Photo by Susan Stava
Nothing excites “Un-Block The Music” more than when my pop music past collides with my new found love of theater. And…that exciting mash up happened recently when I met Dean Sharenow, the music coordinator for Girl From North Country. If you don’t know…it is the play by Conor McPherson with music by Bob Dylan.
Dean is a GRAMMY winner for co-producing, with David Yazbek, the soundtrack of Broadway’s The Band’s Visit. HOWEVER, before his fore into theater Dean was doing engineering and touring with artists like Joan Baez and Joan Osborne, fully ensconced with folk and rock music. It was David that put Dean on the theater path.
In 2000, David Yazbek wrote the score for The Full Monty based on the hit British movie. “At the time I was playing drums for him and engineering records. (One day) he said, ‘hey, I just got the job of writing the score for The Full Monty, do you want to play drums in a few of the workshops?’ I had no particular interest in Broadway at the time, but I did the workshops. Then, when they were going to try out the show in San Diego, he asked me if I wanted to come for a few months. I said ‘yes.’ I was just hanging with my friends and playing drums and learned the parameters as we went on.”
Dean didn’t realize at first that he had the beginnings to a new facet of his career. After Monty came David’s next show, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. “Then we did Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. I wound up contracting the orchestra for that show because we didn’t really like what other people contracted for us! David said… ‘why don’t you do it?’” It made sense. Dean already had a stable of musicians from his studio jobs. Plus, that was 2010, and studio work was starting to dry up. Even jingle work was drying up. That left really accomplished musicians looking for other opportunities.
“I was able to bring in a whole new breed of players; people who had not done shows before. I started to get calls because of this new pool of musicians, and it is why I got the call for Sting’s The Last Ship. They knew I could put together a string and mandolin ensemble to be the core of the orchestra,” Dean said.
In 2016 came The Band’s Visit “which played to my strengths just as The Girl From North Country does now.” Dean feels fortunate that all of his skills have come together in such an unexpected way. “I didn’t know I would end up here. I just started doing what I know.”
Where did the music knowledge start for Dean anyhow? In his Mom’s kitchen of course! “When I was about 5 years old, I would take the wooden spoons out of the kitchen drawer and drum on the building blocks to music my mom was listening to. My family is musical. My Dad plays the violin. My sister is an excellent singer. My Dad’s parents are both Juilliard graduates.” Although no one in Dean’s family pursued music as a career, the idea of becoming a musician was at least not foreign to them. “I kept bugging my parents for drum lessons. After about a year they said ‘ok, but you have to practice.’”
Dean’s love of music was a happy evolution to a career.” I was fortunate, that when I was a teenager, my sister’s husband was a record producer. I was in Arizona and they were in NYC. I would come a couple of times a year and play drums on dance records for him. He introduced me to engineering,” Dean explains.
Later Dean worked in his own studio in Bushwick (Brooklyn). He did so for many years until he lost his lease. He began hunting around for a new spot. One day he was doing a session at Reservoir Studios in NYC. (It used to be Skyline Studios back when “Un-Block The Music worked for Pro Sound News and Billboard…I remember talking to Nile Rodgers about it. Wow..Nile Rodgers…one of the only producers who ever truly thanked me for working on his tribute section for Billboard…anyway, I digress!)
Dean found out that Sufjan Stevens was moving out and there was a studio available. He grabbed it. Now, Dean has Steel Cut Audio which is own suite, booth and control room. The Girl From North Country opened March 5, 2020 to good reviews. They did the cast album in the big studio the following week. Then March 12, 2020 everything shutdown! The main studio was shut for a few months, but eventually a few producers were going in “wearing our masks, keeping our distance and working in our own space!” It was then he worked on The Girl From North Country .
What “Un-Block The Music” loves about The Girl From North Country is that I can live vicariously through its writer Conor McPherson. As a writer since I was able to write in 3rd or 4th grade, I used to listen to my records and write plays around them. Yes, I did that for fun!!! Who knew it could become a Broadway trend??? Anyway…it would seem unlikely that an icon like Bob Dylan would hand over his catalog, but he did. Dean recounts the story of North Country.
“Conor is a huge Bob Dylan fan. He and Tristan Baker (one of the producers) had the idea of weaving the Bob Dylan songs in. So, they approached Bob Dylan’s people and they said ‘this is what we want to do.’ Bob said, ‘go for it!’ That was from a guy who has nothing left to prove. He is a forever icon. For him to hand over his entire catalog was a great gift. It can be tricky when there is an artist with so many hits…but you never know. Sometimes you just have to ask.”
A lot of the music is quite different from the way it originally was done on Bob Dylan’s albums. “Conor was so energized by Bob’s response. The show came together quickly. The music is very particular. It is played on an acoustic guitar, violin, mandolin, piano, harmonium and upright bass. Simon Hale (who has worked on other Yazbek shows) is the orchestrator. He did gorgeous minimalist work. It is difficult to make something compelling and make it simple; not to overdo it. The music is causal and organic,” Dean says.
The Girl From North Country played in London and Toronto and started at The Public Theater in New York City. “That’s where a lot of great stuff happens. They really nurture there,” Dean said. “When we moved from off-Broadway to Broadway, Conor thought to put the ‘pit’ band on the stage. “The fact that they are not hidden is totally delightful,” said Dean. Having the band on the stage makes the transitions beautiful interludes. “The audience is not watching sets move. There are songs that are part of the theme. That’s something shows miss out on if they are just moving sets.”
Dean embraces the fact that Broadway is revitalizing. “It has been an artform that was very specific and it stayed specific. You always knew what you were getting. More and more now, you don’t know. There are surprises. That’s what art should be. It shouldn’t be defined by the parameters of the form. No more cookie cutter shows. Evolution is great for Broadway,” Dean said.
The best news of all is that The Girl From North Country reopens this week…October 13th! After you finish reading this story….Buy tickets! https://northcountryonbroadway.com/.
Then read the article I wrote about one of its stars…Luba Mason!