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Women Who Wow Us: Spotlight 18 (Carmel Dean)


Carmel Dean is a Composer, Arranger, Music Director, and Pianist. Her musical Renascence was produced Off-Broadway by the award-winning Transport Group and was named Best New Musical at the 2018 Off-Broadway Alliance Awards. As a Music Director she helmed the Broadway musical If/Then starring Idina Menzel and was Music Supervisor of the subsequent National Tour. Other Broadway credits include Hands on a Hardbody, American Idiot, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Off-Broadway credits include Everyday Rapture, Vanities, and Elegies – A Song Cycle by William Finn. International credits include Chicago (Hong Kong) and the 2000 Olympic Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies (Sydney). Carmel has also served as Chita Rivera’s Musical Director for many national and international appearances, and she performed with Green Day on the Grammy Awards in 2010. Other compositions include the YouTube series Project: Song Blog; music for the Disney TV show Johnny & the Sprites; and Songs of Innocence & Experience (co-composed with William Finn, Deborah Abramson, Vadim Feichtner, & Gihieh Lee). Carmel is a native of Perth, Western Australia. In 2001 she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the United States, and she subsequently earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. She is a member of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Workshop.

A Conversation with Carmel Dean

Jamie Maletz: Alright, so I wanted to start off by asking… is it ReNAscence or REnascence?

Carmel Dean: Funny you should ask! So we always called it REnascence, and when we started speaking with Holly Peppe, who is the literary executor of the Millay estate, she said that they pronounced it ReNAscence, so Dick [Scanlan] wrote a scene into our show where she talks about the pronunciation of it. So I still call it REnascence, Dick calls it ReNAscence… I think it’s up for grabs, you know, I think both are correct. Millay technically called it ReNAscence but it… you know, it is still correct to call it REnascence.

JM: Cool! So I would love to start by talking about that show because it was a beautiful show that you had Off-Broadway.

Carmel Dean: Thank you!

JM: It was inspired by a prompt from the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program application, right?

Carmel Dean: Yep! A million years ago!

JM: Which I’m familiar with, because I actually did the same prompt.

Carmel Dean: That’s so weird!

JM: So I was wondering if you wanted to talk about what inspired the show, and then the process from writing it to getting it Off-Broadway?

Carmel Dean: Yeah! So, I actually had written very little before I applied to the NYU program. I think I’d set a couple of poems in my high school or college days, but I didn’t really see myself as a composer. But I thought, “Oh– this is a program that looks really interesting, and let’s just see what happens. So I looked at the application, and Time Does Not Bring Relief was one of the exercises, and I fell in love with that poem. I’d never heard of Millay before, but because I had such a… great collaboration with her [laughs] on that poem, it just kind of started me down this road of reading more and more of her poetry. I’m not a big poetry buff, which I think people are surprised to hear because I ended up writing a whole show based on poetry and I’m a poet, but I just really connected with Millay’s work. So over the years, I wasn’t writing my own lyrics early on, and every time I’d want to write a song and I didn’t have a lyric, or lyricist partner, I would open Millay’s poetry, and I would look for a poem that spoke to me in that moment, and I would set it. And so between 2001 and about 2011, I set about 15 poems. And in 2011, I sat down with Dick Scanlan, who I’d met during Everyday Rapture, and gave him a CD of all of these songs and asked if he would help me put together some kind of a song cycle or concept performance. I was a NEO artist at the York Theatre

JM: A what artist?

Carmel Dean: NEO, which is “New, Emerging, Outstanding”– it’s a program that they have for upcoming writers.

JM: Oh, very cool.

Carmel Dean: And they give you a week-long reading during that year. So Dick agreed to do it, and as he read more about Millay and more of her poems, he came to me and said, “I think there’s a story here, there’s something more than just a bunch of standalone songs.” And he said, “I think we should explore her journey as a young writer and what happened when she wrote the poem Renascence. So that’s how we started down the road of the story of Renascence. And from that point on, we did the reading at the York, we then did a reading at Second Stage, and then we auditioned it for a couple of other companies, and Jack Cummings at Transport Group was the one who said, “Yeah, I know where you guys are going with this, I’d love to be involved, I’d love to support it, and I’d love to co-direct.” So then he programmed it for the season.

JM: That’s amazing. What was it like to work with Transport Group? And to take the first full show that you wrote all the way to Off-Broadway?

Carmel Dean: Yeah, yeah! It was incredible! I mean, there were so many gifts that came from working with them, both work-wise and personally. They’re a wonderful company and I’ve always loved the art that they produce. I’m always so inspired when I see their work. I’d seen a handful of their plays and musicals, prior to working with them, and I remember always leaving the theatre just being inspired and intrigued and challenged and entertained. And so I was really happy that my show was gonna be under that umbrella too, and have the same kind of touch given to it. They’re a small and mighty company, they have such a clear vision, they’re so supportive. And one of the best things, although it was frustrating at the time, is that they don’t hurry to put anything on the stage before it’s ready. You know, of course they were like, “Well, we want to program this show,” and I’m like, “Great! I want it to happen tomorrow!” But they were like, “No, let’s give it a couple of years of readings and workshops and then it’ll be ready.” So I think we knew like two or three years ahead of time that it was gonna be a full production Off-Broadway. But of course looking back I’m so grateful, because especially something like Renascence, which is such a non-traditional piece of theatre, and we came about it from such a backwards place in terms of the structure and the concept, it needed that care and focus and time. And Jack is a real advocate for development and process.

JM: And it paid off: you won Best Musical at the Alliance Awards!

Carmel Dean: I know! So crazy and surprising!

JM: So what happens when you win that award? Is there a ceremony?

Carmel Dean: Yeah, there was a wonderful ceremony at Sardi’s. Heidi Schreck’s play, What the Constitution Means to Me, won Best Play, so I felt like we were in such great company. It was like the icing on the cake, you know, we weren’t expecting it. It was wonderful to be recognized.

JM: Yeah. That’s so great!

Carmel Dean: Thank you!

JM: You also have an incredible resume as a music director. You’ve directed several Broadway shows: If/Then, Hands on a Hardbody, American Idiot, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee… so first question, broad question, what is it like to be a music director for Broadway shows?

Carmel Dean: Whoooh, very broad question! It is incredibly satisfying and challenging and fun and stressful and… intense, and rewarding. It’s a lot of things, and depending on the show, you’re required to do different things. I was the vocal arranger and associate music director on Spelling Bee, so my role was quite different, say, from that to If/Then. Sometimes I have conducted, I’ve been a stand-up conductor; other shows I’ve played piano in the pit. Some shows I worked with first-time composers, some shows I worked with Broadway veterans. So every single show brings a whole new set of challenges and experiences, but I love it and, uh… [laughs] it’s also… I was also very happy to take a break and focus on my work as a composer.

JM: What are some of your favorite parts of the job of being a music director, or some details that you remember strongly from when you were in the Broadway trenches?

Carmel Dean: One of my favorite things is that first day we go into the theatre, and the orchestra loads into the pit, and I as the conductor get to stand up on the podium, and I see the cast all right in front of me on the stage, and I see all the musicians in front of me, and I literally believe I have the best seat in the house. I think, “This is the coolest thing ever, I get to make eye contact with these actors who are putting themselves on the line every night, and I have eye contact with all these musicians who are supporting the actors, and we’re all making music together.” So I love the feeling of being a part of that. And it only happens because of live theatre, you know? That’s why it makes me sad when bands are spread out, you know, more and more people being isolated– and of course it depends on the pit size and the layout, but I’m so happy when all the musicians are in the same space, because it’s a community. We all need to be together. So that’s probably my favorite thing, being a part of the bigger picture, musically.

JM: What do you mean when you say bands are spread out?

Carmel Dean: So for example, the drummer could be in another room, they could be isolated, they could be put in a dressing room. And that could be because of space limitations, like it might just be too big of a footprint, and there isn’t room for all of their percussion instruments in the pit. It also could be because of sound requirements– it’s much easier to focus on isolating drums and not having the drums and percussion bleed into microphones. But it happens a lot, actually. There are famous stories of the string section being up on the 11th floor of some theatre.

JM: How does that work, though? Just through mics?

Carmel Dean: Monitors.

JM: Really?

Carmel Dean: Yep, so… I think it was Spiderman? I think the whole band was on a totally different floor of the theatre.

JM: That’s so interesting! In my brain they were always all in the pit.

Carmel Dean: Not always! It’s something I always fight for as a music director, and I’ve been lucky in that I always have been able to be in the pit, and all of my musicians have been able to be in the pit, but you hear stories more and more of bands being split up.

JM: So you’re sitting at a Broadway show, and sometimes there’s an instrumentalist in a dressing room somewhere?

Carmel Dean: Yep!

JM: Watching a conductor on a screen?

Carmel Dean: On a monitor, yep!

JM: Oh my goodness! That’s so sad!

Carmel Dean: I believe Spongebob did that. We should fact check.

JM: Did they really? ‘Cause I know we saw Julie McBride standing there conducting, and I think there were some musicians down there with her.

Carmel Dean: Some musicians. I think in Chicago, at least when they did their tryout, the drums were in a whole separate room. I don’t know if that happened on Broadway. But yeah, it’s not unheard of.

JM: It sounds so lonely! Because Broadway’s all about community and being together.

Carmel Dean: Right! Especially if you’re by yourself and not feeling part of the whole experience, and not getting to feed off the live energy of the audience, too.

JM: And being part of the theatre family. That’s a whole part of why you’re doing it–

Carmel Dean: Yeah, isn’t that crazy?

JM: Yeah! Okay, so what is something that people might not expect is part of the life of being a music director, especially on Broadway?

Carmel Dean: Ooh, um… I think that the job is so constant, you know, it’s not like you just show up at eight o’clock and conduct the show and leave. If you’re in a long-running show, you’ve got replacement auditions, you’ve got understudy rehearsals, you’ve got meetings about the tour, you have vocal brush-up rehearsals during the week. So the hours don’t look like a full-time job, but it is a full-time job, and it requires 100% of your energy. And you’re also in this weird position where you’re performing every night, but you’re also doing a lot of admin. So you’re always checking your email, you’re always liaising between stage management, you’ve always got the actors coming to you asking how they can navigate their vocal issues, it’s just– you’re wearing so many hats as a music director.

JM: That’s so interesting. Do you have any favorite stories or memories from shows you worked on?

Carmel Dean: [laughs] Gosh, where do I start? Um… one of my favorite stories from If/Then: we got to the part in the show in Act Two– it was a really poignant moment where Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp were on a park bench, and they were talking about what could have been with their relationship. And I started to conduct the intro to the song, “Some Other Me,” and Idina started coughing. And I was like, “Oh my God, she’s not gonna stop coughing in time for her entrance.” So I was conducting and I put up my finger to signal a vamp, and the orchestra– luckily, we were into the run enough that the band all knew the music well enough to know what was going on. And she couldn’t stop coughing, so she motioned to me to stop. [Laughs] So I stopped, cut the band off, we’re all just watching Idina have a coughing fit onstage. In this horribly emotional high-strung moment! And I thought, “Well, she’s not gonna stop coughing.” So I had a water bottle with me on the podium, and I, like, handed it to her. [Laughs] I put it up on the front of the stage, and she came over and she drank it. The whole audience applauded. She stopped coughing, and then she looks out and she goes, “Well, now I know what the band’s drinking.” [Laughs]. And that was really funny, got a big laugh, and then we went back and she was fine, and we started again.

JM: I love moments like that.

Carmel Dean: Yeah! And Idina was so great, because she’s so vulnerable, and she loves that live audience. So whenever anything would go wrong, she would just take it in stride, and if she could make a little moment of it and let the audience know she knew what was up, they would love it. She had them eating out of the palm of her hand.

JM: That’s so cute. It must have been so great to work with her.

Carmel Dean: Yeah.

JM: And you’ve worked with a lot of exciting people and big names! Like Green Day—what was it like to work with them?

Carmel Dean: Working with those guys was just… so unexpected and so unusual. Because they’re real… they’re legitimate rockstars. And they brought that energy with them to the show, and to the whole experience, so when we were out, we would party like we were rockstars, and that energy would be infused into the show. So every night, just like this wild, wild– I mean, we were all young, myself included, thank God, I don’t know if I could do it at this age– but there was just this breathlessness, and this wild abandon; we would drink every night after the show, and we would have our B12 shots before the show to get our energy levels up, and… I think Green Day were so grateful to be a part of this experience, and part of this bigger Broadway community. It was one giant love fest. And so our saying was always “rage and love,” because that’s what the show embodied. So it was nice to be a part of that rock ’n’ roll world. And they brought us onto the Grammys, and I remember this moment right before we performed “21 Guns”– we were the second number in the Grammys, and the opening song was Lady Gaga and Elton John. And there are two stages side by side so that they can prep one act while the other one’s performing. So we were getting ready for “21 Guns,” Billie Joe Armstrong was looking through the curtain onto the other stage, and he looks over at me and he’s like, “Carmel, Carmel, come here!” And he beckons me over, and he opens the curtain for me, and Elton John and Lady Gaga are right there. And he puts his arm around me and he’s like, “Can you believe this?” And I’m like “No, I can’t believe this. This is a dream, this is literally a dream– I mean, when do you think this is ever gonna happen?”

JM: It must have felt so incredible.

Carmel Dean: Yeah, it was a very cool moment!

JM: How do you not get starstruck in a world like that? I mean, for me, even just the Broadway world of like, working on Broadway with those big Broadway names, I’d be starstruck!

Carmel Dean: Right! Yeah, it’s crazy! I mean you have to pinch yourself. And, you know, I’m lucky in that I’ve worked with a lot of big Broadway names. My very first professional job was as associate music director on Elegies at Lincoln Center. And I basically was put in a room with Betty Buckley. And I was completely starstruck, but I had to figure out how to do my job– like, I was there to teach her her songs, and to be there to support her. I’m really lucky that I had these experiences, but I also just have to remind myself, “Okay, what am I here to do, and let’s get this job done.” It was like that on the Grammys, too, it was like, “I also have to perform. I can be starstruck standing here looking at these A-list celebrities, but I also now have to go play the song from memory and I hope I don’t mess it up.”

JM: Yeah! What do you do to combat your nerves when you perform, and that fear of messing up? Because no matter how talented you are, there’s always that “Oh God, I could mess up.”

Carmel Dean: Yeah! Well, the Grammys, I’m now remembering I did that from memory. A song I’d been playing for a long time, so I knew it, but of course, never in that setting and under that kind of pressure! So, you know, I just had to calm myself down. It’s like any kind of performance anxiety. I find that the more prepared I am, the less anxiety I have. So just not getting in my head about it, and turning the nerves into excitement, rather than focusing on what could go wrong.

JM: That’s smart.

 Carmel Dean: It’s easier said than done, of course!

JM: Much easier said than done! So another cool thing from your bio: you worked on the 2000 Olympic Games?

Carmel Dean: Yeah!

JM: What did that entail? What was that like?

Carmel Dean: It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done, and I’m sure I won’t ever be able to replicate that experience, ‘cause it literally is a once in a lifetime thing. So Sydney was hosting the Olympic Games, and my mentor from college was the music director of the opening and closing ceremonies. So he invited me to come to Sydney to be an intern. And soon after I got there, I think he and everyone realized that his music team was way understaffed, so he asked me to actually take on a job– a real job, and a lot more responsibility. And we all– there were only four of us in the music department, which– looking back, it’s crazy that we were able to pull off, like, two huge events. But we all just had to dive in and use every skill that we ever had. I remember playing for some rehearsals for the giant choirs and there were a lot of changes because of choreography, and– you know, there was a 2,000 piece marching band, there was the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, so a lot of it was administrative stuff, making sure rehearsal schedules were set… but a lot of it was creative too, making sure the choreographers had the most up-to-date recordings of certain arrangements– and also having to apply for copyright to use a lot of the big famous songs on TV. So, you know, I didn’t know anything, I was 21, so I was just kinda figuring it out as I went along. But it was absolutely magical, and all of our offices were under the actual stadium where a lot of the events were being held. So we’d be at work during the day, making sure everything was going well for the ceremonies, and then on our lunch breaks we could pop up and watch the medal ceremony for whatever event. It was just crazy, because all eyes were on Sydney at that moment, so you definitely felt like you were part of something very special.

JM: How do you put that on your resume? What do you put that on your resume as?

Carmel Dean: Um… I think “music department of ceremonies” is what I have it listed as.

JM: That’s so cool that you get to do that.

Carmel Dean: Or is it “department of opening and closing ceremonies?” Yeah– it really was an incredible experience.

JM: You’ve also worked with Chita Rivera for many years.

Carmel Dean: Yes, I love her!

JM: Would you like to talk about what those experiences have been like?

Carmel Dean: She is the best. I miss her, I miss working with her. She obviously is a Broadway legend, so it was an honor to be able to play all these songs that she made famous. You know, she’s been synonymous with songs like “America” and “All That Jazz.” So I got to play those with this legend. She’s an incredible spirit. She’s so generous as a performer. She loves having fun. So there was never a dull moment, on or offstage. She would love to make people laugh, including me. [Laughs] Actually, one show, I remember we were at Birdland, and she does this medley from West Side Story, and I would have to sing the duet part, the Rosalia part in “America.” And I remember stumbling over my words, it was something like, “I like the city of San Juan,” but it just came out like gibberish. And she started laughing, and she stopped, and she said, “I’m sorry, what was that?” [Laughs] And I’m so embarrassed, I’m like “Oh God, this is– we’re at Birdland, this is Chita Rivera, she just called me out on messing up my words”– but the whole audience cracked up, and of course she delighted in making fun of me, and we went back and we started again and it was all good. But that’s the kind of thing that she just loves to do. She loves to laugh. I miss working with her, ‘cause she really is a legend, and we went on many, many cruise ships together. They were the Atlantis cruises, the gay cruises. So it was like being with Elvis in Las Vegas. People would just stop and stare at her, would walk into the dining room every night and get up and like, fall to their knees, or, you know, send drinks over. It was really great.

JM: So it was like being with royalty.

Carmel Dean: It was totally like being with royalty!

JM: That’s so awesome!

Carmel Dean: I love her so much.

JM: And then, something we have in common: you received your Master’s from the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. And you’ve also done BMI— I haven’t done that one, but I was wondering if you wanted to talk about your experience in those programs.

Carmel Dean: Yeah! I’m so glad that I experienced both, and there was a lot of time that passed between doing the two. I graduated from NYU in 2003, and I didn’t finish my second year at BMI until 2018. So I had a good decade and a half between those two experiences. I did BMI second, obviously, and it was just great to a) be a part of a community again as a writer, and b) to go back and look at the basics of musical theatre. And not just the basics, obviously, but to go back to the beginning and to analyze things I hadn’t analyzed in a decade and a half. But really, I’m just so grateful to be in that BMI community, which, as a member of Advanced, I always will be, and I’m very fortunate to be. So it’s great to have that kind of structure, and know that whenever I wanna present something, I can sign up for a slot on Monday, and I have some great peers I can share my work with.

JM: Do you feel–you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but do you feel more connected to one program over the other, or…?

Carmel Dean: Look, I had very different experiences with both. I came to New York and immediately started at NYU, and it was also, like, 9/11 happened in my second week of classes.

JM: Oh my God.

Carmel Dean: And it just feels like it’s so long ago, and it was such a specific time there, and I was only 22. Whereas going to BMI, I was in my late 30’s, I was much more focused on being a writer. So I think I was looking at my work much more specifically when I was at BMI, as opposed to when I was at NYU, I was just so ensconced in living in New York. And I also really wanted to be a music director as well as a writer, so I was subbing a lot on Broadway. I was much more focused at BMI.

JM: And was it through NYU that you met Bill Finn and started working with him?

Carmel Dean: Well it was, but he wasn’t teaching his regular class then. I think he just came in once as a guest teacher one day. And so I just started talking to him, and that’s how we met. And soon after graduating, he brought me on as part of the music team for his show Elegies at Lincoln Center. So my very first professional job was as the associate music director of Elegies. And very soon after that, he began writing Spelling Bee. And he had me write the vocal arrangements, and I went on to be the associate music director for the Broadway production. I was very fortunate in that I pretty quickly landed my first couple of gigs in New York. And of course, in doing Spelling Bee, I met a lot of other people in the industry. I met Tom Kitt, and he offered me first Everyday Rapture and then American Idiot, and that led to If/Then. So in meeting people and working with them, I’ve formed these relationships that really paid off and helped my career to move from one show to the next.

JM: That’s so cool. I love how connected everything can be in our industry. One other thing I wanted to ask you about is your song cycle, Well-Behaved Women. Can you talk about what that is and how it got started?

Carmel Dean: Yes! It’s a song cycle where a bunch of historical women figures sing about a very specific moment in their lives. I actually conceived it as something to give to schools and theatre companies where there are flexible parameters. When we workshopped it at Arizona State University, I basically gave these 15 songs to the director and music director, and I said, “Cast it however you want, it doesn’t have to be five women, doesn’t have to be ten– like, however many you wanna put in, and here are the different ethnicities, I wanna make sure it’s diverse and it’s accurate where possible to these women, and let me know what you think.” And they emailed back and said “We’re so excited, we have 19 women, we’ve got all the ethnicities covered.”

JM: That’s so exciting!

Carmel Dean: Yeah, and then we performed it at Joe’s Pub in January.

JM: I’ve seen some of the videos from that performance and they are absolutely phenomenal.

Carmel Dean: Thank you. Yeah, I wanted to have some kind of production in New York too, I think that’ll help it, but I think ultimately I’d just love to license it to schools and colleges and theatres, and have it be something that women of any age, shape, size–

JM: Yeah! We need a show like that, we really do!

Carmel Dean: Yeah! Just like, lots of women singing their faces off. Why not?

JM: Exactly! Okay, so now for the big question: Why did you join Maestra?

Carmel Dean: I joined Maestra because it seemed like the perfect opportunity to connect with other female composers and female music directors. I knew there were a lot of us out there, but it was not much more than running into people at parties or at concerts, or making that effort to go out and have coffee or dinner with a fellow female musician. So it was just the perfect opportunity to become a part of this community.

JM: Why do you think Maestra is important?

Carmel Dean: Maestra is so important. It provides not just an amazing community for all the women in the business, but also so many interactive opportunities and more established people that musicians can look up to in this community, and that we can potentially work with and collaborate with. So it’s this really wonderful way of widening our connections, both with each other as peers and with other established professionals.

JM: How has Maestra helped you or people that you know?

Carmel Dean: Maestra has helped me immensely. I remember the first time I went to a meeting, and I get the same feeling every time I go to a Maestra meeting: I walk away feeling so inspired, feeling so connected to people, feeling like I have a support network for anything that I need in this industry. And it’s so important to have that when you’re a writer in this business, because what we do is so solitary so much of the time, to be connected to a wider group of people is crucial.

JM: Why should people care about the services we offer and the goals we’re working towards?

Carmel Dean: People should care because it is vital that female voices are represented in this art form. It has been an art form that, for so long, has been dominated by white men, and those men have created a lot of incredible art, but it’s time for women’s voices to be heard, and for women’s talents to be recognized, and to have the field opened up to much more diversity.

JM: Is there anything else that you’d like to share?

Carmel Dean: I’m just so grateful to Georgia for creating this community and this organization, and I’m excited to see where it’s gonna go over time. I think it’s snowballing in a really exciting way, and I’m thrilled to be a small part of it.

Special thanks to Carmel 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, Kristy Norter, Elena Bonomo, Ann Klein, Lynne Shankel, and Irene Sankoff.

Women Who Wow Us
Author/Photographer: Jamie Maletz
Editor: Lisa Diana Shapiro

Volunteer: Elspeth Collard

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