Theater Drummers: Super Troupers

Vince Verderame

(Above) Vince Verderame puts on his game face every night with Blue Man Group

Stage Bound

Encouraged by a father who had been a drummer, Sawicki took to the drums at a young age, playing along to Madonna records in the basement while his sister danced along.

That all changed with when he got Stomp! tickets for Christmas one year. After the show, he was invited backstage and met some of the cast members. He was invited to audition a few weeks later. “I stood in line with a ton of people. There were people stretching, girls in tights, there were people with their headshots. I was just sitting there with a cigarette and a pair of sticks, like, ‘What am I getting myself into?’”

When auditioning for Stomp! the producers treat it more like a workshop than the usual ambush-style try-out. “Let’s say we’re playing in four and everybody’s got their own part. A group of sixteenth-notes in one bar is going to be broken up individually.

So they look for people who are able to memorize and they look for people who have good timing. You have to have a sense of time cause if you don’t, obviously you can’t do it.”

While Verderame was getting his music degree in Miami, he learned of Blue Man from a friend who was in the original edition of the show in Boston. The friend encouraged him to try out for the Chicago show. After nailing the first round of the audition, Verderame breathed a little easier, but it could never have prepared him for round two. “There were two drum sets, so part of the audition was you have to play drum set with another guy,” he says. “How many times have you played drum set with another guy? Part of the audition was playing not only to whatever the music was but also based on what he is doing. So they kept mixing and matching us. It was totally bizarre.”

In his early twenties, Mack enrolled in an orchestral percussion program at the Guild Hall School Of Music, one of London’s most prestigious music academies, where he studied marimba, timpani, and vibraphone. He soon grew bored of this and began drumming with various bands, including Kylie Minogue. “But it was good to have that orchestral background as well because when I wasn’t doing pop tours I could do the West End shows in London, like I did on The Lion King, because I can read music as well.” (No reading is required on Totem.)

But as budgets got smaller and the beats became increasingly automated, Mack became disillusioned with life in rock and pop bands. “They spend all the budget on more lights, more dancers, and just use Pro Tools for all the other sounds. The machine took over.” [laughs] “So I wanted to do the kind of drumming that’s integral to a show, not an ornament, and that’s what attracted me [to Totem]. Cirque Du Soleil shows are very percussive, not just a conga part here, a tambourine there. You’re a more fully formed musician.”

What Mack remembers most about his audition was how prolonged and bogged down in red tape it was. When Cirque Du Soleil has a new show the producers refer to a database to select candidates who then must submit video to a panel of producers, composers, artistic directors, and so on. “It can take a few months to process,” he says. “It’s not a matter of just knowing the right person.”

The Long View

Being on tour all the time is a rough life. Sawicki ought to know. He tore up his Achilles a few years ago, which briefly marooned him at a percussion station. The temporary grounding got him thinking more big-picture in terms of the show’s arrangement, thus solidifying his MD status. He tendon has since fully recovered. “This gig’s physical demands are the most challenging thing about it,” he says. “I’m not going to be 45 and still doing Stomp!”

In a few weeks Sawicki heads back to NYC where he will train eight to ten new members. “Different people give the shows different personality,” he explains. “It’s a good thing: People leave; people come in. The new people have a tendency to be more hungry. People who have been doing it for a while may need to take a break.”

Totem’s backstage facilities are staffed with physical therapists, sports medicine specialists, and masseuses. But Mack resists the urge to be pampered during the show’s half-hour intermission. “You’ve just come off the stage but then you go and work out and you go back on and you do the second act. Which you wouldn’t normally do in a pop-type band. [laughs] It’s not a regular gig where you’d more likely go to the bar and have a little drink.”

When Blue Man opens a new show the producers will ask if anybody in the backing band wants to train the newbies. While the 1,700-seat Venetian has a seven-piece band, the New York edition has a three-piece backing band at the tiny Astor Place Theater. Each venue requires a different approach. But for Verderame, who has studied advanced methods with different instructors and observed the approach of a wide range of players, the logistical headaches are the least of his problems. “I got on this gig and they were like, ‘Hey, you gotta move more.’ [laughs] “And it was trying to channel that sort of aggression into good technique that is probably the hardest thing. You have to deliver visually as well as sonically.”

For theater drummers, like their dialogue-reciting counterparts, it’s all about the live performance. Recordings are not as much a part of the theater’s identity as they are with a rock band, and yet the producers commodify the shows any way they can. Stomp! has Stomp! Live and a soon-to-be-released DVD of a Stomp! spin-off called Pandaemonium. An IMAX-style theatrical release of Stomp! with Sawicki as one of the featured players is in the works as well. The drummer is beside himself at the idea: “Coming soon … John Sawicki in 3D!”

Blue Man has since released Live At The Venetian, Audio, and The Complex, but the recorded material is not the main reference point for fans. “No one comes to the show measuring us up against our record,” Verderame says. “It’s more the opposite. I think people see the show and then go buy the record and measure the record up against the live show.”

A Sense Of Belonging

In a conventional rock band there’s a certain level of bonding. Developing those kinds of relationships must not be nearly as easy in the large-scale enterprises like Cirque. “No, you do feel like you’re a band because you’re doing ten shows a week together,” Mack corrects. “And you’ve been with each other for a year.” He notes that some performers have been doing a variation of the show for nearly ten years. “Everybody has their families on tour as well.”

Blue Man’s Vegas show has a rotating cast of 12 or so members so it’s not the same musicians every night. “When you’re in a band, after a while you’re like, ‘Oh, man, I gotta listen to this dude again,’ right?,” Verderame says. “At least [with this show] there are guys I might only play with once a week and it allows us to put on shows that never grow stale.”

Sawicki has also grown close with his extended family. “I didn’t want to show up to work, sit in a pit, and read charts,” he says. “The theater world can be very strict and you can have a bunch of divas, producers that take $100 out of your paycheck because you were five minutes late. Stomp! is not like that. Stomp! is a bunch of cool, creative people, management included.”

For Mack, there is another benefit to being part of such a large group. “You start watching these guys play, and then all of a sudden, you feel like a beginner again,” he says. “It gives you the inspiration to practice and play all the time.”

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