BY DANA TYLER | CBS NEW YORK
NEW YORK — There have been renewed efforts recently to have more inclusive orchestras on Broadway.
CBS2’s Dana Tyler went backstage at two Broadway shows where the conductors talked about how they’re helping other musicians break barriers.
“MJ the Musical” at the Neil Simon Theatre features the iconic songs of Michael Jackson. Jason Michael Webb is the show’s musical director, conducting the orchestra on and off stage.
“I’ve been obsessing about this for 20 years. I’ve wanted this gig for 20 years, and they finally gave it to me,” he said.
At the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, the music keeps audiences on their feet at “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.”
Alvin Hough Jr. holds the baton at “Tina.”
In 2022, the number of African Americans conducting on Broadway can be counted on one hand.
“It’s an honor to be, to be the music director of such a great show,” Hough said.
Tyler spoke with Hough in his dressing room before a recent matinee performance.
“To be here, to have this kind of weight on my shoulders, it’s a weight that I love, that I accept graciously. I don’t take this for granted. … to be doing a show about such an iconic woman who, whose songs I grew up on,” Hough said.
Raised in Washington, D.C., Hough began playing piano when he was 5. He was classically trained, and in addition to Bach and Beethoven, there was church. He’s grateful for the piano teacher who saw something in him at an early age.
“I think having a Black female teacher teach me Chopin… I didn’t realize how amazing that was when I was 8, 10, 12, 15 years old. And she put me in places where I could see people who look like me — in my church. But then when I went to that theater, I was the only one,” Hough said.
Broadway had challenges.
“A younger man, African American, was it harder?” Tyler asked.
“I’d be lying if I said no. It’s something that, it’s a phrase that I heard a lot growing up, that you have to work twice as hard to get half as much. And I find that, unfortunately, to be true,” Hough said.
Hough went on to say, “When I go out to bow at the end of the show, like, I want people to know who was conducting the show, and to say, for any little boy or little girl out there to say, hey, you can do whatever you want, including this.”
Hough is a founding member of Musicians United for Social Equity, or MUSE. The organization came together in 2020 during the summer of racial justice protests.
“We’re trying to get historically marginalized people of color the ability to be seen, to be heard, just to get in that inner circle, which is very tight and very closed off,” Hough said.
In 1945, Everett Lee became the first Black man to conduct a white orchestra on Broadway. “On the Town” was a breakthrough. The Wheeling, West Virginia, native is in that state’s “Hall of Fame.” Lee died Jan. 12 in Sweden at age 105.
“Clearly, if there was no Everett Lee, there’s no Alvin Hough,” Hough said. “Every day, every week, every month that this show is running reminds me that, you know, I’m not the first and through MUSE, we hope that I’m certainly not the last.”
Nicole DeMaio is a MUSE mentee. She plays five woodwind instruments and recently booked a gig thanks to her MUSE mentor Gregory Riley. DeMaio was a substitute musician in the off-Broadway show “Kimberly Akimbo.”
“We had been talking, meeting up still and he said, ‘Would you be interested in subbing on this show?’ And of course, I said yes. So I got the, a copy of the book of music from him. And I kind of went from there. It was an incredible, just priceless opportunity to get from a mentor of just saying, not just I’m going to teach you some things, but I’m going to actually help you get a place in this industry,” DeMaio said.
Backstage at “Tina,” Hough showed CBS2 where he conducts the show, on a second-level platform next to several of the 11 musicians. There are cameras and monitors so the band and cast on stage can see him.
“A lot of conducting gets done with, with the head. It’s a lot of sharp motions,” he said.
Over at “MJ,” Jason Michael Webb is musical director as well as co-orchestrator and arranger, and he’s another founding member of MUSE.
“For me, I would have no career at all, I think, if it weren’t for the people who looked out for me. And so as I’ve developed in and evolved into, you know, musical director on Broadway, I want to be able to give that back and, and help someone the way that I’ve been helped,” Webb said.
“What is it like, as I look out there, what’s it like up here? During the show?” Tyler asked.
“Being up here and seeing the joy that’s happening in the audience is actually what feeds me the most … to see people in the audience going through the same experience that I’m going through is really blessing,” Webb said.
Webb started playing as a child growing up in Neptune, New Jersey. He was just 4 years old when he began studying classical piano.
“I played a solo at my high school graduation. I was really encouraged by the people there,” he said.
So far, Webb has credits on seven Broadway shows, and in 2019 he received a special Tony Award for his music in the play “Choir Boy.”
Webb says church made the transition to Broadway a lot easier.
“What we’re doing up here is providing, I think, an experience for the audience to go on this wonderful journey that we’ve created. And with church it’s a very similar thing, … And, you know, we have church eight shows a week,” Webb said.
“Favorite song as a kid, favorite song now?” Tyler asked.
“‘Man in the Mirror’ is one of my favorites and always touches me. ‘I’ll Be There,'” Webb said.
“It is emotional,” Tyler said.
“Yeah. Yeah,” Webb said. “After every single time we do that, I’m so self-conscious of this camera because, like, there’s two tears that come right here at the end of that song, every single show, and I’m like, I can’t cry in front of this band one more time. I can’t do it again.”
Conducting the best-selling hits of Michael Jackson and Tina Turner, Tyler asked both musical directors what it’s like ending their shows with songs filled with joy and nostalgia.
“‘Jam,’ ‘Black or White,’ these are songs that are energy,” Webb said. “I wanna go through the roof every time we do that finale, I really, really do, because I know people are having a great time.”
“Fantastic encore. and then you come out there during all that applause, what is that like for you?” Tyler asked Hough.
“It is just a thrill to see the audience. They’ve experienced three hours of a roller coaster of emotions, but like you said, the last 10 minutes, huge concert, huge concert, on your feet, singing to your heart’s content,” Hough said.
There have also been a few female African American conductors, including Linda Twine, who led the orchestra for “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “The Color Purple,” and Margaret Harris who conducted the original production of “Hair.”