I have to admit I was pretty excited, and I don’t get excited very often.
Local-boy-done-good Marc Shaiman and partner Scott Whittman are the team behind what may be the greatest musical of the millennium, Hairspray. Okay, so the millennium is only ten years old, but considering some of the instant classics that Broadway has produced in that span (Wicked, Jersey Boys, and Spring Awakening in particular), it’s still quite an accomplishment. At the risk of fawning, Shaiman is my musical hero, a composer with all the sophistication and versatility I could ever hope for myself.
So when the Paper Mill Playhouse called me and asked if I would be Musical Director for their upcoming production of Hairspray, I immediately went to work rearranging my already full schedule. I had hoped to work on this piece for a long time and have always loved working at the Paper Mill (Hairspray was my sixth show at the theater, first as Musical Director). Upon hearing the cast read the script at the first rehearsal, I knew I was in for a special couple of months.
The cast featured Broadway stars such as Chris Sieber and Lee Roy Reams, and several cast members from the Broadway and tour productions of Hairspray. The director and choreographer both worked closely with the original Broadway director and choreographer, and set about recreating the original production for the Paper Mill stage. The result was pure theater brilliance.
Most exciting to me was the inclusion of former Paper Mill Summer Conservatory students Christine Danielson and Constantine Rousouli as the young leads in the production. Ms. Danielson and Mr. Rousouli were both students when I started working for the Conservatory back in 2006. In fact, I remember vividly the day she was hired to understudy the lead role in the Hairspray national tour.
I am not trying to write a review for the performance, so I will keep this paragraph brief. Hairspray is an inspired work of musical theater which deals with the issue of racial segregation in the 1960s. The heroes in the musical are overweight, underestimated, racial minorities, outcasts, or all of the above. It uses mostly high-energy period music to keep the show moving along at a lightning pace without becoming a piece of bubble gum. It is concise, emotional, well-conceived, and fun.
We closed on Sunday, October 24th, after a very successful run (check out http://www.nj.com/entertainment/arts/index.ssf/2010/09/hairspray_review_triumphant_op.htmlfor an uncharacteristically rave review from the Star Ledger). One of the producers of the original production was at the final show, and I overheard her tell several cast members that after Barack Obama was elected President, the producers felt like they had been a part of something great - now she was thinking maybe it was time for a revival. I won’t offer my opinion on that paraphrased statement, except to say that I thought it was pretty fascinating.
We had visits from Jack O’Brien and Jerry Mitchell, the director and choreographer from the Broadway production. Other Broadway stars and local luminaries also made appearance at the Paper Mill over the five-week run, but none for me were quite as exciting as composers Shaiman and Whittman. As it turns out, Mr. Shaiman and I had the same piano teacher (Hi, Greg!). He was extremely complimentary, very personable, and a total gentleman. It is not an exaggeration to say that meeting him was one of the greatest moments of my life. I didn’t tell him that, of course – I was too busy being cool. But maybe I should have.
So now the show has closed, and it is back to my daily routine (which I love, by the way). I had a blast doing the show and was proud to be a part of such a unique and exciting performance. Most importantly, I feel that the experience has reminded me why I love working in musical theater and why, every once in a while, theater has the ability to excite, energize, move, motivate, or even change people. It’s rare, but it can happen.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not an employee of the Paper Mill Playhouse nor do I represent their opinions or interests in any way. I just thought you might be interested in some of the experiences I had working on this fantastic show. Please feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you saw the show and would like to contribute your own thoughts and/or opinions.
Joe Elefante has traveled 4 continents as a pianist, saxophonist, vocalist, composer, arranger, and bandleader. He has musically directed, conducted or played countless musical theater productions, including several at the Paper Mill Playhouse and Jersey Boys on Broadway and National Tour. Joe founded the Joe Elefante Big Band in 2001, which was the house band at Cecil's Jazz Club for three years, and was featured on ABC's Nightline and in The Wall Street Journal. Currently, Joe is a freelance composer/arranger/ performer, is very active as a school clinician and is Artistic Director of Elefante Music & School for the Performing Arts.
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