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tma conference

2016 TMA Conference in the Nation’s Capitol

Tom MendelWby Tom Mendel, Theatre Musicians Association President Emeritus and Member of AFM Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL)

Our 21st Annual TMA Conference was held at the Loews Madison Hotel in Washington, DC, August 22-23. Lee Lachman of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC) (on behalf of TMA Washington, DC, Chapter President Paul Schultz), Local 161-710 President Ed Malaga, and myself welcomed the attendees.

AFM President Ray Hair spoke about the 100th AFM Convention, his history bargaining and negotiating in Dallas and Ft. Worth, Pamphlet B, and fairness for subs and alternates in orchestras.

In my president’s report, I stated the theme of this conference: the Future of TMA. Two hours of the afternoon session were devoted to a round-table discussion of this topic. I reported on the Pamphlet B negotiations in which TMA has a very active role; the formation a Keyboard Subbing Committee because of what we consider unfavorable practices involving keyboard subs; the formation of the TMA Officers & Members Video Training Committee to produce training videos for TMA officers and members on select subjects such as running a meeting, use of social media, and more. These will be great learning tools located in our TMA Officers Toolbox. I gave a PowerPoint demonstration of a new video on membership recruitment and retention.

I read TMA resolutions of recognition to Carla Lehmeier-Tatum of Local 618 (Albuquerque, NM) for nine years of service as ROPA president and Bruce Ridge of Local 500 (Raleigh, NC) for 10 years of service as ICSOM chair. OCSM President Robert Fraser of Local 247 (Victoria, BC) and Ridge gave eloquent player conference reports. Ridge read an ICSOM resolution recognizing me for my years of service with TMA. I read a report from new ROPA President Mike Smith of Local 30-73 (Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN). Local 161-710 treated conference attendees to a delicious lunch.

AFM Touring/Theatre/Booking and Immigration Director Michael Manley gave a report on Pamphlet B negotiations. He compared data from current “full” Pamphlet B tours and those touring on the SET Agreement. He also described the work his office truly does and the people working in it.

TMA Chapter, Broadway, Membership-at-Large, and Traveler Director reports followed. Legislative Chair Walter Usiatynski of Local 802 (New York City) and Chapter and Membership Recruitment Chair Debbie Brooks of Local 72-147 (Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX) gave standing reports. Lovie Smith-Wright of Local 65-699 (Houston, TX) and 60-471 (Pittsburgh, PA) gave the Diversity Committee report.

tma conference

AFM President Ray Hair addresses the TMA Conference while then TMA President Tom Mendel listens on.

TMA Parliamentarian Paul Castillo of Locals 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and 353 (Long Beach, CA) introduced and moderated the Future of TMA round-table discussion, which resulted in three areas for TMA Executive Board consideration.

The second day began with the executive board report. TMA Webmaster Stephen Green of Locals 47 and 7 (Orange County, CA) gave his report. Newly elected AFM Secretary-Treasurer Jay Blumenthal gave brief introductory remarks. AFM IEB Member and Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi spoke about the new Local 802 Broadway contract. He reported that there were more than 300 musicians working on Broadway contracts.

Local 161-710 President Malaga and Executive Board Member Patrick Plunk gave a special report on organizing the Olney Theatre and its successful effort to become unionized.

Elections results were as follows: President Tony D’Amico of Locals 9-535 (Boston, MA) and 198-457 (Providence, RI); Vice President Paul Castillo; Secretary-Treasurer Mark Pinto of Locals 9-535, 198-457, and 126 (Lynn, MA); Broadway Director Jan Mullen of Local 802; Membership-at-Large Director Lovie Smith-Wright; and Travelers Director Angela Chan of Local 369 (Las Vegas, NV).

Chapter directors elected locally include: Walt Bostian (Boston) of Locals 9-535, 126, and 198-457; Heather Boehm (Chicago) of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL); Alan Ayoub (Detroit) of Local 5 (Detroit, MI); David Philippus (Las Vegas) of Local 369; Steve Sanders (Northern California) of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA); Jeff Martin (Phoenix) of Local 586 (Phoenix, AZ); Stephen Green (Southern California); Vicky Smolik (St. Louis) of Local 2-197 (St. Louis, MO); and Paul Schultz (Washington, DC) of Local 161-710.

AFM President Ray Hair swore in all officers, chapter directors, and alternates present. Congratulations to Tony D’Amico, Paul Castillo, Mark Pinto, and the executive board on their elections. We are in great hands. TMA’s future is bright!

It has been an honor and a pleasure to serve as TMA president for the past  five years. I extend a special thanks to TMA vice presidents Walter Usiatynski (2013-2016) and Michael Manley (2011-2013) and secretary-treasurers Mark Pinto (2012-present) and Local 10-208 member Leo Murphy (2011-2012) for their outstanding service to TMA. I also thank all of the past and present members of the executive board for their service. TMA is a voluntary organization. The time and effort given by our local and national representatives is greatly appreciated.

The Chicago Hamilton Pit: Musical Variety and Technical Focus

The Chicago Hamilton band, all members of Local 10-208 (L to R): Felton Offard (guitar), Rick Snyder (keyboard 2/assistant conductor), Tahirah Whittington (cello), Colin Welford (music director, conductor, keyboard 1), Roberta Freier (violin 2), Tom Mendel (bass), Heather Boehm (viola/violin), Tom Hipskind (drums), Chuck Bontrager (concert master/violin 1), and Jim Widlowski (percussion).

The Chicago Hamilton band, all members of Local 10-208 (L to R): Felton Offard (guitar), Rick Snyder (keyboard 2/assistant conductor), Tahirah Whittington (cello), Colin Welford (music director, conductor, keyboard 1), Roberta Freier (violin 2), Tom Mendel (bass), Heather Boehm (viola/violin), Tom Hipskind (drums), Chuck Bontrager (concert master/violin 1),
and Jim Widlowski (percussion).

Hamilton Chicago opened October 19, while the Broadway show continues its unprecedented success in New York City. Playing a show like Hamilton, likely to enjoy a long run, is a dream come true for its Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL) musicians. These musicians all share a love for playing the wide variety of genres—from rap to classical—that composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and arranger Alex Lacamoire have written into the show. The demanding nature of Hamilton, in terms of stamina and timing, keeps musicians on their toes.

International Musician asked the pit—the six-piece rhythm section of Colin Welford (music director, conductor, keyboard1), Rick Snyder (keyboard 2/assistant conductor), Felton Offard (guitar), Tom Mendel (bass), Tom Hipskind (drums), and Jim Widlowski (percussion), plus string quartet of Chuck Bontrager (concert master/violin 1), Roberta Freier (violin 2), Heather Boehm (viola/violin), and Tahirah Whittington (cello)—to talk about their experiences so far.

Leading the Pit


Music Director/Conductor Colin Welford

“It feels so nice going in with confidence,” says Music Director and Conductor Colin Welford, referring to the Broadway show’s success. “You can see that in the cast. We know it’s going to sell very well for a good while. It gives you a feeling
of empowerment.”

“The parts are well written so there is breathing room, listening room; it’s varied. Also, the actors keep it fresh. It’s not going to be cookie cutter by any means. That keeps it alive for us,” he adds.

“The most important thing is for the conductor to bring people in together. There’s quite a lot of that, ” says Welford, explaining his role. “It looks complicated on paper, but it’s really about the conductor listening to the stage and making a decision when to place the chord. It looks fuzzy on paper, but makes for a natural performance. The show isn’t directed to the minuscule detail—first it’s acted, second it’s rhythmic.”

Welford had worked with Assistant Conductor Rick Snyder in both Wicked and The Lion King. “I’d been with The Lion King for about seven and a half years, waiting for an opportunity to go home, but I needed a hit,” says Snyder. When he heard about Welford doing Hamilton Chicago he saw his opportunity.

Assistant Conductor Rick Snyder

Assistant Conductor Rick Snyder

Snyder was immediately drawn to the music. “When I heard the show—reading the book at the same time—I thought it was an outstanding adaptation. I didn’t know how I would react to the rap, but it’s really smart. Plus, there’s also a whole lot of late ’70s and ’80s pop music underneath, and that’s what I was weaned on,” he says.

Both conductor/keyboardists say that the fact that the show is extremely verbal means that actors and musicians must be keenly focused. “It’s a challenge for the actors as they’ve got to shape the phrases and communicate [through singing] as in normal conversation, so that the offset of the rhythm doesn’t throw the ear in such a way that the listener gets confused,” says Welford.

Driving Rhythm

Tom Mendel

Tom Mendel

Bassist Tom Mendel plays four instruments in the show. “I’m playing acoustic bass, five-string electric, four-string hollow body for a ‘Paul McCartney’ kind of sound, and keyboard bass, which is pretty unusual. There’s one tune where I’m playing gliss on the five-string bass, and then on the next downbeat, keyboard bass,” he says.

“Alex’s arrangements are very specific and rewarding. He understands the instruments he’s writing for,” he adds. “There is so much nuance in the part, yet still room for putting individual ‘feel’ into it. I really want to honor his arrangements and Lin’s amazing songs. It demands complete concentration for both acts—an hour and 15 minutes each.”


Jim Widlowski

“When Hamilton was at the Public Theatre, everyone would ask, ‘Is it really that good?’ Yes, it is!” says guitarist Felton Offard, explaining what drew him to the show. “Alex Lacamoire’s orchestration calls on each instrument to create colors that put us in a certain time and place. The diversity was what I loved so much. It goes from classical string quartet to all out rock and roll—sometimes in the same song.”

“I’ve never played a through-composed show before—one that doesn’t have any time to rest. This show is a beast for every chair. The electric guitar has 131 patch changes,” he says. “There’s an articulation mark for almost every note.”

Tom Hipskind

Tom Hipskind

For drummer Tom Hipskind, it was the special kinship he felt playing the Miranda/Lacamoire show In the Heights that made him want to play Hamilton. He wasn’t disappointed.

“The lyrics are so catchy and well written,” he says, pointing to the “sheer constancy” of the show. “Most shows have their moments of ebb and flow, but Hamilton has a relentless drive from beginning to end that is reflected in every aspect: music, choreography, lighting. To be part of that, much less to be driving that freight train as the drummer, is quite the rush! Rhythmic demands are what I live for as a drummer, and when I have an amazing part like this to play, it comes naturally and feeds me creatively!”

The Strings


(L to R) The strings (front) Roberta Freier and Chuck Bontrager (back) Heather Boehm, and Tahirah Whittington.

Chuck Bontrager, concertmaster and violin 1, says that words cannot express how fortunate and grateful he feels to be part of Hamilton. “Ever since I started college, nonclassical styles have been as important to me as Beethoven and Shostakovich. In Hamilton, I get to use my Mozart chops, help with rock riffs, carry ballads, and play Motown-like pad and lead lines,” he says.

Bontrager says it’s the most stylistically diverse and challenging show for bowed strings that he’s seen. “There are many sections throughout the show where parts of the string quartet carry the groove. That’s very unusual and brave writing. I think it will prove to be some of the most important and influential string writing in any arena in the past several decades.”

Violinist Roberta Freier says that style, rhythm, and intonation are the most challenging aspects of playing Hamilton. “Other shows I’ve played are more ‘symphonic’ in nature. Your notes can ring and the rhythms are less complex. In Hamilton, pizzicatos are dampened and most notes are very short,” she explains, adding that it was the idea of combining old and new genres that drew her to the show.

“I’m a classically-trained musician who grew up having an affinity for R&B, hip-hop, classical, and soul,” says cellist Tahirah Whittington. “Having the opportunity to perform in Hamilton is living the dream. The way in which Hamilton mashes up different time periods and idioms is mirrored in the score. It’s the ultimate collaboration of time, text, and music.”

“The cello plays many different roles in the show,” she says. Whittington plays solo, rhythm section, bass voice of the string quartet, tenor voice of the string quartet, as a duo with other instruments, plus is the rhythmic drive in songs like “We Know.” “The music never stops for ‘in the clear’ dialogue,” she adds.

“I don’t know if this is a one-off show,” concludes Welford. “It really requires very good timing and I think that’s definitely something we’ll see more of in the future, whether it’s hip-hop or rap. But it’s important to note that, though we talk about the show as rap or hip-hop, it’s still solidly based in musical theatre with so many styles on stage and so many roots. It’s not this weird, bizarre thing. It’s smart, with homage to a lot of musical theatre traditions as well.”

On the Road with Musicians of Disney’s The Lion King

lion-kingAt any given week each year, there are an average of 150 full-time AFM musicians touring throughout the US and Canada, in 20-plus musicals and three circuses. In addition to these traveling artists, touring shows provide part-time employment to hundreds of local musicians. Most productions travel with only a small core group of musicians, and they fill out the rest of the score with a “new” orchestra of local homegrown talent in each venue. Along with peer unions Actors’ Equity and The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the AFM has theatrical touring agreements that address short-engagement tours, which play primarily in smaller markets, as well as big budget blockbusters booked in major cities for weeks on end. Main employers—members of The Broadway League and Disney Theatricals—are signed to the AFM’s Pamphlet B Agreement, which also incorporates the Short Engagement Tour (SET) Agreement. Smaller nonsignatory producers sign single-project touring agreements, which largely mirror the AFM’s SET terms. Touring under the Pamphlet B agreement, Disney’s The Lion King is reigning king of the road musical jungle, having traveled continuously since 2002 and given more than 5,000 performances. For the most part, the 13 musicians traveling with The Lion King consider themselves fortunate to have full-time, well-paid, secure jobs in music that allow them to see the country. However, the life of a traveling musician is also wrought with unique challenges. In this article you will meet seven AFM musicians who travel with The Lion King, and learn about their lives on the road. Unlike their counterparts on the orchestral podium, conductors are covered employees in the unionized workplaces of musical theatre and circus productions. They often rise to the post through their work as pit keyboard players—and some are required to play and conduct at the same time. Their role of preparing the music for the show takes on increased importance considering the need to rehearse a different set of musicians to play complicated scores, in a limited time, every time the show changes venue. The Lion King score calls for six local musicians, in addition to the 13 who travel with the show.

Rick Snyder,Conductor

lion king

Conductor Rick Snyder makes final score notations before the evening’s performance.

The Lion King lead conductor is Rick Snyder of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL). Snyder has toured off and on since the early ’90s. His first show was Phantom of the Opera. He joined The Lion King in 2003 as associate conductor and keyboard player, and he’s played the current show roughly 3,000 times, since 2009. Snyder considers himself fortunate to be playing the show full-time. “First and foremost it’s a good, steady job. I’m very lucky to be working as a professional musician on a job that, for me, is always totally engaging—and getting paid pretty well too,” he says. Then adds, “I get to visit many interesting cities and meet interesting people. For me, it makes me happy that I can do this job and provide for my family.”

Doug Reed, Keyboardist/Assistant Conductor

Doug Reed of Local 285-403 (New London, CT) plays keyboard for seven shows per week and conducts one. He’s previously toured the US with Jesus Christ Superstar, Dreamgirls, Oklahoma, and Man of La Mancha. Reed says he maintains his enthusiasm for the show by taking note of the audience. “I sometimes go out and watch the audience members coming into the theater all excited,” he says. “I find conducting the show exciting—huge excited audience; great orchestra; big, beautiful show.” “As a conductor, one can infuse energy with phrasing and tempo and feel,” he explains. “As a keyboard player, I like to do things perfectly, and musically. That requires attention!” Reed enjoys traveling around the country. He feels fortunate to work with so many great musicians around the country  and for such an artistically unique and long-running show.

Jamie Schmidt, Keyboardist/Associate Conductor

Jamie Schmidt of Local 802 (New York City) has conducted The Lion King about 500 times and played all three of the show’s keyboard chairs. He has also worked as associate conductor for Ragtime at The Kennedy Center and Broadway, conductor for Liza Minnelli’s symphonic tour, and has been music director and conductor for several Kennedy Center gala concerts. “The opening number is still a thrilling experience for the audience of all ages; turning around from the podium to see grown men crying still brings tears to my eyes. Having a 20-month-old child has certainly made me a more vulnerable, sensitive human being as well, and I often see the show through his eyes,” says Schmidt. “It is magical.” Schmidt says that it’s not difficult to keep the show “fresh” when it is performed in a different city and theater nearly every month. “Change keeps coming, and this keeps us ever on our toes,” he says. He travels with his wife and son, so they face a special challenge when it comes to finding safe housing for an ever-curious toddler. “We consider our lifestyle ‘urban camping,’” he adds.

Reuven Weizburg, Percussionist

lion king

Left: (L to R) Stefan Monssen, Rueven Weizberg, and Mike Faue with a set of conga drums and some of the many percussion instruments used in the show.

Reuven Weizburg, a member of Local 802, has been playing with The Lion King tour for almost seven years. His musical path was not typical—he never went to a conservatory or music school, instead he apprenticed to noted West African and Latin drumming artists. He’s previously played with African music and dance ensembles and pop bands around New York City. He was a sub for The Lion King on Broadway for two years (2006-2008) before joining his first tour. “It’s exciting and inspiring to play to sold out crowds of 2,500 to 3,000 people, eight times a week. Being in the house, and not in the pit, makes the show exciting every day. I get to be a part of the show, watch the show, and watch the audience reaction to the show, all at the same time. It’s a unique perspective,” he says, adding, “I am lucky enough to work on a show that connects with audiences of all walks of life. People are moved by the story and the incredible South African music.” Weizburg says the job is challenging because every house they play has different acoustics, plus the sound engineer has to mix the two “house percussionists” with the rest of the orchestra. “A big part of the job of the house percussionists is to mark the dancers, and sometimes the puppets and shadow puppets,” he explains. Weizburg travels with his family: a wife and two daughters, aged two and six. “We are together all the time, and get to see so many amazing parts of the US and Canada,” he states, adding that finding housing is always a challenge, as is medical care for the children. “We literally pack our entire lives into a minivan and head for the next city. My downtime is spent with my family, homeschooling my oldest daughter, and exploring the cities we play.”

Michael Faue, Marimba Player/Percussionist

Michael Faue is a member of Local 70-558 (Omaha, NE) and graduate of California State University Northridge. As a Los Angeles freelance percussionist, Faue performed, recorded, and/or toured with the likes of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) members Quincy Jones, Lalo Schifrin, and Al Jarreau, and has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and The Boston Pops. He first played for Lion King as a sub in 2002, was hired full-time in 2003, and has now played more than 4,500 shows. “I think there is an art to playing the same music over and over,” says Faue. “Whether you play a piece of music once or 5,000 times, take pride in performing. I feel the audience came to see a performance and deserve my best, all the time.” For any percussionist this is a great gig,” he says. “Three percussionists and a drummer is kind of an unheard of for a Broadway show. The mallet book has it all—you get great phrases but you also have some groove parts making you part of the rhythm section. I also get a little solo time in ‘Hakuna Matata,’ and the bows. My book also has quite a lot of hand percussion.” “Some of the best shows have been when Lion King pairs up with Autism Speaks and the entire audience is made up of individuals and families impacted by autism. To create an autism-friendly performance, the music is quieter, there are no loud sound effects or strobe lights, and house lights are at half. All of these changes create a judgement-free environment for thousands of people who may never have gone to any live event. Shows like these make you really understand how a single performance can change someone’s life.” Faue enjoys the travel aspect. “You see some amazing sights, hear some great music, and play with the best musicians in each city,” he says. One of the most difficult aspects is that, in an emergency, there are often no subs, says Faue, recalling how he had to play a show after slicing and chipping the bone on one of his fingers.

Woonkuo Soon, Concertmaster


Though he has played The Lion King more than 3,500 times, concertmaster Woonkuo Soon enjoys the challenge of performing with an ever-changing local string section.

Woonkuo Soon of 427-721 (Tampa Bay, FL) first began subbing for the show in 2003 and joined it full-time in 2004. Before going on tour he was a freelance, orchestra, and chamber violinist, and he is also principal second violin for the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. He has played more than 3,500 shows for Lion King. He enjoys working with local string musicians and exploring bike trails, museums, and nature parks in each city they visit. Soon finds it challenging to “always have to think of efficiency and economy of space in terms of what we can carry with us, how much we can fit in our cars (for those that drive).” “Having a Fed Ex account helps,” he adds. “It is surprisingly affordable to ship large packages across the country with an account. The savings can be substantial.”

Chris Neville, Keyboardist

Long before Chris Neville of Locals 9-535 (Boston, MA) and 198-457 (Providence, RI) joined The Lion King, he played with jazz saxophonist Benny Carter, recording eight CDs. Carter was so impressed with Neville’s playing that he helped Neville produce four CDs of his own. Neville has also played with Dizzy Gillespie, Phil Woods, Aretha Franklin, and Donnie Osmond, and toured with several Broadway shows before The Lion King. The Lion King has been his longest tour. He was hired as a local when the show was in Boston, and then committed to a six-month tour. Ten years later, he is still with the show and on his 86th stop (including some repeated cities).


Keyboardist Chris Neville warms up in the pit—a micro-city of cables, lights, electronics, and instruments—which is razed and rebuilt every few weeks as the show moves.

Neville plays the keyboard 1 part, which is a core rhythm section book that he says allows him a little improvisation. “Like any show, they’re not exactly the same every performance. You have to be alert for the unexpected!” he adds. He says that his main touring challenges are finding housing and getting safely to the next city. He recalls some crazy drives he’s done: Seattle to East Lansing in 2.5 days and Denver to Baltimore in 1.5 days (with a blizzard somewhere in the middle). “I’ve always enjoyed traveling; I like exploring new places,” he says. “In general, we move every four weeks. The last week in the old city, the travel between cities, and the first week in the new city are complete chaos, but then you have three weeks of being settled. I have friends all over the country; it’s always a treat to pick up where you left off.”

Stefan Monssen, Percussionist

Local 802 member Stefan Monssen has played with The Lion King since 2002, on more than 5,000 shows. He studied Haitian and Cuban drumming under master drummer John Amira. He traveled to the Gambia, West Africa, where he lived for two years with traditional Kutiro drummers, and also visited Guinea to study djembe. He’s played and studied with various African drum schools and masters upon returning. He was previously a sub on Broadway for two years. “I never could have imagined that following my passion and living in Africa would bring me to play for a Broadway show and tour,” says Monssen. “If I had to pick one show that I would never get tired of playing it would be The Lion King. So, needless to say, I feel incredibly fortunate to have followed the path of music to where it’s led me and continues to lead me.” Monssen finds challenges as well as opportunities to remaining a life-long learner on the road. “I’ve started learning drum kit, and brought a V-Drum set that I travel with,” he says, adding that he also packs his SUV with bata drums, a set of Kutiro drums, an extra djembe, and his dog, as he moves city to city. “I always try to see what teachers or performers might be in the city we are presently in and either see them perform or try to take a class.” “It’s amazing, after all these years, that my passion and love for music has only grown and I’m actually making a very decent living from it,” he concludes. “I am truly very grateful. Shows like The Lion King might come once in a lifetime, if you are lucky.”