Meg Zervoulis is a versatile music director, arranger, educator, and pianist. She is currently the music director of The Prom on Broadway, and she has also served as the associate music director for Mean Girls and assistant conductor for Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. As a keyboard/accordion sub and/or rehearsal pianist, Meg has played for An American in Paris, Bandstand, Bright Star, Bronx Tale, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Finding Neverland, Matilda, and Something Rotten on Broadway. She has worked as a music director/arranger/orchestrator at Paper Mill Playhouse for the past 11 years. Meg is the resident conductor of Hotel Elefant, a contemporary music ensemble in NYC. With a passion for music education, music therapy, and outreach, she is also actively involved in academia and community organizations. Meg is a member of The Lilly Awards Power Network and Local 802 AFM.
A Conversation with Meg Zervoulis
Jamie Maletz: So right now, you’re the music director for The Prom. And you’ve worked on or played for a long list of really incredible Broadway and Off-Broadway and Regional shows. So to start off with a broad question, what is it like to music direct on Broadway?
Meg Zervoulis: It’s very exciting. It is a lot of work, but it’s also very magical. It requires a lot of responsibility and attention to detail, but it’s been a really wonderful experience. It’s lovely, and I’m enjoying it, and I hope there’s more in store.
JM: And what’s a day in the life like when you’re working on a Broadway show in that capacity?
Meg Zervoulis: Often during the week, we have understudy rehearsals, or we’re training new cast members, or we’re doing a press event, so it varies day by day. Then, during show call, it involves checking in with the actors, checking in with the orchestra and stage management, conducting the show, all the while fielding any and all emergencies or variations that might come into play!
JM: And what’s it like to play in a Broadway pit? You’re at your piano, and you have a little keyboard light…
Meg Zervoulis: Yeah. For this show, it’s a piano/conductor position, so we’re conducting but also playing keyboard, and we’re also triggering Ableton, which is a software that is becoming highly popular for Broadway.
JM: For people who might not know, what is that?
Meg Zervoulis: Ableton is a music software that was originally purposed for live performance, triggering sequenced tracks to go along with, let’s say, a live band performance, etc. It’s been integrated into the land of Broadway, and we use it here to trigger virtual orchestra stems.
Meg Zervoulis: Stems are like, individual channels of pre-recorded instruments. They’re laid out in Ableton, and when you hit “Go,” all the stems play simultaneously and you have a virtual orchestra.
JM: So it fills out instruments for the ones you don’t have live players for.
Meg Zervoulis: Yes. And in our case, it also injects a bit of specific style to the percussion especially. When we’re, for example, at the high school prom, there’s some techno aspects, or house music, really, that are provided by the Ableton software.
JM: That’s really cool. So while we’re on the subject of The Prom, what has the journey of music directing that show been like for you? How long have you been with the show, and how did you get the job?
Meg Zervoulis: I’ve been with the show since about 2015, when we did our first workshop in New York City. At that time, I was associate music director. And then we did a production of it in Atlanta at the Alliance Theater, and I was fully a part of that production. I conducted that run from the day after opening right up until closing, so that was fun. And it was at that time that we acquired our new associate music director, Ted Arthur.
JM: And do you have any favorite stories from along the way?
Meg Zervoulis: There’s a lot of crazy things that have happened on our show, but the most memorable thing, I would say, was our opening night situation, which happened during this crazy blizzard, where many people from New Jersey and other commuting neighborhoods couldn’t make it. So we performed our opening night performance, first of all, 45 minutes late, and without two of our band members, which is…to our knowledge, that’s an unprecedented, unfortunate situation. We had two people come in and sight-read it, and…yeah, and our guys just missed their opening night. So we celebrated our orchestral opening on the following day, once we had a full band.
JM: Oh wow. I can’t imagine going through everything in a show to get to Broadway and then having to miss your opening night. But, luckily there are other important firsts, like the Tony Awards, which you music directed on this season!
Meg Zervoulis: Yes!
JM: I saw (and loved) your Instagram post where I learned that you actually conduct for the Tony Awards from a bathroom on the fourth floor of Radio City Music Hall?
Meg Zervoulis: Yes you do!
JM: And there was that great gesture of sisterhood where Andrea Grody, who music directed for Tootsie right before you went up there for The Prom, left you a card and a flower.
Meg Zervoulis: Yup.
JM: So I wanted to ask, first, if you wanted to talk about the experience of music directing at the Tony Awards.
Meg Zervoulis: Sure! That was super exciting. I had come along for the ride last year with Mary-Mitchell [Campbell] to kind of observe the process with Mean Girls. And at that time last year, it was like this amazing gesture of grandeur, walking into Radio City and watching her and Casey [Nicholaw] and all of our people go through the steps of what it all requires. And then so this year, it was really fun to return and be doing all of that. It was a fun process. I decided to attend the awards this year, so you know, the stage manager said “After Oklahoma! performs, come downstairs, take the elevator to the bathroom, there’ll be someone there to put headphones on you…” And I conducted the performance, and then we all went to our party and just had the most wonderful, exciting day. So it was really great.
JM: And how does that work, when you’re conducting on a different floor in a bathroom? The performers see you on a TV screen?
Meg Zervoulis: Yeah.
JM: Cool. Technology. So the second thing I wanted to ask in relation to the Tony Awards is, you tagged Mary-Mitchell Campbell in that Instagram post and talked about how brilliant women are lifting each other up and committed to championing each other. So I wanted to ask if you wanted to talk about the Maestra Music Director Initiative.
Meg Zervoulis: Yeah! Actually, Andrea [Grody] and myself and Carmel Dean attended a Q&A with the first group of the Music Director Intensive, and that was really lovely, just to be together with a group of women, answering their questions, discussing various experiences and questions that they might have had, and that was so great. And I know that there’s another one coming up where we may also do something similar. And I think it couldn’t be better. I actually have a younger colleague who’s working with me at Paper Mill [Playhouse], and she has a one-and-a-half-year-old, and the posting for that came out maybe two days ago, she was like, “I wanna do it! I want to make it happen!” And within, you know, twelve hours, Georgia [Stitt] and Mary-Mitchell [Campbell] had worked together to make sure that this woman could attend and her child would be taken care of. You know, I think it’s all lovely and super important.
JM: Yeah. And for people who haven’t heard of the Maestra Music Director Initiative, how would you describe it?
Meg Zervoulis: The MMDI is purposed to give the opportunity for either budding or already active music directors and arrangers and women who are on that MD track to learn from their colleagues and to spend time honing a variety of skills. Playing piano, conducting, discussing what time management might look like, etc.
JM: Great! That sounds so helpful. And like a lot of the things Maestra is doing, it’s filling a need that nothing else out there is helping us with. As far as other groups you’re a part of, you are also a member of Local 802 AFM and The Lilly Awards?
Meg Zervoulis: Yes.
JM: What do you do in your capacity with those two organizations?
Meg Zervoulis: With 802, I try to stay fairly active. For a while, I was serving on the electronic music committee, which, hearkening back to the whole Ableton thing, is something I’ve grown really interested in as a music director and arranger, and I kind of see that there’s a definite unwavering direction that the Broadway world is taking towards integrating electronics into the orchestration aspect of musicals. So I’ve been there for that, and of course, there’s a new group called Women of 802, which I’ve been attending to focus on mentoring other women or working with students or discussing issues such as parenting while also remaining active professionally, and lots of other topics that really interest me. And then I made sure also to be an active member in the new voting and the new election and all that. And as for The Lilly Awards, Georgia [Stitt] and her colleagues at The Lilly Awards assembled something called The Lilly Power Network, which is purposed to be the next group of people in the future that might be able to carry the mission of The Lilly Awards on.
JM: And The Lilly Awards, just for people who might not be familiar with them–and everyone should be!–do you want to share what they do?
Meg Zervoulis: Sure. The Lilly Awards are committed to lifting up original pieces that are created by women, and also theater industry professionals who are women. They do fundraising and offer grants and scholarship opportunities, and they have an annual awards ceremony. It’s really important.
JM: It is. I volunteered at The Lilly Awards this May, and it was a very inspiring way to start my summer! Hearkening back for a second to what you were saying about Ableton, in a previous Women Who Wow Us interview, we talked about how a lot of productions are going more in the direction of electronic instrumentation and tracks. Do you have any concerns, if we maybe swing too far in that direction, about less work for musicians?
Meg Zervoulis: It’s not something that I feel worried about, no. I feel that it’s an important and somewhat necessary shift in order to embody the more modernized styles of music that are becoming integrated, and I think that the union tries as best as they can to be thorough in their evaluation of whether or not the virtual stems or the virtual orchestra tracks that are provided are being done in a legitimate way of kind of following the bylaws. So I feel trust in that for now. But it’s an important question to keep checking in on, because I do think that there is certainly the potential for that kind of extreme pendulum, which may become problematic for colleagues for sure.
JM: On an entirely different note, you’re also an educator. You’re an adjunct professor at Montclair State University. What do you teach?
Meg Zervoulis: I was a keyboard theory teacher there, and then I was serving as one of the music directors for their theater program. Actually, this year technically I’m not working there. But I worked there for maybe eight or nine years in those two capacities, and it was great, and the best part is that so many of our alums are now in the Broadway audition rooms or in productions that I’ve worked on, which is so wonderful and exciting. And makes me feel a little old, but that’s okay. [Laughs]
JM: So what was it like for you starting out in this industry? What has your career path been like so far?
Meg Zervoulis: I had worked at Paper Mill Playhouse as a young professional in the summers between my years in college, and then right out of college, I worked on an Off-Broadway show as music director. It was called Rated P…for Parenthood, and it was at the Westside Theatre. And then in between that, for a long while, I was doing a lot of teaching, playing lots of auditions, still working at Paper Mill, uh, couple of other readings and stuff, and then I met Mary-Mitchell [Campbell] through a project at Paper Mill that she was supervising. She recommended me to sub on Matilda, which was my first Broadway subbing experience, and ever since then, I’ve just been working my way through different projects in different capacities.
JM: And why did you join Maestra?
Meg Zervoulis: I joined Maestra initially out of the sisterhood that I have felt strongly between myself and my mentors, and through meeting Georgia and the support that she has shown me over the years. And that quickly became even moreso purposed to discover other new female talent and female musicians and female creatives with whom I could collaborate. And also, I feel committed to supporting the awareness of the statistics of the Broadway industry and how to improve those numbers. So for all those reasons, I feel so pleased to be a part of Maestra.
JM: And why do you think Maestra is important?
Meg Zervoulis: I think that what’s really amazing about Maestra is that it is providing a safe and supportive environment between female-identifying colleagues to kind of grow together, to lift each other up, to discover each other, which, for me, first-hand has been the most important aspect of it all. And I think that that is kind of a necessary collection of missions that Maestra is really solidly achieving.
JM: How has Maestra helped you or people that you know so far?
Meg Zervoulis: I have witnessed several colleagues–mostly instrumentalists–getting more opportunities in the industry. And it’s been my pleasure to use the Maestra directory as a resource in hiring ensembles in these last few months. It’s been awesome to witness!
JM: So why should people care about the services that we offer?
Meg Zervoulis: I think that a grand improvement in the amount of female professionals working in this industry is imperative. And I think Maestra is really helping to do that at a very steady, almost exponential rate, and it’s amazing to be a part of.
Special thanks to Meg for sharing her story, and for bringing me backstage at The Prom to see her spot in the pit and her adorably decked-out office (disco ball and all!).