Musicians confess that improvised musicals are terrifying, rewarding experiences
“It's terrifying, but it's a frickin' blast. I never enjoy doing it, but I always enjoy having done it.”
“I was scared, but not too scared to try it.”
“It's scary but it's good for you. I hate it so much but I love it. Every single time I want to die.”
“There are always moments of abject terror, but in that moment of terror, that's when you do your most brilliant stuff.”
Fear. That's what drives Stefan Farrenkopf, Nathaniel Stevens, Counterfeit Madison and David Schmoll to keep coming back to improv comedy musicals. In particular, long-form improvised musicals, in which a cast of improv comedians creates an entire show from beginning to end.
Creating melodies and rhymes on the fly may be what makes these full-length productions so much fun for audiences, but the musicians who accompany these shows — our fearful four among them — in many ways drive the action by supporting character development, shaping storylines and, perhaps most fundamentally, putting the music in improvised musical.
“The more humble or scared [the musician is], the better they're going to be,” said Rance Rizzutto of the Nest Theatre, who has performed the improvised show “HERE The Musical” with partner Tara DeFrancisco in 50 cities around the world.
“They're as responsible for the content as we are,” DeFrancisco said. “They're one of the performers.”
“The musician is a huge narrative force in the show because the music [and] the songs drive the show forward,” Hashtag Comedy's Alex Dodge said. (Hashtag has been performing “TBD: The Improvised Musical” for the past couple years.) “The musician sets the tone and mood. They decide when we sing. [And] they're always listening for moments for reveals [or] confessions.”
Being a skilled musician is important, musicians agree, but more important than training or background in musical theater or pure chops is the ability to listen.
“You play with your ears and with your eyes,” said Schmoll, who has played with the Nest since it opened last fall and has been a full-time improv musical accompanist for 20 years in cities including Cleveland, Chicago and Amsterdam. “If you listen hard enough, the scene will tell you what to [play]. I'm a facilitator, helping get [the cast] to where they want to go.”
“I look for one of two things: When the actors hit on an idea they might want to develop into a song, they might repeat that idea casually through the dialogue; or, if a line just happens to strike my fancy,” said frequent TBD musician Doug Neel.
“I want to help pump up a character,” said Madison, who has played for “TBD” five times thus far. “Once they decide what a character is, it's my job to accelerate that musically.”
TBD's rotating slate of musicians includes pianists and guitarists, and musicians with a variety of backgrounds, experiences and strengths. Farrenkopf and Stevens both come from a theater background, both acting and directing (and, in Farrenkopf's case, writing). Madison, on the other hand, while she has worked with student productions at Arts & College Preparatory Academy, has a more limited experience in the theater. She offsets that with perfect pitch, a varied background and substantial ability.
“I don't have [Madison's] chops. I think my strength is that I know how musicals are built,” Farrenkopf said, adding that even that experience isn't always applicable. “I came in with a bag of tricks and very quickly decided I needed to throw it away.”
Having done this a few times now, has Madison's fear subsided?
“Nope. I just know how scary it is now.”