A LIFE IN THE THEATRE: John Miller, the Broadway Musical Contractor, Lends an Ear
By Mervyn Rothstein
Meet John Miller, the longtime musical coordinator who helps match the right musicians to Broadway and touring musicals.
"I'm not sure I intentionally sought this as a career," John Miller says. "What got me into this was my love of playing the bass."
Miller is a musical coordinator, or contractor, for Broadway shows. For more than 30 years he has been the coordinator on over 100 productions, including the Tony-winning Once, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, Newsies, the Follies revival, Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages and Hairspray — all the way back to Barnum in 1980.
He's also a contractor for touring shows, movies and commercials. And yes, he freelances as a string bass player (though not in his musicals) for recordings and concerts, including at the nightclub 54 Below.
What is the musical coordinator's job? He works with the conductor, the composer and the orchestrator "to decide who would be perfect musicians for that show," Miller says. "Musicians who'd work well with that conductor, musicians the composer would want for the style of music, musicians who'd bring everything the orchestrator wants out of the instruments. You're sort of the conduit for all these musical parts of the show." He's also involved in the nitty-gritty, like budgets, substitute musicians and cast albums.
Composer Cy Coleman specifically led Miller to this career. "I worked as a studio musician for Cy. I played on some of his albums and was involved in his Broadway musical I Love My Wife," in 1977. "I was music director and played Harvey, the bass player. Just four musicians were in the band, onstage, acting and singing. About a year later, Cy said he had this show Barnum and asked me to be music contractor. I said, 'Absolutely not.' He was incredulous. I said, 'I'm single in New York, playing the bass, riding my motorcycle, having a great time.' He said, 'I got to give it to some schmuck. I'd just as soon give it to you.' That was 100 shows ago."
Miller grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side and early on became interested in music. "I taught myself guitar, a little piano. When I was 16 or 17, my brother brought home from college a friend who had a string bass and left it at our house over Christmas. I started fooling around with it. My parents were shocked when I told them this was an instrument I'd like to study. I was just drawn to it."
Miller studied bass at the University of Michigan. "This was the 1960s. A coffeehouse in Ann Arbor, Canterbury House, was the Midwest stopping place for the big folk-rock boom. People like Doc Watson, Janis Ian, Richie Havens, Tim Buckley, Odetta played there. I was 19. I'd get there at 5 PM for their sound check. They'd play by themselves, but I was fearless. I'd walk onstage and start playing bass behind them. They had no idea who this kid was. By the end of the sound check, 99 percent would ask if I'd like to play with them for no money. I said, 'Absolutely.'"
He also played "jazz clubs, and with bluegrass groups, German oompah bands."
He was getting his degree playing classical music, and his teacher suggested he audition for the Minneapolis Symphony. "I realized that fit in the category of things I thought I should do, not what I wanted to do."
After graduation, says Miller, some of the Canterbury House performers "called me to do gigs with them. Then I came home" to New York, to "a wonderful career as a freelance bass player, playing all styles of music." And to Cy Coleman, and Broadway.
Miller is also heard on an album, "Stage Door Johnny," on the PS Classics label, on which he sings and plays fresh arrangements of classic show tunes.
(This feature appears in the October 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)
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