Story by KAREN SPURGEON
Originally published in The Bloomfield Democrat
“Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”
The above lyrics to the famous song from “The Wizard of Oz” ring very true for Thomas Stirling, former Bloomfield resident. This past November, Stirling unexpectedly secured his dream job as Music Director/Conductor of NETworks Presentations’ national tour of “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Getting this job is a story in itself,” Stirling said, “as I was brought on board at the last minute. Earning a job in the professional theater world at this level as a musical director and conductor is very difficult.”
Directors don’t audition as the actors do; instead it often depends on knowing the right people in the business and one’s reputation as a musical director. Stirling said that it is difficult to “get your foot in the door” with larger theatrical companies because many touring companies work with the same people year in and year out.
However, Stirling’s break came within a 48-hour time period when the original musical director of “The Wizard of Oz” was “let go” during the rehearsal process.
“The show had already been in rehearsals for one week when I was contacted by the music su-pervisor for the show,” related Stirling. “I was emailed the general information regarding the job on a Friday. I flew to New York City for an interview and audition on Saturday. By the time my interview was over, I was offered the position.”
Stirling described the next couple of days as insanity. He flew back to Chicago on Saturday following the interview, returned to New York City on Sunday, and began rehearsals with the cast on Monday.
Explaining the hierarchy of responsibility in professional shows, Stirling noted that it is different than local community players’ groups where the director and musical director oversee the entire production of the show. In professional theater, the producer is at the top and each department has its own supervisor, designer, or director who oversees individual aspects of the show, including music, lighting, sound, costume design, wardrobe and wigs, technical aspects and directing.
“The musical supervisor and his assistant are the ones who set the show how they want, and then it is my responsibility to make sure that the show stays as true to the their original concept as possible,” noted Stirling. “It is a lot of responsibility, but it is thoroughly rewarding when the show goes well!”
Stirling mentioned that this is the third consecutive year that “The Wizard of Oz” has been on the road, and this year’s tour is shorter than the two previous years. Beginning in mid-November, this year’s tour will end in early April. During that time, commented Stirling, 120 performances will have been given in 25 states and five Canadian provinces. Tours generally run around nine months.
Stirling explained that since it is a family-friendly show, “The Wizard of Oz” is extremely popular. “We play many venues that seat more than 2,000 people, and we have been very fortunate to have had many houses at or close to capacity for most of our shows,” he said. “I do recall our stage manager telling us approximately two weeks into our tour that over 40,000 people had already seen our production, so you can imagine what that number will be like by the time we close in April.”
Describing the “mechanics” of a touring theatrical company, Stirling described “The Wizard of Oz” tour as a “bus and truck tour.” Three semi-trucks transport the set, equipment, props and costumes to each performance venue. The cast and musicians travel on a coach bus, while the crew travels on a separate bus, which is also known as a ‘rock star’ bus.
“The tour lifestyle can be really fun, because you get to see the country, but it is also very exhaust-ing,” commented Stirling. “Generally the day starts out early and you travel to your next city, hopefully having time to check into your hotel, relax a bit, and then it’s off to sound check.”
Following the performance, he said, “the cast and musicians will return to the hotel for what is hopefully a good night’s sleep, while the crew and the local people they hire disassemble the set, load up, and drive overnight to the next venue.”
Stirling pointed out that this tour travels with about 40 people who make up the crew, musicians, and cast. However, there are other creative staff members who do not tour with the show. “The creative team for this production was hired by NETworks Presentations, who have been sending out national tours across the country for 15 years. Chances are,” he said, “if you’ve been lucky enough to go to Des Moines, Iowa City, or Ames to see a national tour show, you have seen one of their productions.”
The director of “The Wizard of Oz,” Nigel West, and the choreographer, Leigh Constantine, are ex-tremely well known in the industry, related Stirling. “Both are from England and have been involved in productions on the West End in London, Broadway in New York, and multiple national touring productions.”
The actors in the company have gone through several auditions with hundreds of other actors before being cast in their current roles. Some of the actors have been with the show for three years, some for two, and some for only one. Many in the cast also serve as understudies. If a cast member is ill or injured and must miss a show, another cast member must be ready to step in for them. Stirling also explained that there is a female and a male “swing” that learn every ensemble track of the show so they can fill in for missing members if needed.
“Unfortunately, I, on the other hand, don’t have an understudy, so I will lead each show and hope that I don’t come down with something that would potentially put me out of commission. Unlike an actor, I could still do my job if I lost my voice or had a cold. The only thing that could keep me away would be a broken finger—other than that, the show must go on!” explained Stirling.
Not all cast members in this tour of “The Wizard of Oz” travel. Stirling said that in each city, there is a new group of local children who play munchkins alongside the professional ensemble. Four weeks ahead of time, approximately a dozen local children who have auditioned for the show begin rehearsals. “Our assistant director, who also is a part of the ensemble, travels ahead to each city and spends the day we open in a final rehearsal with them. They do costume fittings, have basically one run-through with our ensemble, and become part of our show while we are in town.”
Noting that not all cast members of the show are of the human variety, Stirling exclaimed, “There is another member of the company that steals the show every time—and that is Toto. We have a dog handler who travels with us to take care of our dogs. As you can imagine, the show wouldn’t be the same without Toto, so we travel with two highly trained Cairn Terriers, which happen to be the particular type of dog that was cast in the 1939 movie.” The dog trainer, he noted, is one of the best in the business. “Chances are, if you have seen a dog onstage for any professional production, that dog was more than likely trained by our Toto’s trainer.”
Thought not revealing any secrets when asked about the special effects in the show—and there are many—Stirling replied, “Our production doesn’t disappoint and has everything from flying monkeys, to magical moments with fireballs, melting, and let’s not forget the twister. It really is a spectacle to see!”
Stirling has been in the business of directing musical theater for almost six years and comments that it is a continuing challenge to get noticed, “but eventually I am rewarded with working with some of the most talented people in the business. Some people ask me if I want to work on Broadway, as for many that is the ultimate goal. But, I have come to realize after seeing many Broadway shows, that there are people just as talented—if not more—not working on Broadway. For me, it’s about doing a great performance—not necessarily where it’s done.”
Stirling did admit, though, that theater is hard work and requires much personal sacrifice. “This particular tour kept most of us away from our families for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day, and this was the first year I didn’t get back to Bloomfield for the holidays. But that is the nature of the business, and I am hoping that this opportunity leads to bigger and better opportunities.”
Stirling has not always worked in the world of musical theater since graduating from the University of Iowa. He taught orchestra in the public schools for a few years, but always dreamed of a professional career, playing violin in pit orchestras or symphonies. Friends encouraged him to look into positions in directing musical theater. He decided to follow their advice, reasoning “I had the piano skills, the conducting skills, and the vocal skills, but this was a completely different ballgame.”
He began his first professional theater gig as assistant musical director for a summer stock theater in upstate New York in 2005 and hasn’t looked back since. He has provided musical direction for over 40 productions in several regional and summer stock theaters across the country, including two na-tional tours of “A Christmas Carol” in 2006 and 2007.
He is hoping “The Wizard of Oz” will lead to more national tours. “I do enjoy being on the road and am always excited about performing in front of a live audience every night. The other great thing about touring is that I have gotten to see people—including friends and family whom I haven’t seen in many years or may not have had the opportunity to see if I wasn’t out on the road.
“This is certainly a world away from the eight-year-old boy who played violin in the pit orchestra of the Davis County Players’ production of ‘Guys and Dolls’ in 1979,” said Stirling, “but it is also a reminder of where the ‘theater bug’ got a hold of me. I really don’t think I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for the support of my whole family, in particular my parents, Lyle and Karon. My dad is probably my biggest fan and continues to encourage me as I move from one gig to another. I also know that my mother, even though she isn’t here on this earth, is looking down on me and helping me through every twist and turn in my career. It is always important to remember your roots and where you came from. For me, Bloomfield is only a thought away (as well as) the many people who were a part of that journey.”
For more information on the tour, go to www.wizardofozontour.com. Although the tour is not coming close to Bloomfield, performances are scheduled in early March for northern Iowa, Mason City and Sioux City.
Follow Us on Facebook
No categories found
Support the Arts
Without your donations many of our events would not be possible. Donations are tax deductible. Click here to learn more or click donate button below to donate online.