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November 1, 2023IM -
Born and raised in Las Vegas by musical parents, a life in music was never not an option for drummer and percussionist Paul Hannah of Local 500 (Raleigh, NC). “My dad, Don Hannah, was in the house band at the Dunes Hotel, and made a living as an arranger for everyone who came through town. Streisand, Elvis, Gladys Knight, you name it. My mother was a church organist and pianist,” he says.
Hannah himself gravitated toward the drums. “No idea why,” he quips. “My life is weird. I’ve been obsessed with books on WWII since I was 5, for no apparent reason, and I’ve been interested in military history ever since. Drums appeared in my life at the age of 10 for similar nonreasons.”
That said, Hannah made rapid progress—but not without some rebelliousness. “I just wanted to play drums, but my dad made me study percussion,” he says. “He knew Vegas musicians had to do everything, so he made me learn to play timpani and mallets, which I resented at first.” Studying percussion, he says, also made him a much better drummer because of the focus on touch and phrasing.
Early lessons with the late legendary Vegas drummer Jerry Gilgor led to studies at the New England Conservatory with another percussion legend, Vic Firth, followed by an artist’s diploma from the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut. But before the degree, Hannah was already a working professional musician.
Hannah credits his early education to mentors and a kind of apprentice system. “I’ve been incredibly fortunate to study with master teachers. But some of the best learning came when I would go with my dad to rehearsals, sit over the percussionists’ and drummers’ shoulders, and ask them questions. I learned about setup from the best in the business. They taught me how to think about physical logistics, the choreography of large percussion setups. And all this was just in Vegas,” he says.
It was never a question that Hannah would do this for a living. “I love music more than anything, except my wife,” he laughs. “When I was a kid, playing music transported me to this magical place filled with joy and pleasure. I started playing professionally at 16, so it was clear that I could make a living as a musician. Plus, these guys were cool, and they had fun. Where’s the downside in that?”
It was while studying at Hartt that Hannah’s first Broadway touring show came about. “I absolutely fell into it,” he recalls. “I had been subbing locally, while doing grad work, and the national tour of Into the Woods came to New Haven. Their drummer wanted to take a few shows off and was looking for a sub. It came my way. I did two shows. Then, the drummer left the tour two months later, and I got the gig.”
Hannah says the music director already knew he could play the show. “It’s a solid example of why you have to play your ass off everywhere you go. You never know what that might lead to.”
Following that first experience, the touring life stuck with him. After graduating from Hartt, Hannah began touring with Sondheim’s Into the Woods, followed by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Over the last two decades, he has worked as a drummer and percussionist for Broadway touring productions all over the US, Canada, Japan, and China. His touring credits include West Side Story in Tokyo, Jesus Christ Superstar, Wicked, An American in Paris, and Spamalot.
Asked why he has stuck with the touring life, Hannah posits two reasons: “First, playing Broadway shows is the closest I can get to the type of environment I grew up in, in Vegas. It’s a production show and a star vehicle in one. Second, when touring, I’m playing music six days a week for an entire year. If you love playing, touring is the way to be playing all the time.”
With Funny Girl marking the start of his 21st Broadway tour, Hannah says he has played (by rough estimate) at least 10,000 performances for some 15 million people, in all 50 states and all over the world, generating at least $1.5 billion. “Drums have taken me everywhere I’ve wanted to go,” he says. “When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was play every day. Now I get to do that, and also bring joy to audiences every single night.”
Of course, life on the road isn’t without its stressors, and Hannah is the first to say it’s not for everyone. But he has some useful life hacks for touring musicians garnered from decades of his own personal experience. “First off, be a decent human being,” he says. “You’re going to be with your fellow pit musicians 24/7. If you’re a jerk, you won’t last long because there is someone who can play just as well as you, but is nicer.”
Another important tip is to understand that the show will provide some, but not all, the musical satisfaction a musician might be looking for. “Be grateful for the bits that are satisfying, and find ways to fill your other musical needs,” he advises.
For some, a less satisfying component is the repetition. “We play the same music every day. But it’s important to remind yourself that it’s new music to people coming to the show for the first time. I play every show like I’m going to die afterward. That way, whoever is in the audience gets my fully committed performance,” he says.
Also, Hannah feels there is no better arena for wrestling with your personal demons than playing the same music, night after night. “I’ve been married for 36 years. You stay with someone who has characteristics you find attractive, but after a long time, those same characteristics can drive you crazy. You need to use the relationship to make yourself better. I try to think about playing this music in a similar vein and make myself a better person through repeated performances.”
Hannah believes physical and mental health while on the road are two sides of the same coin. “You need solitude to process your emotions and experiences. My wife comes along with me on these tours, so I give myself some alone time to recharge. And she understands that.”
Other challenges include eating right and maintaining some type of physical conditioning. “You can carry your own small kitchen and easily make healthy meals—which is way easier now than 30 years ago when I was first doing this. Travel with a mat and make sure you’re stretching. Also, walk or jog while exploring a tour stop, which can also count as alone time.”
Hannah says this is the first full national tour of Funny Girl since the original Broadway production 60 years ago. It’s also one of the few shows in many years to tour with a full complement in the pit. “I like to believe the producers respected the integrity of the material enough to spend the money on a full-sized orchestra playing the original Broadway orchestration,” he says.
He is adamant that audiences can tell the difference when presented with a fuller orchestration. However, if reductions continue to be normalized by producers, there is a strong possibility that theatergoers will lose the ability to realize the difference. “The absolute minimum in the orchestra pit has become so normalized that theatergoers are unaware of what they’re missing.”
The problem, he says, lies with the inherent greed in American capitalism. “Respect for the people who create and present the product is declining. They don’t want to make it possible for us to make a decent living. The musicians are entirely dependent on the producers’ goodwill for the orchestra to continue. Thankfully, the Funny Girl producers are different. They are willing to make things right.”
Prior to Funny Girl, Hannah’s last tour was nonunion. He’s happy to be working under an AFM agreement once again. “First, you’re paid much better,” he says. “You also have better protections and working conditions.”
Funny Girl plays eight shows a week, 46 weeks a year. The orchestra gets vacation weeks and vacation pay, as well as the AFM’s health and welfare benefit—and nonunion tours don’t provide pension contributions. “It’s also worth mentioning that doing a nonunion tour doesn’t advance your career. While I acknowledge that sometimes you have no choice, playing a nonunion tour just establishes that you’re willing to work cheaply,” he says.
Hannah expresses the hope that more tours going forward will be under union contract. “It’s really the only way to ensure that the touring musicians involved with these shows will get the protections they work hard for, and rightly deserve.”
In the rare times he’s not touring or in the pit, Hannah records with his jazz trio, fusion band, solo percussion works, and his own big band. He currently also works as the Funny Girl tour’s music librarian. He says he is considering taking a more active role through committees and union involvement. “I would love to do anything I can to make the touring world better for my touring brothers and sisters,” he says.
Hannah’s latest venture is as a writer. He is the author of An Expert’s Guide to Theatre and Touring, in which he explores in-depth the tips and wisdom of decades of touring briefly touched on in this article. “I used to be the youngest guy in the band, but I’m the old guy now,” he laughs. “So much of what I learned was through the examples and mentorship of others. It’s my turn to honor that tradition and pass on a little wisdom to following generations.”
Other goals of his book are more practical: for example, a section on drum set orchestration. That is, how to use the drum set to reinforce what is happening musically. “This comes directly from the big band tradition,” he explains. “If you’ve never played big band, you might have no idea how to do this.”
There is also a section on interpreting drum charts. “Sometimes everything is written out in a show. Other shows, like Hello Dolly, are more open to individual interpretation. You never know what you’re dealing with until you see the music,” he says.
As for his dad’s early insistence on learning other percussion instruments like timpani and mallets alongside the drums, Hannah laughs at the ultimate irony: “For Funny Girl, the book requires me to play drum set—and timpani and mallets.”