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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, April 19, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Music director Jamie Johns is an integral (but unseen) part of Milwaukee's theater.

Behind the curtain: Music director Jamie Johns


There are a lot of people who make theater in Milwaukee who you never see on a stage. They make music and make sure the costumes are right. They design sets and make sure you see them in the right light. They make sure the audience hears what they are supposed to hear and they put all of this together into one complete package.

We are starting a series to introduce you to some of these people who work so hard, often without much public acclaim, to bring great theater to Milwaukee audiences.

When you think of The Music Man you probably think of a handsome raconteur with a sparkling uniform, a shiny baton in his hand and a marching step that leads an amateur band.

But nothing could be further from the truth for the man who might well be Milwaukee's Music Man.

Jamie Johns is the "in demand" music director in Milwaukee. He got here after leaving a trail of happy opera singers (that may be an oxymoron) in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Orlando.

"I love opera, and it was opera that brought me to Milwaukee," he said.

He got here in 1999 and went to work for what was then the Skylight Opera Company. His first show was "The World Goes 'Round," a revue of great songs from the talents of John Kander and Fred Ebb, who are best known for the musical "Cabaret."

From then on he's been music director for some outstanding musicals, from "Smokey Joe's Café" to "Sweet Charity" and currently the memorable "The Sound of Music" at the Skylight Music Theatre.

For those of us who don't work in the theater, what a music director does is a little bit of a mystery. We know what a set designer does, or a costume designer.

But, what about a music director? The music for "The Sound of Music," for example, comes from Rodgers and Hammerstein. Why in the world is a music director needed?

"It's exactly like working with actors," Johns said. "Actors have a script, but the director works to get the best out of them. Working with singers in a musical is the same thing."

To say that Johns is thorough in his approach to a musical score is a huge understatement.

"You open the score to page one. Something gets your attention and you start to look into something else," he said. "I don't have 'aha' moments. It's the process that just keeps on going."

Then it is time for the singer to sing the song.

"You explore the character with the singer and that can change pronunciation or phrasing easily. I'm sort of a hands-off music director, but I feel very much in touch with the process as we go through it.

"I'm more likely to want to see what the singer wants to do and then start asking questions. I admit sometimes they are a little manipulative. Sometimes they are directly getting at something I would like to see. It's acting with notes."

For all of his talent and experience, Johns is a modest man, quick to deflect praise and give credit to others. But he also has a firm understanding of how to get something that will make the music soar.

Bill Theisen, as Skylight's artistic director, has hired and worked with Johns many times. Theisen has presided over the wonderful growth of Skylight and has almost unbound admiration for Johns.

"One of the most incredible things about Jamie is his versatility," Theisen said. "He is one of the finest accompanists I have had the pleasure of working with; he does remarkable work as vocal coach and helps the actor interpret a song beautifully, and he is a fantastic conductor – so accommodating to both the orchestra and the cast. He makes it look so easy and creates an environment where everyone is able to do the best work possible."

Molly Rhode, my favorite actress in Milwaukee and the director of "The Sound of Music," also sings (pardon the pun) Johns' praises.

"Jamie puts immense heart into everything he does," Rhode said. "His artistic passion is inspiring, and sets a wonderfully high standard in rehearsals. He is intensely honest, and that was wonderful for our collaboration.

"He is always digging deeper, looking for the true intention and purpose of every musical moment. This constant pursuit led to all sorts of small gems I hadn't anticipated now scattered throughout our production. Jamie's attention to detail is breathtaking."

In "The Sound of Music," the opening has dozens of nuns stationed throughout the theater, and they start with a Latin chant. It's a very somber and moving start to the show.

"We had two rehearsals with the nuns, two hours long," said Johns. "We spent a lot of time just speaking the text and looking for the homogenization of the vowels between different parties.

"If you can get a group listening to themselves and each other, you are 90 percent of the way there. Then when you put it on its feet and start singing it, the color will take care of itself."

Listening to each other may well help singers sing better together.

But, listening to the work of Milwaukee's Music Man helps audiences enjoy classic and wonderful musical theater.

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