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Photo: Aliviah Jones

Thriving in Chaos: Music Director Walter “Bobby” McCoy

As we sat over a cup of coffee, 25-year-old Walter “Bobby” McCoy spoke to me in a way only someone who has been in the theatre world for 10 years can: vividly and with gusto. The Helen Hayes Award-winning music director’s smile reached up to his eyes with every story he shared with me about his experiences. McCoy, who hails from Falls Church, Virginia and now resides in nearby Manassas, commutes to Shirlington’s Signature Theatre, Dupont Circle’s Keegan Theatre and the DMV’s Levine School of Music for various projects. He’s currently juggling music direction for Keegan’s Legally Blonde from August 3 to September 1 while working at several theatre camps with students of all ages.

Not everyone can say that they thrive in chaos – some may even find it overwhelming. But when you are in the theatre world, it is often your life. McCoy fits into this chaos in his own way: starting off as a piano accompanist for his high school chorus at 14, he was able to pick up the scores easily. This ultimately led him to be on the other side, directing kids and adults alike and garnering attention from the professional theatre community with three Helen Hayes Award nominations by his early 20s. I picked McCoy’s brain on a recent July day about his foray into DC’s theatre scene.

On Tap: Tell me how you first got started with music growing up.
Bobby McCoy: I think my first experience was in my general music class in elementary school. I was really attracted to accompanying singers and watching the interaction between my music teacher and the accompanist. I loved being a part of that and seeing how she would work with people.

OT: Where did your passion for music come from?
BM: My passion started when I started taking chorus class in seventh grade. I had just started playing the piano. I was fascinated with the accompanist, [the idea of] someone playing with a whole group of people. [That was] the bug that bit me. Eventually, this led to me playing full concerts as an eighth grader.

OT: What brought you into the theatre world as a musician?
BM: I took a leap. I saw that Marshall High School was doing Company, so I signed up. Eventually, I was an assistant music director. I was very green. After that, I did Chicago, and then that summer I saw that the Little Theatre [of Alexandria] was doing Company and I went in [and got the job of rehearsal pianist at 15]. It has been sort of nonstop since that moment.

OT: Why did you want to pursue GALA Hispanic Theatre’s In the Heights as a music director? What about the storyline stood out to you?
BM: I grew up in a Hispanic family, and a lot of the things that they go through and the cultural aspect of the show was really appealing. The music was something that reminded me of the authentic culture I grew up with as opposed to the stereotypical Latin number that you would see in a show like Chicago, for example.

OT: How did you feel when you were nominated for three Helen Hayes Awards and won for In the Heights at only 23?
BM: It was really weird. I was happy I won but I was nominated for three shows, so I was sort of like, “Which one am I rooting for?” I did a lot of work for Heights. It was my first time going out of town for a show. I was proud of that show and happy that it got the recognition.

OT: Why did you choose Levine School of Music’s Performance Institute as an institution to work as a music director?
BM: I’ve been on the faculty here for three years. I like inspiring young kids to find their voice. There are a lot of times when people don’t have artistic opportunities, and I love being able to help people become better artists.

OT: How would you describe your directing style?
BM: Collaborative. I like seeing what people bring to the roles, but I am also particular about the way I teach things. I know a lot of people who will teach a number and then clean it [up] after, but I do the opposite. Breathing and dynamics are from the get-go for me – if it gets lost to technique, it won’t happen.

OT: What has been your favorite show to direct? What would be a dream production for you?
BM: Legally Blonde. I’ve done it three times – it’s my first professional production [and] definitely a different caliber of performers. Dream productions: Sweeney Todd with a full orchestra and Sunday in the Park with George. Both are [Stephen] Sondheim musicals and I love all of his works.

To catch McCoy’s work in action, be sure to check out Legally Blonde at Keegan Theatre from August 3 to September 1. Various times. Tickets are $62.

Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; 202-265-3767; www.keegantheatre.com

Image: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company

Inside The Oresteia’s Original Score with Composer Kamala Sankaram


Kamala Sankaram has worked within many musical mediums throughout her career. With a background in opera, she eventually moved into composition, and even has her own band called Bombay Rickey. The theme that weaves her work together is combining global music elements with technical prowess to evoke the exact feeling needed to fully engage audiences in the heart of a theatrical work.

On Tap spoke to Sankaram about her latest venture as composer for Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Oresteia, a new play by Ellen McLaughlin based on the only surviving piece of Greek theatre trilogy. While its original iteration was written by Aeschylus in the 5th Century B.C., McLaughlin has made the play relevant to modern audiences, and Sankaram’s score brings it into the new world as well.  

On Tap: How did you come to be involved with Shakespeare Theatre Company? What drew you to The Oresteia?

Kamala Sankaram: I think someone gave them my name, so I went and met with [director] Michael Kahn and talked about the play. I’m very interested in how music can function semiotically
— how it creates a sense of place, or a sense of character. This play is tricky, because it moves through time. You have characters who are ghosts, you have unseen influences from these gods, so how can you represent that in a staged work? One of the ways you can do that is through really subtle musical shifts.

Thinking about how instrumental timbre or harmony or even just the kinds of sounds that are found change, and imperceptibly influence the feeling of the play. I also was an early adopter of [production software] Ableton Live, and have done a lot of work with electronics. One of the other interesting things about it is how in this strange in-between space
— it’s not ancient Greece, it’s not really modern day, so I’m interested in using this mix of real, acoustic instruments and voices with industrial sounds like radiators and machines and broken computers in the score.

OT: Tell us more about working with a play that has the paradoxical element of being drawn from the oldest surviving Greek tragedy, but also being adapted into a completely new and original work.

KS: What [playwright] Ellen McLaughlin did that’s really great is she took these three plays and condensed them into something that retains the essence of the original plays. It’s not trying to sound like a Greek translation, it sounds like two people talking. And then there are moments where they break into something poetic, just as the original does. So there’s a mix of both things on the modern and the abstract sides. Am I going to make this sound like Greek music? Am I going to have Greek instruments? I toyed with that a bit and recorded some but it didn’t fit when we went to rehearsal. It didn’t make sense, so it was cut. The nice thing about Ableton is I’m working with it as if I’m making a very big ambient soundscape, where I have all of these layers and in the rehearsal process we’re figuring out when they come in and out, what I’m adding and what I’m taking away in response to what’s happening on the stage.

OT: Are there any elements of the play you felt particularly inspired by as you composed the score?

KS: I started to think about who the characters were and what their psychological states might be. For me, the whole play hinges on the relationship between Queen Clytemnestra and her daughter Iphigenia. The whole tragic series of events is kicked off when King Agamemnon kills his daughter in order to get the winds to blow so he can take his army to Troy. From that point on, everything just goes further south. I started with Iphigenia
— what could she have, thematically? I started with a string theme and from that then the strings are sort of this warm signifier. When we first enter the play, there are these string chords that are kind of sad but still not as evil as they become later. When  we go into the past, it’s all of these voices, it’s very warm, and then the further forward in the future we go the sound changes to being very metallic. I used a lot of cymbals and slowed them down so we hear all the in-harmonic tones beating against each other, and by the end, there are no strings left and no voices.

OT: What do you feel your score contributes to the play as a whole?

KS: What the music does is support what’s happening on stage and help create a feeling of abstraction that we’re not really in this real world place. Until we get to the third act, when everyone breaks out of this chorus role and they become this jury of real individuated people. At that point, the score is pretty much gone. But before that, what it’s doing is creating a heightened sense of whatever the mood of the play is. I think the score functions as a design element, almost like a lighting cue, in that it’s subtle and supporting but it’s also present.

OT: What difficulties did you face with such a unique play and score?

KS: With music it’s always difficult because it takes a while to make the music to begin with, but you also have to be willing to just throw it out. I tried to work in a modular fashion where I had all of these possibilities of what the layers could be, and then through the rehearsal and watching the actors, I tried to follow what they were doing. Where their dramatic beats happen, that’s where a music change will happen. I couldn’t have known that until I was in the rehearsal room. That was the most challenging part
— to support what the actors are doing and let the text lead. In opera, it’s very different. You’re making all the decisions as a composer, and the performers are doing whatever you set down.

OT: As you worked on the score, what has been the most exciting element of this specific project?

KS: It’s been so great to dig into the actual bones of a new play. That’s not something you always get to do, even when you are working on a lot of new pieces. The time that we’ve had to figure out what the play is and how it functions
— it’s very educational for me to now be able to go back and say, ‘I know I can follow this dramatic structure for next time I want to set something as an opera, I now have a better understanding of how that works.’

It’s also been great and difficult trying to figure out how to make the chorus work. We landed on this musicalized speech and I got to work with them on finding tempo and pulse within the text. I’m excited to see how that grows and develops. It’s something I don’t think you see a lot in theatre.

OT: What makes The Oresteia relevant to audiences today?

KS: Seeing something like this is a reminder that the human condition has not changed all that much. We’re still struggling with the difficulty of letting go of a desire for vengeance, dealing with people who are different than we are, and deciding how to define the common sense of community and justice within a community. The third part of the trilogy is all about creating the first court trial, which is a huge philosophical leap to make, and it’s been really interesting watching everyone work through the third act. We’re thinking about what does it mean to have justice and how do we find a sense of justice? That’s really relevant and still a huge question today.

The Oresteia opens at Shakespeare Theatre Company today and runs through Sunday, June 2. For times, tickets and more information, visit www.shakespearetheatre.org. For more on composer Kamala Sankaram, visit www.kamalasankaram.com.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122

Photo: Margot Schulman

The Many Complexities of Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel isn’t like any other show.

This is what artistic director Eric Schaeffer tells me on a phone call the morning after I catch his new production at Signature Theatre, and I can say with full certainty that he’s quite right.

He relishes the fact he selected a Tony Award-winning play that’s complex, layered and challenging – adjectives he uses to describe the frenetic musical during our conversation, all of which just so happened to pop up multiple times in my post-show notes.

And it’s no coincidence: the 1929 novel turned 1932 MGM film turned 1989 Broadway hit wasn’t easy for me to connect with night of, but I was still thinking about it for days, even weeks, later. But art is meant to push us out of our comfort zones and expose us to new ways of thinking about and experiencing life, and Schaeffer’s known for taking those risks at Signature every season.

Whether it’s debuting daring new pieces or embracing notoriously difficult classics, the director doesn’t shy away from works that might make his audience fidget or his actors balk. And now through May 19, Schaeffer encourages theatregoers to sit in the lobby of a 1928 Berlin hotel as an extremely eclectic cast of characters weaves on the periphery of one another’s lives.

“The show just keeps layering on itself, which is interesting,” he tells me. “It’s not just like, here it is and here’s the story. It’s kind of like a painting that just keeps on taking off layers and layers and layers, which is the really neat thing about the show. I love that it challenges the audience, it challenges the actors. It just becomes this experience.”

His 16-person cast – full of Signature regulars and DC up-and-comers, plus a truly dazzling performance from the magnetic Nkrumah Gatling (Broadway’s Miss Saigon) – was whittled down from the original production’s 28. The method to his madness? He wanted to give the audience a fighting chance at following all of the show’s storylines through the lens of a sticky-fingered baron, aging ballerina, dying bookkeeper and desperate typist, to name a few.

“It was a hard puzzle to figure out, but it was fun once I did,” he says of casting the play. “There’s all these snapshots that are put together, and you keep getting slices of all these different lives and how they’re interconnected – or not – they all just happen to be passing in and out of the hotel lobby.”

Schaeffer selected his talent well, whipping the audience into a sometimes delightful (in numbers like the cheeky “Maybe My Baby Loves Me”), often uncomfortable (grappling with the heaviness of mortality or a successful man’s implied power over a naïve woman) frenzy. In just under two hours with no intermission, the impressive cast sings several dozen songs and swings the mood pendulum from light to dark at only a moment’s notice. It’s hard to keep up with – visually, sonically and emotionally.

The highly stylized, momentum-driven production isn’t just a lot for the audience to handle – the director says that everyone from the ensemble to the leads had an “Oh my god, this is so challenging” reaction.

“Which is great,” he says, “because they’re not doing the same old thing. It makes them grow as artists, which I think is really important.”

His level of commitment to the production extended beyond nudging his cast gingerly out of the nest and into uncharted – or at least less traveled – territory to a set design that married opulence of a building both old and grand with an ambiance that felt modern, contemporary and relatable.

“I really wanted the audience to feel like they’re sitting in the lobby of a hotel just eavesdropping on all of these conversations that are happening.”

And he did just that by collaborating with set designer Paul Tate dePoo III to create a dynamic set that transforms from a decadent hotel room to the black void of a haunting train station within seconds.

“It was a balance,” dePoo says. “It was a constant conversation. We didn’t get too far away from the contemporary world.”

And like Schaeffer, he takes his craft incredibly seriously, aiming to capture the spirit of the chaotic play and its varied cast through the design.

“Hopefully, it tells the story in a way that we don’t feel like we’re disconnected from these people and we appreciate the era they are currently telling the story within.”

Peel back the layers of this theatrical onion through Sunday, May 19 at Signature Theatre. Tickets start at $40 and are available at www.sigtheatre.org.

Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703- 820-9771; www.sigtheatre.org

Photo: Tony Powell

A Conversation with Edward Gero on Arena Stage’s “Junk”

Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar’s play Junk is coming to Arena Stage on April 5. Inspired by the debt crisis of the 1980s, Junk explores the ruthless world of finance and its effects on American values. Acclaimed DC stage actor Edward Gero plays the role of Thomas Everson, the owner of a steel manufacturing company, who is confronted when junk bond giant Robert Merkin plots the hostile takeover of the family company. Gero talked to On Tap about Junk and his experience with the production so far.

On Tap: How did you learn about Junk and land your role in the play?
Edward Gero: Actually, [Artistic Director] Molly Smith asked me to come in and read for it. She knew Jackie Maxwell, who’s directing the play, was looking for somebody, and they asked me to come in and read. I put an audition on tape with Thomas Keegan, who’s playing the role of Merkin and sent that out, and I got cast. That was about a year ago. And of course, I heard about the play because it had a great run in New York in 2017–it’s been produced around the world—and the playwright Ayad Akhtar is a Pulitzer Prize winner for Disgraced in 2013. He’s a playwright of some importance, so it was a project I was interested in doing. Plus, the subject matter too, it’s a really complicated play, an interesting play about the junk bond raiders of the 1980s.

OT: Why did you want to be a part of the production?
EG: I was really interested in the play. I had not worked with Jackie Maxwell before, and I was very excited about that. I also love working at Arena. And it’s a really terrific role. I play Thomas Everson, the owner of what’s called Everson Steel, which is sort of a stand-in for, let’s say, U.S. Steel—it’s a Dow Jones Industrial company. They become the target of a takeover, and he sort of holds down the old economic values. He was born into the company, 3rd generation in his family, he has commitment to the workers and he’s sort of overwhelmed by this takeover. So, it’s an interesting role to play in terms of facing the future. It becomes quite a shock to him.

OT: Was working with Ayad Akhtar a goal for you?
EG: Not particularly, but when I heard the play was going to be produced, I was interested in it right away because I knew it would be a very smart play. I’m interested in plays that are intellectually stimulating, and this certainly was that. It’s a language play too. It’s deep-in-the-weeds about blue economics. It moves at such a pace like a Shakespeare play, and Ayad had made the comparison. He’s been influenced by both David Mamet and Shakespeare, so it’s a very heavy language play. Yet you end up getting is into the relationships of these people. If you don’t follow all of the weeds and information about the new economics, you’d get really compelling relationships between these people.

OT: Can you describe your character Thomas Everson?
EG: Thomas Everson is a man of a certain age—he’s probably late 50s, early 60s. He’s inherited this role as a CEO. His father father had it before him, his grandfather started the company. They come out of the late 19th century industrial magnets. [He is] someone who makes steel to make money, where the characters of Merkin for example, are just out to make money by turning debt into assets and doing these raids and hostile takeovers. It’s something [Everson] didn’t necessarily want to, but felt obligated to take it over. His father is no longer with him, but the burden and responsibility of keeping the steel mill alive and keeping that legacy of his father alive drives him and actually becomes his downfall. Where the other characters are contemporary, young and aggressive, he’s trying to hold on to an older version of what America is. That’s really what the play is about. In guise of finance, it’s really about a generational change of what’s happened to America. Ayad said really brilliantly that the play was really about how Americans moved from being citizens to being consumers; Everson is sort of the last of that generation.

OT: Did you identify with him in any way? Is that important to you when you’re developing a character?
EG: Well, you try to find ways into the character. My dad was not a steel magnate. However, he was a president of a local United Auto Workers union for 25 years, so I grew up in a labor house. I can use that experience and I understand that mentality of wanting to do the best for the workers. But management now and management then are two different things. Of course, management is in the business of making money, but he also knows he’s got this whole community. The town where Everson lives in, there’s Everson High School, Everson Street, Everson Road, Eveson Park. He’s sort of the leading citizen of that whole area. So, I use my own experiences of growing up with my dad as an entryway, but then I have to go into the imagination of the character, which is different.   

OT: What kind of research did you do to prepare for the role? Did you study the financial crisis of the 80s?
EG: For sure. I mean, I lived through it. It takes place in New York in the 80s. I was there then, and I had friends who worked on Wall Street. The New Years Eve party from 1979 to 1980 was an amazing party. A friend of mine from high school owned a loft. He had written the first arbitrage trading program for IBM and other friends of mine were working on the Street, so the whole culture of that period, I lived. I have that first-hand experience.

OT: You’re a prolific stage actor in DC. What do you think makes this play interesting to a DC audience?
EG: I think it’s very smart in a way that, let’s say, The Originalist was red meat for lawyers, this is certainly red meat for economists. The whole financial structure is sort of a nexus between economics and law, and that’s certainly policy making. It’s very relevant to this community, and I think audiences will come to this with a certain understanding. I’m sure the economists in the room will be saying, “Well, that might not be true,” the lawyers are saying, “That’s good, that’s right,” so there’s that kind of engagement. Washington has one of the smartest audiences, if not the smartest audience, in the United States because of the people who are here.

OT: You touched on this earlier, but as a Shakespearean actor do you see any parallels to this play?
EG: Oh, absolutely. I drew the connection to it directly with Henry IV, but there’s also the characters of Merkin and his wife that had a Macbeth and Lady Macbeth kind of feel to them too—she’s a very strong advocate for Merkin and steals him all the time. This play is going to fly. I think it started on Broadway as a three-hour, three-act play. It’s now a two-hour, one-act play. There’s been extensive cuts, extensive re-writes and it flies. So, articulation, as it would be in Shakespeare, it has to drive, it’s a lot of information, but like Shakespeare, there’s really no subtext to it. It’s not people sitting and thinking and mulling things over and becoming external, it’s just always going forward and that’s very Shakespearean in terms of dealing with language.

OT:  Is there anything you want audiences to take away from the play?
EG: I think they’re going to have an experience that will make them question where we are going in terms of our economics and how we interact with each other, the sort of brutal capitalism of this play. Certainly in this upcoming election cycle, it’s going to be in issue. Looking at this administration, how ruthless are we willing to be in terms of selling our brand or making money and how do we balance that with the policy making and where’s the human element to it? So, I think people will come away probably not changing their points of view about politics or economics. It might strengthen the beliefs they already have. But it’s certainly going to take them on a ride. It’s a rollercoaster.

Junk opens at Arena Stage on April 5. The play runs through May 5. For more information and tickets, visit www.arenastage.org
Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; 202-554-9066; www.arenastage.org

https://www.roundhousetheatre.org/

Euan Morton Headlines Round House Theatre’s Broadway in Bethesda Gala

Broadway vet Euan Morton has played a handful of attention-grabbing roles in the theater, beginning with his Tony-nominated performance as the iconic Boy George in Taboo in 2003, and currently donning the cape and crown each night as King George in the mega-smash Hamilton. In between, he played the namesake character in Hedwing of Angry Inch in the touring production of John Cameron Mitchell’s landmark musical.

On Saturday, May 12, Morton will be the headline performer at Round House Theatre’s Broadway in Bethesda Gala 2018. The silver-piped singer promises to perform tunes from each of the three musicals above.

“I’ll be singing a lot of the stuff that people know and love and I’ll be doing some stuff that I’ve never done before, which always makes me nervous,” Morton says. “I’m doing more musical theater because it’s the world I’ve been involved in a lot more recently and I love it.”

One of the new numbers he’ll be doing is “Another Hundred People” from Company, a song he’s always enjoyed but has never performed live.

“It’s sometimes difficult when you can do anything because you don’t want to make the evening a bunch of disconnected music, but I’ve done a lot of different stuff, so I’m trying to tie it together and make it a cohesive evening,” he says. “I want to do songs I’m going to walk away feeling good about and that I think an audience will enjoy.”

Morton has been friends with Round House’s executive director Ed Zakreski for many years, and when asked to take part in the gala, he was more than happy to take a night off from Hamilton to help the theater raise some money.

“It’s important for me to support theater in the Northern Virginia and DC region because I have a home there and I’ve performed in a number of theaters in the area,” Morton says. “For me, it’s been as much a part of my theater life as New York has or London has, and I feel it’s important for me to give back to this community.”

The area’s proximity to New York combined with the patrons and audience of savvy theatergoers has made the DMV theater community one of the best in the country, and he considers it an artistic enclave.

When his nights aren’t tied up on the Broadway stage, Morton and his family—which includes his wife (producer Lee Armitage) and son (Iain Armitage, who plays the title character in CBS’s hit comedy Young Sheldon), enjoy visiting the myriad theaters in the region.

“It’s a spiritual place for my family and we are all involved in this great theater community,” Morton says.

He’s been playing King George in Hamilton since July 2017, and has really been blown away by the fandom of the show and how the musical continues to be such a dominating force on Broadway.

“I do feel that the actor playing the king is less relevant than the king himself, and the fans are coming to see the character, not me,” he says. “I love getting to stand on stage and say things like, ‘na, na, na, na, na.’ This show has shown the importance of politics in theater and has been like a supernova with fans all over the world. It’s been really nice to be a part of this.”

When considering new roles, Morton says he looks for things that are challenging and ones he’ll enjoy repeatedly without getting bored. He considers himself very lucky to have played the roles he has.

“It’s been continually exciting and challenging as everything I’ve done has been,” he says. “There’s not a moment where I thought, ‘Can I do this anymore?’ because every time I have that feeling, something new comes along and reminds me of why I’m doing it and how much it means to me and other people.”

The night will also include a silent auction and a performance from Catherine Backus, a finalist at the 2018 Bernard/Ebb Awards who was the 2017 General Category winner of the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest.

For information about the gala, visit the Round House Theatre website here.

Round House Theatre: 4545 East West Hwy. Bethesda, MD; 240-644-1100; www.roundhousetheatre.org