We need Rock of Ages, the musical about love and a rock-star dreams offering up a host of beloved 1970s and ’80s hits, including Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” Styx’s “Renegade” and Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” And, we are going to get that dose of much needed music on April 24 with a one-night-only livestream starring the original Drew, Tony nominee Constantine Maroulis. The show has gone through quite a few transformations since it initially opened in 2006. Has it really been that long???? At the beginning of this never-ending pandemic shutdown, “Un-Block The Music” caught up with Jacob Yates who was the musical director during the show’s most current run at NYC’s New World Stages and who is musically directing the New York portion of this this concert as well. (Jonathan Quesenberry is music directing on the west coast).
Jacob talked to me about the appeal of this show, but as always, what I find interesting is discovering what makes an artist tick; what special skills they have that bring a show to life every night while keeping it fresh and exciting. What does it take to be in theater today as opposed to 20 years ago? Here’s a hint…Jacob says, be multi-faceted, but beyond that… some things don’t change…he said, just be nice!
Jacob grew up in Kentucky and played piano and cello. “I always knew I wanted to be a music director, but when I was going to college, there wasn’t an undergrad music direction program per se that was available.” He attended Cincinnati Conservatory of Music for cello performance which offered classical music and a good musical theater program. “I thought I could piece a degree together and ultimately end up doing what I wanted to do.” Not everyone at the University liked Jacob’s plan, but he did it anyway, and that broad musical knowledge has given him an edge in today’s theater. People used to frown on being a Jack of All Trades, but, today with the lower budget productions, it’s a necessity. “A lot of shows are being written for only one keyboard book plus band. The Associate Conductor is typically the second Keyboard Player and when that position doesn’t exist, often the show must find someone that can play one of the other instruments in the band as well as sub conduct the show when necessary.”
Jacob was a cello sub in Les Miserables’ last incarnation on Broadway in 2014. And, in 2019 he booked Alice By Heart, the show written by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. (“Un-Block The Music” was there…see my story link at the end of this post.) “I got the job because I could play cello and associate music direct as well. I ended up conducting a lot of the run and played cello when I wasn’t conducting. If I could do that forever, I would!,” Jacob said. While Jacob plays cello, he clarified the music direction. No matter what instruments you can play, when conducting, “I am playing piano and conducting and someone else takes over the cello chair for the performance.”
However, before Les Miz or Alice By Heart, Jacob had to find his way to New York. He told “Un-Block The Music” how social media helped, and it wasn’t all that sophisticated. “I found people’s names on the back of cast recordings and sent blind emails and messages to ask what my place on Broadway could be. A couple of people responded and we have stayed in touch of over the years. Dear Evan Hansen’s Ben Cohn has been one of those constants for Jacob who contacted Ben on Facebook when he was still in high school. “He said, ‘you can make a career in this industry. It’s hard, but be good at what you do and keep going.’” Jacob’s first Broadway job was playing cello in the pit of Wicked. The conductor was sick the first night Jacob was to play. Guess who stepped up as conductor? You got it…Ben Cohn. Their relationship continued as Jacob became Ben’s associate music director on Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard’s Christmas show on Broadway in 2019.
“It’s a fine line to get ahead, but you can’t just step over people,” Jacob said. Running themes throughout this blog have to do with being confident, knowing who you are, being appreciative and good karma will surround you. Jacob is proof of that.
I don’t know about you, but “Un-Block The Music” is looking forward to a little head banging during next week’s reunion concert. In addition to Constantine, the cast for next week’s concert is made up of other performers from the original Off-Broadway, Broadway, Los Angeles, Hollywood, West End, and 10th anniversary production casts. That includes Laura Bell Bundy, Kerry Butler, Amy Louise Pemberton, James Snuder, James Carpinello, Amy Spanger, Adam Dannheisser, Lauren Molina, Michele Mais, Callandra Olivia, Matt Wolpe, and Regina LeVert. Film and television stars from the Hollywood and L.A. casts include Frankie Grande, Willam, Dan Finnerty, Dot-Marie Jones, and Tom Lenk.
Be still my heart….also making an appearance in the concert are Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, who starred in the Broadway production of the musical (and who was the star of Un-Block The Music’s teenage years when I followed Twisted Sister all around Westchester County, NY. Did anyone say Detroit or Glen Island Casino?). Also on screen will be writer Chris D’Arienzo and arranger Dave Gibbs!
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Check out these past links for stories you may be interested in: