Today’s subject Adrian Ries is currently living his theatrical life as musical director of the US National Tour The visit of the band. The show runs through July 17 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. For those unable to see the tour in DC, it will conclude in Richmond VA July 26-31.
Adrian starred off Broadway Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theater.
Regional credits include productions at Gulfshore Playhouse, Axelrod PAC, Pioneer Theater Co., Summer Repertory Theater, North Shore Music Theater and Weathervane Theater.
Adrian has arranged and overseen the music for Norwegian Cruise Lines and The Randy Andys.
as you will read The visit of the band is an odd animal for a music director. Half of the band is in costume and on stage for much of the show, while the rhythm section is hidden backstage. Read on to see how Adrian keeps the show going while he’s out of sight of the cast. Yes, there are conductor cams, but it’s not the same.
Although The visit of the band almost done with his tour, I’m sure you’ll be seeing Adrian’s name on another project very soon. He is a very talented musician who lives his theatrical life to the fullest. Get some tickets and hear for yourself.
Who do you think was your greatest mentor on the way to becoming a musical director/pianist?
It’s difficult to single out one person as the greatest mentor, but I think I’ve been really fortunate to have the right teachers at the right time. Instead of one I would say I have a trifecta of basic mentors. My high school piano teacher, Dr. James March, gave me effective and efficient exercise strategies and habits that could motivate me. My undergraduate piano teacher Dr. Susan Gray can really encourage curiosity, creativity and musicality in her students. And my bachelor choirmaster Dr. David Holdhusen brought in the collaborative side of music, like structuring rehearsals, conducting, communicating musical ideas to others and working as a team. All three are undauntedly enthusiastic about their students’ development and curiosity, so I think they all made a pretty equal contribution to getting me to where I am today.
Where did you go to school to get your musical education?
Well, I did a lot of musical/theatrical stuff in middle/high school. I grew up in a pretty small town in South Dakota, so I was fortunate to be able to do a hundred different things because these programs just needed people to participate. I took piano lessons, singing lessons, drum lessons and was in a band, jazz band, choir, show choir and community choirs in addition to doing as much theater as my town. I ended up at the University of South Dakota where I got a bachelor’s degree in piano playing. When I finished my bachelor’s degree, I still wasn’t quite sure where I would fit in in the world, so I decided to apply to a number of graduate programs. I ended up getting accepted into the University of Oklahoma’s Masters in Piano Performance and Pedagogy. Having acted in a few musicals in undergraduate studies and also done some acting, I was also given an assistantship to act in the School of Musical Theater’s productions during my master’s program.
That’s when it really all came together for me, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life. If you looked at my schedule in the second year of this program, it would have looked like I was a musical theater student doing a master’s degree on the side. I played for singing lessons, classes, shows, cabarets, everything. I came to NYC with this year’s senior class, played piano for their showcase, made some amazing contacts and have been in the industry ever since!
is The visit of the band Do you travel as an independent production or do you get specific chairs in each city?
The first thing I say to most people when I try to explain our show is that we’re very unique…on many levels. Our band of ten musicians is completely self-contained. We have two keyboard players (including me!), bass, drums, violin, cello, reeds, oud/guitar, darbouka/percussion and a swing musician (Alex covers both the oud/guitar and darbouka/percussion tracks, he is amazing! ). Five of these tracks wear costumes on stage, have quite a bit of blocking and have memorized more than half of the show while playing their instruments on stage. So it makes logistical and security sense for these people to travel with us. Unfortunately, we lack local talent, but we’ve really been able to perfect our ensemble-being since we’ve been playing together since September.
On Broadway, the main rhythm section was hidden from the audience. Is that how it is on tour or are you in the orchestra pit? Does it depend on the venue?
As I said, our show is unique! We have a “pit” hidden from the audience, just behind the stage but still on the deck of the stage. We’re calling it The Calypso (you’ll have to watch the show to see where the Easter egg appears!). The musicians on stage sometimes play in this space, while the four rhythm section players (two keys, drums and bass) play the entire show from there. Again, all for logistical reasons. As every venue is different and some of them are quite labyrinthine, I think that the image of a cellist walking down random hallways with his cello for his next performance encouraged our creative team to come up with a much more elegant solution that we have . I find it incredibly impressive and inspiring how our sound team was able to juggle half the band live on stage with the other half backstage and a whole cast of actors also singing.
With Broadway shows increasingly hiding the conductor in bathrooms and dressing rooms, do you find there’s a disconnect between the performers on stage and you?
You know, I haven’t been in a proper orchestra pit for a show in over five years, so I try to take every situation as it comes. All musicians have our own headphone monitor system where we can adjust the levels among each other and the actor. While physically detached from the action, I actually experience a very intimate performance.
Also, because we’re backstage, we’re still part of the energy of each show. Actors pop their heads in to say hello, or I’ll watch a scene from the backstage (there are several book scenes, I won’t let up, I promise!). My favorite part backstage is watching our amazing crew flow seamlessly through the show. That’s something musicians miss when we’re in a real ditch.
The biggest disadvantage of not being in a pit is the loss of that tangible electrical energy between the band and the audience. I try to live a little vicariously through the band on stage because I know they get that relationship. Certainly one has a little less fame when one is not standing in front of a huge audience, but one learns to trust the material and, above all, trust in the actors and their fellow musicians.
You have worked on several cruise ships. Can you talk about that experience and how it’s different to be an executive on a cruise ship doing the same job on a specific production?
First off, cruise lines can vary wildly from one to another when it comes to onboard entertainment. Some ships have book musicals on them – you think Fat, Jersey boysor six – which may have been cut to around 90 minutes. Others will have between two and five revue-type shows linked by content rather than story – think a night of ’80s rock music or music from classic movie musicals. Sometimes the ships even have cabarets that the MDs build with the cast. Generally, however, everyone rehearses ashore, where the MD teaches the music, helps design each performance, and occasionally arranges or orchestrates something new. Then everyone has a few weeks on board the ship to successfully assemble each production. After that, the MD along with all the directors, choreographers and the design team goes and offers the cast a successful contract! We are of course available if something goes wrong, but help is usually remote. As such, the MD does not typically conduct or perform these shows, unlike most land based productions where the musical director will most often also act as conductor and actively oversee a production from pre-production to closing night. Regardless of where a production is located, I think a musical director needs to think deeply about what each show is trying to achieve to determine how best to support everyone.
Why is The Band’s Visit so popular with audiences?
First of all, this whole company takes such pride and care in everything they do that it can be felt from the moment an audience member enters the theater.
The show is about very specific people in a very specific time and place who encounter a very specific problem, and yet somehow manages to touch on some powerful universals of our humanity. There are these implicit tensions within the show that I think make the audience lean forward and pay attention in a way a show full of razzmatazz can’t. The music emerges when those tensions finally melt away, so there’s something particularly rewarding, or maybe even cathartic, about each piece of music. It’s somehow rich in both simplicity and depth. Oh, and we can’t forget the lightness. There is something hypnotically ephemeral about the show that is very difficult to describe, but leaves the audience hoping for a little more.
i believe in his heart The visit of the band is a show about our desire to communicate and connect, and especially where we are in the world now, that will ring true.
Special thanks to the Kennedy Center’s amazing tag team publicity duo of Brittany Laeger, Press Secretary, Ballet/Dance and Education, and Brendan Padgett, Public Relations Director, for their help in coordinating this interview.
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