As the sounds of bluegrass music waft through the rafters of the Plaza Theatre, one member of the production team is celebrating more than just beautiful banjo music. Brian T. Hamilton, local singer, voice teacher, and frequent music director for Lyric, counts the regional premiere of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s musical Bright Star as his 84th time working with the company. I asked him how he feels after more than seven-dozen shows: “Sometimes it feels like I’d like to retire, but I don’t, because I get to do shows like Bright Star and Fun Home.”
Starting as a cast member and soloist during his college years, Hamilton has played many roles, onstage and off stage. He played Riff Raff in the company’s first production of The Rocky Horror Show and has music directed four subsequent productions. He’s also been an audition accompanist, pit musician, music director, and actor in many productions, at the Civic Center, Plaza Theatre, and even at Lyric’s original home, the Kirkpatrick Auditorium at Oklahoma City University (OCU).
Putting It Together
With every theatrical production, there are challenges. With Bright Star, one issue was finding a banjo player who could read music. Many professional banjo players in central Oklahoma are self-trained or play by ear. They are not accustomed to learning music from a printed score. So Lyric had to find just the right performer to join the band Hamilton would music direct.
Hamilton noted that popular bluegrass music is slightly different from a Broadway musical score. “In a theatre piece, you have to theatricalize a style of music,” he explained. “There’s a song called ‘Ashville’ that Margo sings, that changes meter. If you don’t have a player that reads music, it becomes problematic.” Ultimately, the company found a terrific banjo player that does not regularly read music but keeps time very well. The results are impressive, and transport audiences to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina at every performance.
Making Beautiful Music
In addition to forming and rehearsing a band of musicians to play the score, Hamilton also music directs the Bright Star vocalists. Audience members have repeatedly mentioned how much joy they get from the musical numbers. “What I love most about this show is that we don’t have a weak link in the cast,” he gushed. “Everyone is holding up their end of telling the story. It’s one of the best-sung shows I’ve ever worked on as a musical director. With this cast, the second night of rehearsal, everything was so clean. It’s just beautiful singing.”
When asked why he thinks this cast creates wonderful music together, Hamilton said “A lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s not a dance-heavy show. They were called back based on their singing auditions, and it had nothing to do with what happened at a dance call. And I think the same thing is going to happen with Titanic this summer. It’s a singer show. Sometimes you get to see a big production show, and sometimes you see a well-sung show or a well-acted show. This show is a well-sung and well-acted show.”
Finding a Path
Hamilton’s education reads like a “who’s who” list of well-respected Oklahoma institutions. He got a bachelors degree in Music Theatre from the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO), studying with the founding Lyric Theatre performers Kay Creed, Tamara Long, and Carveth Osterhaus. After a few years in New York, he felt Oklahoma calling again. “I would come back every semester to do Surrey Singers at OCU. Our dearly beloved Enoch Elms passed, and they needed a music director for Songs for a New World really fast. I wasn’t doing anything, so I came back and also was a vocal coach that semester.
“I played for [legendary voice teacher] Florence Birdwell, at OCU while I was in school at UCO, and I would laugh and laugh because she’s the funniest person on the planet. But I wasn’t listening to her technique. Then I saw Kelli O’Hara on the Tony Awards signing from The Light in the Piazza, and thought, ‘How does she look like she’s just talking but sounds like she’s using every fiber in her body?” So he began studying voice with Birdwell, getting a masters degree and joining the faculty as a voice teacher. He emphasized, “I worked at OCU for 10 years, and they are a huge part of my family.” Currently, Hamilton serves as Lecturer of Voice at The University of Oklahoma.
Hamilton brings a lot of experience to the table when he’s involved with a show. So I asked him what he would change if he could change one thing about the world of theatre. He answered, “I would change, 100%, how undervalued stage managers are. They are captains of the ship. They’re there every night. You can have a terrible director, terrible everything, but the stage manager makes the show. On opening night, nobody ever thanks the stage manager! They’re the life force.”
Dolly Parton & Barbara Mandrell
Speaking more about Bright Star, Hamilton had nothing but wonderful things to say about one of the show’s actors, Bligh Voth, who plays the lead role of Alice Murphy. “I fell in love with her when she did Big River five years ago. She’s perfect. Her biggest idol is Dolly Parton, so to sing this bluegrass music is what she grew up with; it’s what she sings naturally. I’ve had at least 25 people say to me “She’s amazing!” and the first thing I say is she’s just as amazing off-stage.
Just for fun, we tossed around a few questions made famous on the long-running series, Inside the Actors Studio. I asked Hamilton one of the most famous questions: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? After a moment, he replied “‘Your grandma is waiting to see you.’ Yeah, I miss her.” When I asked if his grandmother was especially interested in music, he remembered “She loved the Barbara Mandrell show. We watched it every Saturday night. Bligh would love that show. She wasn’t alive then. Does anyone even know who Barbara Mandrell is anymore?”
– Rodney Brazil, writer & arts blogger
Lyric’s BRIGHT STAR runs April 3 – 28, 2019, at Lyric at the Plaza!
Tickets are available at www.LyricTheatreOKC.org/Bright-Star or (405) 524-9312.