Nadia DiGiallonardo broke into musical theater through the theater building’s back door. “Un-Block The Music” is trying hard to create a pun here because Nadia, the musical supervisor and arranger for Waitress, was an urban planner creating housing (obviously with doors) before she left that career to follow her musical “hobby”. Anyway, my cleverness (or lack of) aside, Nadia has been on the cutting edge of what I have been writing about a lot, the blurring line between pop/rock and musical theater. If you are reading this article, you probably know that Waitress’ score was written by mega talented Sara Bareilles (“Love Song”, “Brave”). How did Nadia and Sara come together?
Let’s talk about Nadia’s background. She was born and raised in Brooklyn by Italian parents. “In high school, I did a lot of music theory and more academic music. Then I got to Vassar College and thought, ‘I have to find a logical, sensible career,’” she told “Un-Block The Music”. While she was growing up, Nadia’s father was an urban planner developing affordable housing in Manhattan, Harlem and the Bronx. “I became an Urban Planning major feeling like I was already connected to that anyway. I loved what he did, so I thought, that’s what I would do. I came out of school and worked at a design firm for a few years. I loved it, but it got super busy really quickly. I was really young at a high level in this design firm, and I was getting burnt out and not doing any music whatsoever. Everyone was saying, ‘keep music as a hobby.’ There was no time for that.” She was frustrated, and decided to change careers.
Nadia’s favorite tie between her two worlds came when she quit her design job, and took an unpaid internship at City Center to work on their Encores! Series. She was prepping the scores for the orchestra. Nothing was done on the computer back then, everything was hand written. The resident conductor of the Encores! Series, Rob Fisher, called the office and asked who was writing the scores because the handwriting was so nice. “It was me! My handwriting was so nice because of my design background. We met after that, and he hired me to work on everything with him. That was the reason I had to opportunity to conduct Hair on Broadway, a pop/rock musical directed to Diane Paulus.”
“Hair was a life changing experience. It is the greatest score you could ever ask for if you are a pop/rock musician looking to do musical theater. When Diane and I worked on Hair, we were both newbies; the first Broadway show for both of us. Her vision was so strong and fearless in a world of so many experienced Broadway people. She knew what she wanted and was so good at making that happen. She has been inspirational for me.” Nadia has done three shows with Diane Paulus now…Hair, Pippin and Waitress.
Diane won the Tony award in 2013 for her reimagined Pippin, which had music written by Stephen Schwartz and original choreography by Bob Fosse. Diane’s new staging incorporated circus choreography and acrobatics. She casted Patina Miller, a woman, in the role that made Ben Vereen famous back in 1972. Both actors won Tonys for their performances. “Changing Pippin was delicate,” Nadia says. “But, the circus concept evolved so nicely. Changes to the score came naturally. Stephen Schwartz was wonderful to work with. He was with us every step of the way. That revival was very powerful.”
Then, along came the idea for Waitress, which was a movie that would ultimately become a musical. “We had the screen play. I remember watching the movie, thinking ‘where do we do a song? There is a breakup, should we put a song here?’ I went back and watched the movie recently and I hear the little trigger lines I used to inspire a song. It was cool to imagine what could be musicalized in the film while trying to separate the music that is in the film. We had to go with a clean slate.”
Before the first time their Waitress team met, Nadia was advised to listen to Sara’s catalog and think about what songs she already had written that might fit into the script. “I made a little spread sheet displaying where songs could fit. When we got to the meeting, it was so clear, that Sara’s creativity is endless. Music oozes out of every pore. Writing new songs was not going to be a problem. Working with Sara was such a gift. No one had to think of anything for her. She was full of ideas.”
(Photo: Nadia with Sara Bareilles, published on Broadwayworld.com)
Nadia’s initial role with Waitress was to be Sara’s right hand since she knew nothing about making a musical. “However, her natural skills were so above and beyond anything we could ever have imagined. In the beginning it was helpful for her to have someone just to say, ‘Write the song. Make a demo on your laptop and then go on to the next thing. We will take it from there.’ I would then work on the song and say ‘here is the new key. Do you like these vocals?’ Then she could flush it out at the end. It was good for her to have my support in the beginning; to be a sounding board.” The Waitress songs are so sing-able and they never lose structure, Nadia says. “By the time we got to New York and were into tech, we got to a place where the songs sang themselves. It kept true to a pop concert.”
Nadia is part of the New York Broadway show almost every night for now. The show, which she was part of pulling together in London, has just opened and now she is getting ready to work on the show in Australia. That’s not all, Nadia has a couple of new projects in the talking stages; maybe something along the pop lines and the other more traditional? Nadia promises to keep “Un-Block The Music” posted about these.
Do I sound like a fan girl writing this story? I am! Nadia is so interesting. She started in this career when it still was a man’s business. Her teaming with Diane Paulus and Sara Bareilles is worth a two-part story. We all know how short attention spans can be, but if my readers are interested in how music comes together for a show, read both parts. “Un-Block The Music” will post Part 2 of this article tomorrow. It will focus on what made the music for Waitress such a breakthrough and why other shows are using Waitress as a model.