The Sound of Youth

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Broadway music veteran Joseph Baker on his work with talented kids


  • Photo courtesy of Charles Wenzelberg

  • Photo courtesy of Charles Wenzelberg

Having 30 kid singers in a room for seven hours led Joseph Baker to create the Broadway Youth Ensemble. A Broadway music director for 30 years, he assembled a group of children to sing at a charity event, and was worried about how they would fare during the long waiting time between the sound check in the afternoon and the curtain call in the evening.

To his surprise, the kids reveled in the opportunity to have downtime with fellow artists, and erupted into song together. “Sometimes people who are involved in theater when they’re in school are known as the geeks. One kid actually said, ‘No one in school gets my theater jokes, and all these kids do,’” Baker said. Since its inception in 2010, the group has grown to 100, with talent ranging in age from 8 to 17.

“We’ve done everything from New Year’s Eve with the rock group Train to working for Mayor Bloomberg to doing something with Vice President Joe Biden there,” Baker said of BYE’s memorable experiences. Their philanthropic component includes performing at children’s hospitals, nursing homes and fundraisers for nonprofits.

To expand on his mission of nurturing and unifying talented youth, Baker also launched Broadway in the Mountains, a performance-centered summer camp, which just completed its second year in the Catskills.

How did you get your start in theater?

I had graduated the University of Pennsylvania. I went there for composition, but came out not really wanting to do composition. [Laughs] But I was working around town and got a call on Sunday night at one in the morning, asking, “Can you play auditions for a show tomorrow at 10 a.m.?” And I’d never played auditions before. Playing piano at auditions means that the actors come in and have music and you play for them. They only get a couple minutes, so basically it’s sight reading whatever they put in front of you. That really wasn’t my skill, but I said yes because I could use the money. I was just out of college. I played the day and the director came to me and said, “Would you be interested in conducting our show?” I wanted to make sure he understood my lack of experience, so said, “I’d love to, but I really haven’t conducted a show.” And he said, “That’s OK; you can’t be possibly as bad as the guy they want me to hire.” And that was my entrée. It was a production of “Grease” and starred a 21-year-old Andrea McArdle, who was known because she was the first Annie on Broadway. The director was a guy named Scott Ellis, who’s very famous right now. And the choreographer was Susan Stroman.

What does your job as a music director entail?

Basically I’m sort of in charge of everything having to do with music. Working with the composer, the orchestrator, conducting the orchestra. And the final thing is working with all the singers, making sure they’re comfortable and the show is as good as it can be. So it’s sort of a jack-of-all-trades. I work as a conductor, vocal coach and sometimes I’m performing at the piano at the same time.

How have you seen the industry change?

One thing is it’s much more expensive to put on a show and there’s much more risk. I think the average is now, it takes eight years to get a musical from start to Broadway. And in addition to that, there are a lot of actors out there. Part of it is when “Glee” started on television, there was a new renaissance of kids who were interested in theater. Because a lot of what they did had to do with theater. My friend Matt Morrison was the teacher. He was a theater person and all the actors were. And they were doing songs that were from theater. And there was a show called “Smash.” You can see it in the number of colleges now that offer music theater and the number of programs. There’s a huge influx of kids who want to do this. I applaud their going after their dream, but the more there are of them, the less work there is.

What are some standout moments from your career?

I did the show “Blood Brothers” that originally had a cast from England that was here, because the show originated in England. And they brought it to Broadway. There’s an agreement with the actor’s union Actors’ Equity that after six months, you have to replace that show with American actors. So the person who was producing it decided that he would only take stars in it. It was a story of brothers, and he had David and Shaun Cassidy play them. I got to work with them, which was wonderful. And for the mother, they picked Petula Clark and then Carole King and then Helen Reddy. So I got to work with all of them for quite a while. I also got to work with some strange people, like Jackie Mason, when we did a musical that lasted seven days. He’s a great comedian, but not a good music theater performer. Those are the highs and lows, but I’ve had some incredible experiences with fantastic people.

Tell us how the idea for the Broadway Youth Ensemble came about.

I was working with an Irish tenor named Ronan Tynan. He’s an amazing guy. He actually won the Irish version of “American Idol” while he was in residency getting his degree in orthopedics. And he’s also a paraplegic; both of his legs are amputated at the knee. At the time, I was music director when he was living in New York. And he needed a kids’ choir for this one charitable event we were doing. And I had been starting to work with this voice teacher, Amelia DeMayo. I saw that she was really great with kids, so I said, “I need 20 to 30 kids.” And I knew they were going to be talented. It included my daughter, one of her students. When you do these events, you have to be there really early and wait until it’s very late. So I had 30 kids in a room for seven hours and thought, “They’re gonna kill each other. What am I gonna do?” They had a great time. They were singing with each other, doing duets. We finished and one of the girls came to me and said, “That was such a fun day. I hope we can do this again.”

What are your future plans?

I’m offering voice coaching and also videotaping, because a lot of auditions these days are submitted through video. It’s part of my private coaching business, Mr. B Studios. So it’s a one-stop shop for singing and acting that I’m launching at my studio in September. Starting this semester, I’m the music director at Circle in the Square Theatre School. That’s with young adults, college-aged, who I also like to teach.

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