Can I say “I told ya so….” During the pandemic, pessimists continually told “Un-Block The Music,” that theater was never going to come back. Of course, I said…if you believe that…you don’t know the fierce theater people I know. And here is one those people…a scrappy musical director, Chris Fenwick working on the recent Broadway opening of Kimberly Akimbo as well as upcoming shows Goodnight Oscar! and Cornelia Street. He said, that shutdown, awful as it was, also gave him perspective and renewed joy in his work.
“I was hitting a spot right before pandemic where I felt very proud of what I was doing, but my wife and I had just had a baby and I was having some fatigue and life burnout,” Chris told “Un-Block The Music.” However, “being completely without theater for two years gave me the space to reinvestigate why I love it and why I am committed to it. I thought about ways to work; how to get the joy and rigor and to minimize the strain.” And with the opening of Kimberly Akimbo, off-Broadway at The Atlantic Theater Company in December 2021, “I let go of things that weren’t particularly helpful or positive. I fell back in love and recommitted to working in the theater again.”
Chris is one, if not the only, musical director that I have interviewed who said, he knew he wanted this particular job since he was 12 years old. “I played piano and studied classical and jazz music from a very young age. The gravitational pull of the piano was very strong for me. But theater was also always part of my life. I grew up in Minneapolis which is an incredible theater town; I went to the Guthrie Theater often. My dad is from England so I also spent a lot of time in London, and went to New York as well. I fell in love with cast albums on vinyl and always felt I wanted to create musicals. I was obsessed with the original albums of shows like Sweeney Todd.”
Chris saw the musical director as the conductor and identified what that person in the pit was doing to make the show happen. “Once I saw Paul Germiganai ( Evita, Sunday In The Park With George) was a musical director, I thought that’s it…that’s what I want to do.” Chris admits that defining what a musical director does is a bit of a mystery for most. “People don’t know what that job entails. Even people on productions I am working on don’t always know what is happening in my orbit.” (That’s probably the reason, the Tonys don’t award musical directors anymore. “Un-Block The Music” does not understand this!!!!)
Anyway, Chris was enthusiastic about all kinds of theater. “There were a lot of avantgarde theater companies in Minneapolis in the 1980s, and I started to figure out early on what kind of musical I wanted to do.” He studied piano at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, but he really went there with his eye on the theater department. “It is where I cut my teeth on the craft of musical directing. I couldn’t go to college for musical theater direction, so I was pulling from different pools of information as to how this job worked.”
Stephen Flaherty (one half of the writing team of Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens—Ragtime, Once On This Island) was an alum of CCM. “He came to the school once and heard me play and afterwards we kept in touch. Then there was a musical director, Rob Bowman (Chicago), that helped me. He saw me do a show and we also kept in touch. When I moved to New York in 2011, I emailed both of them.”
Rob got Chris his first gig out of college as a standby for Elaine Stritch’s one woman show, on and Off- Broadway. “I was 22 years old! You can study in college, but when you go to New York that’s where you see really how to work,” Chris said. Rob also helped him get a job in Washington, D.C. and eventually as a standby at Chicago on Broadway.
Pretty soon thereafter, Rob started music directing on his own. “I was interested in working directly with composers. Through Ira Weitzman at Lincoln Center, I met Michael John LaChiusa; did a new show of his at the Public Theater. That became an artistic home for me. These were the key people whose generosity of spirit welcomed me in. They gave me places to work and figure out my career,” Chris explained. “I have worked with many of the same collaborators over the years; like spinning a web out from the center.”
Chris’s work with Kimberly Akimbo composer Jeanine Tesori started when he was conducting a John Michael LaChiusa show. Jeanine saw it and liked what Chris did and called him to work with her on a Tony Kushner’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children starring Meryl Streep. That turned into an almost 15-year collaboration between Jeanine and Chris. Not only did they work together on Fun Home and Soft Power, but they also worked together on Encores! Off Center at Lincoln Center which Jeanine founded in 2013.
Off Center’s mission was to present Off-Broadway musicals that pushed boundaries when they were first produced and that people may never have had a chance to see. “We did three shows a year with the original cast and mostly the same orchestrations and even equipment. If it was a show for the 1970s, I would find synthesizers for example. We tried to do the shows as they were originally done. It felt like summer boot camp for the four or five years we did it.” Keep in mind, they still had day jobs like Fun Home on Broadway! “It was bonkers, “Chris laughed.
Theater is not the only recent collaboration between Chris and Jeanine. Right before shutdown, they worked on Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story! Jeanine was the supervising vocal producer; Chris was the associate. “After a lot of years of our relationship being composer to music director, watching her shape those film performances, working with those vocals and working through music was so satisfying for me.” Working on his first film was fascinating for Chris in other ways. “I loved the actors and being on set on location in New York. It is so different capturing something on film that is going to stay the same. Theater is a moving organism…every night!”
And now….Kimberly Akimbo has moved from off-Broadway to Broadway at the Booth Theatre. “I am trying to savor this moment as long as possible I love this show. It is so beautiful.” Kimberly Akimbo is the story of a New Jersey teen who happens to look like a 72-year-old woman. But that’s not her only problem. She is also forced to maneuver family secrets, borderline personalities, and possible felony charges. Despite that, Kim is determined to find happiness in a world where not even time is on her side.
In reaction to that show’s success (it one a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical as well as a nod to its star Victoria Clark), “Un-Block The Music” also interviewed Jeanine for my book about Women In Theater. Additionally, I have spoken to Macy Schmidt (Broadway Sinfonietta) who has worked on additional orchestrations. I don’t know about you, but I am running to get tickets, or if you can’t run, go to : https://kimberlyakimbothemusical.com/
Additionally, in April 2023, “Un-Block The Music” is more than a little excited to see Goodnight Oscar starring Sean Hayes at the Belasco Theatre. It’s the story of Oscar Levant, pianist and character actor famous for his one-liners. In a strange twist of fate, I discovered last week, that Oscar’s daughter Lorna is selling her house which is a two-minute walk from my house. I have met Lorna, never knew who she was!!! I am obviously going to investigate the house and the show!!!! Life is so interesting, isn’t it? Could this be a Godwink?
Anyway, Chris is also working on Cornelia Street at the Atlantic Theater, where Kimberly Akimbo started its road to Broadway. That has an anticipated opening date of January 2023.
All theater artists live on the edge. When one show closes, they always wonder if there will be another. For Chris, he has worked on three shows since the reopening of theater after CO-VID. A stroke of luck? Maybe a little, but mostly, it is talent and dedication. “It’s a hard life, and hard work…but that’s part of the glory. For many, myself included, I am not built to do anything else,” he said.
Chris…we are happy that you don’t see yourself doing anything else. Keep it up!
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