Featured Artist: George Fulginiti-Shakar

Winner of this year’s Helen Hayes Award Outstanding Musical Direction, Oklahoma! at Arena Stage

An interview with George Fulginiti-Shakar Fall 2010

prior to the opening of Oklahoma! at Arena Stage

Susan:  So my first question, George, since we are looking at the various elements that go into the creation of music-theatre, could you describe what is the role of music-director?

George: The role of music-director is everything in the show that has to do with music, everything – what the singers sing, what the band plays, how the music works with the choreography, how music works with getting into a scene or getting out of a scene, the numbers of players in the band, the tempos of the songs, the keys the songs are in.

And when people come to music-theatre, what they often see is the music director either conducting with a stick or playing the piano  and conducting from the piano and they think, “Oh, they did a great job with the band.” But actually, they’re responsible for everything in the show that is musical. Every song, every note, every step that the dancers do, the music director was a part of figuring out what has to happen at that moment. And then, during the show itself, the musical director usually winds up performing as conductor or piano player.

Susan:  And if you are working with a stage director or artistic director, are the lines always clear or do they shift a little in the process?

George:  It really depends on the particular people you are working with. Generally, there is a mix between the music-director, the stage director, and the choreographer, and they work very tightly together. You can never tell when you’re done whose idea it was.  Somebody will say something, and somebody makes a remark off that, and then somebody makes a remark off that, and, before you know it,  we’ve figured out the beat, what has to happen in that moment.

Some directors are very much in control and some directors are  like “let’s collaborate.” Some choreographers talk the language of music to make it easier for the music-director to communicate with them and some will say “I need to spin here,” without knowing how long it has to take place. It’s all a function of how to collaborate together on individual projects and with different people, and it changes with every show and the different people involved.

Susan:  We were talking just before we sat down for this interview about your role in auditioning for this particular production of Oklahoma! But would you speak in general about your role in auditions and tell us what things do you look for in a performer?

George: Well, everybody comes in with a bio and headshot so you take a little look at those. But what is really important is how they do that day, what happens to them that day.   Hopefully, if I’m prepared, I am walking in with a sense of what is the director looking for in each of the roles. And I bring with me a sense of – as the score is written – what’s the range that each voice has to be, what’s the quality the voice has to be, how well do they have to sing or is it a character role. And then we start listening to people. I am always imaging can I see them in that role. And if I do, I take a note on it.

But things that really catch my ear are people singing wrong notes or singing off pitch or not being able to find their notes. That’s like red flags. For I have found after many years of trying the other way that what happens in the audition is generally the way the person will perform when it’s time for them to perform in the show. So if there is problem with pitch or problems with coming in or problems with rhythm, there are probably going to be problems along the way.  If someone is really good, and you have only a couple of people like that, you can spend time with them during the rehearsal process.  But if you have a big cast, you just don’t have time to help people develop basic skills.

So then my role is to advise the director.  The director might turn to me and ask, “Can the person play the role?” and what she is meaning is  “do they have the right notes?”

Meantime, the director is often thinking is that what I want to hear, is that the quality of voice, is that the right height, is that the right shape, sometimes, is that the right color sometimes for the person to be.  Then my role is advising.  “Yes, that person can do it. You know I wouldn’t take a chance with that voice. I wouldn’t take a chance with that voice in the show. No, it’s not going to last eight weeks.  I can hear that voice is not trained.”

Susan:  You had said you had some specific challenges casting for Oklahoma!


George: That was with Judd, the Rod Steiger character in the movie. The character is normally played as really a villain.   We have a casting director in New York who finds people for us to see.  He found a lot of villain types. We listened to days and days of villain types.   None of them were sexy.  None of them could be a romantic interest for Laurie. None of them could compete with Curly for her attention. And that’s Molly direction.  She wants Judd to be something like a bad boy, somebody you might be attracted to in secret. We finally just had to tell the casting director to show us leading male types, leading male figures, who are used to being sexy and attractive to women.  And we had some good choices that day and we found the person that we think is just perfect.

Susan:  So why Oklahoma! and why Arena?

George: That’s a Molly question. I am trying to sort that out myself. But I think Molly saw it as such a seminal production in the history of musical theatre where the creation of song, dance and story was integrated, where  words, song,  and dance came together  so that  always all  were telling the same story at the same time. And I think Molly sees Arena Stage and its new life with the  Jaylee Mead  Centre for American Theatre as a kind of seminal important institution in the country  and she wants that to be as important as Oklahoma! was to musical theatre.

Why now?  Because it’s all brand new.  The show that opens the building and the show that the public gets to see first. We have made some pretty dramatic choices in the production about how to put it on.