David Holcenberg, Broadway Music Director, Supervisor, Arranger.
[Interview Date: October 27, 2020]
Mamma Mia, Matilda, Groundhog Day, Ghost. Upcoming: The Michael Jackson Musical
Where were you on March 12, 2020? And what was the week leading up to it like for you?
It was kind of strange for me, because my mom has a timeshare in Palm Springs, California that our whole family goes to every year, and this last year it was March 4th-March 11th. So, we were in Palm Springs March 4th through March 11th. And during that week, there were some little things like, “The Coronavirus is coming. Be careful…” But they have a street fair in Palm Springs on Thursday night, and on that Thursday night, it was packed with people. Tons of people walking down the street. No thought of social distancing, no thought of anything. So, we flew back on the 11th, and on the plane, we didn’t wear masks, but we cleaned our stations with wipes, and we were a little bit cautious. And then we got home, and it was like, “Oh. Ok… Things are shutting down!” And so, it was not completely unexpected, because we’re news watchers. But it was kind of unexpected because of how fast it happened.
Did you anticipate that Broadway and other theatre productions would be closed for this long?
No, not really. Because the rules kept changing. People first thought it was supposed to be a couple weeks to a month. And we were supposed to start rehearsals for Michael Jackson at the end of May for an August Opening. And then, of course, that got pushed back. We initially thought it was going to get pushed back to January rehearsals. When we got the notice that it was going to be pushed back at the end of March, they had a Zoom and told everyone we’d start rehearsals in the fall sometime and open in January. And then, that got pushed back, so we were going to start rehearsals in January and open in March. And now, it’s looking like we’re going to start rehearsals sometime in July. So, the bar keeps getting pushed back. And it gets tricky, because I kind of put all my eggs in this one basket. Because I’m doing all the arrangements; I’m orchestrating; I’m supervising; so, it’s a big job. It’s so exciting to work on this music, and it’s a really good show. I’m really proud of it. So, now we’re in this holding pattern. Now it’s going to be well over a year that we’re in this holding pattern.
What have, you, personally, been doing over the past year or so to stay sane? What has helped you the most?
I’ve been playing the piano a lot. Usually in my work life, I play the piano all day so when I get home, I don’t really have the time or interest in practicing classical piano. So, I’ve gotten back to practicing classical piano, which has been fun. I also bought a new keyboard, because I work in Logic a lot, which is a music arranging software program, and I’ve been able to do more projects with that program. The new keyboard helps make music entry easier. I’ve gotten to know Logic a lot better, so that’s a good thing. And, also, in your life you have all these projects. You say, “I’ll do it when, I’ll do it when…” Some of those projects we’ve been able to tackle—my husband Mike and I. Like I went through all of our old VHS tapes and converted them to digital format. So, all these old recordings of when I was conducting Ragtime in LA, all those old shows on VHS; I was able to convert them to digital and see my huge hair—that’s been fun. And going through all our old photos. So, those kinds of projects that you always say you’re going to do but never have time for. Also, the quality time that Mike and I get to spend together. Usually, one of us is either traveling or in rehearsals or working nights or working days, so we have all this time together. And we love being together, so it’s been a good thing.
How has what’s happening in the world affected your drive to create? Have you felt a stronger urge? A lack of inspiration? Or has it stayed about the same for you?
It’s hard to stay motivated. We (the Michael Jackson Team) are going to get together next week to do a week of work, and just sort of see if there are ways that we can make the show even richer. We’re taking advantage of this time to do that. So, there are things that are positive about it—it gives Ephraim a break. The amazing Ephraim Sykes is playing Michael Jackson. This gives him more of a break between the Temptations musical and our show. It gives him time to change his voice, because he’s singing in a very different style, so he has the time to work on that. So, there are things that are happening which are positive, but it’s a long wait.
What are your thoughts on the ways that technology has taken a role during this time of quarantine?
I think it’s a double-edged sword. I honestly hate working these Zoom things. Honestly. I support my friends who are doing them, and I love that they’re doing them. But it’s not for me. It’s a ton of work. The joy of theatre, to me, is everyone in a room creating together and the magic and the camaraderie that is created in a room when all the people are in the room creating together. I don’t get that same feeling. For me, it seems like a chore to do Zoom things. They’re necessary, and they’re good. But for me, it’s not that fun. That’s what makes theatre unique. It’s a live experience. It will never be exactly the same as the moment you’re seeing it right now. There will always be little differences. There will always be little changes depending on what’s happening in your life as you’re watching it, as you’re taking in a show; what’s happening in the performers’ lives. All those things. Every day is different. It makes it exciting and magical and unique. And it’s something that will never go away. Because even with all the technology in the world, there’s nothing that can beat a live experience, whether it’s a concert or theatre. The live experience will never change. It will always be unique and special.
What has been the hardest thing about the past months since the shutdown?
I think exactly that. Not being able to be in a room and create with people. It’s been my life’s work to do that. It really has. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. To have a long career of being able to do this relatively consistently. And between shows, I’m always looking forward to the next moment when I can get into a room and start creating with people again. It’s all about that live experience. I’ve always loved that live experience, teaching music in a room with people and hearing an ensemble sing together. I mean, the feeling of hearing a choir sing together when you first teach something and it all comes together and you hear the tonality of the group singing together; it gives me goosebumps, and it makes me happier than almost anything. Even more than when you’re onstage and the microphones and the orchestra and everything is great too. But it takes some of the purity out of it. Out of that pure moment when you’re just hearing that acoustically in the room. You can’t do that on Zoom. That’s for sure.
What positives, if any, do you think have come out of this time?
The times I get to spend with my family and my dog, getting outside. We’re also cooking amazing dinners; being able to be at home and eat at home. I feel lucky, because I have a nice home that I love. So, it makes it a little easier. We have had a couple adventures. We rented a lake house in June. That was the real height of the pandemic when it was super stressful in New York, and we felt like we had to get out. We had a friend who had a lake house available. And we went out to Chicago to see Mike’s family in September, so we drove out there. So, we’ve had a few adventures when we went out of town. We tried to do it safely.
What do you miss the most about live theatre?
The camaraderie. Being in a room. Being together and creating together, and collaborating with my casts and my orchestras and my musicians and everybody. That is my favorite thing and what I miss the most.
What’s your favorite theatre memory?
I had to think about this one! If I had to pick one, three years ago in the summer, I got to conduct a Mamma Mia concert at the Hollywood Bowl, in front of 18,000 people for three nights with a star-studded cast. It was so magical. Kathleen Marshall directed it. And the band was on an upper platform, and the cast was below, so I could actually look out and see the 18,000 people and see them watching the show, enjoying the show, and dancing to the show. It was so fun and so magical. And what made it even more special was that my parents got to come out from Seattle to see it, and my dad sadly passed away a few months later. So, the fact that he got to see it made it even more magical and more special. It was one of those things that you pinch yourself that you’re a part of.
What is the thing you’re most excited to do when live theatre is back?
Get into the rehearsal room! And work with my casts and put a show together, and start listening and hearing. I have to say the whole cast of Michael Jackson sing their faces off. They’re so talented, and they sing so beautifully. It’s like going to church. It’s godly how amazing it sounds when they’re all singing together. To get into a room and hear that sound again is what I’m most looking forward to.
What advice do you have for young Broadway hopefuls during this time?
I would say, be patient and keep working. Theatre will come back. Broadway will come back. And when it comes back, it will come back with a vengeance and people will be looking for performers of all types, races, creeds, colors, and genders to do tours and do Broadway. And people are going to be looking for a lot of entertaining shows, and there’s a place for people to have work. And I think, ‘don’t give up’ is the biggest thing I would say.
Favorite Broadway Musical: I have two! My favorite I’ve seen is Cabaret. Favorite Musical I’ve done is Ragtime. I did the US Premiere of Ragtime in LA. It’s an amazing show and to get to work on it at the very beginning stage was extraordinary.
Favorite Movie Musical: Sound of Music
Movie that you think should be a Musical: Airplane
Favorite Instrument: Piano
Instrument you don’t already play that you would want to learn: Oboe
Rodgers and Hammerstein or Rodgers and Hart: Rodgers and Hammerstein
Irving Berlin or George Gershwin: Berlin
Favorite Theatre Ritual: Post-show drinks with the band
Favorite NYC Restaurant: That’s a really hard one. I would pick Craft. Also, Cookshop. And in the theatre district-Toloache.
Favorite Theatre Superstition: The ghost-light.