Monday, May 14, 2007
This profile I wrote appears in the May 20, 2007 issue of “The Living Church” magazine.
Cast members from the hit Broadway musical “Jersey Boys” were signing autographs outside the stage door one Saturday between matinee and evening performances before heading out for dinner. Upstairs, in a small third floor dressing room used as an office, Ron Melrose, one of the people responsible for the success of this show, was ordering in.
Mr. Melrose had spent the first show in the audience, something that as musical director he does once a week to make sure the nearly two-year-old show stays fresh. That night he would be back in front of the orchestra conducting the music of Frankie Valli & the 4 Seasons in this musical about the group’s rise to the heights of rock and roll fame.
A few blocks away in a small Off-Broadway theatre an actress was preparing to take the stage in another Ron Melrose offering, “Early One Morning,” a musical story of Jesus’ forgiveness and love from the point of view of Mary Magdalene, for which Mr. Melrose wrote the words and music.
These two shows -- the commercial and the spiritual -- are but a small part of the creative force of this 52-year-old musician who began composing when he was 7 or 8. On a personal level, they represent, in many ways, key elements of his past, from his upbringing in an atheistic Jewish family to his baptism into the Episcopal tradition.
“I never put my center in a Broadway theatre,” said Mr. Melrose, whose casual attire of black pants, black T-shirt and blue work shirt are in keeping with his down-to-earth personality. “This is a wonderful work life and I try to give it everything I have, but I don’t look to it to provide a center for me.”
He finds his center in prayer and reading scripture and theology. With his “24/7” work schedule, which has just included a cross-country trip to audition actors for an upcoming second national “Jersey Boys” touring company, he has little time for churchgoing, although this wasn’t always the case. For a decade in the late 1980s to 1990s, he left commercial theatre and served as music director at All Angels’ Episcopal Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. From that experience, “Early One Morning” was born.
Mr. Melrose had found his way to the Episcopal tradition thanks to the writer Madeleine L’Engle whose children’s book A Wrinkle in Time he used to check out of the Iowa City Public Library every other week; he returned it and immediately checked it out again. As an adult he discovered Ms. L’Engle’s Christian books and learned she was the librarian in residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. When he moved to New York to work in theatre, he called Ms. L’Engle to see if he could meet her. She invited him to tea and eventually to join her for the noon liturgy in the Cathedral. He was drawn to the ritual, but having been brought up by parents who taught him that religion was for weak people, he felt “huge resistance” at first. Finding it more and more inviting and compelling over time, he took Ms. L’Engle’s suggestion and was baptized in 1980 and confirmed three years later.
“I liked the Catholicism of it. I loved the pomp, the symbolism. There was majesty in a high Episcopal service, yet you didn’t have to believe that a little man in Rome had all the answers.”
His work at All Angels’ was fulfilling at first. He created a gospel choir made up of members of the church’s Sunday evening soup kitchen. Since he knew little about gospel music, he turned to some of his Broadway musician friends who had roots in that tradition and learned the songs this new congregation would want to hear. With the gospel music, the Sunday evening service that had had fewer than a dozen attendees grew to a congregation of about 150, both street people and longtime members of the parish.
But over time the parish began to shift to a more conservative stance, with vestry members even criticizing Mr. Melrose, who was going through his third divorce, saying he was not the kind of person they wanted in a leadership position. While church members were sitting in judgment, his theatre friends were providing love and support over the collapse of his marriage, so rather than look for another church job, he headed back to Broadway. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’m working in the wrong building.’”
The All Angels’ experience illustrated for him the dangers of judgmentalness, and from that he created “Early One Morning.” As he grappled with the question of who is worthy of God’s love, he wanted a character who would best illuminate God’s mercy. He chose to cast Mary Magdalene in the traditional light of prostitute because “that kind of healing could only come from that kind of brokeness.” The show is available for performances around the country through Connecticut-based Masterwork Productions, Inc. Lauren Yarger, executive director, said she saw the piece done years ago and, thinking she’s like to produce it, asked Mr. Melrose for his card.
“I thought he was a nice Christian writer struggling to get by in New York,” she said. “When I called to get together, he said: ‘Let’s meet at my office at Radio City,’ and I thought, ‘Radio City? Who is this guy?’ So I Googled him to find that I was dealing not with a struggling Christian composer, but a force on Broadway.”
His force has been felt on Broadway in “Imaginary Friends,” “Jekyll & Hyde” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” to name a few of his shows; he also has written songs for cabaret and “Saturday Night Live”; two other liturgical works, “The Missing Peace,” which introduces a feminine element into the Trinity, and “Songs I Won’t be Singing,” and holds a degree in choral conducting from Westminster Choir College.
Those who make their living on the stage find working with Mr. Melrose to be a blessing.
“He’s a phenomenal human being -- kind, wonderful, loving and wickedly smart,” said Cindy Marchionda who has played his Mary Magdalene for six or seven years. “When he accompanies you, he breathes with you. He’s very in tune with the performer, the person up there doing the work. He’s a consummate professional.”
Ms. Marchionda says working with Mr. Melrose has made her a better singer.
“He knows exactly how to tell you to sing a phrase to make the words come out. Mostly he’s made me be a better storyteller. I would sing his music anytime.”
Mr. Melrose’s musical seeds were sown early. When he began composing as a child, he drew from liturgical music and texts of the Latin mass because he knew all the great composers had wrestled with those texts. “My music was Christian long before I was.” His parents were professors at the University of Iowa where faculty members in the music department were asked to provide private tutoring to children. Mr. Melrose was a lucky recipient, receiving free instruction in keyboard, harpsichord, horn, vocal repertoire, music theory, composing, harmony and more. With all that to his credit, when he went to Harvard he majored in philosophy rather than music, feeling he already had what amounted to a free conservatory education.
As for the future, it’s likely to hold more Broadway as he seeks to bring a revival of “The Wiz” to the Great White Way. When not working, he finds another center in his life in Astoria, Queens, with his fourth wife, Alexandra. His son, Jake, is a student at Brown University.
Mr. Melrose also keeps an eye on the controversies in the Episcopal church, especially in light of what he learned at All Angels’. The judgmentalness is familiar.
”Anytime the world says this is less than perfect, the church needs to affirm that’s exactly why we’re here. I don’t hold myself out as the great way for a Christian to live. I just get still and help lead the music.”