While the Players still has a couple weeks left of the toe-tapping musical “Always…Patsy Cline,” the actors who played Vince Lombardi and the reporter Michael McCormick in the Players production of “Lombardi” in 2012 spent this summer and fall performing in other musicals featuring country artists just as influential as Patsy Cline.
Neil Friedman (“Lombardi,” “Over the Tavern,” “Making God Laugh,” “Sunday in the Park with George”) spent most of the summer portraying Johnny Cash in a variety of venues up and down the east coast in “Ring of Fire.”
Matthew Brumlow (“A Few Good Men,” “Lombardi”) is nominated for a Joseph Jefferson award for his portrayal of Hank Williams in The American Blues production of “Hank Williams: Lost Highway.”
Musical director of “Always…Patsy Cline” Malcolm Ruhl is also nominated for his musical direction of “Hank Williams: Lost Highway.” Malcolm worked with director Brian Russell to bring Cline’s music to the Players stage. I sat down with Malcolm and chatted about working on the Players production of “Always…Patsy Cline” and his Broadway debut.
Q. What instruments do you play?
A. I usually summarize by saying “things with strings and keys.” Guitar was my first instrument. I played cello from junior high through college. I used what I learned from those instruments to find my way around on the piano, eventually studying piano in college (and grad school.) Acoustic and electric bass, accordion, some concertina, harmonica, banjo, mandolin, dobro, ukulele and whatever else I need to learn for whatever show I’m playing.
Q. Where did you study music?
A. I took guitar lessons at a local record store in Brooklyn, New York where I grew up. I earned my bachelor’s degree in music composition from Coe College and a master’s degree in music composition from Missouri State University. I’m a music theory geek.
Q. When did you become interested in theater?
A. I occasionally played in pit orchestras in high school, college and after, but I stumbled into my theater career quite unexpectedly when the authors of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” saw me playing in a night club in Greenwich Village and asked me to audition. My first professional onstage theater gig was on Broadway doing that show. I went on to musical direct several productions of Pump Boys, which led to offers to music direct other shows like that one (the actors are the musicians). I love the possibilities of expression in the marriage of music and theater.
Q. What are the responsibilities of the musical director during rehearsal?
A. It depends on the show and the production, but in a general sense, it’s usually the teaching of the music, vocal parts, executing stylistic choices based on the material and the director’s vision. If I am also playing and conducting a show, like I am for “Always…Patsy Cline,” it’s also about rehearsing the musicians and integrating them into the process with the actors. I have learned that the most important part of musical direction is casting. If I can get the right people in the production, it makes a huge difference in my job, both in rehearsal and performance.
Q. What are your responsibilities during performance?
A. For this production, I play piano and conduct. Because so much of the story includes the band in scenes where Patsy is performing live, I also get to interact with Christine Mild who plays Patsy and Karen Janes Woditsch who plays her friend, Louise.
Q. How do you collaborate with the rest of the creative team?
Brian Russell and I have worked together before, and we have a good collaborative working relationship. He is very musical (he is a musical director himself), and so communication of concept and ideas is fairly seamless. I have also worked with Josh Horvath, our sound designer. Having established relationships with directors, designers and actors allows me to get right to the work at hand. But I also love getting to work with people for the first time, especially when they are as phenomenally talented as Christine Mild.
Q. What are some of the more memorable projects you have worked on?
A. I did nearly 3,800 performances of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” over a span of 15 years, as a singer/actor/musician and musical director, so I would have to include that. I’ve been doing this for so long now that it is difficult to choose, but I would include the American Blues Theater production of “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” which just closed in Chicago. Another musical direction experience I will always treasure was a production of “Oklahoma,” also directed by Damon Kiely (who directed “Lost Highway”), at American Theater Company, which I re-orchestrated for string band–guitars/banjo/fiddle/bass fiddle/mandolin, and which was sung in a very folk-music-like style with no sound reinforcement.
Q. How is the music in “Always…Patsy Cline” different from other musicals you have worked on?
A. I have done several musicals based on the lives and/or work of musicians (Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie). Unlike those performers, Patsy was not a songwriter, and so her catalog, the songs that are associated with her, come from a wide range of styles, even though we think of her as a country singer. The reason she is still popular is due in large part to her crossover appeal.
Q. What sound were you looking for while helping to assemble the band for “Always…Patsy Cline?”
A. I want the iconic Patsy Cline songs to sound like the records, because that’s what will musically connect the audience who knows her to the story. And I hope we can create some new Patsy fans in the process. Because some of those records are larger studio productions than we can replicate (big string sections for example), I hope to match the sound of many of her live performances, which included some of the best western swing musicians of the period, so familiarity with that sound and style was one of the first things I asked each of the musicians about.
Q. What did you and actress Christine Mild, who portrays Patsy Cline, focus on in rehearsals?
A. Christine has played this role before, and she’s an amazing singer. We focused on making her performance as Patsy authentic and true, but never an “impersonation.” That’s a very difficult balance, but a challenge that she is totally up to and up for.
There is still time to catch Malcolm, Christine, Karen and the rest of The Bodacious Bobcats, comprised of Louis Jay Meyers, pedal steel guitar; Lynn Gudmundsen, fiddle and guitar; George Sawyn, guitar; Bruce Newbern, drums; and Craig McClelland, bass. Enjoy a hot cider and join us around the pre-show and intermission bonfire before “Always…Patsy Cline” closes Oct. 19. For ticket information call 920-868-3287 or visit www.peninsulaplayers.com.