Ted Sperling

Looking Ahead

Laura Marie Duncan

Joe Szekeres

I got the chance to travel to New York and Broadway figuratively when I interviewed Ted Sperling.

I’m always appreciative of the opportunity to speak with American artists. I learned a few things about Ted even before I begin to share what he has coming up and in store for audiences shortly.

From Ted’s personal website (which I will include at the conclusion of his profile) he is a multi-faceted artist, director, music director, conductor, orchestrator, singer, pianist, violinist and violist. He is the Artistic Director of MasterVoices and Music Director of the recent Broadway productions of My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof and The King and I, all currently touring nationally and internationally.

A Tony Award winner for his orchestrations of The Light in the Piazza, (which was marvelous when I saw the OBC several years ago, Ted is known for his work across many genres, including opera, oratorio, musical theater, symphony, and pops. Mr. Sperling recently appeared as Steve Allen in the final episode of Season Two of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” When I was in New York several years ago to see the Original Broadway company of ‘Titanic’, Ted appeared in this production.

Starting May 7, this week marks the launch of a new online concert series Ted has created with Dreamstage Live: Broadway Stories and Songs. Each Friday night (with a repeat stream Saturday afternoon) Ted hosts a Broadway star for an intimate hour-long concert of songs from shows old and new, interspersed with anecdotes from their shared experiences on stage and off.

Before I began the interview below, I asked Ted how the ‘Broadway Stories and Songs’ came about. He said it was born out of ‘Music Never Sleeps NYC’. It was a 24-hour music program with everybody recording remotely when the pandemic hit. Ted said he contributed two Gershwin songs. There was a lovely response from the program according to him.

Since the response was positive, a new platform Dreamstage Live started, and Ted was asked to put together a Broadway series. And there are some talented artists who will participate: For Ted, the experience was “joyous being in a room with someone to be able to make music and not do it remotely and send recordings away and wait to get them back. To be spontaneous to make beautiful sounds in a beautiful room on a beautiful instrument has been nourishing and long needed.”

A big part of the ‘Broadway Stories and Songs’ are the stories that will be shared along with the songs in the one-hour concert. There are around 9-10 songs for this concert, generally speaking. In a way, this format for Sperling is harder than a full-length program because you have to be really picky and finds things that connect with each other and connect with you, and have a nice flow.

Along with some Broadway favourites, each of these concerts will allow the artists and Ted to explore some new repertoire.

Ted and I conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thanks again for adding your voice to the conversation:

It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. How has your understanding of the world you know changed on a personal level?

I’m even more grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, proud of what I’ve been able to achieve, and curious to see what will be next.

During this year, I have not taken this year off. In some ways, I’ve been working harder than ever because everything takes more planning and effort when you have to do it this way. And I branched out into making short films.

I’ve made one before as a director long time ago. Now, by the end of this pandemic season, who knows when the actual end of the pandemic will be, in this year from April – April, I will have produced 23 musical short films and directed close to half of those. It’s been a great new experience for me.

With live indoor theatres shut for one year plus, with it appearing now that Broadway theatres will slowly re-open in mid September 2021, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre industry been altered and changed?

Well, so many things have happened during this year in addition that were in motion before the pandemic but have crested now.

I think there are a lot of question marks, certainly a big push in the desire for fairness and opportunity and good behaviour (reference to the recent Scott Rudin’s behaviour). So, I think that’s going to be very much at the top of people’s minds when we go back to work

And I think it will be an adjustment period for all of us.

Personally, I believe there will be a great hunger for live theatre and for any kind of live performance that’s actually the way we used to enjoy it in a crowded room. I think it’s still the reason people go to the movies as opposed to watching them at home alone. There’s something about a shared experience, cheek by jowl, with strangers that we crave. To have been deprived of it for over eighteen months really for Broadway, I think there will be a lot of pent-up energy and a lot of pent-up enthusiasm that I’m hoping will just come bursting forth.

As a professional artist, what have you missed the most about live theatre?

I think the camaraderie. It’s why I went into that area of music to begin with. Putting together a show or even performing a show on a nightly basis is such a large basis group effort, and you build a temporary family.

But it’s a family of friends, and I personally look forward to being with them on a daily basis whether it’s in rehearsal or performance. I really like the rehearsal process.

No matter what kind of show you’re working on, whether it’s an old one or a new one, it’s like solving a varying complex puzzle, but doing it with friends. It’s like sitting down with the New York Times Sunday crossword for an extended period of time when there might not be an exact right answer.

It’s all a bit of educated guess work. It’s a lot of collaborative thinking. It’s a lot of compromise and I just really enjoy that process. It’s why I love working in the theatre as opposed to say being a recitalist. At one point, I aspired to be a member of a string quartet, but after spending a summer doing that, I realized it was a little too confined for me to be with the same three people.

As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it?

(Ted laughed) Well, so many things, I think. Giving somebody a hug. Being able to walk outside and just breathe fresh air.

And I guess an audience. These concerts we are doing for thr Broadway series which you mentioned in the introduction to my profile are done for a remote audience, so we don’t get that feedback in the moment. We have to pull on our experience of performing these songs before.

I love making recordings. I love the concentration and trying to get it absolutely perfect, but with these concerts we’re going for the opposite. Even though there is an essentially a beautiful room with microphones like a studio, we’re imagining the audience with us and forgiving ourselves for any little mistakes we might make for the sake of the spontaneity and the joy of being in the moment.

Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry.

I have a lot of ambitions still. I’ve always been sort of a restless artist trying to push myself into new territory. I’ve been directing as well as music directing now for around twenty years. But when I started that, that was a whole new adventure, but I think I still have a lot to learn and a lot to explore in that way. I’d like to do more of it.

Directing these films and producing these films has been a wonderful new avenue for me, and I’d love to keep expanding that way.

I’m also interested in trying my hand at writing. I have to carve out some calm space in which to do that which has been a real challenge, even in this time.

So, I think I have a lot still to explore, a lot to give, a lot to find out about myself and I hope I have a nice long time to find that out.

Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement? Is it an important one OR are Covid themed stories possibly the last stories that both artists and audience members would like to see in the theatre?

I don’t have a crystal ball, no one does.

I think, though, that I have some good instincts. For example, the big project that I’ve been working on this whole year is this video production I mentioned to you called ‘Myths and Hymns’. When I conceived of it last March/ April, I knew it was going to take me a while to get something on the air, to actually have a finished product.

So, I tried to imagine, as an audience member, what would I be interested in seeing six months in the future because people were already creating art right away on the internet. But I knew that it was going to take me awhile. I don’t want to be doing what people are doing right now. I want to be doing what people are hungry for in six months, nine months from now, a year.

We didn’t know how long this was going to take, but I was pretty sure we weren’t going to be able to perform live for a year. So, I think I predicted well.

And the piece I produced has elements to it that feel fresh and worth tuning into. And certainly some of them have drawn inspiration from our live in Covid, but I personally will be relieved to be free of this pandemic.

And so, my gut is people will want to move on. They’re not going to want to look back. I may be wrong, but during the AIDS epidemic and after, there were many AIDS related plays.

The question with musicals is that it often takes years to get done from conception to performance. In the old days, Rodgers and Hammerstein could take a book about World War 2 and written during World War 2 and have it on Broadway just a couple of years after the war. ‘South Pacific’ was very timely.

Even ‘Showboat’ adapted very quickly and came out not that long after the book.

These days, it more often takes four years. So, if you can imagine us in four years still wanting to be discussing Covid musically, you may be a better man than I am. (And Ted and I laugh)

I don’t know. We’ll see. We’ll see. I imagine artists will find ways to talk about it so I guess that’s what will keep it fresh.

As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you?

That’s a really good question, and I should have had a bit of time to formulate a beautiful answer.

I think that I would people to relish my joy, to experience my joy in making music and theatre. I pick my projects carefully because I know they’re going to require a full investment of my time and thought. So I want to be able to embrace them fully and love them.

So, when I’m picking material for my Group Master Voices or when I’m signing on to a new show, I want to give it that litmus test. Will I want to be fully devoting my interest and time months from now, years from now doing it eight times a week.

So, I pick things that I really like. And I hope that really comes across in my performances and my productions. I’ve been told that by people that when they see me conducting that I love it and that I’m having fun.

And I do think that should be an element of any good performance.

And along with that, I hope there’s a sense of warmth in my music making and directing. I feel like that’s an important quality for me. That’s what I want my art to hold is caring, warmth and deep emotion.

So that’s what I push myself towards every time.

To learn more about Ted, visit his website: http://www.tedsperling.net/

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