By Alicia Hansen
As part of our Broadway Buzz program, Buzz Extra writer Alicia Hansen will take you behind the scenes of each KeyBank Broadway Series show and interview a member of the show’s cast, crew or creative team. As the national tour of The King and I makes its fifth stop when it lands in Cleveland, Alicia spoke with Gerald Steichen. Mr. Steichen serves as the Music Conductor of the touring production and was enthralled to share details about his involvement in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s timeless musical.
Looking at your list of conducting credits, I see an incredible offering of musicals, operettas and opera. How does having experience in so many genres influence your conducting of The King and I?
For me, the spice of life is variety. My college degrees are actually in accompanying, so my favorite thing is to actually be the person who is the heartbeat of the show, as well as be the internal drama of the show.
I think The King and I is really Rodgers and Hammerstein’s opera. It is the most classical of all their scores. For example, the songs “Something Wonderful” and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” are absolutely arias. The arch of the show is really carried through the music, so shaping the show over the three hours really is like shaping an opera. Yes, the scene works is spectacular, but, dramatically, the show is really carried forward through the score. So, my experience as an opera conductor absolutely informs how I conduct the piece and what I think it needs dramatically. I think you’ll hear that in the show.
While first performed in the 1950s, The King and I is still an American musical theater classic in the 21st century. How have you seen it speak and connect to audiences of today?
It is a real classic piece and is so timely with so many moments of commentary. For example, there’s a moment where Anna asks a group of the women if they think that women are more lowly than men. When the women all agree, Anna absolutely disagrees, saying, “I think women are as absolutely as important, as intelligent and as wise as men are.” That’s been stopping the show every night.
Another example: The 1860s were a difficult time, all about colonization in the world. The French had just taken over Cambodia, the British are spreading their wings all over and the Portuguese were still very strong. With that, the King says at one point in the show, “there are times where I want to build a fence all the way around Siam and there are other days when I want to let the entire rest of the world in.” That line stops the show every night too. So, it’s actually very timely politically.
Would you provide a glimpse into a “day in the life” of a musical director of this touring production?
It’s pretty miraculous how shows travel. When we move to a new stop, we pull into town with our 8 trucks of sets, costumes, stage managers, company managers and more. There are 80 of us who travel with the show. It’s kind of an army! Then, more than 100 local union workers help set up the show including setting up the set, rigging of the stage and installing lighting equipment.
We travel with only four musicians and pick up 13 locals musicians in every city. When we arrive, we add those 13 local musicians to our four regulars and perform one rehearsal. We send the local musicians the music weeks before so that they can learn their part, but we just have one rehearsal to put it all together. Then the night of that first rehearsal, we have our first official performance.
Another big part of my job is to make sure our understudies are ready to go on at any point. Every person on stage you see in the chorus is also understudying two roles. Most of our understudies have already been on because we have been out on tour now almost 5 months. Cleveland will only be our fifth city on our tour!
What challenges arise for you with touring, as a person, or as a part of the show?
One of the challenges of being on the road is staying on top of daily life. You don’t really have a routine. When you’re at home, you get up, you go to the gym, you go to work and so on. When you’re on the road, it’s like 1) find a gym, 2) join that gym… and silly things like paying bills, staying on top of emails or connecting with family – all of that is more onerous when you’re on the road because you just don’t have a routine. It’s hard to establish a routine when you’re on the road every two to three weeks to a completely new home and city. All of that takes a little more time. It’s fun! But it’s a little more challenging.
What makes this production of The King and I so special?
This production of The King and I is so spectacular and is so beautiful. The physical production is just stunning. The cast is just spectacular and the new orchestrations are just really beautiful. They have the spirit of the original Robert Russell Bennett arrangements, so you’re really in for a treat. Everyone who comes to the show is blown away, not only by the actors, but by the whole of the show itself.
To me, the level of the cast is what really sets this production apart. Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly, who play the King and Anna, are so present in the roles. Every night, they are 2000% there. Every member of the cast put their whole hearts into it every night. The dancers are also out there fully every performance. You can feel all that in the company and you can feel the whole audience taking the full journey of the show with them.
The King and I runs February 7 – 26, 2017 in the Connor Palace at Playhouse Square. For more information, please visit the show’s page on the Playhouse Square website.
Alicia Hansen is the writer behind Poise in Parma, a healthy balance blog for Clevelanders. A graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College’s theatre program, Alicia is a local yoga teacher, event professional, marketer and proud Northeast Ohio arts supporter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.