This week’s ‘Beyond the Stage Door’ is with Alvin Hough Jr. Alvin is part of a new wave of young conductors and music directors on Broadway, and one of the few people of color in this group. He career is extensive and it’s just beginning. Alvin has performed everywhere from the White house to Tokyo. He has performed worldwide – in opera houses, theatres, cathedrals and everywhere in between on top of being a husband and father. Here’ his interview
You have a degree from Harvard and one from Georgia tech, how did your path change and bring you to broadway?
I’ve been playing piano since I was 5, and my mother was always supportive. But she also wanted me to get a good education. So yes, my two degrees in meteorology aren’t being used right now. When I graduated from GT in the fall of 2008, my intention was to start at the bottom at either CNN or The Weather Channel. But when the economy crashed, it was nearly impossible to find a job. So I kinda fell back on my piano, moved to NYC in January 2009 and turned non-paying gigs into national tours and eventually Broadway.
You’ve played onstage, under the stage, and now even above the stage, what’s been your favorite moment you’ve witnessed during a show?
Maybe I’m a prisoner of the moment, but I love my perch from the “sky pit” at OOTI. There’s a special moment in our show where everyone thinks a certain character is under a blanket during one song, only to have him emerge from elsewhere during the next number. I don’t want to give away too much but watching the shocked looks on peoples’ faces as they do double takes is pretty sweet.
You’ve played a lot of shows that have POC predominantly cast in them (the color purple, Motown, once on this island) What went into your decision to play these shows specifically?
Word of mouth is king at this level. I didn’t ask to be involved with any Broadway show I’ve done. My reputation spoke for itself, and contractors (whose job it is to find talent) or composers (as was the case for OOTI) called me to be a part of the productions you mentioned. When Stephen Flaherty calls you, you don’t ask how he got your number. You politely agree to meet him at his apartment and go from there. I’ve learned that you never know when someone is watching you or when someone is talking about you, especially with the boon of social media. But if you always aim to put your best foot forward, your phone will ring with endless opportunities.
What’s the difference on Broadway between a conductor, Associate conductor, and an assistant conductor?
The conductor either stands before his/her orchestra with his/her baton or, in a growing number of shows, plays from the keyboard. The associate is second in command and will be the first option to sub conduct when the conductor is sick, on vacation or taking notes from the house. The assistant is third in line overall and the second person on the list to sub for the conductor. Both the associate and assistant play other instruments in the orchestra, usually keyboards.
Because the conductor also doubles as the MD (music director), that person is often busy with production meetings and major rehearsals for the show and delegates choreography and staging rehearsals to the associate and assistant, if need be. In my case, OOTI has only a four-person band (keyboard, percussion, bass, guitar), not an orchestra. So that means I don’t have an associate or an assistant, meaning I get to do everything!
What’s your favorite song to play in once on this island?
Rain. Hands down, no doubt about it. For the music geeks out there, it’s in G# minor (a key that I find exciting), and some of the chord progressions are truly unexpected. And we never venture to G# minor anywhere else in the show, so I relish every time we get to Rain.
What advice would you give to young people of color interested in conducting for theatre?
Yes is your best friend. When I moved here, I busted my butt playing wherever I could to get exposure: first-grade graduations, youth choirs at churches, whatever. I caught my break when the national tour of Dreamgirls in 2009 lost its keyboard one player during the third week of rehearsal. The MD was frantically searching for a replacement. I was working on a NYMF (New York Music Festival) show for free, and the MD of that show knew the MD of the Dreamgirls tour. When the two of them connected, my name came up and I went in to have an emergency audition.
I must’ve done well, because I was offered the tour on the spot. Little did I know that I would eventually take over for the MD when he left the tour to do another project. Nor did I know that I would eventually MD the first national tour of Memphis before being in the pits of Scandalous, Motown, The Color Purple and Once On This Island on Broadway. I never set out to conduct, but I’ve always tried to learn from those around me. And when you get asked to do something you’ve never done before, you say yes…and then figure out how to get better at it. You take classes, you ask for advice, you study. You surround yourself with people who are older and wiser than you.
What’s your dream show to conduct/play for?
Oof, that’s a tough one. I’d love to jump on that Disney train at some point. No rush, because I’m very happy where I am, but playing in the pit at The Lion King would be thrilling.
What’s it like being the music director for Once on This Island and having to teach it’s complex vocal arrangements?
An absolute blast. Working with AnnMarie Milazzo and Michael Starobin has been such a great learning experience. Believe it or not, we actually classify what AnnMarie has done as vocal orchestrations. Every member of our company has his/her own individual vocal track. We are not your traditional SATB show. And AnnMarie’s genius translates to each cast member in a truly unique way. Getting to dissect all 16 tracks was a tedious process, but one that allowed the music team to tailor each track to each person’s voice. If a certain phrase didn’t work seamlessly on someone, we could give it to another cast member who could navigate it more smoothly. Casting our show and ironing out parts in rehearsal took quite some time, but we believe we ultimately got it right in the end.
What is Tony Season like for you specifically?
Ha! Good one. Hectic and rewarding and everything in between. There are extra press events, additional rehearsals for the telecast and plenty of requests that catch you off guard. For example, the best thing about my Tony experience (by far!) was where I got to conduct during the telecast. Sure, there’s a live Tony orchestra that has its own conductor, and they’re responsible for playing winner music when awards are announced, “hey, get off the stage!” music when acceptance speeches go too long, etc. But the music for each show that performs is led by the conductor of that show. And there’s a special private booth for those rotating conductors: a 4th-floor shower stall right off the elevator shaft at Radio City Music Hall. So I can now say that I’ve conducted at Radio City. In a tuxedo. From the shower. Ah, the glamorous life!