The Sound of the Community
- By gentleguide
- On Sat 31 mar 2018
The musical Ragtime opens April 6 at the Des Moines Community Playhouse. It tells the stories of people from three different cultures all attempting to make a home in New York City at the beginning of the last century, filled with tuneful songs in the diverse styles of those times. And the man who brings it all together for this production of Ragtime is the Playhouse’s longtime Musical Director, Brenton Brown.
Brown has been in charge of the music at the Playhouse for the last 13 years. Over that period he’s been the Musical Director for 45 shows, with productions and styles as varied as Fiddler on the Roof, Les Miserables, and Young Frankenstein. And yet, most patrons aren’t that familiar with him, as it is the rare show that actually lets him be visible to the audience. But the performers and the crew consider him a vital and necessary part of any musical presentation.
As Musical Director, Brown is there from the start. “The music director is part of the creative team that helps to make musicals come alive on stage,” he explains. “I have a lot of input into who is cast in roles during the audition process. I work with all the singers to teach them the music, recruit and contract the instrumentalists that play in the pit, rehearse the music with the instrumentalists, and then combine all of the elements together in preparation for opening night.”
Ragtime is a very complex show, with each of the three intertwined stories having their own musical “signature” which Brown has to be able to meld into one cohesive whole. And since he’s working with both the singers on stage and the orchestra accompanying them, he has to make sure that the production elements all combine properly.
“Ragtime is one of the most complicated shows I’ve worked on. There are specific demands required both in terms of musical style and in who can be cast in each of the roles. As a show that is set in the early 1900’s, music was very different then. The types of instruments used and the approach to singing is completely foreign to most who have grown up listening to the radio. We spend a lot of time during rehearsals getting people to get rid of habits they pick up from emulating current pop stars, and focus on the type of sound necessary for the show.”
And that would be hard enough to adjust to when working with just a few individual performers. But Brown is working with a cast of 50 on Ragtime, even more than most of his previous musicals over the years. “There are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to putting together a musical. One of my highest priorities is to make sure all of the volunteer performers feel valued and prepared.”
“I hate wasting time. I try to be efficient during rehearsals, making the most of every minute. I arrange the rehearsal schedule so that when people are present, they’re being used and are not sitting around while other things are happening. It takes a lot more effort and forethought on my part, but I feel respecting the volunteers who literally give up hundreds of hours to the Playhouse deserve that luxury.”
Make Them Hear You
While there are always variations for the particular needs of any specific show, there’s a general process that has to be done by Brown to put all the pieces together. “Usually, the first week or two of rehearsals is devoted only to learning the music. I start with the large ensemble numbers and work my way down to the individual soloists or small groups. It makes it much easier for the choreographer or stage director to teach dance and blocking if the actors are familiar with the music first. Once the choreographer and director have done their parts, I then come back into the picture and we all work side by side in completing the process and making everything show ready.”
That seems like a lot of work and coordination, and it is. But it’s still only half of Brown’s work on the show. He still has to make sure that the orchestra is contracted, rehearsed, and is just as “show ready” as everyone on stage. And in the case of Ragtime, that’s a pretty tall order... since when it debuted on Broadway, the opening night orchestra was comprised of over two dozen musicians!
“The original production had a very large orchestra,” explains Brown. “At the Playhouse, we do not have the luxury of an orchestra pit. Most of the time for musicals, the cast is so large that the stage is extended towards the seats to allow for more acting space. This means the instrumentalists are placed behind the stage and are amplified through the auditorium speakers with the use of microphones. This being the case, there is not room for the same amount of players as the original show used. We utilize a system where live players are supplemented with synthesized accompaniment to make the show sound full.”
Wheels of a Dream
Ragtime is about a group of disparate people from different social, ethnic, and cultural classes, and how they are all adjusting to the changing America in the early 1900’s. They come together and interact in many different ways, all hoping to find their place in this new world. Some are successful, some are not, but all are changed by the experience.
Brown hopes that all who come to the Playhouse, whether as patrons or volunteers, are changed by their experiences there. “The Playhouse is a true asset to the community,” Brown believes. “Most people know it as an entertainment venue, and that is true. I along with the rest of the volunteers and staff at the Playhouse work tirelessly to produce shows with excellent production values. What most people may not think about is the true value of community theatre and the part of the mission that goes on behind the scenes.”
“The Playhouse brings together people from all walks of life and all ages, and allows them to collaborate on created performances together. This instills a work ethic in young performers. It allows more experienced actors in our community to help shape the future of people new to the craft. It brings stories to light that can and will shape dialogue in our communities.”
“The Playhouse is more than just shows. It is a marketplace of thought and understanding. It is a great example and model of how we should engage one another and treat one another with respect. When patrons buy a ticket to a show, they are supporting so much more than just a utility bill or the price of a costume.”
“Come see a show, and be a part of changing the culture of our community.”
Ragtime is presented by the Des Moines Playhouse from April 6 through 29. Tickets are available at the Playhouse Box Office at 831 42nd Street, by calling 515-277-6261, or through the DM Playhouse website.
Ragtime photos by Steve Gibbons, Brenton Brown photos by Lee Ann Bakros, all courtesy of the Des Moines Playhouse.