Stephen Oremus: Echoing Across Broadway

With four hit shows on his résumé thus far, arranger, music director, and conductor Stephen Oremus ’92 has built a resounding career in musical theater.
Stephen Oremus ’92
Stephen Oremus ’92
Jimmy Katz
Stephen Oremus
Stephen Oremus '92
Jimmy Katz

Over the past decade and a half, Stephen Oremus ’92 has evolved from playing piano and conducting small summer stock and dinner theater productions to shaping the sound of some of Broadway’s most successful musicals. In 2011 and 2013, he won Tony Awards for his orchestrations for The Book of Mormon and Kinky Boots. Those same years, he also took home Grammy Awards for producing the original cast recordings for each show.

For Oremus the door to the inner corridors of Broadway opened after he began playing piano for celebrated composer Stephen Schwartz in the development and workshop phases of what would become the Broadway smash Wicked. Oremus went on to pen arrangements and conduct the orchestra for this prequel to the Wizard of Oz story that opened in 2003 and has run continuously ever since.

He burnished his reputation as a music director, music supervisor, arranger, orchestrator, and conductor working on shows that include Avenue Q, All Shook Up, 9 to 5, Tick, Tick … Boom!, and others. He teamed up with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and composer Robert Lopez to create the irreverent satire The Book of Mormon, which opened to rave reviews on Broadway in March 2011.

Oremus’s latest triumph is Kinky Boots, which enabled him to collaborate with pop singer Cyndi Lauper, who composed the show’s score. The plot (which is based on a true story) involves the revival of a failing British family-owned shoe manufacturing business after the family’s straitlaced scion befriends a drag queen and begins producing a successful line of women’s shoes in men’s sizes.

For Oremus, working on the song arrangements with Lauper was a high point. As a 13-year-old, Oremus attended Lauper’s Fun tour in 1984, and it was his first concert. The Kinky Boots songs range from rock tunes to electro-pop to dance club grinders to ballads, and even a tango. The stylistic breadth enabled Oremus to stretch his wings as an arranger and orchestrator. The show has become a huge success on Broadway and across America on a national tour, and more companies planned.

With three current hit shows running on Broadway and beyond and Avenue Q running off Broadway, Oremus’s schedule doesn’t give him the luxury he once had of working nightly at a single theater a few blocks from his home. His duties as the music supervisor for multiple shows periodically take him far away from the lights of Broadway to set up new productions of the shows in the major cities of Europe, Scandinavia, Israel, Asia, and Australasia. When we met at his New York apartment in December, Oremus was still jet-lagged after his recent return from three weeks in Seoul where he helped set up a Korean-language production of Kinky Boots. He’s filled that same role for all the international productions of Wicked and The Book of Mormon.

As busy as he is, Oremus makes time for new opportunities. In addition to development work on new musicals, he penned orchestrations and arrangements and conducted the orchestra on the songs in the Disney film Frozen. He will also be the music director and conductor for the Academy Awards broadcast 0n February 22. It’s one thing to make it to Broadway; it’s another to have an enduring career there. Oremus has staying power, and the music he’s making will likely echo across Broadway for years to come.

What were your musical beginnings?

I told my parents when I was five years old that I wanted to play piano and started taking lessons. I became a really good reader and later started accompanying vocalists in my town. By the time I was 12, I was playing piano for lots of vocal students doing everything from Broadway songs to pop to opera.

Did you know then that you wanted to be a professional musician?

There was never really a question. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but I knew I’d be making music somehow. I had very supportive parents. They used to listen to Barry Manilow and Billy Joel around the house in the ’70s, and I thought those guys were cool and wanted to be like them. Over the years, I’ve gone in many directions but have been able to carve out a niche.

How did you choose Berklee for college?

Before coming to Berklee, I was playing a lot of Chopin and Rachmaninov, and studying classical piano because I wanted to build a good technique. I decided to go to Berklee to learn about jazz and thought there was no better place. My horizons really expanded. I loved being there; no other conservatory was offering the variety that Berklee offered. Of my contemporaries in this business—and there are several I know who went to Berklee—we all got more of a well-rounded education than those who went to other schools. Where else could you take a class on the music of John Lennon and study the Beethoven string quartets? That was exciting.

In my last semester I studied piano with Stephany Tiernan and started getting into 20th-century classical music. It was fantastic to get into the music of serial composers. I wanted to expose myself to as many sounds as possible. As a film scoring major, I needed to be able to draw on many different styles.

What prompted your decision to be a film scoring major?

I was drawn to it because it included the things I liked to do: writing, arranging, orchestrating, and conducting. The live aspects of these things solidified my path to theater. I was very drawn to the concept of scoring the emotional content of a film. I do a lot of that now in the underscoring and other aspects of what I do in musical theater.

Did you aspire to go to Hollywood to get into the film industry?

No. I’m a New Yorker. I grew up in suburban New Jersey and wanted to be near home. After I graduated, the only opportunities I saw in New York were with the jingle houses and I wasn’t drawn to that. Weirdly, I just landed in theater. A friend of mine was doing a show at a dinner theater and she needed a pianist and conductor. It really started there.

What was your path from dinner theater to Broadway workshops where future hit shows were being developed?

As in any other business, it’s who you know and how well you do your job. I got connected with people who liked my work and I was recommended to do a season as the music director for a summer stock theater in Rhode Island. People working on another production in New York heard about my work there, and I got to be the assistant music director for the workshop of a new musical. Before long I was getting other work. Around 1996 I started doing more professional work and by the late ’90s, I was doing work off Broadway. In 1999, I became the music director for the national tour of Rent. By 2000 I was working on Wicked.

You’ve said that helping with vocal arrangements for Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party was transformative for you. Why?

That was the first original musical that I’d worked on from scratch as a music director. It was a very exciting collaboration for all of us. Andrew did most of the arrangements himself, but I tweaked and cleaned up a few things. My first show as an arranger was Tick, Tick … Boom!, a musical about the life of [Rent composer and playwright] Jonathan Larson. Jonathan had done small workshop productions of the show before he passed away, but David Auburn came in as a script consultant and helped us structure the book to be a musical for three actors. I arranged the music for a small band, did vocal arrangements, and wrote the incidental music. We made it a musical that could stand on its own. That show had some of Larson’s best writing, so it was an honor to help bring it to life.

How did you come to work with composer Stephen Schwartz?

The circles on Broadway are small and everything is connected somehow. I met Stephen at a reading of The Wild Party. He had been a mentor to Andrew Lippa. But also, Stephen’s son directed Tick, Tick … Boom! Stephen later asked me to work on a show he was writing called Wicked. They were doing a reading of act one in Los Angeles in the fall of 2000. It was just 10 actors and me at a little spinet piano. That’s how Wicked was born. I became the show’s music director, and I am now the music supervisor for all the companies of Wicked around the world.

Can you describe the responsibilities entailed in the work you do?

As a music director, I teach the music to the actors and rehearse the actors and musicians. Not all music directors are arrangers, but I happen to do all my arranging. On Wicked, Alex Lacamoire ’95 and I wrote all of the music arrangements. I did the vocal arranging, and he did the incidental music. We worked on the rhythm section arrangements together. As the music supervisor for Wicked, I’m in charge of the music for every production of the show worldwide. This year there were nine companies of Wicked, four companies of Book of Mormon, and by the end of 2015 there will be four companies of Kinky Boots. I didn’t conduct Kinky Boots, but I was the music supervisor and created all of the orchestrations and arrangements.

When Wicked lifted off, did you expect that it would be a one-off success?

I always thought it was a great show and believed in it, but I didn’t know it would become a global success. It used to be that if a show ran one or two years on Broadway it was considered a big hit. After Wicked opened in the fall of 2003, we all looked at the reviews and said, “I guess we’ll run until January.” Now here we are 11 years later.

You also conducted for Wicked and Book of Mormon in the early days of those productions?

Yes, Wicked was the first show I conducted. It was amazing conducting a 23-piece orchestra—very exciting. Book of Mormon has a smaller group and I was the pianist/conductor. It was a blast, one of the most fun shows I’ve done. I still go back and conduct Wicked once a year. I also conduct Book of Mormon once in a while too.

Through the years, I’ve had opportunities to conduct some really fantastic orchestras. I worked with Rufus Wainright on the [Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall] show, and conducted a 40-piece group, a big band with strings. In London we did House of Rufus at the Royal Opera House and I got to conduct the Britten Sinfonia. I also conducted a 72-piece orchestra for the soundtrack of the Disney film Frozen. This February I will be the music director and conductor for the Academy Awards. That orchestra will have about 68 pieces.

Can you talk about the collaborative process in working with Cyndi Lauper on the arrangements for Kinky Boots?

It was fascinating. We taught each other a lot about how we each make music. I come from a loud Italian family from New Jersey and she is from a loud Italian family from Queens. We got along well instantly—I have relatives like her. She is very direct and has no filter, which can be a little tricky sometimes. I now speak fluent “Lauperese” and know how to translate what she is communicating to help the music happen the way she wants it to. She has an incredible ear for arranging and when it came to orchestrating the show, she pushed for simplicity and specificity. It was a lesson for me in making pop music. It wasn’t just about shaping vocal performances by the actors; it was about shaping the overall sound of the full orchestration. Cyndi knew what she wanted the guitars and strings to play. I would orchestrate something, we’d listen, and then we would continue to refine things. We incorporated electronics and things with Ableton to put the more dance-oriented songs into the surround-sound speakers to complement the orchestration.

How were the decisions made about the different styles of the dance numbers needed for Kinky Boots?

It was a collaboration with several of us—Harvey Fierstein who wrote the book; Jerry Mitchell, the director and choreographer; Cyndi and me—to figure out what the show needed. I helped to guide Cyndi about the kinds of things she would need to write for a given spot and what the songs needed to express. We did things in phases. We would make demos and then get together with groups of actors to read through a draft and sing through the songs. Eventually in the workshop process we did a reading of three numbers that were choreographed and staged. That helped the producers, designers, and Cyndi and me to see how the physical production was going to come to life.

There are always last minute changes. We swapped out a song when the show was in Chicago before coming to Broadway. Cyndi wrote “Step One” and I had to orchestrate it and throw it into the show to replace another song. The collaboration went on over the course of three years. I’ve never been involved in a show that has been developed in less than three to five years.

It must have been great to see the whole production finally come together.

It’s a very exciting process to see any musical come to life. Things are constantly in flux. We keep changing and tweaking, cutting, and redoing things. It’s a lot of work until opening night. It was great working with this particular group. We had so much fun and loved each other so much. It wasn’t easy every step of the way, but it was done with great joy.

You’ve said that you worked to bring Cyndi’s music closer to Broadway. Did you do that by putting things like modulations into some songs at pivotal places?

There was some of that. It was not so much that I was trying to bring her music to Broadway; it was about bringing Broadway to her. We did certain things in some of the bigger numbers with dance breaks and a couple of key changes. We were just trying to build the numbers in an exciting and theatrical way, and that’s how you do it. Cyndi doesn’t often have a horn section or strings backing her up, so we added a lot of new colors and layers to her music.

A few decades ago, songs from top Broadway shows were also radio hits. Do you see possibilities for that in the future?

In the past, so many popular tunes came from Broadway shows. Look at where the standards everybody performs came from. But that’s not how it works anymore. Everything is so diversified now and there are so many different styles of popular music. There really hasn’t been much crossover in many years. Although I will say that when we released The Book of Mormon cast recording, it was the first time a cast recording had broken the top 10 since Hair.

Can you say a little bit about the record producing you’ve done?

I’ve produced a bunch of cast recordings. The latest two were for Book of Mormon and Kinky Boots. Each got Grammy Awards. Since I play such a big part in creating the sounds of these shows, it’s great to be there to make sure they are preserved appropriately and that all the right things are heard. We don’t record everything that’s part of the show on those albums. For instance, in Kinky Boots, we didn’t record the full dance breaks in certain numbers or all of the dialog. We want the album to be a satisfying listening experience—that’s a different experience from the show. Basically, we are preserving the score.

How do you divide your time between all these ongoing shows?

I go to casting sessions, hire music directors and musicians that tour, and run the music departments for the shows. I look after the two touring companies and the Broadway production for Book of Mormon. Kinky Boots is going to have London and Toronto companies this year, in addition to the Broadway production and a national tour. It’s exciting and a whole lot of work. Once the show is up and running, the maintenance is easier. I am responsible for how the shows sound. I’ll visit and give notes to the sound crew, the music director, musicians, and the actors. Doing this for many shows keeps me from getting tired of watching the same show over and over. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to make a living doing what I love. I can cross a lot of things off of my bucket list! I’m just happy that the phone keeps on ringing.

What are your thoughts as you prepare to be the music director and conductor for the Academy Awards in February?

It’s a huge honor to be involved. We are already working on things and I’m looking forward to the experience. So much planning goes into a show like this and it’s a giant responsibility. I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of it. I’m just happy to be making music somewhere.

What are some other projects you are involved with these days?

I have been working on a new show with Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, who are two superstars in country music. They won Song of the Year at the Country Music Association awards for Kacey Musgrave’s song “Follow Your Arrow.” They are fantastic writers and really special people. I’m excited about this collaboration; it’s a whole new journey to work on a show that is nuanced in the world of country music. I can’t really say too much about it yet, but it will be sweet and hilarious. We will be developing it over the next year and a half.

Do you have any aspirations to write a musical?

I am working on an original musical where I am writing the score and lyrics with two friends. Our goal is to have the first act by the spring. The director and writer of the book have been friends of mine for many years. I joined them during the last year. The plot involves the world of gaming. It’s just in the development stage; we’ve only done a couple demos so far. We’re getting together and learning what the story is and how we are going to tell it. It’s like a giant puzzle. When one thing changes, we need to take a different direction with the characters and the music.

Theater is a living, breathing organism. You are never going to watch the same performance twice. It’s happening before your eyes. Something could go horribly wrong, and the show has to keep going on. As well, things can be really fantastic. It was a big thrill for me conducting Wicked. The front row is very close to the pit in the Gershwin Theatre. I got to see the people having these amazing transformative moments at the end of act one. It is a beautiful thing, and that is why we do it. All we can hope is that people will come and be touched by the show. If they are, they’ll come back and tell their friends. It’s a very emotional thing for everyone, and I love that.

Do you feel that future Broadway shows may feature more popular-music based scores?

Pop music has long been represented on Broadway all the way back to the 50s. But there are many different types of Broadway shows. I think there is much more musical variety in the art form than people realize. In the last several years there have been shows featuring punk rock, hip-hop, jazz, and African music—to name a few of the many styles. The scores I’ve worked on are incredibly diverse. For each show we focus on creating a very specific musical language. Our approach to the score is about creating a musical world that compliments the story telling and takes people on a journey. There is nothing quite like seeing it live onstage. It’s a really joyful ride.