What Do You Hear? Music and Song in 2020

Actors perform in The Yeomen of the Guard
Kate Hurster, Jesse Baldwin, Michael Caruso, Jeremy Peter Johnson, Britney Simpson and Michael Sharon utilize multiple skills in 2016’s “The Yeomen of the Guard.” Photo by Jenny Graham.

By Paul Adolphsen
OSF Literary Manager

At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2020, get ready to feel the music.

You’ll be treated to a troupe of pop-star mermaids headlining the second act of Peter and the Starcatcher, while mischievous fairies serenade young lovers in the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Qui Nguyen’s Poor Yella Rednecks, the characters you came to love in Vietgone have returned, spinning rhymes and spilling their hearts. The pulse of Taiko drumming will infuse both parts of Bring Down the House, while spirituals, chants and Motown hits will summon ancestors to weave an epic tale in black odyssey.

Music has been an essential aspect of the theatrical experience since its origin in rituals and ceremonies that used song, dance and rhythm. In Shakespeare’s time, people said they were going to “hear” a play—emphasizing the auditory experience of the theatre. And music is at the heart of what many call the United States’ national theatrical art form: the musical. Music—in all its exciting variety—is foundational to the work we do in the theatre, to how we tell stories onstage.

Audiences at OSF are well versed in how music can help tell a story. Throughout the Festival’s history there have been countless productions that have used music in various ways: from traditional American musical theatre like The Music Man (2009) or The Wiz (2016) to more experimental “plays with music” like The Yeomen of the Guard (2016) or Cambodian Rock Band (2019).

Who makes sure all this music is excellent and that the musicians have everything they need to be successful? Meet Jesse Sanchez, OSF’s music supervisor.

An inside look

Jesse Sanchez headshot
OSF Music Supervisor Jesse Sanchez. Photo by Edmond Kwong.

Sanchez came to OSF in 2018 with an impressive array of credits, having served as a music director across the U.S.—at Roundabout Theatre Company, Huntington Theatre Company, American Conservatory Theater and others. He also has experience as a music assistant on new musicals, including the first national tour of Hamilton. In addition to this exceptional résumé, Sanchez is also an active conductor, composer and playwright.

At OSF, Sanchez works with the artistic and production departments to oversee the music for all plays in production. This includes a long list of essential responsibilities. At the top of that list is managing OSF’s inventory of musical instruments. “I would say we have thousands of instruments,” Sanchez estimates, “from amps to accordions to lutes. We have banjos, and so many different styles of guitars . . . We have basses, we have trumpets, trombones. We have marching instruments. It’s a collection that tells the history of how music has developed over the years at OSF.” He jokingly adds, “We have a million broken keyboards.”

Oftentimes, a play will need an instrument that’s not in OSF’s encyclopedic collection. When that happens, Sanchez is responsible for renting the instrument. If the actor/musician in the show owns the instrument, OSF will rent it directly from the artist, as was the case with a specific Buddhist bell played by arranger and actor/musician Jane Lui in 2019’s production of Cambodian Rock Band. “I was looking online, and I was like, ‘what the hell’s a Buddhist bell?’ It’s a specific kind of bell that [Jane] owns,” Sanchez explains, so OSF rented it from her for the season. “That was unique, because I had never heard of the term before.”

Sanchez also contracts all musicians at OSF, whether they play onstage or in a pit orchestra, and works closely with the artistic department when OSF needs to contract actor/musicians (as in Cambodian Rock Band). Sanchez is also responsible for finding local understudies for all musicians, which can be challenging. “That’s probably the hardest part about the rep,” he says, “We have so many plays with music and live musicians. So, finding those understudies who will memorize a book and will come and play onstage can be difficult.” Sanchez finds a way, though. “I just found my last person for Indecent. Thankfully, I have a friend who is really, really talented and plays clarinet up in Eugene. He’s getting his master’s in clarinet performance. So he agreed to come down.”

For productions with substantial music and song, OSF will hire a music director, who is responsible for collaborating with the play’s director on musical interpretation, while ensuring that cast and musicians know the music thoroughly. Sanchez oversees the music directors hired each season, while also serving as one himself (in 2020 he will music-direct OSF’s production of Peter and the Starcatcher). Sanchez considers this one of the best parts of his job: “It’s interesting to see everybody’s approach to how important music is to a play. Being a music director myself, it’s always fascinating to see how other people work, because you don’t get to do that. You don’t have a ‘music director retreat’ where you learn what everyone is doing. We work separately. That’s probably the best thing: meeting the world-class artists that come in here.”

There are still more responsibilities to add to Sanchez’s already-long list. If there’s a pit orchestra in the season, he schedules rehearsals for those musicians before the technical rehearsal and preview process, and will run “brush-up” rehearsals as needed during the course of OSF’s lengthy performance runs. He also collaborates on casting for productions that require actors to sing or play instruments, and works closely with all sound designers and composers in the season to ensure that they have everything they need to create the sonic landscapes for each production.

While the work that Sanchez does is essential to making sure OSF’s music-heavy productions delight Festivalgoers, his position as music supervisor is actually unique in the world of regional, nonprofit theatre—both in the U.S. and globally. “There’s literally no other position like this,” he says. “I think I found one in Europe somewhere . . . It’s a very hybrid job, of keeping up and maintaining the shows, but also overseeing this department in an artistic way.”

That the position of music supervisor exists at OSF is a testament to the high-quality musicals and plays-with-music that the Festival produces year after year. “Most of the time, people have come to expect music in the plays [at OSF],” Sanchez says.

The 2020 season is no exception, presenting plays that use music to tell captivating stories.

Music in 2020

Qui Nguyen
Qui Nguyen, “Poor Yella Rednecks” playwright

In many of the plays in the 2020 season, music helps to develop and define character. Moments where characters “break out” into song to express big emotions are foundational elements of musical theatre. They’re also foundational elements of Qui Nguyen’s remarkable new play, Poor Yella Rednecks. In this sequel to Nguyen’s popular Vietgone (seen at OSF in 2016), characters frequently turn to the audience and let loose beautiful and complex rhymes set to a beat. Nguyen uses the form of rap to express his characters’ hopes, fears, exasperations and desires as they navigate between two homes: the one they left behind in Vietnam, and the one they’re trying to build in Arkansas.

“The rap in ‘Poor Yella Rednecks’ is part of its swagger and revolutionary action.”

For director Victor Malana Maog, rap gives Nguyen’s characters a space to define themselves free of stereotypes usually associated with Asian Americans and immigrants. “The rap in Poor Yella Rednecks is part of its swagger and revolutionary action,” he says. “Qui gifts the characters in the play a vehicle that gives insight, complexity, wit and a bucket of sexiness.” Maog hopes these moments of rap will empower the audience, too. “When you go out of the theatre, you’re going to wonder how you can be more robust, how you can live more.”

If Poor Yella Rednecks is a “play with rap,” then Peter and the Starcatcher, Rick Elice’s adaptation of the book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, might best be described as a “play with music.” But what, exactly, is a play with music? And is that the best descriptor for this adventurous “prequel”?

Sanchez describes the music in Peter and the Starcatcher as “a live sound design,” since it is performed by two musicians responding directly to what’s happening onstage, and doesn’t push the plot forward the way songs do in traditional musical theatre. This choice makes perfect sense for the aesthetic playfulness of Peter and the Starcatcher. In the play, an ensemble of actors embody all the roles, shifting quickly from pirates, to sailors, to mermaids and back again.

Maybe the best question to ask is not, “Is this a play with music, or a musical?” but rather, “How does the music help tell the story of this play?”

The staging is influenced by a “poor theatre” aesthetic, which foregrounds the skill of the actor and their direct connection to the audience by employing, among other devices, a spare, flexible performance space rather than elaborate scenic design. This aesthetic is enhanced by the fact that the musical scoring for Peter and the Starcatcher is played live, so that audiences can see the musicians instead of experiencing a disembodied recording. The “live sound design” of the play, then, draws attention to the theatrical way the story is being told, while underscoring its many scenic transitions, plot points and moments of magic where cats fly and salmon transfigure into mermaids.

Actors performing in Loves Labors Lost
Cedric Lamar, Royer Bockus, and Shaun Taylor-Corbett were among the actors who also played in the band for 2018’s “Love’s Labor’s Lost.” In background: Rachel Crowl. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Maybe the best question to ask is not, “Is this a play with music, or a musical?” but rather, “How does the music help tell the story of this play?” Two plays in the 2020 season, written hundreds of years apart, answer this question in similar ways, using music as a powerful tool of transformation and celebration.

Jack Herrick, composer for OSF’s 2020 production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, calls it “a celebration, and we hope the music will reflect that joy and wonder.” Music certainly does wondrous things in this play that celebrates love’s transformational power. Much of the music in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is connected to the magic of the fairies: It puts lovers to sleep and blesses their marriage beds; it is the underscoring of their dreams. The “rude mechanicals,” too, engage in song and dance—attempting to please those of higher (human) rank with their wedding-day performance. What instruments will humans and fairies alike use to make this music? Herrick says, “We’re hoping to create a magical environment that might include one or more invented instruments.”

The music in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—whether played on existing or dreamed-up instruments—will be a celebration, too, of one of OSF’s core values: company. “We write, arrange, and place the music based as much as possible on the actors’ abilities and personalities,” Herrick says “It’s always good if an actor loves to perform a piece of music, so part of our job is to collaborate to the point where everyone has ownership and pride in the material.”

Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey also celebrates company through its use of music. This retelling of The Odyssey begins with an ensemble entering the playing space and using music from three distinct historical moments and locations to call the play’s elemental story to life. By including a Yoruba chant, a traditional African-American spiritual, and a 1970s Motown hit in one moment, Gardley signals black odyssey’s interest in the Black diaspora: its overlapping points of connection and its painful gaps.

“Culture is personal. Music is personal. The personal is inevitably full of variety.”

The questions at the heart of black odyssey are big: What is home? If you are displaced, how can you return? How to create and celebrate home in the face of loss? These are questions particularly poignant for the Black diaspora, with its traumatic history of plunder, slavery and forced removals. But black odyssey also opens up an important space for celebration: of resilience, legacy, multiplicity.

Monty Cole
Monty Cole, director of “black odyssey.” Photo by Jesse Bonnell.

“I think the variety of music in the play depicts Black people as something beyond a monolith,” says director Monty Cole. “We’re not only funk or hip-hop, we’re drums and harmonies and sometimes we’re the rock and roll on a fuzzy radio station in Afghanistan. Culture is personal. Music is personal. The personal is inevitably full of variety.” As in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the music in black odyssey celebrates as it calls transformative moments into being.

Listen . . .

As you’re settling in to the Angus Bowmer Theatre as the lights dim, or as you take your seat in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre under the deepening sky of a summer evening, or as you make your way to your place in the Thomas Theatre (drink and Playbill in hand), take a moment and open your ears. See if you can pay special attention to the music of these plays in the 2020 season. What stories are being told through song and rhyme and rhythm? What can we learn about ourselves and our world if we stay alert and lean into listening? The plays of the 2020 season invite you to listen. What do you hear?