Theater Drummers: Super Troupers

Theater Drummers

Urban Guerilla

With his Mohawk, multiple tats, and gruff New York accent, John Sawicki is not the kind of guy you expect to be in theater.

At the moment, the 30-something music director of Stomp! is ministering to a pierced ear that has swelled shut, using a technique he has utilized many times over the years. “I burnt the nail and stuck into my ear to relieve it,” he says. “It didn’t work out as well as I hoped.”

Sawicki’s DIY approach is an apt metaphor for a troupe that has evolved from scrap-metal percussion ensemble to a franchise juggernaut performing on two continents. Besides making music out of everything from garbage pails to Zippo lighters, Stomp! offers a visual feast of choreography somewhere between Alvin Ailey Dance Company and a Broadway production of Cats. Synchronized swinging from a harness attached to a two-story fence while ripping a complex cadence? No problem. A samurai-style sword fight with curtain rods? Easy-peezy.

Despite the show’s onomatopoeic name, Stomp! has subtle percussive pieces in its repertoire, including a bit with brooms and the much talked about Domino-chain of Zippo lighters.

Stomp! is the brainchild of Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, the U.K. team who started the show 20 years ago. The two Brits may compose Stomp!’s musical numbers but for Sawicki, who has been with the company for more than 12 years, there is more than enough creative space for him and his crew to work in. “As far as the rehearsing and making sure all of the stuff on stage goes correctly night after night? That would be me.”

Darwinian Drummer

John Sawicki

(Left) John Sawicki: Stomp!’s scrap-metal maestro.

For Totem, Cirque Du Soleil’s evolution-themed show based in Toronto, the job requirements are different. Percussionist James Mack must supply the soundtrack to mankind’s transition from primordial ooze to walking upright on dry land … with hand drums.

There are no field recordings from the Cenozoic era for him to model his approach on, so that’s where a bit of Hollywood comes in. “In the early part of the show we create this vibe of the African continent so it’s a lot of djembe I’m playing,” says the 39-year-old Englishman. “I’m situated behind these reeds — well, these planks shaped as reeds — and the whole atmosphere is meant to feel … evolution-y, for lack of a better term.”

Keep in mind that Totem’s epic sweep necessitates multiple millennia to be compressed into broad memes with musical shorthand. To create a milieu of old Spain, for example, Mack plays flamenco patterns on a cajon. “There’s also a Middle Eastern section where I’m playing darbuka and then a lot of Bollywood themes as well, so it’s not strictly any one time period or place.”

Mack and crew are not hidden away in a pit, but an active part of the scenery. “People can see us,” he says. “We’re supposed to be like the band living in a forest, basically.”

Room With A Hue

What most of the Las Vegas tourists don’t realize when they head to the Venetian to see Blue Man Group, is that the cobalt-colored humanoids mugging at them from the stage playing an array of Seussian contraptions have a full-on electric band behind them. The titular blue men are technically percussionists, sure, but it’s music director and drum set player Vince Verderame’s job to frame their plastic thwacking with arena-volume orchestrations.

“We’ve got to just look like we’re playing hard,” 42-year-old Verderame says with the caffeinated energy of his Sin City surroundings. “And that, ironically, is what tends to throw people who come from a more theatrical background or if they’re used to playing in a pit,” he explains. “We’ve got to be out there rocking like you would if you were playing in front of 25,000 people with your band, throwing it on the line. That’s what resonates for the audience.”

One of the show’s most popular numbers, the tongue-in-cheek “Rock Concert Instruction Manual,” has the blue men demonstrating the proper way to act at a concert, i.e., the fist pump, the head bob, etc. While the blue men pantomime cliché concert behavior, the backing band is bashing out deliberately hokey big-rock riffs, giving the skit its satiric edge (even though it’s sarcastic, the music is devil’s horn–throwingly good).

In “Rock Concert” the backing band is corralled together in white coverall uniforms behind clear acrylic drums (Blue Man shows in the other cities have wooden kits). Other times, like in a bit called “Rods And Cones,” the backing bandmembers are compartmentalized in modular boxes on scaffolding and slathered in Day-Glo body paint.

On the nights he isn’t behind the kit, Verderame steps over to one of three percussion rigs, which comprise the same acrylic toms from the main kit, but they’re played with sticks while standing up sans bass drum. In total there are about 90 drums.

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