The Hills Are Alive for Northwestern Alumnus

Ian Weinberger (Bienen ’09) spent the past several months working as a music assistant on NBC’s production of “The Sound of Music Live,” which airs tonight at 7 p.m. (CT). Read about his varied experiences working with the cast, crew and orchestra on this unique production.

Ian Weinberger

I’m really grateful to have had some great experience at Northwestern learning how to put together new musicals. Working on the American Music Theatre Project shows and the Waa-Mu Show taught me so much about how musical theatre is made. While “The Sound of Music” isn’t exactly a new musical, and while working in television is a whole different animal, there were certain elements of this process—new dance music, different keys, working with orchestrators and copyists—that my Northwestern experience absolutely prepared me for.

I was brought onto “The Sound of Music Live” by music director David Chase. I’d worked with David on a couple of projects over the last couple of years. He wrote to me in August and asked if I’d be interested in being the music assistant…and I’m so glad he did. My duties have been pretty varied, but in general I’ve been working with the orchestra, the cast and the creative team to help put this thing up.

We’ve been rehearsing the show since mid-September, and for the first couple of months the rehearsal process functioned very much like a Broadway show. My first major set of tasks had to do with preparing for the recording sessions. We recorded the orchestra (37 stellar Broadway musicians) that you’ll hear on the broadcast tonight, and the actors came in to record the companion cast album that was released earlier this week.

The tricky part was, unlike a Broadway show, we were recording the album about five weeks ahead of our “opening,” and only a couple of weeks after our official start of rehearsals. So a tremendous amount of planning had to be done with David and the music department, director Rob Ashford and his team, as well as the actors, to determine what would be recorded. We knew certain changes could be made after recording had completed—if we needed a few bars to be repeated, for example, or if a certain section had to be a little slower, we could make those adjustments digitally. But, by and large, what we recorded is what we had—we couldn’t create new underscoring if we needed more music. In fact, in many instances we recorded several versions of something–at different tempi, or with both 2- and 4-bar intros, etc.—just so we’d have options as we started to piece the show together.

After the recordings were completed and mixed, I worked with David to organize the various playback cues that we’d use for the show. Some musical numbers needed to be split into several cues. For example, at the top of the show, when Maria sings “The Sound of Music,” there is a held note in the orchestra. Then she sings “My day in the hills…”—and the orchestra joins her in time on the word “day.” In a standard theatrical setting with a live orchestra and a conductor, this is as simple as the conductor holding until “day” and then bringing in the orchestra with Maria. But in this case, the playback was split into two cues—one for the held note, and then another for the rest of the song. So Mark “Wedge” Weglinski, who’s manning the playback, presses “GO” for the held note and then “GO” again when she sings, “My day in the hills.” All told, there are about 75 playback cues for the entire show.

The makeup of our music department differed greatly from that of any standard theatrical production that we’re used to working on. Aside from David—the boss!—we were very lucky to have Fred Lassen as associate music supervisor. Fred was left in charge with cast rehearsals while David went away for the 10 days of recording. (Tonight, Fred’s job is to sit at a keyboard and play along with the entire show, just in case—knock on something—the playback system and its backup system fail for any reason.) Steven Malone served as the music director dedicated to the seven von Trapp children and their understudies—working specifically on the kids’ music. We had two additional rehearsal pianists, plus I also played rehearsal piano when needed. Finally, Georgia Stitt, one of the nuns, took on the role of “nun captain,” rehearsing and leading the choir of 24 nuns on her own when David or Fred were otherwise tied up. Plus—Doug Besterman (orchestrator), a team of copyists, a recording engineer and two assistants, Wedge on playback, a sound mixer and his team…it has taken a village—for the music alone! I heard yesterday that all told, about 340 people are working on this.

Anyway, it’s all been very exciting and a very educational project for all of us. But now I am off to work! We’re just about to start our last (only our second!) full run-through at 1 p.m. before we do the show at 7 p.m. (CT) tonight. The excitement is palpable here in Bethpage, NY—we really can’t wait to share this with you. If you’re watching tonight, hope you enjoy!

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