In a continuing story about the national tour of ‘Come Fly Away’ – the Twyla Tharp tribute to the music of Sinatra that opens today at the Fisher Theatre – we are delighted to interview Music Director and pianist Rob Cookman. (Yesterday’s interview was with dancer Justin Urso.)
Mr. Cookman has been much in demand – acting as Music Director for Legally Blonde the Musical (2nd National Tour), Menopause the Musical (Chicago), Mamma-Mia (2nd National Tour, AMD), Movin’ Out (2nd National Tour), Swing! (Japan Tour) and Cirque Du Soleil’s Banana Shpeel (bandleader/arranger/composer). Rob earned his master’s degree in music at Western Michigan University and taught piano at WMU and Kalamazoo College from 1998 to 2004.
E: What inspired you to pursue a career in music, and what path led you to become a Music Director for such major productions as ‘Legally Blonde the Musical,’ ‘Movin’ Out,’ and now ‘Come Fly Away’?
R.C.: I knew at a very early age that I wanted to be a musician. I grew up in the VERY small town of Romney, West Virginia… less than 2000 people, one stop-light. There were not any ‘professional’ musicians besides my teachers so naturally they were my first role models. I took piano lessons from a lady at my church. Mrs. Waterworth also gave voice lessons and piano lessons to my older brother. That helped a great deal. I heard his lessons and practice sessions. I was in choir and band in grade school through high school. While piano lessons were VERY important as well as choir and band I always loved pop music. My brother listened to the Beatles and Queen and I fell in love with this music. I started a rock/pop band in 6th grade and we ended up playing at dances and clubs (at a much too young age). This is when I knew for sure I could do this for a living. I ended up majoring in piano performance and received a bachelors and a master’s degree. I studied classical as well as jazz piano. Having this diverse background is actually perfect for Musicals and being a director. To be a Musical Director you need to be able to play WELL. You need to be able to play what’s on the page as well as improvise. Band and choir came in handy with knowing other instruments and vocal parts. When I was in graduate school in Kalamazoo, the show Mamma-Mia came to town. I was amazed that these people actually lived on the road. I was FULL of questions. Turns out I knew someone that was in the band and, fast-forward two years, I was on the road playing keyboard 4 for Mamma Mia.
E: What do you look forward to about returning to Michigan as part of a touring show?
R.C.: I spent almost 10 years in Kalamazoo. I developed lots of professional and personal relationships while living there. I live in New York City now but I consider myself part West Virginian and part Michigander. I went to grad school for three years there. I taught at both Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College. I was also the keyboardist for the pop group Knee Deep Shag. While in Knee Deep Shag I travelled ALL over the state of Michigan playing clubs and festivals and met people from all over. Some of my favorite memories are traveling in the band’s van with four of my best friends to the next gig. I really look forward to seeing those guys and visiting their families…they all are married and have children now! I also have many teachers as well as students throughout the state that I hope to bump into.
E: Words of advice for students aspiring to be a professional Music Director?
R.C.: If you want to be a Musical Director learn how to play your instrument. Piano is usually the instrument that people associate with being a musical director. One of the reasons (especially today with smaller and smaller pit bands) it’s one of the easiest instruments to conduct from… sometimes with both hands, sometimes with one hand, sometimes with your head. You need to know your instrument inside and out. If there is a problem, i.e., a singer gets off, someone in the orchestra comes in early, there’s a problem with a prop on stage… YOU’RE IN CHARGE. The last thing you want to be worried about is your instrument.
Next, knowing how to conduct is very important. Not only do you need to know your part, you need to be able to get the orchestra and the singers to do what you want them to do. You might have both feet on control pedals, both hands on the keyboard, and have to conduct the band by nodding. It’s also very helpful to know the ranges of the other instruments you’re working with and some basic arranging skills. Knowing the vocal part ranges is also of great importance. Your job is to know the show inside and out. What happens if one of the singer’s gets sick? What happens if your drummer breaks his arm?
Music is a VERY hard VERY competitive business. If you’re serious about making a living at it, saying no (especially in the beginning of your career) is not an option. In other words be prepared to work on a lot of jobs that are not your ideal gig. Say yes to EVERYTHING!
You can watch Mr. Cookman play a wicked piano and direct at the same time in ‘Come Fly Away,’ September 13 to 25 at the Fisher Theatre. Tickets are on sale at the Fisher Theatre box office, all Ticketmaster outlets, by phone at 1-800-982-2787, and online at the Broadway In Detroit website.