Michael Lavine is probably beswt known for having the largest private collection of Broadway sheet music, which he is amazingly generous to make available as a resource for people who are trying to track down obscure songs. As a matter of fact, shortly after I arrived, he was fielding an urgent request from Sutton Foster. Lavine is one of the most notable coaches in New York for musical theater professionals and is also an active music director. A signature Lavine event is the Flopz ‘n Cutz series of concerts featuring Broadway starts singing songs cut from successful shows or featured in flop musicals.
1. By nature music directors are multi-talented beings: musician, composer, arranger, performer, teacher and often business manager, travel agent, and shrink. How do you primarily define yourself as an artist and what place does music directing have in your career?
I’d rather be music directing more than I do. I’d rather be conducting. I don’t pursue it. I don’t send out resumes to theater companies because I make a living as a vocal coach — meaning working with singers on the selection of material for auditions. And the part that I enjoy the most – the acting of material. People always come to me saying, “Oh, you have all this music and I need some new songs for auditions.” And I say that’s fine and I talk to them. And sometimes they don’t come back for a long time and then out of the blue I’ll hear from them. I like it when they come back and I’m able to have them stand right where you’re sitting. And I’m able to have them work on a song and say, “You know what, I don’t believe you. You had your eyes closed.” …
I talk a lot about smiles and I say your smile is one of your biggest assets, but I’ll often look up at their smile and I go, “You know, I don’t buy that smile. This character would not be smiling.” Or smiles often mask insecurity or nervousness. Or often I feel you haven’t earned this smile. So I love working on the acting of the songs. By my work as a vocal coach keeps me the most busy when I’m in New York City, being, as you say, able to do many different things as a pianist and everything that encompasses at the time…
2. Who have your major musical influences been?
Stephen Sondheim and Charles Strouse. Stephen Schwartz. I didn’t listen to pianists growing up. More to Broadway cast albums.
3. What is a particularly memorable performance moment you have had?
These Flopz ‘n Cutz concerts that I’m doing because I get to get together with a plethora of wonderful Broadway performers that I’ve always wanted to work with. I’m choosing material for them and they’re singing what I want them to sing. And I’m up there talking to the audience, singing a little myself, and I ——— them and it’s for my peers. I probably enjoy that as much as I enjoy anything.
4. What can a performer do to establish rapport with you? What do performers do that make you inwardly roll your eyes and sigh?
Since I’m so into acting, when they’re really acting a song, sometimes I have my back to them, and I don’t even see them, but I can tell they’ve totally connected to the material and it’s great when they can sing, too. When I just feel that they are embodying the character and I just feel that they GET IT, often without even looking at them. I was running a song from Christina (which is a musical by ABBA) for Alice Ripley and she was standing right behind me and I had chills and goosebumps. So it wasn’t even about the acting as much, (no, she was auditioning for two things and it was that and Lestat, so it was actually a Lestat song) and it was just these chilling notes that were this close to my ear. And we finished the song and she said “Can we run that again?” and I was like “Yeeeesss.” That was chilling! That was very exciting, a really good memory!
But when I get somebody who is not the caliber of Alice, doing some amazing job, but I’m like, they embodied the character of the song… when I see somebody make a big stride as an actor more than as a singer or they come back to me after a year when I haven’t seen them and it’s clear they’ve done their work with a voice teacher, and they didn’t have, they didn’t have Es and they’re suddenly singing G Sharps as a man, and I’m like, “You don’t have that note, how did you sing that note?” And they say, “I’ve been working.”
And another thrill I have Is walking down a theater, past a theater and seeing somebody’s name (who I coached)… I had a friend who was in Cats named Bethany Samuelson and she said, “I have a friend, a high school kid in Philadelphia. It’s his dream to be in Cats and he’s gonna come to New York. Can I send him to you? He’s gonna come for a day just to work with you. Is that all right?” So I said “All right.” And this wide-eyed, cute kid and (he) dreamed to be in Cats, and he worked very, very hard and the following year I’m walking pas the theater and I see his name on the board outside the Winter Garden. Christopher Gattelli! Oh, my God! Little did I know he would then become one of the premier Broadway directors / choreographers around. Christopher Gattelli, I knew him when he was a kid before college. I just feel so proud, so thrilled. ..
5. Do you prefer to play from a binder or taped pages?
Excellent question. It comes up all the time with my students. Personally, I like it in a book because I like to snoop during an audition and say- “Oh, you have this song, can I get a copy of that?” But that said, I’ve done every Flopz ‘n Cutz concert with each song individually Scotch taped together and then throw it down, new song. This is the first show I’m going to do with an actual binder because other musical directors have said to me, “Oh, my God, it’s so much easier with a binder.” And I steadfastly refused to do that, not really for any reason, but that’s how I grew up.
However, when they tape, I want to make sure the music is taped the correct way. People at Michigan… use masking tape and worse than masking tape, …(they) go vertically rather than horizontally and it will never lie flat on any piano. And pianists, they see the masking tape and say “Michigan, right?” and (the former students) say “Right!” and we’re praying that the music will lie flat on the piano. I say, not only do you Scotch tape, but you don’t go vertically, rather go horizontally: little piece at the top, little piece at the middle, little piece at the bottom, it will lie flat on the piano. If you’re worried about the tape breaking, put two pieces on. It’ll never break. … I (also) like it as a book, either with or without the sleeves. But if you get the sleeves, be sure to get the non-glare ones.
6. What is the greatest need in the world of cabaret today?+1. As the acute observer of the DC cabaret scene that you are, what do you feel people need to do to try to make things more successful?
+1 What are the biggest mistakes that people make in choosing material for themselves?
Choosing material that’s not them, or who they are. Choosing material that is too negative, too loser-y. Not presenting them as we want to see them in the show. Worrying too much about how they’re going to sound, not what they’re saying in the song, in the lyric.
I think it’s very important to remember that singing in musical theater is acting on pitch and that you do what you do as if it’s a monologue and there happens to be a pitch … (People) are so worried about showing us their high “Qs,” and we’d much rather hear, see who they are. …
(People should be) thinking that if they were sitting behind a table — picking somebody like them that they were going to pay 1500 dollars a week to — and say, “So, tell me something about yourself” …Then they read, “Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky, maybe this time he’ll stay.” I’m like “loser, wah, wah” These are the kind of things I think about constantly. (Especially) after auditions go a day or after two days of LOSER ballads – the only time I ever sing a ballad first in an audition is when it’s specifically, when the call says “Please prepare a dramatic ballad.” Most audition notices say bring in an uptempo and a ballad, and I think they really mean: an UPTEMPO and a ballad. I mean, for most casting directors, ballad is like a dirty word. It’s like “I guess we have to hear the ballad now.” I mean the highest praise is if I’m behind the table and somebody does something particularly remarkable and I’m like, “Did you see that? I love them! I can’t wait to work with them! He’s going to be so much fun to have around!” rather than “Wow, what a great voice!” … Usually we’re sitting behind a table thinking “I want to work with you because you are a ______ man.” (I want to ) hear (the answer) in the lyrics of your song. So I think it’s important when I’m proposing songs for people or they’re finding songs on their own, they find songs that are active rather than passive. Not loser songs … Songs that let us know who they are.