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Charlie Rosen Brings the Big Band Back to Broadway

One of the theater industry's rising music stars leads his 17-piece jazz orchestra at 54 Below.

Those who scrupulously read Broadway programs will recognize the name Charlie Rosen and the parenthetical credit "Music." Rosen is one of Broadway's rising musical geniuses: a composer, performer, and orchestrator who has played in the bands of 13 the Musical; Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; One Man, Two Guvnors; and Love's Labour's Lost. He has composed music for Broadway's 2012 revival of Cyrano de Bergerac; and orchestrated Jason Robert Brown's Honeymoon in Vegas, Joe Iconis' The Black Suits, and the concert adaptation of the Smash musical Hit List.

As if he's not busy enough, Rosen is also the leader of Charlie Rosen's Broadway Big Band, a 17-piece jazz orchestra with a residency at 54 Below, for which he musical-directs, conducts, arranges, orchestrates, and plays bass. The group will return to the venue on February 1 for an 11pm show, where they'll take on tunes by the likes of Frank Loesser and Stephen Sondheim.

TheaterMania chatted with Rosen as he prepared for this upcoming engagement to discuss his love of the Big Band sound, his process of orchestrating for a large orchestra, and his indebtedness to the talent, timing, and Jason Robert Brown.

Charlie Rosen (center) leads his Broadway Big Band at 54 Below.
(photo via Charlie Rosen's Facebook page)

Big Bands are such a product of a different era. How did you come up with the idea to create the Broadway Big Band?
The very beginning of it all was right before I did One Man, Two Guvnors [on Broadway]. I was at Berklee School of Music, about to leave, and I thought, There's not really going to be a place and time for me to have a large ensemble like this, like at Berklee where I [played] in them a lot. So I got together a group and I did some arrangements of some theater songs and made a short recording, which my girlfriend sang on. We did "You're the Top," "If I Were a Bell," and some other stuff. It ended up coming out really well.

What happened when you got to New York?
When I got to New York, I wanted to continue. I noticed that each jazz venue has their own big band, and I love [that] tradition. It was surprising to me, like, Where is Broadway's big band? I thought, I've already done these theater tunes, why don't I keep doing that and call it the Broadway Big Band? At the same time, I thought, and I still think, my name doesn't draw as much attention as calling it the Broadway Big Band, so I called it Charlie Rosen's Broadway Big Band and had a lineup of rotating Broadway stars. I thought it would be a really fun thing to do.

The theater industry is notoriously impenetrable for newbies. How did you get your career started?
It's funny — I really can trace it back to one point. When I was a sophomore in high school in LA, I auditioned [for Center Theater Group's Spotlight Awards scholarship] that they give to high school students, but only got past one round. But, [CTG] sent out an open cattle call for teen musicians to do 13 the Musical. I auditioned and Jason [Robert Brown] liked me, and I played guitar in the workshop of it that year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Then 13 came to New York and I came with it. That was my foot in the door. Center Theater Group also did Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, so when I was a senior in high school, I did that, and [when that] moved here…it all kind of blossomed. Two big-band shows ago, Jason sat in and did a big band version of "Being a Geek" from 13 that I arranged, and it was great.

How do you pick what tunes to play and orchestrate?
The normal process is, me and Max [Friedman], the director and coproducer, we look at the singers we have and the songs we have. Every show, we pick five or six new charts to do. My orchestrating process has gotten a lot faster over the years, but it's basically the same. I listen to versions of songs, get familiar with it, and then, in the most ideal world, the idea for a new take on it will spring into my head while I'm on the train or in the shower. Like, I know, we should do a hip-hop version of a song from How to Succeed. If it really comes together in my head like a lightning bolt, I'll sit in front of my computer and get to it.

You've got a great group of singers on hand for this show, including Nick Blaemire, Jason Gotay, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and Andy Mientus. Give us a preview of what they'll be performing.
I don't want to give away any of our fun new arrangements, but Rebecca Naomi Jones is doing a short arrangement of one of my favorite tunes, Nick is doing his How to Succeed medley again, and Jason Gotay is singing "Another Hundred People," which is one of my favorites that I've done so far.

What do you like better — performing or orchestrating?
Both. I never want to stop playing. But, there's nothing that's more fulfilling than to stand in front of a seventeen-piece ensemble that's playing the notes you wrote, and be part of that creation.