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Not Throwin' Away His Shot: An Interview with "Hamilton" Music Director Ian Weinberger

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Ian Weinberger

Ian Weinberger was planning to pursue a career teaching high school band. Eleven years after graduating from college, he is the music director of the hottest show on Broadway and a Jazz Studies master’s student.  

After studying Music Education at Northwestern for his undergraduate degree, Weinberger had to decide what would come next. He had played shows in college and decided that he wanted to make it in the theatre. He moved to New York in 2010 to “give the freelance thing a try” and landed gigs with several Broadway shows including Kinky Boots, The Book of Mormon, and eventually Hamilton; Weinberger was promoted to the position of music director for Hamilton in January 2020.  

As music director, Weinberger conducts, plays keyboard in the pit, and rehearses music with the actors. His background in Music Education “comes up constantly” he says, since teaching and rehearsing music are large parts of his job.  

Weinberger decided to pursue a master’s degree in Jazz Studies at NYU Steinhardt after Covid hit and he saw that the Broadway shutdown would last for some time. He appreciates the breadth of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions, which allows him to study related disciplines such as film scoring and music technology.  

He’s been completing his studies from his home in Chicago and keeps up with his Hamilton crew via a weekly catch-up call on Zoom. Weinberger answered some questions over email about his path to Broadway.

What are some of the different jobs you've had on Broadway?

My first handful of Broadway experiences were as the music assistant on a number of shows – which often means updating and maintaining the score in Finale or Sibelius as the show changes in rehearsal. It was (and still is) a great opportunity for a young music director to be in the middle of the process, learn the ropes, and watch the pros work. After a while, I was able to start playing in pit orchestras as a sub keyboard player, which I first did at the musical Chaplin, followed by Kinky Boots, Rocky, Side Show, and The Book of Mormon (and, later, Hamilton). I also played rehearsal piano for Kinky Boots and Mormon, and then eventually started subbing as a conductor on those shows as well, which were my first opportunities to conduct on Broadway. I also play with the hip-hop improv comedy group Freestyle Love Supreme, which played a limited Broadway engagement for a few months at the end of 2019. That was a total blast. Definitely a unique kind of Broadway job.  

And for Hamilton?

I joined Hamilton in March 2015, a couple weeks after the show had opened off-Broadway at the Public Theater. I was hired as a rehearsal pianist – I worked with the ensemble members to teach them their understudy roles and played a few dance rehearsals. When the show started rehearsal for Broadway, I was lucky enough to stick around – I played plenty of rehearsal, and a lot of tech rehearsal, which was how I got to really learn the show on a granular level. I started subbing as a keyboard player two days after opening night, and subbing as a conductor about six weeks after that. About a year later, I became the associate music director, a role I held for a little over three years. I became the music director in January 2020.   

I read that your undergraduate degree is in Music Education - how did you pivot to being a music director?

That’s right, I was planning to teach high school band, which would also have been a lot of fun. All during undergrad, I was playing shows on the side – first as a drummer/percussionist, which was my primary instrument then, and later as an associate music director, and then as music director. I was getting more and more into theatre and it felt like a really natural fit. So when I finished school, I had to choose between applying for a teaching job or trying for a career in theatre…and I chose theatre and moved to New York, mostly because I figured I could give the freelance thing a try, and if it didn’t work out, I still had my teaching certificate and could always go back. That was December 2010, or a thousand lifetimes ago.

My music ed background gave me some essential skills – how to run an efficient rehearsal, how to be up in front of a group, how to listen to something and quickly diagnose the problem AND how to fix it.

How does your background in Music Education come into play in your music directing work?

It comes up constantly; I use it all the time and I’m always grateful for it. Whether at Hamilton or on other projects, teaching and rehearsing music is a huge part of my work. My Music Ed background gave me some essential skills – how to run an efficient rehearsal, how to be up in front of a group, how to listen to something and quickly diagnose the problem AND how to fix it…the list goes on. And, of course, conducting technique, ensemble skills, sight reading…all of those come in incredibly handy as well. 

Could you tell us a little bit about your work as music director of Hamilton? How did you get the position?

I had worked with Alex Lacamoire, the music supervisor of Hamilton, once before – on an early reading of the show that later became Dear Evan Hansen (for which he is also the music supervisor). I fell in love with Dear Evan Hansen and really wanted to continue being a part of it. The short version of the story is that I kept asking Alex if he needed help on that show as it developed, and he eventually said, “No…BUT, I am looking for a rehearsal pianist downtown at Hamilton to start immediately, and what are you doing right now?” It was a perfect right place/right time scenario. I was extremely lucky. (Still am.)  In my current role as MD, I often say my work falls into two buckets. First is the one that’s most visible: I conduct most performances of the show – which is also the much smaller bucket. The rest of the job is the maintenance of the show – making sure that it sounds the way it’s supposed to every day. That involves taking a lot of notes on what I’m hearing, both from the podium while I conduct and, every other week or so, from the back of the theatre. Then it’s following up on those notes by meeting with an actor before the show, or checking in in their dressing room, or having a rehearsal in the afternoon. I’ll also spend time with any new actors, or someone learning a new or additional role, to work on their music together in a one-on-one setting. 

What drew you to study Jazz at NYU?

I had been thinking about grad school for a long time, but never really seriously considered it because I’d had very little time outside of work. It always felt like something I’d do “later.” When it became clear that the Broadway shutdown was going to go on for a very long time, I started thinking that this might be a great opportunity to start a graduate program. I chose jazz because I’ve always had a love for the genre – I played a lot of jazz in high school and college, as a drummer and pianist – but always wanted to get (a lot) better at both playing and understanding it. I also knew that a deep dive into harmony and jazz arranging would come in very handy for me as a theatre arranger and music director.

Lastly, NYU was the right fit because it’s in town! Not knowing how much of the program I’d be able to complete before going back to work, I wanted to ensure that I could still potentially go to class while being back at Hamilton in the future.

The fact that [at NYU] I can branch out and study some film scoring, some music technology, some orchestration, and so on, is incredibly valuable for me.

What’s special about the Jazz program at NYU?

I really appreciate the flexibility when it comes to choosing a course of study. I know that I might be on a different career trajectory than the traditional jazz student – so the fact that I can branch out and study some film scoring, some music technology, some orchestration, and so on, is incredibly valuable for me.  

How has Covid impacted your work and your studies? What do your days look like now?

I know I’m not alone in this, but the impact has been tremendous. I have a really hard time making a routine for myself now that I’m not going to work on a schedule anymore, though having a class schedule has helped a lot. These days, I’m back home in Chicago – doing my best to keep all the balls in the air for school, plus whatever little jobs may come up here and there. I’ve been able to do some Hamilton-related things, some Freestyle Love Supreme-related things, some completely random things…but I know I speak for a ton of theatre folks when I say that the calendar is WAY more open than it used to be.  

How are you keeping up with the Broadway community while Hamilton has been closed?

I do my best to stay in touch with friends and colleagues as best as I can – lots of Zooms and FaceTimes, like so many of us! Plus our Hamilton Broadway company does a weekly catch-up Zoom that I try to attend whenever the class schedule allows. But I definitely miss everybody! It has been fun to get to work on some smaller projects together – for instance, we put together a Hamilton video for Voter Registration Day, using a few songs from the show, with rewritten lyrics, to encourage folks to register. So I’m getting my Hamilton fix in small doses these days. 

What interests do you have outside of music?

I’m a politics nerd, so I’ve spent the better part of this year focusing a lot on the election – which has meant a lot of reading, news-watching, phone banking, canvassing, watching The West Wing for the millionth time…and stress-baking. I’ve also gotten back into the habit of doing the Times crossword (almost) every day. Sometimes I need to look stuff up, but it’s 2020, you know? I have no guilt.