"Call Me Adam" chats with musical director, composer and performer Todd Schroeder about musically directing and performing in Sam Harris' HAM: A Musical Memoir, currently playing a three week limited engagement at ARS NOVA (511 West 54th Street) in NYC through January 24 only! Click here for tickets!
1. You are currently musical directing and performing in Sam Harris' HAM: A Musical Memoir at Ars Nova in NYC through January 24. You have been working with Sam for over 20 years, but what made you want to work on this particular project? Yes, we have been performing together for many years. One of my favorite aspects of our collaboration is that each show, concert and project we do is an opportunity to try new things and continually challenge ourselves. I was particularly excited to work together on this project because besides musical directing and accompanying Sam, I also act during pivotal moments throughout the show. I play Sam’s father, his baseball coach and a few other voices in Sam’s head. His father has a monologue near the end of the show that presented great challenge and opportunity for me. Also, Sam and I wrote some original material for this show which added another enticement to sign on.
2. Last year HAM: A Musical Memoir was performed at 54 Below for four shows only. What made now the right time to bring the show back to NYC, but for a limited 3 week run? Last year when we performed at 54 Below, the timing coincided with the release of his book, HAM. The show was a "liter-usical." Sam was at first going to just do book readings and signings in bookstores but we felt that there was an audience that would love to have an experience greater than only hearing him reading the stories from the book, and those shows integrated Sam singing songs that complemented the stories. Those shows were at 54 Below in January 2014, and were attended by our current producers of HAM, A Musical Memoir. They approached Sam about turning the book reading into a full-fledged theatrical production. After we finished the book tour, we quickly changed our focus to theatricalize the stories.
3. Out of all the venues in NYC, what made ARS NOVA the right venue for this run of the HAM: A Musical Memoir? It’s an intimate, warm setting with no obstructions. The sound travels beautifully in there and we use very little amplification. And the crew are all top notch. When I first saw the Ars Nova Theater, they were running a show called Jacuzzi. The set was all turned around in the theater. The seats were built up against a wall and they built a chalet that could accommodate a full-sized operating jacuzzi. But when I came back in January, the theater had been returned to its normal venue and then the beauty of Ars Nova really shined.
4. What do you identify most with about HAM: A Musical Memoir? At the core of HAM is the message of wanting to feel fulfilled, wanting to feel a sense of belonging and knowing that even if you have different ideas than the community around you, those differences should be celebrated. I grew up in a small town with a musical gift but most people who were like me had left town to pursue their dreams. I had no one to identify and share with. Fortunately, I had amazing support from my family and teachers.
5. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing HAM: A Musical Memoir? I believe that Sam always thought he had to do more to belong or feel chosen. When really, what he needed to do was accept himself and all that made him who he is. Though his story is unique to Sam, and very entertaining, the message is universal. Sam and I wrote a few new songs for the show, of which the most poignant is one called "Broken Wing." The last line is "I’ve only got a broken wing, and it can’t keep me down." It says that we all have obstacles and reasons to doubt and fear our life’s journey. But they are not enough for us to give up. Our obstacles are only broken wings and they will heal and we will fly again.
6. What was the best part about having Billy Porter direct this show? I have known and respected Billy Porter for many years. We first performed together in L.A. many years ago and he was an amazing performer with an incredible voice. What I really love about Billy now, above and beyond his talent, is his confidence in who he is and what he shares. His enthusiasm is infectious and his acting ability is undeniable. (Hello, Tony Award!) He is a wonderful musician and he was the perfect fit to bring this book to life. Billy and Sam had worked together on Grease, and they even shared a dressing room. They have an understanding of each other both growing up in difficult environments and getting national attention from Star Search. Billy directed Sam in a way that only someone who has been there could. And Sam really trusted Billy. It was great to watch, laugh, cry and let the whole process evolve with this talented team.
7. In addition to musically producing HAM: A Musical Memoir, you have produced several of Sam's albums (including my all time favorite Revival). Is your process of musically directing Sam different for a live show than for an album? If so, how is it different? I have had the privilege of producing on Sam’s last five albums and even wrote "Don’t Let the World Step On Your Soul" that was featured on Revival. It’s so great to be in the studio with Sam. His range and control and passion are so unique and combined are the reason he has been called "one of the greatest voices of our time." There is a difference in musical directing and producing Sam live rather than in the studio. When we are doing a show, it’s about choosing the right key, placement and pacing so that he can perform night after night. When we are in the studio, it’s about letting it fly and capturing all the passion and emotion in every note and syllable. It’s about feeling the same sense of awe after listening to it over and over. Then we know we have it.
8. What do you think the secret is to your over two-decade collaboration with Sam? What have been some of your favorite moments working together? Sam and I met in November of 1992. I had just moved to L.A. and was musical directing a Christmas benefit concert and Sam was the headliner. I had watched Sam when he was on Star Search and of course, thought he was amazing. So I was very excited when I got the call to work with him. I remember the day we first met. I went to his place to rehearse. We started working on "Bridge Over Troubled Water." It was instant magic. We both connected emotionally, musically and by the end of the rehearsal, he said "I have to work with someone until New Year’s and then I would like you to be my musical director for the rest of my life." Well, that was 22 years ago. We have had many favorite moments working together. Carnegie Hall, twice. We performed at the White House. Probably my most favorite was when we performed on The Oprah Winfrey Show right after 9/11. It was her first live broadcast and we were brought in for what she called "Healing America Through Music." It featured BeBe and Cece Winans, Donnie McClurkin, Denyce Graves and Sam and myself. It was truly awesome. And Oprah is the real deal.
9. You are also the founder of the Todd Schroeder Young Artist Grant, which presents scholarships to graduating high school students wanting to pursue careers in the arts. This grant has been in existence for 20 years now. What made you want to start this grant? What is it like to meet the winners of the grant? How do their stories inspire you at this point in your career? I grew up in the small town of Sonora, California, in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains in Northern California. My mom was a social worker and a financial aid director at the local college. So growing up, I was always told how important it is to give back and support your community. In 1995, I was musical directing for Rita Coolidge and decided to do a concert in my hometown to raise money to present a scholarship at my high school. Rita came up to perform and a few of my other friends did too. It was a success. I thought it was going to be a one-time thing but so many people were excited about it, I went back the following year and did it again. Here we are twenty years later and it really is an honor. Other performers in the past twenty years have included Sam Harris, Jason Alexander, David Burnham, Jordan Hill, Kevin Fisher, Mark Espinoza and a bunch of other talented friends who have all generously donated their time and talent.
We have given over 45 scholarships to graduating high school seniors that want to pursue their dream in singing, acting, playing an instrument, dancing, drawing, directing and even stage managing. The concerts are in the spring and I present the scholarship and a trophy right before the students graduate. Many have gone on to become music teachers and one even started a scholarship because of how he felt when he received mine. Their success stories inspire me constantly and remind me that when you throw a pebble in the water, you never know where the ripples will find shore.
10. In 2013, BroadwayWorld named you "Musical Director of the Year." What did this honor mean to you? It is so wonderful and important to be recognized for hard work. I love what I get to do and the many people I get to work with. I know that not everyone gets to wake up and do what they love to do for a living and I assure you, there are days that are tougher than others but at the end of it, I am so grateful for the opportunity to share my gift, my joy and my passion for what I do.
11. How do you want to be remembered? I try to bring passion, enthusiasm and joy to everything I do. Playing piano, acting, singing, golfing, drinking tequila…For me, these are the elements for a full and happy life. If those qualities could be associated with me, and shared, I would like that very much. I am fortunate to have two beautiful daughters that have taken on those qualities (of course, with the exception of the tequila!).
12. What is the best advice you've ever received? I think it would have been a "teaching joke" told by my mother. She often asked, "How do you eat an elephant?" and then without waiting for an answer, said, "One bite at a time." Sometimes, reaching the finish line can be daunting and very overwhelming. It is important to remember that the only way to get there is one step at a time. It’s easier if you focus on what’s in front of you and when you accomplish that, then you can go on. I try and share this advice wherever I can.
13. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? I would have loved to have worked with the late Eva Cassidy. Her voice had so many textures and I would have loved to have explored with her. Such a loss. I would like to work with Audra McDonald. She is glorious and also a Californian. And Hugh Jackman. My wife is an Aussie and I would score big points working with him!!
14. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? I would split myself into two identical beings. It’s so wonderful to be on stage every night performing here in New York, but I miss my family in L.A. That superpower would enable me to simultaneously experience the best of both worlds.
15. If you could create a signature drink, what would you call it and what would the ingredients be? The "Frog in Your Throat." I musical direct several shows for Universal Studios Japan located in Osaka. For the past two years, I have show directed the "Frog Choir," part of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Experience at USJ. That magic world and wonderful show commands a cocktail of equal stature.
1 oz tequila
1 oz triple sec
1 1/2 oz sweet and sour mix
1/2 oz Midori® melon liqueur
2 oz lemon lime soda
Combine tequila, lemon lime soda, triple sec, and sweet & sour mix over ice. Finish off by slowly pouring the Midori melon liquour over the drink for a colorful mixing effect.
Todd has released six original albums and has written a number of original musicals, including Braveheart, The Empower Pack, Unbeatable and Longing4Love.com. For over a decade, he’s served as the vocal director for Disney’s Aladdin, A Musical Spectacular, and vocal director for Universal Studio Japan’s Wicked, as well as a number of live performance shows at their Osaka park. He also regularly teaches a Masterclass entitled Auditioning for Today’s Musical Theater across the US, as well as internationally. He has collaborated with a coterie of distinguished performers, including Angela Lansbury, Jason Alexander, Joan Ryan and Sam Harris, as well as many others. He’s also appeared on TV, acting as musical director on a number of talk shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Rosie O’Donnell Show and The Late Late Show. And, he’s performed at venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to The White House, and with The Boston Pops, Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.