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Behind the music(al)

The Civic’s music director Eunice Wadewitz sets the tone for Shrek the Musical

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2014-11-07


Eunice Wadewitz wouldn’t have considered herself an expert in musical theater during the first part of her professional music career as a teacher, keyboardist and choral director. Which isn’t to say she wasn’t aware of musical theater — she loved The Sound of Music and says she can sing every song in The Music Man. It’s just that early on, musical theater simply wasn’t a part of her world.

But that was then. It’s certainly a part of her world now, and has been for a long time. And although Wadewitz claims no great depth of knowledge of musical theater and still doesn’t consider herself an expert, anyone who names Frank Wildhorn’s adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel and Jekyll & Hyde as among their favorite musicals couldn’t be considered a casual fan of the genre by any means.

The Fort Wayne Civic Theater’s production of Shrek the Musical — the massive Broadway musical inspired by the equally massive animated feature — begins its run on Saturday, November 8. Like the titular hero, it’s big; a big production with a big cast, a big set, and lots of costumes. Jeff Salisbury plays Shrek, Prentiss D Moore takes on the role of sidekick Donkey; and Megan Meyer plays Princess Fiona, just to name a few actors in the enormous cast…

And it’s Eunice Wadewitz, the Fort Wayne Civic’s music and education director, who leads that cast through all those musical numbers, just like she has — in some capacity — for most musicals at the Civic for 20 years.

Wadewitz earned a Bachelor’s in keyboard area performance from Depaw. “I did lots of teaching, lots of church work — choral directing, hand bell directing, organ playing, that sort of thing,” she says. Around 1994, Jean Marcus, who had been the pianist at the Civic for many years, decided she wanted to pass on the role to someone else. “So I started playing piano for Civic shows, and as I saw conductors come and go, and said to myself ‘well, I can do that job…’” She became full time director in 1998.

Wadewitz’s official title is Music and Education Director. For the Fort Wayne Civic’s musicals, she rehearses the cast in all the music they have to learn, hires the orchestra, and conducts the performances, frequently accompanying on piano, organ, or other keyboard.

It all starts at the auditions, where Wadewitz and the director determine the most viable candidates for a show. As you might expect, requirements change show-to-show, but there’s a lot more to the process than just being able to carry a tune. “It’s not just being able to sing, but how they present the song, their stage presence and delivery,” Wadewitz says. “Do they have accuracy with pitch? Can they sing harmony? Though harmony, for example, wasn’t necessarily an issue with Shrek, it is for a show like Forever Plaid, where it’s essential. For a show like that, I’ll get the singers together, work them in four-part harmony, see how they match up with each other.”

And for many shows, part of the audition process is a “sing-off.” “We had three very viable candidates for Shrek, so on call back night, I had a sing off,” Wadewitz says. “I had them all sing the first big solo number that Shrek sings at the top of the show. That tells us a lot about how good are their high notes are, how well can they deliver the songs.”

There are different requirements for each role, and the sing-off process is also an effective way of assuaging any bruised egos or ill will for those who didn’t get the part. “When you’ve got them in a ‘sing-off’, 4 or 5 singers in a row, all singing the same number, they start to see what they’re up against, what we’re looking for in a particular role.”

Very rarely, a show’s score calls for something that — for budgetary or logistical reasons — is beyond the Civic Theater’s capabilities. Maybe it’s a ballet, a huge wind section or string section, or a massive choir. In those cases, Wadewitz takes on the role of arranger — though as we said, it’s rare, and it’s something Wadewitz tries to avoid. “If you don’t have certain sounds in the show, there’s going to feel like there’s a hole in the accompaniment, so I think ‘how can I do this?’” she explains. “I might decide to hire a third keyboardist, and go to the music writing program and combine, say, all the string parts into one book.”

“But like I said, I try to avoid arranging as much as possible,” she continues. “One time, with Rocky Horror, the music arrived for the signers, but not one song arranged for the chorus. I literally transcribed every number from the recordings into four-part harmony. Quite a lot of work.”

There isn’t a lot of work work for Wadewwitz when it comes to Shrek. The songs are fun — fun for the actors to perform, fun to listen to — and from a technical standpoint, doesn’t rank as one of the more difficult shows Wadewitz has tackled. There have been a few of those. “Hands down, any Sondheim show is going to be at the top of the list of difficult musicals,” Wadewitz says. “So much of the time, what the actor is singing has nothing to do with the accompaniment. If the accompaniment doesn’t have some sort of melody line somewhere and is continually counterpoint to what you’re singing, it’s easy to get lost. Then he also gets very rhythmic. It can be extremely difficult, because often it’s never the same thing twice.”

And then there are some shows that seem “fun,” and turn out to be more of a challenge. The Civic Theater did 9 to 5 last year… “It’s deceptive, because when you listen to the recording, you think ‘oh this sounds like so much fun’,” Wadewitz laughs. “But when you get down to it, you are working with a chorus who has to sing 10-part harmony, very rhythmically, and then it’s country or pop on top of it. I could have used two more weeks of rehearsal. Luckily, I went into it knowing it was deceptively hard. I talked to Doug King at Beef N’ Boards, who had done the show recently, and warned me about that one.”

Of course, after 20 or so years working on Fort Wayne Civic Theater musicals in some capacity, Wadewitz has a handful of shows that, given a choice, she’d rather not visit again. “If I never do Hello Dolly again, I’ll be the happiest person ever,” she laughs, adding that she thinks she’s done the show three times. “The part of Dolly is written for a mezzo soprano, but it was made famous by Carol Channing, and the show’s producers accommodated her by letting her sing everything an octave or two lower than it’s written. So everyone assumes Dolly sings that low range, and no one can sing that low.”

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The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre presents Shrek the Musical
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Saturdays, November 8 at 2 PM and 8 PM; November 15 at 8 PM; and November 22 at 8 PM
Sundays, November 9, 16 and 23 at 2 PM
Fridays, November 14 and 21 at 8 PM
Tickets: $29/adults; $17/age 23 and under; $24/Sunday senior matinees

Box Office: (260) 424.5220 or online: fwcivic.org

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