Interview with Ron Melrose
Meeting Ron was a fascinating experience for me. Since much of what the pit does is not as visible to the audience as the action on stage, I had many questions about how they work and how the score of The Scarlet Pimpernel was constructed. He answered those questions and many more. He also told me about the latest project he has been involved with, and posed for pictures to show off his new haircut.
NR: Can you give me a little background like where you grew up?
RM: Sure. I grew up in academia. Both of my parents were college professors. Name a university town and I probably lived there for a couple of years, most of the time either in Iowa City or in Massachusetts.
NR: How did you decide upon this career?
RM: I trained early in my life for a classical piano competition career. In about 10th grade I knew that wasn't the life for me, but I didn't want to give up music completely. I was spending about 5 or 6 hours a day working on my trill. There was no life there. So, I went to school and said I've got to accompany the play and I've got to accompany the choir, and I quit classical piano as a career option. I realized the other day that I've never really done anything since except accompany the choir and accompany the play. I'm just doing it in better places now.
NR: What type of training did you get when you decided to do that?
RM: The one weird thing about growing up in Iowa City, which for me were the junior high years, is that the University of Iowa Music Department just at that time started a program called "Private Music Only." Each faculty member, on top of their normal teaching load, had to find a kid, a high school kid or a junior high kid in the area, and offer an hour a week to them as a sort of public outreach thing. Very few people took advantage of it. I took advantage of it a lot. So, after school, I would go down to the university music department, and for free, I had piano, bassoon, horn, composition, theory, organ, harpsichord, vocal repertoire, basically I got a conservatory education at a very young age, for free, and by the time I was ready for college, I didn't choose a conservatory. I felt like I had already been there.
NR: So, did you go to college?
RM: I did go to college. I went to Harvard in philosophy.
NR: This is something that I don't completely understand, and I'm sure many other people don't either. Can you explain the different responsibilities between what you do and the orchestrator, the musical supervisor and the music coordinator?
RM: Sure, and sometimes the terms mean slightly different things on different shows. In relationship to Pimpernel, Jason Howland was the musical supervisor. He essentially served as Frank Wildhorn's representative while Frank was not necessarily with us. Artistic decisions were made through me with Frank's approval and guidance. A musical coordinator is sort of the new "glamorous" title for the musical contractor. That's an administrator who is in charge of hiring and conditions of the union pit musicians. He will also be in charge of the nuts and bolts of weekly life. If the piano needs to be tuned, we'll call the musical coordinator's office, and we need to consult with him about what is legal or not legal for union musicians if we're going to appear on TV or if we're going to make a cast album.
Once we have been in rehearsal and we know what a piece wants to be - we've worked it up with the singer (it's going to be in this key), we've worked it up with the choreographer (there's going to be a 16 bar dance break at this point in the song), a sort of a glamorized lead sheet, which is the words and music in the proper key, with the kind of accompaniment we've been using in rehearsals written out on a piano staff underneath it, goes to the orchestrator who expands that into "What does the oboe do?," "What does the cello do?," "What does the percussion do?" So, I'll send out a "Please make it sound sort of like this. Here's the piano part." It will come back 50 times better because he's got all those colors and instruments and he's not limited in any way to what we've put down. It's not "Please do this and nothing more." So Kim (Scharnberg) brings his own genius to what goes onto that page. We find out at the orchestra reading what he's done. And then there's some back and forth. Certainly if the choreographer raises an eyebrow and says, "Gee, I really wanted this to be more full, more energized here" I can go back to the orchestrator and say, "Let's look at bars 221 to 228. We need a little more punch there. I noticed the horns aren't doing anything. Can we add a trumpet line there?"
NR: Do the singers get any input in this at all?
RM: No... I shouldn't say no entirely. As an example, we decided fairly late in the game to include "I'll Forget You" and I did speak to Rachel about "How do you hear this? What do you see at this point in your journey? What are you feeling?" And then we decided on a much lighter, sort of string-based beginning to the thing. Sort of high strings and bells and nothing had too much grounding in it to paint the kind of fluttery feeling she was in. And then later in the song, she gets her feet under her, and she really decides she's going to go out to die. That's when the rest of the band comes in. But if you listen to that song in the theater you'll hear there's almost no low end stuff under her when she begins to sing.
NR: Who was responsible for that wonderful Entr'acte, which I dearly love, and now it's been cut down to nothing?
RM: Oh, thank you. Thank you. I was.
NR: I have to say it's one of the most well written overture-type pieces that I've heard.
RM: Thanks. I'm a student of Broadway and this was the first time I've ever been allowed to be a musical director so it was fun. That is traditionally the musical director's job, to assemble overtures and entr'actes, and I looked at the great ones. I looked at the Gypsy Entr'acte and I looked at the Carousel and Carnival and all the great shows and sort of figured out, as a paradigm, what often happens. It often starts with some kind of a fanfare, it goes into an energetic number that you've heard in Act 1, then it goes into the prettiest ballad of Act 1, and then it goes into something else with clout that gets you to your curtain. It was easy for us because we had three main characters, Chauvelin, Marguerite, and Percy. So, I just assigned it to remind you of the three people that are in the story. So you heard a little bit of "Falcon in the Dive," you heard a little bit of "When I Look at You," and you heard a little bit of "Into the Fire," and then the curtain was up and we were rolling.
NR: Well, it's one of my favorites, and I've listened to musicals my entire life. It's very seamless.
RM: I'm glad. It's still there on the original cast album.
NR: I know, and it killed me when they cut it down. Originally, in October, it was there. And then one day I went and it was gone.
RM: Well, we were trying to buy minutes. It was very important to MSG that we aimed as much as possible on people looking at their watches at the end of the evening and going, "Wow, it's close to half past. We have time for a cup of coffee before the babysitter has to be home."
NR: I know, and people talked during it anyway, which always bothered me, so now I go home and listen to it on my CD.
RM: It was always funny conducting that Entr'acte and listening to people talk. It reminded me of old days playing in a piano bar. I wanted to say, "Hey, I'm doing good music here. Listen."
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