I'll never forget staying up all night with the entire cast, sewing huge crazy costumes a night or two before we opened – it was that sort of let's-put-on-a-show show. And once again, a miracle occurred – a few people saw it, told a few people, and there were lines down the block, with a cover story all over TheaterWeek magaine and a CD recorded by RCA. Unfortunately, the show closed far earlier than its quality and public reaction merited (there was much discussion about how and to whom the show was marketed – or not). The exact same concept and routine of the show was later repackaged and more successfully marketed under the title When Pigs Fly.

Bill Solly's tribute to backstage musicals was a Dames At Sea knock-off (but set in the Forties); it had run in Los Angeles and generated a cast album (with the very fine Tamara Long). I created new vocal and piano arrangements for the New York production, which featured outstanding performances by Bob Amaral, Paige O'Hara, Suzanne Dawson, Maris Clement, Joe Barrett, and the late Mark Fotopoulos.


THEATRE-BY-THE-SEA (1977-1981)
I owe all of the above to Tommy Brent, who hired an eighteen-year-old-second-assistant-pianist, then took a huge chance and entrusted his historic 50-year-old theatre to a nineteen-year-old novice musical-director. Every conductor secretly fears that his first downbeat will result in the sounds of the last scene in The Music Man. I certainly did, and stayed up all night before my first orchestra rehearsal for The Sound Of Music, tearing the orchestration to shreds and putting it back together in a terrified attempt to avoid being found out a fraud. I gave the downbeat with my eyes tight shut, and damn! THE SOUND OF MUSIC! I learned about the divas, I learned how to do the chorus (musically, that is), I picked apart those decades-old orchestrations and learned how they worked, and I learned how to win over musicians and make them care as much as I did. Tommy Brent allowed me to increase his summer stock orchestra from five pieces to 12-14 over my three seasons as conductor; we had almost the full complement for an enviable Chicago (which, unlike the Broadway revival, featured all of Bob Fosse's original choreography), and a full big band on a hydraulic platform moving down upon the audience in Over Here! – this was no ordinary summer stock theatre. In ten days we mounted a completely realized production of On The Twentieth Century, with trains spinning around the stage and a 12-piece reduction of the orchestration; likewise an outstanding West Side Story with Jerome Robbins' original choreography. The musicians sold their souls for these productions, playing non-stop for three hours to cover all the missing parts (I will never forget my percussionist playing twenty instruments at once in West Side). "Better-than-Broadway" was the ethic, the mantra and the goal. Little did I know that I would someday work on Broadway, where one still needs a Better-than-Broadway ethic – not a happy irony. But I wouldn't have it any other way. My Theatre-by-the-Sea show list follows: Guys & Dolls, Mack & Mabel, My Fair Lady, The Robber Bridegroom, The Fantastiks, Shenandoah, The King And I, Pippin, The Sound Of Music, Man Of La Mancha, Chicago, Oklahoma!, Camelot, On The Twentieth Century, Grease, I Love My Wife, The Pirates of Penzance, Brigadoon, West Side Story, and Over Here!

Evans Haile took over management of the historic Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Mass. in the late 1990's, and brought me in to do two shows over two successive summers: An Evening of Gershwin, and The Will Rogers Follies. The Gershwin evening consisted of "Rhapsody In Blue," which Evans and I played in the two-piano transcription (standing ovations nightly), embedded in a revue of Gershwin songs starring Lee Roy Reams, Darcie Roberts, George Dvorsky, and others. For Will Rogers, facing the limitations of the Playhouse's five-man pit, I rescored the entire show for some New York and Boston musicians based on the sound of an old radio show of the period (Rogers, was, after all, a radio personality).