Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Brian Murray acts out

I’m always interested to know what will make an actor step out of character and break through the fourth wall to talk to the audience. I’ve heard stories of actors stopping a show to tell someone to turn off a cell phone and although I’ve been in plenty of theatres where phones have rung, I’ve never seen an actor acknowledge them. During Saturday’s matinee at the Irish Rep, however, I did witness Brian Murray breach the wall, but it wasn’t over a cell phone. It was over a foot, specifically a foot belonging to a man in the front row who had quite rudely and unbelievably propped it up on the stage.

Mr. Murray, who is playing the detective in the Irish Rep’s delightful revival of “Gaslight,” walked to the edge of the stage and, without looking at the man, made a shooing motion with his hand. Some people in the audience laughed; the barbarian removed his foot.

Although this took only a moment, it took a bit more time to regain the rhythm of the play. Mr. Murray seemed as if he were having trouble focusing on his lines. And while getting back into character took awhile for him, it also took awhile for me to again see him as his character. I don’t mean this as a criticism of what Mr. Murray did, it is just a good example of how important that imaginary fourth wall is to maintaining the magic of the story on stage.

Luckily the world of that Victorian-era parlor had already been well established right from the start with James Morgan’s marvelous set. The heavy oppressiveness could be felt everywhere, from the dark walls covered in all available spaces with stern portraits and landscapes, to the overstuffed furniture and rugs on top of rugs. One could almost smell the dust. The Irish Rep really has a way of making use of its postage stamp-sized stage, with busy sets like this or minimalist ones such as for “Finian Rainbow.”

Another big plus for creating this world and propelling the chilling plot was David Staller as Mr. Manningham, the murderous husband. He is so deliciously sinister that even when he isn’t on stage just the thought of him builds suspense.

None of this is unusual, though. In more than a decade of going to the Irish Rep I’ve never seen anything there that wasn’t well done. I might not like a play -- such as those by Tom Murphy -- but the quality of the production is always first rate. I hope in the future when artistic director Charlotte Moore makes the announcement about turning off cell phones she doesn’t have to alert audience members not to mistake the stage for a footstool!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Irish proverb

"A man becomes the song he sings."
(A woman does too!)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

110 in the Shade

I love when I go to a show and see cast members who look as if they’re really having fun. That’s the case with this charming revival of “110 in the Shade.” I hope they are, because I certainly had a great time.
This is a simple story, with a simple revolving set, brought to life with zestful dancing and sincere performances. There wasn’t one uneven moment in the whole two and a half hours.
Having Audra McDonald in the cast is always a plus. From the moment she bursts through the door of her little house as Lizzie Curry she is someone you’ve just got to root for. With “Love, Don’t Turn Away” she channels all of Lizzie’s spirit and longing. “Love, if you’re looking for a quiet place, I’ve got a heart that’s absolutely free,” she sings while tidying up the house. “I have so many things I want to do for you, so love don’t turn away.”
John Cullum as her supportive father is delightfully impish as he and his two sons dance around the single sheriff trying to do a little matchmaking on Lizzie's behalf. And Steve Kazee as Starbuck, the con man, is so appealing it’s no wonder he has the whole town singing and dancing. I was ready to join them.
But it’s really Lizzie’s story and McDonald makes the most of it. She is a riot as she lets her inner vamp go with “Raunchy.” Then she can turn on a dime to let her anger and frustration out in “Old Maid.” She creates a Lizzie who’s funny, passionate and smart. All she needs is a little awakening by the right person.
“110 in the Shade” is an old-fashioned show which hasn’t been revived on Broadway since its original 1963 production. Part of its appeal is understandable since its songs are by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones who wrote the music for “The Fantasticks,” another romantic little musical that has been revived this season in a moving production at the Snapple Center.
The intimacy of staging for “110” and the sweetness of its story make for a special evening. Catch it while you can. It plays only through July 29.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Ron Melrose

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.”

Friday, May 11, 2007

Show Business

If Irving Berlin had been a filmmaker instead of a song writer, he would have created “Show Business,” the glossy new documentary that brings his great anthem, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” to life.

This movie has it all, taking viewers along to “the openings when your heart beats like a drum” to “the closings when the customers don’t come.” “Show Business” follows four new musicals -- “Wicked,” Avenue Q,” “Caroline, or Change” and “Taboo” -- for one year, starting in the summer with rehearsals, moving on to previews, openings and, in the case of the last two, closings. In between is an unprecedentedly intimate step inside these worlds that few people outside the business get to see.

The filming is excellent, right from the opening shot of a bird's eye view of Manhattan at night in all its shimmering glory. The narrator sets the scene, talking of “the people who love it,” for whom movies and TV “don’t do it.” Then the camera floats down to Times Square, the theatres and the stage doors. “They want to be in these buildings. There’s something magical about going into these buildings. It is like nothing else.” And for the next 100 minutes we go in those buildings too and experience what it’s like to get a show from idea to opening night, the suspense of the Tony nominations and the excitement of that night, with all the glory, as well as “the headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops.” Among those featured are Rosie O’Donnell, Alan Cumming, John Lithgow, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Tonya Pinkins and George C. Wolfe.

“Show Business” is produced by Dori Berinstein, a three-time Tony-winning producer (“Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Fool Moon.”) who is a producer of the delightful new musical “Legally Blonde.” Growing up in Los Angeles, Ms. Berinstein went to the Wiltshire Boulevard Synagogue where many actors, actresses and theatre people went, and she caught their fever. While most of her friends were trying to get out of attending, she says she went to temple "religiously," especially for the speaker’s forum at which professionals in the movie business spoke about their experiences. This captivated her in such a way that she wanted to carve her own niche in the movie/theater/entertainment industry.

Luckily for us, she did. And just as those professional shared their experiences, Ms. Berinstein is doing the same thing now with "Show Business," giving us a never-before-seen look at the inner workings of Broadway shows. She proves what Mr. Berlin knew too -- there really is no business like it.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Pirate Queen

Much to my surprise, I enjoyed this show. The buzz had been so bad I thought I might be out the door at intermission, but I had no desire to leave. “The Pirate Queen” isn’t the best of musicals, but what saves it is the fascinating story it tells.
Created by Alain Boubul and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the folks who brought us “Les Miz,” “The Pirate Queen” recounts the life of Grace O’Malley, who was born on the rugged western coast of Ireland in 1530 and became a fighter for her country against the English. The feminist theme is strong in this show, with its parallel story of Queen Elizabeth I who ruled at a time of conquest and great expansion.
When Grace, engagingly played by Stephanie J. Block, comes on the scene, this conquest has been slowly and steadily eating away at Ireland, which was governed by various clans -- all ruled by men. The O’Malleys, headed by Grace’s widower father, are seafarers and pirates and Grace wants to join them.
“I have my dreams,” she sings as the show begins. “If you can do it, why can’t I? Am I to be just a woman? No, not I.”
She stows away on her father’s ship, fights like the best of them and, in short order, is made captain by her father. This doesn’t set too well with those on board.
Meanwhile, over in England, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII, is facing the same discrimination. “Many in England think a woman can’t rule,” she says, before setting out to prove them wrong.
How these women strive to have lives of their own -- one a swashbuckling fighter, the other an overdressed royal waited on hand and foot -- amidst the historical backdrop is the story that held me. I just wish the songs had been better, like all those gorgeous ones from “Les Miz.” In terms of music -- and choreography -- this show works best when it sticks to traditional Irish. When it does, it’s lovely.
As far as plots go, however, this one’s as exciting as any on Broadway. Grace’s story is dominant because she gets to do all kinds of neat stuff like get married, become chieftain when her father dies, have a baby boy, toss out her weaselly husband, get captured and imprisoned, sit down one-on-one with the queen to negotiate a peace for her country and find true love at the end. Elizabeth, played with the right amount of humor and strength by Linda Balgord, just gets to rule the British empire, sometimes so elaborately costumed she looks like an armchair. But she enjoys her power as much as Grace does,
“It’s a time for women to behave as men when men aren’t men,” she says.
And the men in this show certainly are no bargain. Grace’s husband is a low-life, part of a deal to bring two warring clans together. Feeling her power, she sends him packing. Elizabeth later does the same, dismissing the sniveling lord who seeks to be her consort, bringing on much cheering from the audience.
The one decent man, other than Grace’s father, is Tiernan (Hadley Fraser), who proves his love for Grace big time. All ends happily, that is except for the fact that Ireland is still subject to England. But Grace is optimistic, vowing that “Ireland will one day be free.”
As it is, Ireland may be subject to authority, but not Grace.
“I fought my wars on land and sea to be a woman strong and free,” she sings as the curtain closes on her remarkable story.
At intermission I heard one woman say to another, “I don’t know why people don’t like this.” I thought the same thing myself at the end. While it doesn’t have the grace of “Les Miz” in terms of musical theatre, it has its own Grace and that was enough for me.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Talk Rad!o

The actor was fantastic. The play mediocre.
There’s nothing between Liev Schreiber and Barry Champlain, the pompous, conceited radio talk show host he plays. Make that embodies. Chain smoking, pouring shot after shot of Jack Daniels and arrogantly dismissing his callers, Schreiber is every bit Barry. He rolls his eyes, slouches in his chair and gestures to his control room team, a restless personification of agitation.
As a Drama Desk voter, I love strong competition in a category. I’ll have a hard time choosing between Schreiber and Frank Langella of “Frost/Nixon.” The play, however, doesn’t belong in the best revival category. It left me with the feeling I had missed something, as if I had come in at the middle and didn’t know how things had progressed to that point. I don’t understand why Barry’s girlfriend, Linda MacArthur (Stephanie March), chooses that evening to leave him after putting up with him all along. I don’t know why he ends up in a raving diatribe this evening -- except for the possible effect of all that drinking -- because I don’t see any motivation for all his anger in the first place.
That anger is certainly apparent, though, right from the start. He enters the studio, perilously close to air time, complaining about people who drive 10 miles an hour and about others who cut people off. Then he sits down to launch into his opinions with callers, telling one that drugs should be legalized to “put the CIA and the Mafia out of business at the same time” and when another expresses an obsessive love for his cat, he tells him to “stop hanging around with the pussy and go get some.”
His program director, Dan Woodruff (Peter Hermann), comes on at one point to give some background narration, telling of Barry’s early success on the air and how it affected him. “He’d seen God -- in the mirror.” When Barry later developed laryngitis, he became depressed. “He missed the sound of his own voice,” Dan says. “Talking is living.”
Well, he definitely does plenty of that. So do his callers, especially one who ends up coming to the studio and going on the air with Barry. That’s when the play began to get tiresome to me.
A question we ask in journalism when deciding whether something is worth writing about is: What makes this night different from any other? It’s borrowed from the Passover question, but it’s meant to help the journalist decide if the event is newsworthy. What makes Barry the way he is and why is he even more so tonight? Those are the unanswered questions for me in this play. And they’re pretty big questions to leave unanswered.

Sunday, May 6, 2007


I chose not to see this play at first because the subject sounded too sordid -- a young woman confronting the man who had had a sexual relationship with her when she was 12 and he was 40. I relented, though, and saw it last week after it received three Drama Desk nominations -- Outstanding Play (David Harrower), Outstanding Set Design (Scott Pask) and Outstanding Lighting (Paul Gallo).

As it turns out, I was right -- it is sordid, but it’s also compelling theatre. I had figured I could do my duty as a voter and leave early if my suspicions were correct. I didn’t leave. It was far too riveting.

What baffles me is why our nominating committee overlooked Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill who made this 90-minute drama so intense. It wasn’t the play that did it for me, especially with its depressing ending, it was their command of their roles that kept me in my seat. Neither conveyed one false movement, gesture or expression. Ms. Pill makes Una’s pain heartbreakingly raw and Mr. Daniels is convincingly disgusting as the overweight, middle-aged man who destroyed her life 15 years earlier. These are delicate roles that could have been ruined by overacting or sentimentalizing. Ms. Pill and Mr. Daniels hit just the right notes throughout their tension-filled encounter.

Mr. Pask’s set enhances the atmosphere -- a trash strewn lunchroom in a bland industrial-type building that Una characterizes as the kind of plain, one-story structure people drive by on the highway and wonder what goes on inside. It keeps the audience right there with them.

This isn’t a play I would recommend to the average, occasional theatregoer. It’s too dark. It should, however, be required for any student of the theatre. Mr. Daniels and Ms. Pill are outstanding actors in this play, no matter what the Drama Desk nominators decided. They deserve to be seen -- and recognized for their performances.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Legally Blonde

I came out wanting to dance, or at least sashay, my way though the theatre district. I woke up feeling the same way. This go-girl musical is frothy and fun from beginning to end. I loved it.
I had enjoyed the movie, but the musical is even better because it’s live and soooo High Energy. I couldn’t always understand the lyrics, but the message was loud and clear. After seeing the show I felt ready to shop -- and conquer the world in my spare time
“Legally Blonde” is the funniest show I’ve seen in a long, long time. The situation, of course, is great -- a ditzy Malibu blonde whose boyfriend dumps her because she’s not serious enough. Vowing to get him back, she applies to Harvard Law School so she can be near him, even though her father tells her “law school is for boring, ugly people.” I loved the stuffy Harvard admissions board’s consideration of her application, with her 4.0 -- in fashion merchandising! -- a letter of recommendation from Oprah and a glossy color head shot; she’s the only applicant to send one. “Is that the face of Harvard Law,” a board member asks. They reluctantly decide to admit her under the umbrella of “multiculturalism.”
The visual gags are great, such as when Elle shows up for her first class in a fuchsia tank top emblazoned with Harvard in rhinestones. Her sorority sisters are a blast throughout, popping up as a Greek chorus, in the style of a 1960s girl group, to sing/comment on the action and empower Elle.
At first I missed Reese Witherspoon because she was so great in the film, but it didn’t take long for Laura Bell Bundy to win me over. She embodies Elle’s sensibilities; she’s delightful in pink sweats -- “pink is my signature color” -- conveying Elle’s logic with complete seriousness, including her deadpan horror at “someone who wears black when no one’s dead.”
And can she dance! She’s the star of Jerry Mitchell’s energized choreography, and she really owns her space, Elle-style, when she sings. I was high at intermission after her act one curtain closer, “So Much Better.” I was ready to head out and conquer the world too, not that anything short of a fire would have gotten me out of the theatre early. That spirit was capped beautifully at the end with the empowering “Find My Way.”
In the language of Elle and her sisters, “omigod you guys,” you have just got to see this show!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Mary-Mitchell Campbell

I wrote this feature for the May 4, 2007 issue of National Catholic Reporter.

By rights, Mary-Mitchell Campbell should have died at 21. That was when she misjudged a curve on a mountainous road in North Carolina, causing her car to flip over several times. When it finally came to a stop, dozens of people rushed toward it, certain the occupant would either be dead or seriously injured. It took four of them to pry her out. When they did, she emerged with only a cut on her elbow.

Before the accident she had been praying. Then the violent crashing and sensation of tumbling over and over. But as the car slowed, Ms. Campbell recalls feeling peaceful and knowing everything would be fine. But, she soon realized, never the same.

“It was a turning point. I felt there was definitely something I was supposed to do.”

It took the 2004 presidential election a decade later for her to find out what.

“I was watching so many people be mean to each other,” she says, curled up on the brown leather sofa in her Manhattan apartment. “The country was so divided. It felt like we had lost our connection of how to treat people. I woke up one morning and decided, ‘I have got to do something.’”

What she did was put her career as Broadway musical director and Juilliard professor on hold for several months to work in an orphanage in India. The experience was so profound that she is now building an orphanage of her own there -- she expects to purchase the land this spring; completion will depend on fundraising.

“I felt responsible for what I knew,” she says, sipping from a cup of carryout coffee her assistant has brought her. “It meant everything had to be different. My entire way of living had to shift and all my priorities.”

She sold her house in New York to put the money into her project. She lives now in a two-bedroom apartment on the Upper, Upper West Side with Coleman, a five-year-old shepherd mix named after songwriter Cy Coleman who was an early mentor. She still teaches at Juilliard as music director in the drama division, having become one of the youngest persons ever to serve on the faculty at the prestigious school when she was hired at 29 in 2003. She still takes on major Broadway shows, last season serving as musical director for the revival of “Sweeney Todd” and this season doing the same for the revival of “Company.” Between several trips a year to India, she does these things, and many more -- including serving as music director for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang camp’s annual fund-raising gala and performing at such venues as the White House and Carnegie Hall. That’s an awful lot of accomplishment for someone who’s only 33.

“It’s important to show I can do both, still have a fruitful career and be an active and responsible citizen,” she says.

The India project is only one of Ms. Campbell’s charitable endeavors. She also sends Juilliard students and young Broadway performers to offer arts education to young people in Homestead, FL, and Port Elizabeth, South Africa. She formed a nonprofit corporation to package it all, calling it ASTEP for Artists Striving to End Poverty. It operates with about a half million dollar budget, an executive director who used to be her personal assistant and a couple hundred volunteers in various capacities from the theatrical community. Board members include Broadway stars Kristin Chenoweth, Gavin Creel and Raul Esparza.

Both worlds coexist in Ms. Campbell’s apartment. While one bedroom houses ASTEP’s administrative functions, the living room nurtures the performing artist. An oak upright piano is against one wall with photographs framed atop and hung above, including one with Ms. Chenoweth, a close friend, after they had both performed at the White House.

“Our focus is on children in all our decision-making, but I’ve seen the lives of the artists change so dramatically as well. I watch them come back much better artists with so much to say and the need to say it, especially the Juilliard kids who have a lot of technique but not always the passion. They come back and really flourish.”

She calls it the ripple effect. The children use drama and dance to deal with their real-life problems involving drug abuse, crime and domestic violence and the performers experience the lives of people growing up in extreme poverty.

“I feel like there’s really a solid shift with people taking hold of the idea that art can change the world. I always believed it, but I’ve seen it so much now I really believe it. There’s something sacred about the space created when artists create together. Walls come down.”

While Ms. Campbell is helping tear down walls in the lives of the poor, her musical talent propelled her forward before the usual show business walls could even form. At 3 she asked for a piano for Christmas, even though she had never played one. She didn’t get it, but by the time she was 5 she could walk up to any piano and play by ear. At 7 she was taking lessons and got a piano of her own after a man who owed her father money, and who also just happened to own a piano store, paid off his debt with the instrument. By 10 she was playing in restaurants in her native Wilson, NC, “making decent money.”

She came to New York after graduating with a degree in piano performance from Furman University with her husband, a saxophonist who was pursing a career in finance. In a time-honored tradition, she took work as an office temp, but only for three months before her career began to take off. “It was almost like the Red Sea parted. It was a shock.”

The marriage ended as their careers went separate ways. Now Ms. Campbell finds herself one of a rare breed -- a female musical director on Broadway. For “Company,” she received, in many cases, better notices than the show as a whole. In review after review she was singled out, with praise like “the show simple wouldn’t work without the excellent orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell,” with another citing her “truly miraculous new orchestrations.”

“My success with my career is a byproduct of my helping other people,” she says. “It’s not what I thought when I made the decision it was more important than Broadway. God rewards you in ways you weren’t expecting. I feel very grateful.”

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