Our Buzz Extra writer, Alicia Hansen had the exciting opportunity to interview Michael Horsely, the musical director of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. As part of our Broadway Buzz program, Alicia 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.
Michael Horsely, the musical director of the 2014-2015 KeyBank Broadway Series holiday season offering Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, loved music even as a child. Studying from a young age to become a concert pianist, it was directing a Gerswhin review early in his career that would bridge the way between classical music and musical theater. Mr. Horsely would craft his career to become a resident musical theater director and conductor, elevating his career to where he is today. Michael shares his thoughts about his involvement with the holiday classic coming to Cleveland this December.
What role did you play in the development of this holiday movie classic making its way to the stage?
For the past 22 years, I have served as the music supervisor at the St. Louis MUNY, where we produce seven shows in a summer. Years ago, when the producer at that time had a relationship with Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, Paramount gave permission to translate certain movies to the stage. White Christmas was the first of those movies. We developed the show there at the MUNY. The following year, that producer in St. Louis connected with a producer in New York who then produced another version of the show based on what we did at the MUNY. It would then continue to be redeveloped by several companies – because we didn’t tour the show like we do now. Eventually, a touring production was booked, and then it played two years on Broadway. Now it continues to tour. Since I’ve been with it from its conception, it’s great to still be a part of it.
Can you speak to the songs selected to be a part of the musical? How it feels to perform them, and what feedback do you receive from the audiences?
As one of our foremost American musical theater composers, Irving Berlin’s music sits perfectly with this American story during the time of war. It really rings true to the heart of the sentiment. The music is the basis of all of that. And they’re just great tunes! You can’t beat ‘em.
The reactions from the audiences are filled with gratitude, especially as music – as any art form – progressively changes. Today, there are new pieces being produced or older pieces being revived in musical theater, but White Christmas is one of those musicals that the audience just loves hearing again. As in a traditional type of music, a piece of art or anything that rings from your past, you have a reference of life. You have this wonderful way of feeling like “this is familiar” or “I really like this.” The audiences continually tell me how much they appreciate hearing these songs again because of that connection. That “warm and fuzzy feeling” provided by these songs is so easy to access. That access is key to helping some people – especially those in troubled times during the holidays – connect to their souls. It’s food for the heart and food for the soul.
Would you provide a glimpse into a “day in the life” of a musical director of a touring production?
During the rehearsal period, I steer the show musically in teaching all the music and ensuring the style remains in in tact. I make sure it all works together with the choreography, and that the tempo of the piece continues to tell the story musically.
Once the show is on tour, there are certain things to do in each city. For example: In Cleveland the Tuesday morning of the opening, I have a four-hour orchestra rehearsal to review the music with the local musicians hired by a local contractor. I teach them the show that day and we open that night. It’s intense. Throughout the week, we will rehearse the understudies so they can be ready to go on if needed. We have to remember the understudies need the stage time as well to make sure they are comfortable to go on – sometimes at a moment’s notice.
As for those moments right before a performance, it depends on the needs of the day. If there are no concerns, I’m there 45 minutes before the opening number – the “downbeat,” as we call it. But, if there are certain needs, I arrive earlier. Another example: last night, one of the members of our quintet was swung out to watch the show, so I had a special rehearsal for that person replacing the person who stepped out.
Being flexible is the foundation. That’s why it’s called live theater. Even during the performance you never know what’s going to happen. It’s life. Things happen. They forget lines. Or they jump. As a conductor in the pit, you continually have to stay present with the show so that if things do happen, you’re ready to take action.
What challenges arise with touring, as a person, or as a part of the show?
As far as touring, there are so many aspects to the job, so there’s always something that can happen. One example is if something occurs to one of the musicians in the pit, there’s the matter of addressing that — working with the contractor to make sure a replacement is found and making sure the show stays in tact. Or when an actor gets sick – it’s something you deal with, especially during cold and flu season. Also, on the personal side, I feel it’s my responsibility to stay as fit and healthy as possible in order to do my job to my best.
What makes this production of White Christmas so exciting to be a part of as you tour the country?
The tradition of the story makes this production so special – that heartfelt message that is sent out to all. When you’re doing this eight times a week for eight different audiences, you’re sending that message out to each audience member to receive. To me, that’s the reason why I do what I do. I’m the vortex of that energy that is being produced, bringing together the orchestra to the stage, then it translates out to the audience. It’s a circle of energy that becomes synergistic within that two and a half hour period. It just leaves you with a very uplifting result. In this particular tour, I feel the message of communication, love and what that Christmas joy really is. I can feel it, I can see it and that makes the experience incredibly special.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas comes to Cleveland December 2-14 at the State Theatre at PlayhouseSquare. For more information, please visit the show’s page on the PlayhouseSquare 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 an event and marketing professional, a yoga teacher and proud Cleveland arts supporter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.