Elena Bonomo is a drummer, percussionist, band leader and music educator based in the NYC area. Actively involved in both the pop/rock and musical theater scenes, she has performed at venues across NYC and is currently the drummer for the Broadway musical SIX. Elena has toured across the United States as the drummer for the first National Tour of the hit Broadway musical Waitress. She originated the drum chairs for two Off-Broadway shows, The Hello Girls and A Strange Loop, and appeared as the drummer on both of their Original Cast Recordings. An active sub in the NYC theater scene, Elena’s Broadway and Off-Broadway sub credits include Waitress, Be More Chill, Cagney, and A Taste of Things to Come. Elena is currently in the house band for FEMME Jam, and all-female led jam session that takes place once a month at Brooklyn’s C’Mon Everybody. In addition to her US appearances, Elena has performed throughout the Caribbean, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe while working as band leader for Holland America Cruise Lines. She has toured nationally with Boston-based Americana/Folk group, The Novel Ideas, with whom she also recorded a full length album.
A Conversation with Elena Bonomo
Jamie Maletz: So… first things first, because I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit obsessed with the show: I’d love to talk about SIX. You’re currently the drummer with the Broadway production. What is that experience like?
Elena Bonomo: I’m having a blast! The show is so much fun to play. I’m just so psyched to share the stage with these amazing ladies every night. We have so much fun on and off stage and I’m just super grateful to be part of the show. We also get to wear costumes and be on stage, which makes the show THAT much more exciting.
JM: So what is your costume?
Elena Bonomo: We wear tight black vinyl pants that lace up down the leg, and a black, studded bodysuit. We accessorize with studded combat boots, a studded crown, and a tudor style ruffle that velcros around the neck.
JM: I love it. How long does it take to put that whole look together?
Elena Bonomo: It’s really not too bad as long as you’re dry. I usually give myself a half hour to get ready. If you come to work a little bit sweaty, you have to make sure that you have time to cool off before you put the pants on…otherwise it’s bad news.
JM: I don’t want to imagine being sweaty in vinyl pants. But that costume sounds so fun.
Elena Bonomo: I really like wearing it! It makes me feel like I’m doing something special, and it’s obviously something I would never wear in real life – so it makes it all the more fun!
JM: Does it make it hard to drum?
Elena Bonomo: No, it’s fine. The hardest thing about it is that it’s very tight, but I’m used to it now.
JM: I’ll bet. So you told me earlier that you use in-ear monitors when you play. Is that something you get for every show you do as a drummer?
Elena Bonomo: It depends on the show and the type of sound system they’re using. For example, with SIX and also with Waitress, we use personal mixers. (There are different brands like Aviom and Roland). It’s just a little personal mixer and, with it, I have the ability to control the volume of every instrument, the click, the MD’s talk-back, and any tracks. It’s super handy.
JM: In the headphones that you’re wearing?
Elena Bonomo: In the headphones that I’m wearing, yes. So every person in the band has their own way to control their own mix. So for example, I have the drums really loud in my mix and I can control the volume of the click. I can even control the volume of the audience if I want to hear them screaming and clapping, or I can turn it all down if it gets distracting. I really like having the ability to control that, because you don’t have to rely on the person who’s running sound. It’s really convenient. But there are some shows… I subbed for an Off-Broadway show called Cagney and that was at the Westside Theatre. It’s a much smaller space that can only fit maybe 200 people. I had to use an actual monitor, you know, like a small speaker. And we weren’t on headphones at all. So it just depends on the size of the space.
JM: That’s really interesting. Thinking about the perspective of a regular audience member, you know there are instrumentalists playing in the pit, but you probably don’t think about how they’re hearing things. You probably assume they’re just playing their instruments. And maybe if you’re thinking a little bit, you think they have a monitor speaker. Do you think it’s more common to have the headphones or the monitor speakers?
Elena Bonomo: I think nowadays especially, there are lots of shows where the band is on stage. It’s definitely becoming a new trend. And I think oftentimes in those situations, the band is probably using headphones or an in-ear monitor type of situation because they can control the onstage volume in a better way. Like, if everybody had their own monitor in front of them, then the stage volume would be incredibly loud and it would be harder for the sound engineer to mix the show. So it’s easier for them when we all have the sound just coming into our headphones and we can just control it ourselves and it’s not affecting anyone else.
JM: Well, that’s really cool.
Elena Bonomo: Yeah. I definitely enjoy it.
JM: That’s so neat! So, for SIX, do you have some favorite behind the scenes stories you can share with us?
Elena Bonomo: One time during tech at the American Repertory Theater, we were running the top of the show for the first time. There is a smoke machine that blows smoke all around the stairs that the Queens stand on. They have to walk down the stairs through a small opening in the curtain to the front of the stage. Well, sure enough, it was so dark backstage (and there was such a thick layer of haze) that they couldn’t see the stairs! So we had to stop the whole run and figure out how to fix it. Our amazing stage management team ended up putting glow tape on the edge of the steps so they could see in the dark. It was cool to watch the whole problem-solving experience from start to finish.
JM: And in the Broadway production, how many people are in the band? You on drums, plus…
Elena Bonomo: Michelle [Osbourne] on electric bass, Kimi [Hayes] on acoustic and electric guitars, and our MD Julia [Schade] on keys.
JM: And everyone in the band is female and everyone in the cast is female, so you have a badass ensemble of all women.
Elena Bonomo: Yes.
JM: That’s so cool.
Elena Bonomo: It’s really cool.
JM: So, in doing a show that is so incredible with powerful female stories and women reclaiming their narrative with a company of all women, do you feel that female camaraderie?
Elena Bonomo: Absolutely. It’s really special. Because you don’t often have the chance to share the stage with a group of only women. I mean, sometimes you do, in situations like this, but I would say the majority of the time I’m usually the only woman on stage, or I’m one of the few. Not that there’s anything wrong with that either–as long as I’m playing with great musicians, then I’m happy. But there is something really special about sharing the stage with a bunch of other talented women. And the crowd response is CRAZY. When we come out of the stage door after the show, people want to talk to us, take pictures, and sign autographs. So many people have said that they just love seeing an all-female band, or that their daughters play the drums too. It’s super rewarding for us.
JM: I’m glad it’s fun for you guys too. That’s so incredible. So you also toured across the US with Waitress, which is another favorite of mine. What was that experience like?
Elena Bonomo: That was so much fun. I had such an amazing time on the road. I made some really good friends and I loved playing Sara Bareilles’s music every night. You’ve heard the score, they’re all just really good songs and I never got sick of it. I like to listen to Sara Bareilles anyways. Even before I got the gig she was one of my favorites. It was always just so much fun to play every night. I was with the tour for the first thirteen months and it was definitely a long time, but I loved traveling to all these different cities. I got to see so many places that I had never been and I probably would have never gone if I hadn’t been on tour. I’m also a big foodie. So I tried all the different restaurants in every city. That was a highlight of mine. I’d be like, “Okay, we’re in Appleton, Wisconsin, which restaurants should I check out this week?” And I really enjoyed doing that. It’s a great way to see the country and have fun with friends and play really good music.
JM: How many different places did you go through?
Elena Bonomo: I don’t remember the exact number, but within the time that I was there, I think it was about 35 cities.
JM: And how long did you stay in each place, approximately? Or did it vary?
Elena Bonomo: We were in each city for at least a full week. Some of the bigger cities were a little bit more, like two, three, even four weeks. Chicago was three weeks. San Francisco was four weeks. LA was four weeks. So it kind of just depends, but smaller markets like Appleton, Wisconsin, those were just one week. Luckily, it was never less than that. So I felt like, even with a week, we’d still have a good amount of time to explore and enjoy the city.
JM: So what’s your favorite and least favorite thing about being in a touring production?
Elena Bonomo: I guess my favorite thing about it was, like I said before, being able to explore cities and try all the different restaurants and food and things that each place was known for. Like, Milwaukee was known for its cheese curds and breweries. I had to go eat deep dish pizza in Chicago and have a Philly cheesesteak in Philadelphia. All the basic touristy things, I guess–but it was fun! Least favorite part of being on tour was having to say no to gigs at home, because I hate saying no. I mean, I’m sure every musician hates to turn down work. So on one hand, you’re doing this amazing gig that you’ve dreamed of playing your whole life, and that’s great. But at the same time people are asking me to do gigs in New York and I’m like, “I’m gone. I’m not available.” So that was really hard. I don’t like having to miss out on things. And, you know, sometimes you have to realize that you can’t do it all, that you have to take it one step at a time and say, okay, I’m here now and that’s it.
JM: Do you have any favorite memories, or behind the scenes or on-the-road stories?
Elena Bonomo: Oh, yes, I have a lot of crazy stories from Waitress.
JM: Okay, one ridiculous story that comes to mind?
Elena Bonomo: So we were in Cincinnati. And I really needed to get my eyes checked because my prescription was over a year old and I wanted a new pair of glasses. I couldn’t get a new pair of glasses unless I had an updated prescription, and of course you’re on the road so you don’t get to see your normal doctor. So I saw a sign outside of an eye doctor across the street from the theater and it said “$25 eye exams.” So I was like, okay, why not? The doctor takes me in, and of course it’s a doctor that I’ve never met so I was a little bit nervous. And he doesn’t even explain what he’s about to do, and, all of a sudden, he tells me to put my head back because he’s going to put drops in my eyes. And I was like, “What kind of drops?!” And he was like, “Oh, I’m just dilating your eyes. You’ll be fine. For the next two or three hours just make sure you’re not doing anything important.” I said, “I have a show tonight at seven.” I was nervous at that point. And then… (I don’t know if you’ve ever had your eyes dilated…)
JM: No, and I would never like to, it doesn’t sound good.
Elena Bonomo: It’s just so uncomfortable. They just put these drops in and they make your pupils get huge.
JM: Did it change the way you saw things?
Elena Bonomo: Yeah. So it took a few minutes to kick in, but when I went to pay, all of a sudden everything got blurry and I couldn’t see what was right in front of me. And I was just thinking, “Oh my God, this is crazy. I can’t see.” Everything was just so overwhelming because my eyes were huge at that point.
JM: And were you alone too?
Elena Bonomo: Yeah, I was alone. I faint really easily, that’s just a thing that happens. So I started to get really lightheaded and dizzy because my whole balance was thrown off, and I was like, “Excuse me for one moment, I think I need to sit down.” And I ended up lying on the floor, because I knew that if I fainted it would be safest if I was just laying down. I felt absolutely horrible, so I texted my friend Nick who was the cello player in the band, and I said, “Hey, I’m kind of passed out on the floor at the eye doctor. Can you pick me up and help me get home?” He was there in five minutes and we took an Uber back to my AirBnB. He had to help me walk to my room because I couldn’t see. It was that bad.
JM: Were your eyes back to normal in time for the show?
Elena Bonomo: So that’s the funny thing. I took a nap. I thought by the time I woke up, it’d be fine. And at around six o’clock I had to start heading to the theater, and my eyes were definitely better than earlier, but not back to normal. I had to keep my sunglasses on in order to be able to see without getting dizzy and overwhelmed. And it was also freezing that day because it was Cincinnati in the middle of January. So we were all bundled up in our winter jackets and ski hats. I played the show with a ski hat and sunglasses on without being able to see because it just made me so dizzy. And luckily the show was memorized at that point. So I didn’t have to worry about reading the music, but it was so uncomfortable. And I probably looked absolutely ridiculous. And in Waitress, the band is onstage.
JM: But it went ok music wise?
Elena Bonomo: Yeah, it was fine. I actually remember the conductor saying it was one of my cleaner shows because I was really focused on making it perfect. It was absolutely ridiculous. Don’t ever get your eyes dilated before a show.
JM: I will never. Oh my God, that sounds horrible.
Elena Bonomo: Yeah. Not a good experience.
JM: Let’s talk about a good experience. You originated the drum chairs for the recent Off-Broadway shows The Hello Girls and A Strange Loop. Do you want to talk about what it was like to work on those shows?
Elena Bonomo: Both of those were so much fun. Both had really great teams. I’ll start with A Strange Loop because that was the most recent. It was such an amazing experience. Rona Siddiqui was our music director. The pit was pretty unique because three out of five people in the pit were female. So that’s pretty cool because, you know, on Broadway that’s not usually a thing. And also I believe three out of the five were people of color. So we were just breaking all the stereotypes.
JM: That’s what we need.
Elena Bonomo: Yeah, that was pretty special. The show was so much fun. It’s pretty heavy. The music is beautiful. Michael R. Jackson wrote all the music. He’s just such an amazing songwriter. All of his songs were so honest. He really speaks the truth. You see so many shows where it kind of seems like people are sugarcoating things or making up a story, but this show was like real life and I think people really appreciated that. And from a musician’s perspective, every song was slightly different. So we had some gospel, we had some funk, we had some singer/songwriter, folksy stuff going on. And for me as a drummer, I really enjoyed that because I like playing so many different styles. It was cool to do all that in one show.
JM: That’s fun. And The Hello Girls?
Elena Bonomo: I did that back in November and December of 2018. All the music was written by Peter Mills. And that was a very different type of show. It takes place during World War One and it’s about female bilingual telephone operators. So that music was more of a classic musical theater style. More old-school. And that show was super unique because it was an actor/musician show. I was the only person who wasn’t an actor; I was just playing drums. But I was on stage and visible to the audience. And everyone in that show was just so ridiculously talented– many of the cast played multiple instruments. It was really fun to watch.
JM: So having worked on big, polished Broadway shows and then working on new work, do you have a preference for one or the other? What are your feelings comparing the two?
Elena Bonomo: They’re definitely different, but I really enjoy doing both. It’s really cool to play a Broadway tour or show and have the nicest gear available and play in giant theatres that can accommodate thousands of people. In Waitress, the band was on a moving platform that was all automated. Meaning that it wasn’t being pushed by anyone; it was all programmed in a computer. Someone would press go and we would move! So that’s super high tech, and you can get used to that stuff after a while. I had a really nice drum set, I had an Aviom mixer so I could make my own mix… you get used to that stuff. And then I went to The Hello Girls immediately after the Waitress tour and that was a completely different thing. Now all of a sudden this theater can only accommodate a couple hundred people, and I don’t have an in-ear monitor system, I just have a little speaker above me. Everything about it was on a much smaller scale. But at the same time, I was helping to create the drum book for that show because it was brand new, and the composer came to me and said, “Hey, do your thing. I kind of have a general idea of what I think I want, but if you feel inspired to do something, please go for it. And as long as it’s cool with the music director, you guys can collaborate and talk about what you think is best for this song.” It was really nice that he gave me the freedom to do that. Being able to create something is also really exciting. So I really liked both.
JM: So in situations like that, when you help to create the drum book, do you get credit for what you come up with if it gets put into the show?
Elena Bonomo: Yes. I ended up getting credit for additional drum arrangements. It was in the program and everything. That was the first time I got credit for anything writing-related. We ended up working with the music assistant and transcribing all of the specific things that I was playing. I also wanted to make sure the book was an accurate representation of what I was playing, because I had a sub coming in and I wanted to make sure she could sound like me. And if I gave her charts that were vague and not exactly what I was doing, then I wouldn’t be setting her up for success. I wanted it to be as accurate as possible.
JM: So for those of us who are writers, what is the most common annoying thing that writers say or do to drummers that they might not realize is annoying?
Elena Bonomo: I think it can be annoying when writers try to write out an exact drum fill. Because I feel like oftentimes writers don’t really know how to write for drums. So what they might think rhythmically makes sense might not. They might voice something just on the snare drum thinking like, “Oh this will be a cool drum fill,” when really, if I were to play it, maybe I would try to incorporate the toms or the cymbals, or it could be the same rhythmic figure, but I would voice it differently. So I would prefer for people to just write “fill” because then I can take that and make my own decision on what might work well in that situation. And as a drummer, I know my way around the drums. I’m pretty sure I know what they want in this situation. Whereas a composer that doesn’t play the drums might not know the best way to write the drum fill.
JM: And then conversely, what’s the best thing a writer can say or do when they’re working with drummers for a good collaboration?
Elena Bonomo: I like when composers give drummers the freedom to come up with stuff on their own. Because I’ve seen so many charts that are written by people who aren’t drummers and they think that that’s what they want. And then they’ll say, “Oh, that sounds weird.” So I’ll try something else in another groove that’s totally based off of what they had originally written. I kind of like when there’s that open communication to say, “You’re a drummer. I trust you to take my ideas and mess around with them and see what you can do to make them sound like a good fit for this song.”
JM: That’s awesome.
Elena Bonomo: And it’s not to say that composers shouldn’t write specific things for drums. Of course if you know what you want and you’re familiar with writing for drums, then go for it. There’s orchestrators who are super specific when it comes to drums. Like Charlie Rosen orchestrated A Strange Loop, and he also did Be More Chill and I ended up subbing there. And that drum book was pretty specific. He knew exactly what he wanted. And I don’t know what that collaboration process was between Charlie and Marques, the drummer for Be More Chill, but at least for A Strange Loop, Charlie gave me a good mix between specific grooves and moments where I had the freedom to do what I wanted. I think that mix is really healthy and important.
JM: So being a female drummer, in general do you find that people treat you like, “Oh, that’s badass, you’re a female drummer?” Or do you get more, “Can you really drum as hard as a man?” Do you find that gender colors the way people treat you or their expectations of you as a drummer?
Elena Bonomo: Not so much now. But in college I felt that… when I was 18, 19, trying to go to jam sessions with all the boys. People would be like, “Can you play? Really, can you play?” And I’d be like, “Yeah. That’s why I’m in school. That’s why I’m at this jam session.” And I’d get that a lot. I remember I was playing this one concert and someone said something to me. He was trying to compliment me, but it just came off as being rude. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it was something to the effect of, “Wow, you were playing so strong, it sounded like a man up there. You’re hitting so strong. I would never expect a woman to play like that.” And I was like, “Uh, thanks?” But also, ew. Why would you say that? But now, I haven’t gotten a comment like that in a long time. And now mostly people say, “Oh, you play the drums? That’s badass.” Or after SIX, people are like, “An all-female band, that’s so cool!” It’s never, “I didn’t think women could play like that.”
JM: Glad to hear that. So you are also in the house band for Femme Jam, an all-female-led jam session that takes place in Brooklyn at C’mon Everybody.
Elena Bonomo: That’s one of the highlights of my month. It’s so much fun. It’s open to everyone; it’s not like you have to be a woman to play on stage. And everyone looks out for each other. I don’t feel the competitive side that comes out in other gigs that I’ve experienced. Especially at jam sessions when it’s not run by all women, there’s always a vibe. It’s always people judging you, like, “Let’s see what this girl can do.” But this is nothing but friendly and empowering and everyone’s there to support each other. We’re just playing and having a good time.
JM: That sounds really nice.
Elena Bonomo: It’s really special. And you know, it’s not always the same house band every month, so it’s a cool way to meet more women in the industry, especially in New York City. I’ve met so many musicians through the Femme Jam and it’s been really great.
JM: That’s awesome. Now, you’ve also gotten to perform some really exciting places when you worked for Holland America Cruise Lines, like the Carribean, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. Do you want to talk about what it was like working for a cruise line and some of the great places you got to see?
Elena Bonomo: That was my first real gig out of college. I guess I did three contracts with Holland America. Two were as the Band Leader, and one was just as a drummer. It was such a crazy experience to live on a boat. I loved it!
JM: Did you get seasick?
Elena Bonomo: Maybe the first couple days. But you just have to get used to it. It wasn’t a big deal. It’s just so much fun. But the cruise ship rooms are so small; you can pretty much only fit a bed, a small desk, and a closet. And a bathroom. But you don’t spend your time in your room, because you’re walking around and you’re going to cool places and the ship itself has so much to do. But the coolest thing about the ship is that I’d go to bed in one city and wake up in a new city. And you don’t do that on tour, unless you’re in a tour bus, which I’ve never experienced. On a cruise ship, I’d fall asleep in Rome and wake up in Greece. It’s amazing, how often do you have that experience? And I love to travel. So that’s why I enjoyed working on the ships and being on tour, because I like experiencing new cities and new cultures. And the cruise ship was all around the world, so I got a chance to go to Australia and New Zealand, and those are places that are as far away as you could possibly be from New York. And I would probably never go there on my own. So it was really cool to be able to say that I traveled to those places. And I liked playing on the ship because there was so much variety in what we had to do. For example, the band that I was in, we were known as the house band. So we were responsible for playing cocktail lounge sets, background music for the people who wanted to chill for happy hours. We had to play some ballroom dance music. Holland America is a much older crowd, so they really like their ballroom dancing. Had to play the cha-chas and the waltzes and tangos. I got very familiar with my ballroom dance styles. We also played for guest entertainers, and those were people who would fly to the ship for a few days and have their show. And then they would leave. And we also had to play for the resident shows on the ship with the cast. So we had two or three shows on each contract I did and they were fun. There was just so much variety and I really liked that.
JM: Did you get free room and board? In addition to them paying you some amount for being there and doing your work?
Elena Bonomo: Yeah. It was a great way to save money, especially after getting out of school.
JM: That’s really neat. Unrelated question. Do you own your own drum set?
Elena Bonomo: Yes.
JM: Do you have to lug it with you when you get gigs? How does that work?
Elena Bonomo: Depends on the gig. I have a couple of drum sets. I have two drum sets at my apartment stacked up in my closet. I have another drum set at my rehearsal space. I can’t really play at my apartment because it’s loud and I have roommates. So I have another set at a rehearsal space that’s a couple subway stops away. And if I have wedding band gigs– oh, I didn’t mention that. I play with a couple of wedding bands, and that keeps me busy on the weekends. And I have to bring all of my gear for those gigs. So I usually take one of my drum sets from the closet at home, bring it to the wedding gig, set up, play the gig, break it all down.
JM: Is it heavy?
Elena Bonomo: Oh, yeah, it’s heavy. It’s a lot of stuff. And I kind of have it down to a system. I know how it all fits in my car. But it’s heavy. Lugging all that stuff back and forth… it’s not fun to come home from a wedding gig at two in the morning and find parking. And I have to unload all of my stuff into my apartment because I don’t want to leave it in the car. And that’s tough. It’s a lot of work. But for other gigs around the city with bands and other songwriters, at places like Rockwood or C’mon Everybody, those venues usually have a drum set. And I just have to bring cymbals. Or sometimes a snare drum. And having a show, like an Off-Broadway show or a Broadway show, that’s the best. Because you load all of your stuff in and it’s there for the run. So you just have to show up and play.
JM: Okay, now for the big question: Why did you join Maestra?
Elena Bonomo: I joined Maestra because I thought it was really important for there to finally be a community of female musicians. We haven’t had anything like that yet. And I’m so grateful to Georgia [Stitt] for having the idea to start this. It’s just so special and so amazing to have this network of women in our industry, and it’s been needed for a really long time.
JM: Why do you think Maestra is important?
Elena Bonomo: I think it’s important because you need to have other people to rely on. You need to have people to call on as subs, you need to have other strong, talented women in your network. And before Maestra, before this directory existed, I didn’t know who to call. I didn’t know where to start. And now, because of Maestra, I feel like I can finally say I have a network of people that I can go to.
JM: How has Maestra helped you or people that you know so far?
Elena Bonomo: For example, when I was doing SIX in Boston, I told the band about it, and no one knew what I was talking about. I was so excited to have gotten three people in Boston to join. And they were so excited. As soon as I told them about the directory and the vision and all of that, they couldn’t contain their excitement that there was finally a way to find other female musicians across the country. So at least I can say that two musicians from Chicago and one from Boston were very excited to join. They thought it was really special.
JM: Why should people care about the services we have to offer and the goals we’re working towards?
Elena Bonomo: Because we’re women and we’re doing big things. People need to know what we’re doing. There’s so much good stuff going on. Everyone has something that they’re working on, everyone is involved in some sort of cool project. And our voices need to be heard.
JM: Is there anything else you’d like to share about yourself, your work, or Maestra?
Elena Bonomo: I’m super grateful to be a working musician in NYC. And I’m super grateful to the Maestra community for creating space for fellow musicians to come together and to enjoy each other’s company and rely on each other as resources. I’m really glad that it exists.
Special thanks to Elena for sharing her story.
Read more of our Women Who Wow Us series, including interviews with Nancy Ford, Anessa Marie, Elise Frawley, Erin McKeown, Meg Zervoulis, Masi Asare, Britt Bonney, Jennifer Isaacson, Emily Grishman, Rona Siddiqui, Sheilah Rae, Kathy Sommer, and Kristy Norter.