The time is almost here, y’all – Miss Jaye is prepping to stomp the stage in the Empire Theatre Company’s first production for their fifth season: Hairspray! She’ll be playing the part of Edna Turnblad, a role originated by drag legend Divine and played in various forms by such luminaries as Harvey Fierstein, Bruce Villanch, and John Travolta. Before the curtains can part, a lot of work needs to go into getting a show ready, and one of the biggest tasks is preparing all of the music. Enter David Henrickson, Music Director for this production. Recently, he talked about his life and career and what happens behind the scenes (and behind the keyboard) to bring a show like Hairspray to life.
Janessa: Today I’m sitting down with the Music Director for ETC’s production of Hairspray, David Henrickson! Thanks for sitting down with me today.
David: My pleasure! I have to say, I didn’t expect your office to be quite so opulent and chic.
J: So, start off by telling us how your experience with Hairspray has been so far. Feel free to gush about how gorgeous and talented I am – I won’t mind!
D: So far, so good. Everyone has been working hard to make sure this production will be an enjoyable experience for our audience. I would gush about how gorgeous and talented you are, but your check hasn’t cleared yet.
J: Hmmm, I’ll have to call the bank. But in the meantime, tell us about Hairspray. What’s it like working with the music for a big show like this?
D: The challenges for this show are different than past productions mostly due to all the dancing. Previous shows have had limited, or no choreography, so this is a big change for us. On a personal note, I’m just thankful there isn’t any tap dancing required in this show!
J: Me too! Hard to believe with this dancer’s body, but I’m not very good a hoofing with these hooves! We have a very large cast – 26, 27 people? That’s a lot of voices to work with!
D: Yes, it is! Good thing I’m known for my patience and being able to work well with others! I’m a giver, you know.
J: I have to say, I’ve never really appreciated how important the ensemble is to a show like this. They have a whole lot of stuff to do – background singing, solo lines interspersed throughout, dancing…and if they are doing everything right, you hardly even notice because it all blends together into this fabulous, complete whole.
D: Hairspray is unique in that the chorus is a fairly involved entity throughout the show. They are included in almost every number. In most shows they are paraded on for a couple of scenes and then shuffled off again. I think Hairspray offers the ensemble the chance to be fully integrated into the cast (see what I did there?), as opposed to a disposable or extraneous mob.
J: I did see that – very clever! And readers, if you didn’t get it, then you need to Google what this show is about. Now David, we’ve actually worked together before – remember doing Ruthless! at the Firehall Theatre? I can’t believe it’s been 4 years!
D: I can, thank God for you and Emily Wirkus! (♪ Hello, yes this is Tina’s mother ♪)
J: Tell us a little bit more about your musical background. How did you first discover music?
D: I was lucky enough to come from a very musical family. My grandparents had a piano and apparently, every time we visited them, I would run to the piano and start playing. Badly, of course, I still had yet to take any lessons! Once I started, everything fell into place. I still have wonderful memories of playing Swedish folk songs while my grandmother sang along.
J: When did you know that music was something you wanted to do for your livelihood?
D: Oh God, I don’t really know. I never wanted to do anything else. I had planned to become a High School Band Director, but in college I quickly discovered that really wasn’t a good choice for me. I floundered for a few more years, not really having a path to follow. I did a lot of accompanying as an undergraduate and got extremely involved with the Opera Program at my university. I did do some musical theater, but most of my background at that time was in opera. After I moved to Grand Forks, I fell into a series of opportunities that resulted in my being hired as an Adjunct Faculty in the Music Department at UND. That, in turn, created even more opportunities for me outside of UND, working with professional Opera and Theater Companies in different states. I was also quite involved with UND Theater as musical director, which was a very rewarding experience – most of the time. I still sometimes find it difficult to immerse myself into a lengthy rehearsal process for a musical. In most of the opera companies I worked with, we had a two week period of staging and then the show was up and running and then over. I liked the expediency of the whole process!
J: What’s your favorite part about working with aspiring musicians?
D: Experiencing their growth as musicians and artists. As I got older, it became less about me as a performer and more about helping students reach their potential as performers. Performing is about making informed choices, and I love helping a student understand those choices and ultimately be able to decide which choice is best for them at any given moment. I abhor routine.
J: Turning back to musicals, what’s your favorite show that you worked on? What made that experience special?
D: I did a production of Into the Woods years ago that was probably the most satisfying experience I’ve had. It began with the auditions. I was new to this particular university, so was not familiar with the students at all. One by one, I was blown away by the level of talent being presented to me. At the end, I could’ve easily double cast the show and been happy, but a single cast was chosen. At the very first rehearsal I had planned to do a cover to cover read through of the entire show. I had the stage manager set up chairs and music stands for everyone, but as each cast member sat down, they moved their stand to the side. I explained that the stands were there to hold their music/scripts. They looked at me and replied: “It’s okay, we’re off book”! And bless their souls, they were! They had even taken it upon themselves to learn different parts in the ensemble sections so that I was free to move voices around as needed without any problem. Needless to say, rehearsals were extraordinarily smooth and without any drama…so to speak.
J: And obviously you would cast me as Joanne, my other dream role besides Edna Turnblad. But continue…
D: (rolls eyes) I did A Little Night Music years ago, but it wasn’t a happy experience, so that is high on my list as a do-over. I also love some of the older, less well-known, shows like Applause or On a Clear Day. Even Promises, Promises would be fun to do. Most Happy Fellow has been high on my list, as well.
J: Back to Hairspray for a moment – you’ve also been acting as an unofficial dramaturg for the show: pointing out cultural references, important historical figures, things like that. This show is definitely full of references for attentive audience members.
D: Are you calling me old? I feel it’s my duty as the elder statesperson in this production to keep all you young ones informed. Maybe it is a generational thing, but it frustrates me to hear the cast referencing people or cultural events of the 60s and not bothering to do any research to discover what they’re actually talking about! It’s not that long ago! Maybe it’s the fault of the public schools, I dunno.
J: I feel like dramaturgy is largely missing these days, especially in community-based theatre. I remember going to shows at UND when I was an undergrad and there were always “dramaturgical notes” explaining important themes, talking about references, or explaining some of the inspirations for that production. I really miss those! Do you feel like today’s audiences are missing out?
D: I do, especially if specific references are being made on a regular basis, like in Hairspray. It’s not only about the hair and the dancing! And if you remember, I provided a lot of dramaturgical information during Ruthless! too! Maybe that should be my new career choice?
J: Do you have a favorite line or reference from this show?
D: So many to choose from! They are mostly said by your character, Edna. The bit about who handles the Gabor sisters, or your referencing Debbie Reynolds while warning your daughter about the danger of getting involved with a crooner. And then later when your daughter does get her heart broken (Spoiler Alert!!), you reference Eddie Fisher.
J: Now for the random question portion of the profile; don’t worry, we’ll start with an easy one. Outside of music, what’s one of your favorite hobbies or activities?
D: I’m trying to get back into reading books again. I used to be an avid reader, but for one reason or another, that fell by the wayside and I’m trying to get back into the groove, as it were. And no, I won’t be using a Kindle anytime soon.
J: I’m not much of a wine drinker. I prefer to throw back long islands until I pass out in the kitchen…like a lady.
D: I always longed to be a pretentious wine connoisseur, but alas, not for me.
J: Which Pokémon is your spirit animal?
D: (Awkward, painfully long silence)
J: I see you as a Charmander.
D: Keep looking…
J: I don’t keep up with a lot of TV but Dylan McDermott is always a classic, and he was always so naked and yummy on the first season of American Horror Story. Or else the voice of Bob from Bob’s Burgers. What character would you want to be your survival buddy in a zombie apocalypse?
D: Ha! I have no survival skills at all! If I was part of a group, they would kill me off long before the zombies would!
J: Definitely have to go with Carol from The Walking Dead – she’s scary as fuck, but she’d keep me alive. Now what’s the movie that if you’re flipping channels and you run across it, you absolutely have to watch it through to the end?
D: Carol is definitely a bad-ass. I don’t really do a lot of channel surfing as I tend to record things on my DVR and watch them later at my convenience. I also have an aversion to watching a movie starting at any point other then the beginning.
J: Really? Mine is Dirty Dancing. Or The American President; there was one year where I swear that one was on every other weekend. Anyway, getting back to more serious topics, why do you think it’s important for a community to have a strong arts presence? What does art bring to the community?
D: The arts are what make us human and more importantly, compassionate. The arts serve to bring together a diverse population and is vital to the economics of a community. Without a strong arts presence, what else is there? Hockey? Please….
J: I’m not a hockey fan, but I always appreciate a good pair of pandex pants. Now if only those jerseys weren’t so long! If you could bring one thing to our local arts scene, what would it be? What would you like to see, or even see more of?
D: Okay, the snarky answer would be: talent, pure unadulterated talent. But in lieu of that, how about male strippers?
J: Mmmm, I approve that message! Anything else you’d like to share with our World of Champagne Readers?
D: Come and see Hairspray or Edna Turnblad will hunt your ass down, and ain’t nobody got time for that!
J: Well, thank you so much for all of the work you put into making us sound good in Hairspray, and for sitting down with me today!
D: Wait, what? I could’ve been sitting?
You can see Hairspray playing at the Empire Arts Center from August 9-13 & 16-20. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office. Discounted student tickets available. This show does have reserved seating so call early for most seating selection.
Tags: Champagne Dreams Productions, drag king, drag performance, drag queen, drag show, drag troupe, Edna Turnblad, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater, Empire Theatre, Empire Theatre Company, Hairspray, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Miss Jaye, Tracy Turnblad, World of Champagne