I am sometimes asked: how do performers in a long-running production stave off boredom? They do the same thing night after night for months and, in the case of Cats or Phantom, sometimes for years. Apart from the value of a steady paycheck, how can they stay engaged? I tell laypeople that performers can stay engaged because each performance is not, in fact, the same. This basic truth came back to me the other evening when I spoke with Paul Staroba, the associate conductor of My Fair Lady.
“There are 29 instrumentalists,” Staroba told me, “plus the conductor. So 30 people in the pit. After previews and the opening last year, there have been substitute players going in an out. So of the 400-plus performances we’ve done, it would be fascinating to see just how many times the orchestra personnel have been consistent. We have some of the best musicians in New York, so each performance is of a high quality. But a different mixture of people can mean a slightly different performance.”
How does the ebb and flow of players affect the conducting? “You always have to be on your toes,” said Staroba, who grew up in northern California and studied piano performance at the University of the Pacific. “Because in addition to shifts in the orchestra there might also be something slightly different on the stage – an actor going on in a new role. My Fair Lady has so many moving parts, and you need to keep up.”
Contrast this complexity with the set-up on A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder, the Tony-winning musical on which Staroba also worked. “If the regular bass player was out on that show,” he observed, “you felt the ramifications throughout the performance, because there were only a dozen musicians. If a second violinist is out on My Fair Lady, you don’t feel it as much.” Which has nothing to do with the quality of the musicians. “One of the advantages,” Staroba said, “of playing nightly with such talented people is that you can focus a little more on the actors on the stage. They’re the ones with their pants down, so to speak. The musicians are mostly invisible, in the pit. My primary job is to keep everybody working together.”
Staroba has had a regular position with My Fair Lady from the beginning of rehearsals, assisting Ted Sperling, the production’s music director. “How often I conduct,” Staroba said, “has a lot to do with Ted’s schedule. He has a very busy career. I’m very fortunate to be able to work with him.”
Staroba said he’s also lucky to have been able to start working in the professional theater almost as soon as he moved to New York out of college. “I spent my first 12 to 15 months playing the piano for auditions.” He then got a job with the off-Broadway incarnation of the musical Grey Gardens. “I was terrible at first. The conductor sat me down and said, ‘If you want to do this profession, you have to go home and work on a lot of things.’ It was a huge wake-up call.”
My Fair Lady marks Staroba’s first association with the Broadway revival of a classic musical. Working on such a project, he said, has meant not only adjusting to such a large orchestra but also delving into Golden Age orchestrations.
“The brilliance of this score and these orchestrators,” he explained, “is that they knew not to overload the show with tricks. A lot of the orchestration is simple and not trying to be ‘interesting.’ It’s supporting the action, not taking away from it. In the current climate of orchestrating in the theater a lot of people will put in the kitchen sink in every moment. I’ve done shows where I’m playing keyboard and the sound of 20 instruments is coming out of it. It can be too much. My Fair Lady teaches us about the beauty of economy.”
I asked Staroba for a favorite moment in the score. He mentioned “I Could Have Danced All Night.” “After the downbeat of every bar of the bridge, the strings have a cascading eighth-note pizzicato figure. It’s hard to hear in the Beaumont but you can definitely hear it on the cast album. It’s one of my favorite things because it’s such a beautiful surprise.”
Beginning this weekend, Staroba will be taking a break from My Fair Lady, until mid-June. He will be at Hartford Stage, acting as the Assistant Music Director of the new musical The Flamingo Kid, based on the 1984 movie starring Matt Dillon. “It will be a reunion of sorts,” Staroba said. “Scott Frankel is the composer, as he was on Grey Gardens. Robert L. Freedman did the book and lyrics, which he did on Gentleman’s Guide. Darko Tresnjak is directing – also from Gentleman’s Guide. And Tom Murray is the Music Director, and I worked with him on the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music.”
Staroba said he’s excited to work on a new musical, but that he also looks forward to returning to My Fair Lady. “The size and quality of this show,” he said, “means that you are constantly seeing new things. The learning curve never ends.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com