Faculty Member Joseph Church Publishes New Book on Rock in Musical Theatre
A longtime theatre professional and faculty member in our programs in Composition and Vocal Performance, Joseph Church has published a new book entitled Rock in the Musical Theatre (Oxford University Press).
Church has a wealth of knowledge in the subject; before coming to teach at NYU, he was the music director and supervisor of The Lion King and The Who’s Tommy. He has also worked as an arranger and conductor on several other Broadway musicals. In addition to being an alum of our department (he received a doctor of arts in Composition), Church served as the co-director of our concentration in Music Theatre and was guest conductor of the NYU Symphony. His last book, Music Direction for the Stage: A View from the Podium, was published in 2015.
In Rock in the Musical Theatre, Church explores the world of contemporary music theatre in which rock ‘n’ roll music dominates. He provides practical information for those wishing to perform in today’s musicals. He answered a few questions for us about his career and new book.
Tell us about your own career from being an aspiring rock musician to music director?
I grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s here in Greenwich Village, in fact, right in view of Washington Square (and the Education Building at NYU!), so I had a lot of early exposure to rock music literally outside my window, and from the surrounding neighborhood and New York culture. I was studying classical piano, but my heart was always in the rock world. Luckily, I had a few music teachers who were sympathetic to my musical bent, but the closest I got in piano lessons was some beginning jazz—back then, no one “taught” rock music.
So, I listened to records and the radio constantly, and went to dozens of concerts at local venues—again including a great concert hall where now stands an NYU building, the legendary Academy of Music on 14th street (later The Palladium). In between rock and classical, I discovered theatre in all its forms, and began getting involved as an accompanist, composer, and even as an actor and singer.
Later on, this led me to music direction as a professional pursuit, a way to make a living as a musician. I fit right in, and loved doing it, because I was able to combine all the different musical skills I was learning in an environment that welcomed all styles of music.
Indeed, in the 1970s and beyond, rock started to overtake the musical theatre, so I was able to return to my beloved rock music in a different setting. When I got a chance to do Tommy on Broadway as the music director and arranger, it felt like being a rock star!
Don’t take rock for granted, and don’t underestimate its musical depth. Rock is not just something one hears and imitates on stage. It is a 70-year-old musical phenomenon, with an elaborate history, one that has involved and engaged the greatest musical artists of our time.
How and when did rock music and its offshoots become the standard language of musical theatre?
It actually took quite some time. Because of Broadway’s ticket-buying demographics, musical theatre producers have always skewed their efforts toward the audience most likely to buy tickets: older people, who have more money to spend on theatre tickets, and who, ostensibly, have more sophisticated tastes. (Producers still follow this model; despite the recent success of shows with greater appeal to a younger market, it’s still older folk paying the fare—not surprising, considering the high cost of Broadway tickets.) If one follows the pop music charts through the 1960s, it’s clearly evident how rock and its related styles had subsumed all earlier genres of pop songs by the end of the decade. But in 1969, theatre had barely heard of rock. Hair (1968) was a huge deal in its time because it was the first major commercial crossover from rock culture to Broadway culture. (It’s quite important to make a distinction between commercial theatre and non-commercial theatre: in the late 1960s, fringe theatre, from rathskellers and be-ins right up to Off-Broadway, was definitely starting to rock.)
But by about 1980, the culture of rock—not just rock music but the cultural shifts it spawned and coincided with—had so overtaken the whole world that rock at last became the predominant voice of all new musicals, commercial and otherwise. The “younger generation” of the 1960s and 70s were now having kids of their own. (It’s also very important to consider that musical theatre music and rock music will always have inherent differences, as I discuss extensively in the book, and this is reflected in most of the rock music we hear in the theatre throughout its history.)
How can a classically trained singer adapt to performing in more rock-based musicals?
There’s no simple answer, and in the book, I offer many viewpoints, details, and exercises in helping singers make this transition. In basic terms, it’s a combination of rethinking one’s musical values and freeing the voice to take on an unfamiliar approach. There are two primary steps (but obviously many others). 1) Immersion in rock styles: Classical music and rock music share most musical features but interpret them in vastly different ways. Comprehensive familiarity with the musical values of rock can only be achieved by experience with the style, so singers should start with listening, studying, and analysis. 2) A text-based approach to vocal production: Whereas the basic elements of singing and vocal performance are shared by all forms of music, rock speaks in a modern vernacular. Its words and concepts are echoed in its music, particularly its rhythms and modalities, and vice versa. The words of a song and the way the melody operates will inform the singer’s approach to vocal production and vocalism.
You mention the concept of believability in the book, how can it be achieved in performance?
This is really the central topic of the book, so I don’t want to reveal any spoilers… but one could generalize that the ultimate goal of all musical theatre performance is in creating believable characters and telling believable, identifiable stories, and that rock music adds specific obstacles to achieving these aspects of believability. To properly perform rock in the theatre, a student or performer must fully understand the origins, nature, and aesthetic essence of all rock and rock-based musical styles, then apply this understanding in their mastery of rock-based techniques and performance practices.
How does NYU prepare students for successful careers in musical theatre?
Musical theatre is a combination of different art forms, most prominently, drama (including comedy), song, and dance. Good musical theatre performers are not just good at these disciplines but are “students of the world.” Their awareness of how people think and behave, what makes the world tick, what makes life interesting, what really matters in life… these are the basic stuff of theatrical storytelling. An NYU education, with its brilliant faculty and diverse course offerings, and the NYU campus, with its location at the center of the American cultural universe and its outreach beyond university walls, provide a perfect incubator for the student mind that is ready to apprehend the wealth of experience and knowledge available.
An NYU education, with its brilliant faculty and diverse course offerings, and the NYU campus, with its location at the center of the American cultural universe and its outreach beyond university walls, provide a perfect incubator for the student mind that is ready to apprehend the wealth of experience and knowledge available.
What is some of the best advice you can offer students after writing this book?
Don’t take rock for granted, and don’t underestimate its musical depth. Rock is not just something one hears and imitates on stage. It is a 70-year-old musical phenomenon, with an elaborate history, one that has involved and engaged the greatest musical artists of our time. It has reached every aspect of our culture and our artistic Zeitgeist, and it must be treated with the same respect, rigor, and scholarship that we give to classical music and the “Golden Age” of song. Just as much care goes into the creation of a pop song as went into the composition of most great works of classical music. What’s more, rock shows no signs of slowing down as the “soundtrack of our lives.” Authenticity of style is no less important in rock than it is in any other musical style or genre. It’s up to every musical theatre student to embrace this new field as an essential component of his or her musical education.
Gain both a sustainable vocal technique and a foundation in dramatic interpretation, preparing you for a full range of professional career opportunities.
Develop and expand your musical creativity and songwriting skills in diverse styles for concert settings and visual media.