In recognition of Broadway’s reopening, PBS will present “Wicked in Concert: A Musical Celebration of the Iconic Broadway Score” on Sunday, August 29, 2021. The performance will have “never-before-heard arrangements” created just for this broadcast. This “star-studded concert” will have many of the favorite songs from the score.
The program will be co-hosted by Idina Menzel (who won the 2004 Best Actress Tony Award for the musical) and Kristin Chenoweth (her co-nominee), the original stars of the Broadway production of “Wicked.” Joining the pair of Broadway icons are a cavalcade of stars from Broadway, television, film, and music. They include Mario Cantone (“Sex and the City”); Tony Award-winner, Gavin Creel; Ariana DeBose (the new “West Side Story”); Tony, Emmy, and Grammy winner, Cynthia Erivo; Stephanie Hsu (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”); EGOT winner Rita Moreno; Grammy Award winning country artist, Jennifer Nettles; Alex Newell (“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”); Isaac Powell (from the upcoming film “Dear Evan Hansen”); Amber Riley (“Glee”); Gabrielle Ruiz (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”); and Tony Award-winner, Ali Stroker (“The Glee Project”).
The show is directed by Broadway legend, Baayork Lee, with musical direction by Washington’s own, Luke Frazier, founder and director of the American Pops Orchestra. The APO was founded in 2015 to reach diverse audiences and challenge the status quo. It utilizes material from “The Great American Songbook,” performing at non-traditional settings.
“Wicked” is the 5th longest running show on Broadway and has won numerous awards, including 10 Tony Awards. It looks at Oz before Dorothy and focuses on the two witches, Elphaba and Glinda, as young women. It opened in 2003 and has been presented in over 100 cities and 16 countries, translated into six languages, and has been seen by over 60 million people. The music and lyrics are by the renowned Stephen Schwartz, based on a novel by Gregory Maguire, and with the book by Winnie Holzman.
I had a chance to interview Luke Frazier who will be conducting his orchestra for this production.
Growing up in West Virginia and spending most of his career in New York City and Washington, D.C., Luke knows the breadth of audiences that can have their lives changed by music of all kinds. A classically trained pianist and conductor, Luke spends every day focusing not only on musical excellence but also about using music as a tool to connect people from all walks of life. Gone are the days of programming and conducting in a vacuum — the arts today are about the communities we serve and the patrons, both existing ones and those yet to be reached. This philosophy has led Luke to be a pioneer in how, where, and what orchestras perform. This commitment to innovation led Luke to start The American Pops Orchestra in 2015 to serve as an artistic model of this thinking. In Luke’s shows, it’s not uncommon to hear pop singers, classical musicians, and television stars all in the same program. Each concert, whether it be with his own APO or another orchestra around the country, is curated as an opportunity to highlight music, particularly American Popular Music. This music that we’ve created together can be used as a rallying point in our collective lives. Luke crafts each concert with a dramatic arc featuring both innovative and classic arrangements to keep both audiences and artists engaged at every measure.
Luke is lucky to call many of the world’s most acclaimed artists, friends and collaborators. These friendships include Renée Fleming, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Patti Labelle, Kelli O’Hara, Juanes, Wynton Marsalis, Rita Moreno, Morgan James, Joshua Bell, and so many more which have led to concerts all over the country both in iconic venues and to millions of viewers on television. Passionately committed to the next generation of musicians, Luke spends a significant amount of time and resources with all levels of aspiring musicians. Each year, APO hosts a free national collegiate vocal competition, conducts instrumental and vocal masterclasses for collegiate musicians, creates original children’s programming of the highest caliber, and spends two weeks visiting schools free of charge in some of the poorest regions of our country. Luke believes in the power of music to open new doors for children — In fact, it was an elementary school gymnasium performance which included live musicians that inspired his own career.
Musically, who or what were the biggest influences on your career?
One of the things I think about in all the work I do is how my background is full of so many styles of music. I wasn’t someone brought up strictly with a classical training, or someone with a strictly musical theater background, or someone with a strictly jazz background. In one week of my life growing up and studying in college, I would experience old time gospel music, jazz, big bands, Schumann lieder, Top 40 pop hits, and everything in between. My mind is never satisfied living in one style of music and never has been. I believe all good music is good music and that is the result of the conviction of the composers, performers, and conductors. I crave authenticity in whatever I’m listening to and that inspiration can change from day to day, depending on who I believe is really making themselves vulnerable.
Do you enjoy conducting more than performing on the piano?
I do prefer conducting to playing in my professional life. In my work as a professional conductor, I have the chance to work with so many types of artists and nothing is more beneficial than being able to sit down with them to rehearse and play exactly what they’re going to be hearing from the orchestra and the music that will be shaped by my hands with a baton. I love to play the piano and do quite a bit, including most recently in a series of concerts with Tony-winner, Paulo Szot. Every day I try to spend time with the piano, not only to keep my fingers honest, but it also gives me a chance to keep exploring more and more types of music.
How are Pops audiences different than those for symphonic orchestras?
I don’t believe there should be any difference between a pops audience and a symphonic audience. In my opinion, that’s led to a lot of the problems most orchestras face with today. For so many years, it’s been a focus on different types of audiences instead of realizing that audiences all share one thing — they want to feel deeply and leave feeling connected to both the music and the performers. I’m an advocate for shorter programs focused on high impact; mixing repertoire and genres of music with new and established performers. Many times, I’ve heard discussions about “shaking things up,” which ultimately leads to something that segments audiences further. Shaking things up to me means realizing we should honor and respect all audiences and community members and listen to what they want to hear their orchestra perform. Schumann and Sara Bareilles could be on the same program if you think carefully and mindfully about the programming and lose the concept of old orchestral constructs.
If you could talk to someone from music, past or present, who you have never met, who would that be?
Kay Starr and Mozart. I would love to sit in on rehearsals with Kay Starr, a performer I’m sure most people have never heard of, and watch her shape the music. I’ve become completely obsessed with her prolific discography; she’s sung just about every popular style out there. “Movin’ On Broadway” is a revelation in re-imagining classic music.
I think the biggest thing I’d love to chat with/observe from Mozart is that his music (and many other composers of the time) was meant to be fun and light. Not every piece of music has to be considered a museum piece. My heart and mind have always told me that, and in all of my work studying classical music, I get that when you read just barely between the lines. I firmly believe Mozart wanted to allow listeners to let go at times, transcend at times, cry at times, and frequently laugh.
What was especially satisfying or challenging about arranging the music for “Wicked?”
I work with a team of incredible arrangers and orchestrators for each of our American Pops Orchestra programs; you’ll never hear anything but original versions of classic music. I approach each process the same — I know the repertoire and then mid-run, mid-gardening, mid-cooking, or at midnight with a bedside notepad, I write down how I hear the music differently. Then I put all of those thoughts together and send them over to my team and we begin shaping from there. We go back and forth until we create something fresh and new and hopefully exciting for performers and audiences alike. I get such a thrill using new arrangements and orchestrations to reach new audiences. Every day we have another chance to get someone else excited about live performances and you better believe I’m never going to waste that opportunity.
Remember to catch this exciting tribute and see some of your favorite performers as well as the American Pops Orchestra under the direction of Luke Frazier on Sunday, August 29, 2021 at 9:00 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS Video App. This production is presented by PBS and made possible in collaboration with Nouveau Productions.