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The Gem of Musical Directors

Filichia chats with veteran conductor Paul Gemignani, who's now overseeing Assassins. logo
Paul Gemignani
A Nazi is somewhat responsible for Paul Gemignani's distinguished career as a musical director of Broadway orchestras. Well, only in a manner of speaking: Back in 1967, Gemignani -- a native San Franciscan -- was playing drums in Minneapolis but, on a whim, decided to visit New York. While he was here, he thought he'd drop in and see his ol' pal Edward Winter, who was appearing as Herr Ernst Ludwig in the original production of Cabaret.

The generous-sized, bearded Gemignani, who's now musical directing Assassins at Roundabout's Studio 54, still sounds surprised as he recalls what happened while he was seated in the Imperial on that night 37 years ago. "As soon as the show began," he says, "I couldn't believe the creativity I saw on that stage. Afterwards, I went backstage to see Edward and he happened to introduce me to Hal Hastings (the show's conductor)."

Gemignani may have been only 23 but he knew enough to give Hastings his resume. For, suddenly, he was interested in playing in a Broadway pit. "Broadway was to give me the sense of direction I'll admit I was lacking," he says. "I didn't know what I was looking for and I didn't even know that I was looking; I thought I was happy being a jazz drummer. I knew I was wary of classical music, where you get pigeonholed so fast and have to do the same four operas forever. People say, 'Oh, that's the Carmen guy,' or 'He's who you get for La Bohème.' That would bore me to tears. For the same reason, I wasn't interested in playing in a symphony orchestra."

Two weeks later, Hastings called him and offered him the chance to play drums for the road company of Cabaret. That made Gemignani happy -- at least for a while. What he really wanted to do was conduct. After Hastings brought him to New York to play for the Broadway production of Zorba in 1968, Gemignani recalls, "I kept crabbing to Hal that I wanted to conduct, so he put me in as conductor of the touring company of Zorba with John [Raitt] and Chita. After that ended, he called me back to play drums in Follies. I said, 'I'm not coming back to New York to play drums.' But he told me, 'There are people on this production you should meet, like Steve Sondheim.' And I said, 'Who's that?'"

Gemignani knows Sondheim now, and Sondheim sure knows him, for Gemignani conducted each of the famed composer-lyricist's subsequent nine shows -- including the original Off-Broadway production of Assassins in 1991. Granted, Hastings was the original man in the pit for Follies and A Little Night Music; Gemignani took over later. Hastings left Follies to conduct The Selling of the President. (Are you surprised that he gave up the chance to look at those beautiful girls night after night to conduct a new, untested musical? There was a reason for that: Hastings was a co-producer of The Selling of the President.) On Night Music, Gemignani took over after Hastings unexpectedly died only three months into the run. Since then, Gemignani has helmed the orchestra on every opening night -- and beyond -- of every Sondheim show.

For Assassins at Studio 54, he is not standing in front of the musicians in an orchestra pit but is sitting in the left loge with six musicians while seven others are situated in the right loge. "No big deal," he says with a shrug. "I had four orchestras around the theater with Candide. Doesn't bother the musicians, either. The resiliency of musicians and their ability to adapt is much more than popular opinion could imagine. On one side, they have airline monitors and see me on it, though they could just look across. Originally, I was sitting in the back of the loge, but we found that the musicians across the way couldn't catch my eye -- so I moved to the loge seat closest to the stage."

The cast of Assassins
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Gemignani is responsible for where the orchestra sits in this production: "When we got to this theater -- which has the best acoustics in New York next to Carnegie Hall, by the way -- they didn't know where they were going to put us because there's no pit here. I immediately said, 'Well, we're not going offstage, so you'd better figure something out.' I'm not trying to be arrogant, but this is live theater. The minute you hide the orchestra, it becomes something else. When they try to put us in a hole with a set covering it or behind a screen or hidden somewhere in another room, that's not musical theater -- that's stupid! I would never do a show like that. Instruments can sound different -- warm or cold or edgy -- but you hear them better when they're in the house. Cats would have sounded better if the orchestra had been out front," Gemignani says before smiling and adding, "not that that kept it from being a hit."

When he conducted Grind in 1985, he wore a bowler hat to suggest the world of burlesque on which the show concentrated. "At times, I do feel that something like that is silly," he says. "But I always go along with it because it's better that they show the musicians off." Would he concede that A Chorus Line, which takes place at an audition where there is, of course, no orchestra, is an exception? "Nope!" he says staunchly. "I'd put the band on stage if it were me. You need to have the live musical experience. It's great that here, with Assassins, you're sitting within the music. Lots of people have mentioned to me already that for once, they're experiencing a show with stereophonic sound."

Thirteen musicians may not sound like much for a Broadway musical. But Gemignani remembers when, during Assassins' original run, there were only three musicians playing the show -- "including me," he says, "on drums and the gun machine." (The latter kept him quite busy on this violence-laden musical.)

"What we have here now is a wind ensemble," he says. "No strings. But it's the best sound for the show because it sounds so American. I wish I could say it was my idea but we fell upon it because of the number of musicians we're allowed to use here. I've found that such a restriction sometimes works to the benefit of a show. When I was about to do Kiss Me, Kate and heard that we were getting only 15 players, I said 'What!' But [orchestrator] Don Sebesky did the most inspired arrangements with those 15 and made for a unique sound."

So Gemignani is recognized as the dean of Broadway's musical directors, isn't he? Out of modesty, he doesn't answer that question immediately. But someone else does: his son, Alexander Gemignani, who portrays John Hinckley in the show and is sitting nearby. "That's exactly what he is," Alexander says with pride.

The younger Gemignani first saw his daddy conduct when he was two or three, at Dreamgirls. He has since attended most of his father's shows, including Assassins in 1991, unaware that he'd be in it someday. Of course, both Gemignanis are aware that some will cry "nepotism!" But the fact is that a Roundabout casting director who attended the University of Michigan showcase three years ago -- in which each graduate hopes that some agent will be interested in him -- saw Alexander and thought that he had the right look for the show.

Alexander Gemignani in Assassins
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
So Paul was surprised when he showed up at auditions and saw Alexander's name on the list. He didn't stay around for his son's audition -- "I was afraid he'd be nervous" -- but admits that he did say to Sondheim that Alexander might be good for the ensemble and to cover some roles. Director Joe Mantello was the one to say, "That's our Hinckley!" (This all happened two-and-a-half years ago, before Assassins was postponed after the tragic events of September 11, 2001.)

"I have no problem recommending Alexander if he's right for a role," says Paul, "just as I would with any actor. Whenever someone's casting a show I'm doing, if I can think of someone they haven't thought of, I'll call them and say, 'Why not take a look at so-and-so?' Look, Alexander would never get hired just because he's my son," he says, making a give-me-a-break face. "Nobody would be afraid to say to me or him that he's not right for a show. I'll be conducting Frogs soon and, though he did the reading, he's not in the show. The way Susan Stroman went with the guys, he wasn't right. I never said anything more about it and never would."

Paul didn't encourage Alexander to be an actor in the first place. Still, you can bet that Alexander has given him yet one more thing of which he can be proud. Granted, the kid's playing a would-be killer -- but someone who got into the theater thanks to a guy playing a Nazi can't complain.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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