“Un-Block the Music” offers stories about the crossover between pop and Broadway. What I love best is when my path from pop/rock crosses over to theater. I interviewed Antigone Rising for Billboard back in the early 2000s. And, here I am today, talking to Dena Tauriello, who was their drummer for 20 years! However, when Broadway shutdown, Dena held the drum chair for an Off-Broadway revival. How did she get there???
Dena laughed when I called her the rock chick gone Broadway. She says there is some truth to that description. However, Dena’s parents really exposed her to all music. “Whenever we went on road trips, my parents would bring a bunch of eight tracks by artists they loved with them. One of those artists was Karen Carpenter. I fell in love with the Carpenters. My mom bought us tickets to see them when I was about 7 years old, and I got to meet them.”
While Dena describes that meeting as incredible, she said, “Perhaps more important for me than the meeting was getting to see Karen play drums live. It was a game changer for me. I vividly remember sitting in the audience thinking ‘ I want to do that!” At 8 years old, Dena began taking private drum lessons.
Dena’s mom was also “quite a theater aficionado. She would mail away asking for tickets in the first four rows. Sometimes we would be waiting six months, but often eventually had the good fortune to sit in the front row. I would look down into the pit and think ‘I would love to do that.’ It felt unattainable. It felt like a great mystery.”
However, Dena started playing in her first garage band when she was just 12 years old. “I did my first paying gig around that time. It was the coolest thing to be paid for something you love. When you are a kid, you watch your parents go to work to make money. God Bless them for doing that. Most of us are not fortunate enough to see our parents doing something that they love.” Obviously, superstars make money in a profession they are passionate about “but it doesn’t feel like it is a real possibility. When I got my first paying gig, I realized you could really make a living doing this!”
In any event, Dena went to college. She didn’t study music. She thought she would be a school guidance counselor. Did I mention, she was also a scholarship athlete? “Un-Block The Music” is married to a former high school Phys Ed teacher, and we often talk about how difficult it is today to be a well-rounded student. Dena is seriously well-rounded, and that certainly has paid off.
“The summer I moved home from college, my neighbor called me to find out what I was up to for the summer. She was a longtime pianist who was working on a show at the Rockaway Townsquare Playhouse in New Jersey. She said, ‘we could use a drummer.’” The show was Dames At Sea. It had been five or six years since Dena had looked at sheet music, so she was a little nervous. Before accepting the job, she took a look at the sheet and thought, “this is a piece of cake,” and she accepted the job.
After that summer gig, Dena was contacted by another friend from high school. She was a singer looking for a drummer for her band. She got that gig too. One thing leads to another. While playing with that band, Dena connected with another band doing original songs and touring the Jersey Shore. “The bass player had a connection to Antigone Rising.” Dena was the drummer for that band for a lot of years. Early on, they established a reputation as a grassroots non-stop touring band, playing upwards of 280 shows per year. The touring started to slow down as band priorities shifted, so Dena started to put out some Broadway feelers.
“In 2018, I got called for Head over Heels. They were looking for a female with a rock feel. That narrowed the pool in the theater world. Hallelujah!” she jokes.
As you know, “Un-Block The Music” started “Women Wednesdays” because of a need to highlight the lesser opportunities for women in music. Dena says she agrees there is a need to highlight, but she often struggles with how to best get the word out. The goal is to have musicians get the job because they are the best, not because they are women. The women highlighted in this column continue to prove they deserve the job. After Head Over Heels, Dena moved on to The Cher Show, and as the pandemic spread through New York, she was holding the drum chair for Little Shop of Horrors starring Jonathan Groff, Christian Borle and Tammy Blanchard!
Dena’s story of becoming a drummer, reminds me of a television special that aired when I was a little girl. It was called Free To Be…You and Me. It was created by Marlo Thomas. “Un-Block The Music” googled and found that Marlo Thomas joined Stars In The House creators and hosts Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley Friday on their YouTube series to celebrate that show in late June. The episode featured a new version of the theme song sung by Sara Bareilles.
During this turbulent time, Marlo said they changed one of the lyrics. And, I love it. “Every child in this land, may you all understand, that you’re proud and you’re strong and you are right where you belong.” Keep tuning into Women Wednesdays!