He's the dean of Broadway conductors.

Paul Gemignani received a special Tony Award on June 3, 2001, for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. And that isn't his first statuette. The Los Angeles Drama Critics gave him an award in 1994 that has the citation "in recognition of consistently outstanding musical direction and commitment to the theater."

But Gemignani, 63, sees irony in this. He tells us that his commitment wasn't so great in his early days. In 1971, at the age of 33, he was ready to give up a Broadway career and return to his native San Francisco "to be a be-bop drummer." Then conductor Hal Hastings called and said he'd like him to go to a job interview with Stephen Sondheim, Michael Bennett and Hal Prince.
"Hastings told me they were important people and I should meet them. But I didn't care about making contacts. I was ready to move away from New York. I said to myself: `Oh, well, one more show and that's it. Then I 'll go back to being a drummer in California. '56;

The interview was for Follies and Gemignani was hired to conduct it on Broadway. He went on to lead six additional Sondheim shows: A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park With George and Passion. Plus non-Sondheim shows like Evita, Dream Girls, Crazy For You and Kiss Me Kate. He has conducted and recorded with major symphony orchestras and been nominated for three Grammy Awards.

Even more exciting than getting his Tony this year, for him, is the fact that his son, Alexander, is about to make his New York acting debut in Sondheim 's Assassins. "Imagine, he'll be on stage, as Hinckley, and I'll be in the pit conducting him!" You must be very happy for him, I said to Paul. "I'm even happier for myself," he responded. "Now I don't have to support him any more." Alexander trained as a musician and plays drums, trumpet and piano. He recently graduated from the University of Michigan and decided to go for a career in acting.

Paul himself studied drums and cello. He grew up in San Francisco, the grandson of an immigrant from Italy's San Gemignano named Cesare Gemignani. Paul's parents, aged 88 and 91, are still living in California, as is Paul's sister. Paul got a BA in Music from San Francisco State College in 1968. Gemignani was older than most college grads, having served in the military. He conducted some ballet and opera, but got a special kick out of playing jazz in nightclubs. "I liked the chance to be creative," he says.

He visited New York in 1969 during the run of Cabaret and "I suddenly discovered how exciting theater can be. I talked to Hal Hastings, who was conducting, and he asked for my resume. After he checked me out and saw I wasn't lying about my musical experience, he got me my first New York job as drummer and assistant conductor for Cabaret.

"Then Hastings arranged for me to conduct Zorbaon the road. He and Elliot Lawrence were my role models among the prominent Broadway conductors of that era. Lawrence is the regular conductor at the Tony Awards and it was a thrill to have him on stage with me when they gave me that Tony."

After the Follies job, Hastings got Gemignani involved in Sondheim's A Little Night Music, in the pit as drummer and Hastings's assistant. Shortly after the 1973 premiere and recording session, Hastings died. Gemignani took over. "I expected that they'd bring in another name and I'd remain as assistant, but that was because I didn't know then how this business works. I learned that they could promote me and save money."

Gemignani says that Hastings taught him a lot about the business side of being a Broadway conductor. "He showed me that you can't walk into the pit, throw off your cape and do art. You have to work with the unions and with the producers. You need to know how to make a budget and work within that budget. The world has no idea of how much extra-musical work we have to do."

Now it is Gemignani who is a role model for other conductors and a favorite among singers. Walter Willison, who sang for him in A Christmas Carol and the concert production of Anyone Can Whistle, explains: "He doesn't dictate. He lets the music come out of you and then he enhances it, saying `let's extend this' or `let's slow this down.' During a show, Paul is always looking up from the pit and smiling at you. He makes you want to sing."

Sondheim and Gemignani hit it off immediately during the run of Follies in 1971-72. "We have different lifestyles. I'm a family man and live in North Jersey," says Paul. "I rarely go in to New York except to work. So we don't see each other socially, but we think alike musically. He's a very sensitive person, despite the reputation he has for being analytical, and we both are moved emotionally by music."

Gemignani also enjoyed working with Kander & Ebb, Maltby & Shire and Cy Coleman. He says one of his biggest regrets is that Bock & Harnick stopped writing together, and he won't have the chance to conduct a new show by them. What's at the top of his wish list? "I'd love to conduct Show Boat and Porgy and Bess before I retire," he says. "I've never been asked to do either one of them."

Composers sometimes ask Gemignani's opinion about their music. When they write a song for a specific singer they'll ask Paul how high or how low the singer can go. Gemignani deserves credit for the range that we now associate with the part of George in Sunday in the Park With George. "Steve wrote that role, as he normally does, for a baritone. A range that he can sing himself. The range of most men. But then we cast Mandy Patinkin. I told Steve that this would give much greater variety to the voice pallette. We had a baritone and a bass-baritone in other roles. Having a tenor voice would make the score sound richer. So Steve changed the key that he had written George's music in."

Gemignani's Tony is the first that's been given to a conductor in decades. Conductors had their own category between 1948 and 1964. The Musicians Union campaigned to restore the category about five years ago, but the Tony Award committee decided against it, explaining that many shows were imported from England, where they'd been put together by conductors who did not come over to lead the show on Broadway, so the guy who wielded the baton in the pit was not necessarily the one who prepared the music. As a compensating gesture, a new category was established for orchestrators. This brings up the interesting relationship among songwriters, conductors, choreographers and orchestrators.

Rehearsals normally start with just a piano score. The cast is taught the songs by the conductor. "Often by rote," reveals Gemignani, "because a lot of singers can't sight read. I sing the notes for them and they record our session on their portable tape recorders." After a few days the choreographer and director start moving the actors around. The choreographer puts notations in the score, like: "here's the tap break" or "here's the hitch-kick" and so on. It's only late in the second week that the orchestrator is called in to see and hear the music.

"We usually run through some songs for the orchestrator," says Gemignani, "and he sees where he has to add `safety' music to allow for characters' entrances, exits and other stage business." Then the orchestrations are written, and the final step is an orchestra being hired, just in time for the final rehearsals. Clearly, a Broadway conductor's role is much more than leading the band.

Gemignani feels that orchestrators deserve a Tony category, but so do the music directors. He says that the British import excuse is bogus. "When Phantom of the Opera opened here, the same man who led it in London was in the pit here for six months. And there are plenty of foreign Tony nominees for director who do their creative work then don't stay in America after the show opens. I have my Tony now, so it's not for me, but other conductors deserve a chance to get an award."

In July 2001 Gemignani conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in a new concert version of Sondheim's A Little Night Music, which included two songs restored by the composer, the addition of a narrator and an enlarged orchestration for 47 instruments. His next projects are Sweeney Todd with the Chicago Symphony and the National Symphony, then the first Broadway production of Sondheim's Assassins. When it premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 1990 it was with piano accompaniment. This time, Gemignani will conduct a pit band. Then a revival on Broadway of Sondheim's Into the Woods. After that, "hopefully," Sondheim's Wise Guys.


Key Subjects: 
Paul Gemignani, Conductors, Stephen Sondheim, Assassins, Follies
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and Totaltheater.com.
July 2001
Three Decades of Paul Gemignani on Broadway