Theater Drummers: Super Troupers

James Mack

(Above) Cirque Du Soleil’s James Mack sets the prehistoric tone

Thinking On Their Feet (And Hands)

Oddly enough, none of the musicians profiled here has a background in dance or theater. Instead, they each climbed the music ladder starting out as a regular ol’ drum set player. If there is a common denominator, it is the degree of freedom each has to improvise from night to night.

Stomp! may be up to 75 percent improvisation, Sawicki reckons. When the cast is feeling like doing something different they’ll sketch a broad outline 20 minutes before the show, and of course, all the solos are improvised.

The balletic hooligans may look unschooled but the arrangements rival a college marching band’s level of sophistication. On a number known internally as “5 Over 4,” the crew plays in five. Other times, members are doing their own combination of body percussion and instrument-based percussion to create a polyrhythm that goes over the already off-time piece in five. Got that?

For efficiency’s sake, Sawicki keeps the cues simple, calling out “seven” to signal a time signature change. “I do a lot of grunts,” he says. “I can just go “Huh!” or “Yeah!” or something. That means we’re going to go to the next section of the piece. So we hold onto certain rhythms at points in the show longer than the night before. If we’re jamming, and it’s all gelling and we’re feeling good, we’ll continue to play until I give the cue to go onto the next spot.”

The Blue Man rhythm section has band-like dynamics with a twist. The big fills every drummer learns, a wide flam on beat 4, it’s all there. Other times the cue is visual. “How we get from one bpm to the other is really the art of the show,” Verderame says. “The kit player is calling cues depending on what the Blue Men are doing. So it kind of filters through him for the most part.”

When he first joined Totem, Mack had three months to rehearse the music the composers gave him. “One of them is a drummer, so they were really into lots of drums, lots of percussion,” he explains. “So I kind of came up with all my own parts for the show and even though they kind of recorded it first and said, ‘Okay, we want this, but play what you feel here, play what you feel there.’ They gave me a lot of freedom with it.”

Managing The Menagerie

Keeping the music together in high-wire acts such as Stomp!, Cirque Du Soleil, and Blue Man Group means the drummers have to keep an eye on the actors’ movements as well as an ear to the music — and it ain’t as straightforward as playing to a click. “The dancers are not always perfectly in time,” Mack says. “For instance, one time the weather was really bad and the generators in the whole place just froze. So there’s a hoop dancer on stage doing his act, and all of a sudden there’s no music because there’s no electricity, so it’s just me and him playing, just carrying on the show until he finishes his act.”

With eight to ten people on stage at any given time, it’s not so much a question of if but when Stomp!’s musicians and performers get out of sync. “It usually lands in my lap [to fix it] when things go wrong, so I do know how to get it back,” Sawicki says. “Basically what you do, because it’s live theater and people do expect mistakes, is you relax, you look around, you find out what the easiest route is — and this all takes place in a second and a half — I have to figure it out in that amount of time. Play a groove and they count that piece back in.”

Instead of dreading those moments, Sawicki sees them as opportunities. “Sometimes that adds to the excitement of the show,” he explains. “When we finally end the piece the audience is like ‘Wow, man, they were down for a second, but they got it back and they finished it.’” Then, lowering his voice,
he adds: “And then sometimes no one noticed because it was a drummy section anyway.”

In Blue Man Group, expecting the unexpected is a wise strategy when hitting the stage each night. “It’s one of those moments where hopefully nobody panics,” says Verderame. He relates an incident when one of the analog pedals on the board lost a signal. “So we get to this one piece that basically starts with that instrument soloed but instead there was this pregnant pause. Finally, one other dude stepped up and just started playing another melody from that piece. You figure out something that’s going to make it smooth.”

If bands on major tours are well-oiled machines, then Blue Man Group runs like a Swiss watch. There are daily post-mortems where the cast dissects the previous night’s show to see what worked and what didn’t. Verderame might have played a cool fill, but it hardly matters if the guitarist is expecting a different one in order for five other players to hit their cue. “I’m forced to put my drumming through all these other vantage points and then adapt,” he says. “That’s why we are all on in-ear monitors. I’m 60' away from the other drummers. The way this show is set up, it would be impossible otherwise.

“As far as that goes, yes, the sound is amazingly difficult,” he continues. “The mere fact of stacking four drum sets on top of each other is really crazy!” Add to this the Blue Men’s Drumbone, Chapman Stick, zither, and other tubular instruments, and you’ve got a lot of frequencies crammed together. “All of those instruments for the most part tend to exist in this low-mid to mid register, so getting all that in the mix is like this super challenge to make it sound good.”

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