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.

{pagebreak} 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.”

{pagebreak} 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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Sawicki’s Setup

John Sawicki

Percussion: (self-fabricated)
A Tunable oil drum with sailcloth head
B Plastic industrial tub with offset Plexi-Glass head (w/free-floating mike)
C Fire extinguisher (hat/ride sound)
D Custom bucket base (snare sound)
E Inverted trash pail (w/ internal mike)
F Smaller fire extinguisher (ghost-notes)
G Beer-cap “jingle sticks” on dowels
H Small inverted trash pail (tom sound)

John Sawicki and the members of Stomp! also use Ahead sticks.

Mack’s Setup

James Mack

Drums: LP
1 11" x 30" Quinto
2 11.75" x 30" Conga
3 12.5" x 30" Tumba
4 13" Traditional Djembe (Guinea) w/ cowskin head
5 Generation II Bongos
6 13"/14" Tito Puente Stainless-steel Timbales
7 12"/16" Traditional Djun-djun (Guinea) w/ cowskin head
8 Traditional Darbuka (Egypt)
9 Cajon By Mario Cortes
10 Mambo and Salsa Cowbells

Cymbals: Zildjian
A 10" Gong
B 14" Gong
C 6" Splash (inverted)
D 10" Splash
E 14" China
F 16" Crash
G 16" China
H 10" Tibetan Gong
I 6" Zil Bell

Percussion: LP
1 Table includes Jingle Stick, African Double Shaker, Clay-Tone Udu, Pro Shekere, Jam Block, Bell Tree, Lu Bar and Studio series double-row bar chimes, Rio Wood pandeiro, and traditional tablas, dhol, and shells.

James Mack also uses Regal Tip sticks and Roland electronics.

Verderame’s Setup

Vince Verderame

Drums: DW Custom Clear Acrylic
1 22" x 14" Bass Drum
2 14" x 5.5" Super Solid Maple Collector’s Series Snare
3 14" x 10" Tom
4 10" x 8" Tom
5 12" x 8" Tom
6 16" x 16" Floor Tom
7 14" x 10" Snare
8 18" x 16" Tom
9 14" x 10" Tom
10 16" x 14" Tom
11 26" x 16" Bass Drum
12 20" x 16" Tom

Cymbals: Sabian
A 14" HHX Power Hi-Hats
B 16" HHX X-Treme Crash
C 18" HHX X-Treme Crash
D 10" HHX Evolution Splash
E 20" HHX Evolution Ride
F 18" Vault Fierce Crash
G 19" Holy China
H Trash Hats: 12" Terry Bozzio Radia (top); 14" AAX Mini Chinese (bottom)
I 19" Paragon Chinese
J 10" Vault Chopper
K 12" Vault Chopper

Electronics: Roland
L SPD-S pad

Vince Verderame also uses DW rack system and DW 9000, hardware, and pedals, Vic Firth 5A, 5B, and Rod Morgenstein sticks and Corpsmaster MB0H mallets, Shure, Audix, and Sennheiser microphones, Remo heads, Puresound snares, and Moon Gel muffling.