The arts and culture industries remain largely at a standstill in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, affecting millions of workers in an already delicate ecosystem. The Broadway Community Project, from industry veterans Greg Schaffert, Tiffani Gavin, Situation Interactive, and Playbill, was developed to shed light on the myriad fields and roles that go into making the curtain rise.
In the Broadway Community Project series, we shine a spotlight on the faces you may not see on stage, but are nevertheless critical in creating and maintaining a theatre production. These are just some of the arts workers who have put their stamp on an industry that contributed over $14.7 billion to the New York economy in 2019 and $877 billion in value added nationally; these are just some of the arts workers in need of relief through Save Our Stages, arts recovery plans, and beyond.
Today, meet Ben Cohn, a Broadway orchestra mainstay. As a conductor, he took the podium at Wicked. More recently, he’s helped bring the Dear Evan Hansen score to life as conductor and music director (and keyboard player) since the show premiered at Arena Stage, following it through its Broadway opening and subsequent productions. Learn more about Cohn and his work below.
Name: Ben Cohn
Title: Music Director/Conductor, Dear Evan Hansen
How did you get your start in your field?
I moved to Manhattan to study composition at NYU in the graduate musical theatre writing program. I started out like many other music directors before me: I played piano for classes across the city, auditions, cabarets, and small shows; I worked as a teaching artist in the schools, bringing theatre and music to schools lacking full-time programs; I taught youth theatre and music directed for any program (school or professional) that would hire me; I coached singers and played in bands; I arranged music for concerts, shows, and artists. Eventually, the smaller projects led to more concrete jobs like subbing on Off-Broadway and Broadway shows, playing with artists who performed regularly.
What is a typical day like for you at Dear Evan Hansen?
The most basic day involves arriving to the theatre about an hour before curtain. I always check in with the actors and with stage management to make sure everything and everyone is doing okay that night. I will often find certain actors and musicians and deliver any notes from the previous performance that I haven’t already given. I always check in with the actor playing Evan to make sure they’re feeling okay and to run some vocal warm-ups as needed. Once we perform the show, I will usually check in again with everyone on the way up to my dressing room to make sure everything is good and that we’re ready to do it all again tomorrow! On certain days, we have rehearsals such as understudy run-throughs, music brush-ups, or training new cast members and understudies. Other days, we might have an audition for a certain role for either Broadway or the tour, or a general audition where we look for potential future hires.
What's your professional life like during the coronavirus pandemic?
I have always been interested in home recording and other remote-type work, but it has become the norm during the pandemic. We have all become really good at making tracks, working over Zoom, and adjusting our way of thinking about collaborative performance. There have been so many inspiring new ways to create together, but I think we’re all ready to get back to live performance!
What are three skills a music director must possess?
The three top skills that I feel are crucial are: 1) Solid and unwavering musicianship skills (whether on keyboard, as a conductor, or both) in rehearsal and in performance. 2) A deep understanding for how to navigate relationships, group dynamics, learning styles, and different personalities. 3) Preparation, punctuality, and reliability are endlessly important.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? The most rewarding?
The most challenging thing is keeping the performance fresh, clean, and dynamic for every performance. I have figured out over the years how to keep my own performance exciting show after show, but as the MD, I am also responsible for making sure that the actors aren’t taking a lot of unlicensed liberties or getting lazy with rhythms, etc., and that the band is always on point and focused. Fortunately, the Dear Evan Hansen band and cast are amazing, and it doesn’t take much! But it’s easy to fall into bad habits or a rut, and I have to make sure that doesn’t happen. However, I also think this is the most rewarding part of my job. I constantly get to look at the score in different ways and get super-detailed about it. I get to hear many different actors and musicians perform this score in such unique and amazing ways.
What do you wish more people knew about your line of work?
Because I’m essentially in the “entertainment” industry, there’s a basic level of artistic judgment that often enters the conversation. I’m lucky that Dear Evan Hansen is well-liked because when you work on a show that isn’t as successful, people can be heartless and insensitive. But the work we do is as serious to us as any job. It’s fun and rewarding, but it’s also painstaking and requires years and years of training and practice.
What does it mean to you to be a part of the theatre community?
Being surrounded by storytellers, musicians, and artists of all different areas is where I’ve always wanted to be. Whatever project I’m working on, whether short-term or long, everyone is working towards the same goal: making a piece of art as exciting, relatable, personal, and perfect as it can be. Aside from our shared love for the theatre and music, members of the theatre community are passionate and collaborative. We’re always looking for connections with others like us, and they’re usually only a degree or two away. Everyone knows everyone, and so often when you meet or work with someone for the first time you have many people and projects already in common. We are all bound by our deep love for the stories and the songs and how we see ourselves in the pieces we’re creating or enjoying.
What advice do you have for those aspiring to work as a conductor or music director on Broadway?
Make sure that as you hone your skills you focus on time and groove. Take a hard look at your own personality, because there are lots of talented people in this city; the people who work are the ones who elevate others and make them feel good about their own work. Meet as many people as you can who are already doing what you want to be doing; it’s not about looking for work or opportunities, but exploring how to become better at what you’re trying to do.