Ted Sperling made his debut as a stage director in February 2001 at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia and returned in October to direct a revival of the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin-Moss Hart musical, Lady in the Dark. With these productions, Sperling completes a theatrical triple crown. He now has been a music director, singer-actor and, finally, a director.

He conducted five Broadway shows. Then he sang and acted the part of the ship's bandmaster in Titanic, playing piano and violin on stage. And he's done his thing with the violin at key moments during Broadway's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Adam Guettel's Saturn Returns at the Public Theater and William Finn's A New Brain at Lincoln Center.

Aficionados look forward to seeing a Sperling instrumental contribution to any concert and show he conducts. It's a trademark, something like the cameo appearances that Alfred Hitchcock made in the films he directed.

The idea of a conductor switching over to become a stage director is unique. Those who've worked with him say that Sperling's the right person to perform the feat because he's an unusually bright guy who has a wide range of interests. Jay David Saks, the RCA producer, says: "He knows so much, and he's articulate and sweet at the same time. Never dictatorial. Easy to work with. He's great at a recording session because he understands the dynamic that's caused by a conductor's physical isolation. He's in a studio with the orchestra, while the decision-makers are behind sound-proof glass. Conductors have to wait between each take while the producer, the director and the song writers talk about whether they liked what they just heard, behind that glass wall. Conductors naturally feel left out, physically. But Ted understands and is very patient."

His New York credits as music director include, in chronological order, Romance in Hard Times (1989), Falsettoland (1990), My Favorite Year (1992), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1995), Floyd Collins (1996), Saturn Returns (1998), A New Brain (1998)/> and The Full Monty (2000). In addition, he was the original music director of Ragtime, leading it through two workshops and its compelling first recording, and he conducted the movie soundtrack of Anastasia. With such impressive work as a conductor, why would he now embark on a directing career?

"I've always tried to take on projects that scare me a little," says Sperling, "that force me to develop in new directions. For example, working on a show that's written in a musical style that's new for me, or having to write vocal arrangements for the first time, or working with a composer who needs me to write accompaniments, or conducting a symphony orchestra for the first time."

Six foot three and slender, handsome with a newly-grown beard, Sperling talks about similarities between his conducting and stage directing: "In my work with actors, I've always tried to approach the music from an acting standpoint. Why are the lyrics set in a particular way, and what does that reveal about character and situation? How do dynamics and tempo affect the emotion conveyed? So I've been directing songs all along. I got to a point where I felt equipped to direct the other stuff."

He relates that "the germ of the idea of directing was planted around five years ago, during some sleepless nights in Prague. I went there on vacation with my parents and my sister, and I was seriously jet-lagged, and lots of ideas came into my head during those nights. I realized that if I kept going the way I was headed and looked back thirty years later, I wasn't going to be satisfied. I knew there was more creativity in me than I could express as a music director. I needed to push myself, to open up, use more of my brain."

He auditioned for the part in Titanic after that, thinking that taking direction on stage would be good research for his planned job change. Titanic's director, Richard Jones, listened appreciatively when Sperling offered constructive suggestions during Titanic's try-out period.

He's not actually leading the pit band in The Full Monty. That's because Sperling was expecting to do his first directing gig, the Philadelphia Prince Music Theater production of Lady in the Dark,, around the same time that The Full Monty opened. Later, budget considerations caused Lady in the Dark to be delayed. Meanwhile, Sperling hired Kimberly Grigsby to conduct Monty under his supervision. Sperling also co-produced the RCA CD of the show.

(The idea of having two different people, one as music director and another as conductor, has occurred before, most often with musicals that originated in England then came to America.)

Sperling was always considered gifted. Born in New Rochelle, NY, in 1963 to parents who both are psychiatrists, he started violin lessons at age five. He played violin and piano, excelled at school and in his private music studies and entered Juilliard's pre-college program at age 15. He graduated Yale, Phi Betta Kappa, summa cum laude at the age of 20, in 1983.

He hoped to continue his education by going back to Juilliard for a master's degree in conducting. But before filling out his application, he thought he'd try get some work in the field, and he explored the idea of apprenticeships with classical and show music conductors. The Broadway conductor he approached, Paul Gemignani, couldn't get Ted an apprenticeship but did offer him a job in the pit for the opening of Sunday in the Park With George, the new Sondheim show which Gimignani was conducting. So Sperling's first job in New York was playing piano and synthesizer in the Sunday orchestra. One evening Gemignani let Sperling conduct one act.

Sperling never did apply for the Juilliard conducting program. Instead, he began to work regularly in pit orchestras. Usually keyboard, sometimes violin, and once he played viola.

Deciding that he'd like to direct and actually getting a directing job are two different things. Here he was helped by the team of Marjorie Samoff and Ben Levit at the Prince Theater, originally known as the American Music Theater Festival. Sperling did considerable work for them, starting with the development and world premiere of Floyd Collins, by Adam Guettel and Tina Landau, in 1994. He also led fund-raising musical reviews for them. Having never had a musician work full-time as part of its staff, in 1998 the Prince applied for a grant to hire Sperling as a resident fellow. Ted told them that he'd love to do it and informed them that he'd also like a chance to direct. They agreed. Unfortunately the company didn't get the foundation grant. Samoff and Levit then hired Sperling to direct the sprawling and challenging Lady in the Dark.

Meanwhile Sperling developed directorial skills by leading staged musical events such as Observation Deck: Songs by Richard Pearson Thomas at Lincoln Center with Theresa McCarthy, Michael Winther and Lauren Ward; I Want to be Happy, a play with music by Bill Youmans about the life of his composer father, Vincent Youmans, at Don't Tell Mama; and What the Living Do: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon, with Theresa McCarthy and the composer, at the Public Theater's Joe's Pub. All of these were in 1998.

He also led readings and workshops of musicals, such as Angelina by Barry Kleinbort; The Mistress Cycle by Jennifer Giering and Beth Blatt, and Wise Guys by Stephen Sondheim. Anyone who has attended workshops knows that the music director is the primary force in getting a musical off the ground. Typically, the conductor teaches the music and organizes the material while the stage director is gradually feeling his way into it. In a way, the conductor is a co-director of the show.

"Having worked with many great directors, I've been in an enviable position to study their techniques," says Sperling. "Des McAnuff was the first to involve me in set design meetings. Anne Bogart assigned me to direct a couple of scenes in a vaudeville piece we were working on together. Tina Landau and Adam Guettel really involved me in discussions of the structure and writing of Floyd and Saturn Returns. I just felt like this was the next `scary thing' for me to tackle."

Ted was music director and director for seven live performances by Audra McDonald at the Donmar Warehouse in London in August 1999. They were taped for Public Television and video and DVD release. He led a workshop production in London, and then a staged reading at Lincoln Center of Charlotte: Life? or Theater? When Lady in the Dark was postponed, Sperling suggested Charlotte to Samoff and Levit to fill the slot in the Prince's 2000-2001 schedule, and they hired him to direct the musical for them in its world premiere.

Charlotte Salomon was a young Jewish artist from Berlin who moved to southern France in 1941. She created a series of paintings and put them in a folio with a cast list that included her family and friends, and titled it "Life? Or Theater? -- a Three-Color Play With Music." Salomon and Sperling have some things in common. Both come from cultured European Jewish families. Both had family members arrested by the Nazis in 1938. Salomon was captured in 1944 and she and her unborn baby were killed at Auschwitz. Most of Sperling's Viennese relatives also died at Auschwitz. But his grandmother and his mother escaped to the USA, where Ted's mother married and where Ted was born in 1963.

Sperling recently has performed as pianist with violinist Joshua Bell, in concerts, on TV and as part of a memorial service for victims in the World Trade Center. Sperling also accompanied Lillias White and Dawn Upshaw at that same service -- just one more example of his versatility. He was stage director and musical director of Beyond the Cradle: the Music of Marc Blitzstein at Joe's Pub in 2000, with Lauren Flanigan, Victoria Clark, Malcolm Gets and Brooks Ashmanskas. The further development of that piece is Sperling's next project, to be done at Lincoln Center.

"I'm extremely happy directing," says Sperling, "and feel that my life is starting to open up in all sorts of ways as a result."


Key Subjects: 
Ted Sperling, Conductors, Lady In The Dark, Paul Gemignani, Prince Music Theater, Titanic, Sunday in the Park With George
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and Totaltheater.com.
October 2001