Interview with Stuart Chafetz, conductor of Mary Poppins with the NJSO
Posted on 03/20/2019
This family-friendly, symphonic cinema event features the five-time Oscar®-winning classic Disney film Mary Poppins unfolding on the big screen with the NJSO performing the charming and delightful musical score on April 14. Guest conductor Stuart Chafetz chats with us about the phenomenon of pops conducting and what it means to returning and new audience members.
Read the Transcribed Interview Below
with Bert and Kelly from All Access and special guest Stuart Chafetz
Bert: We’re back on All Access with State Theatre New Jersey, we’re going to be telling you about some great upcoming events very very soon, so do stick around for that. Kell, you know I love me some NJSO. You know how big a fan I am of my NJSO, you know that right?
Kelly: I know, I know! And every time they have a new pops program you’re just super excited!
Bert: Can you tell?
Kelly: And I know you’re going to be super excited about this one because it’s Mary Poppins in concert!
Bert: That’s getting a lot of attention nowadays, isn’t it? The whole Mary Poppins thing, right?
Kelly: It is, it is with the whole-new Mary Poppins movie.
Kelly: But this is the original on screen with the NJSO performing the score live! You can’t beat it, and with us today is the guest conductor for that performance, Stuart Chafetz, welcome Stuart!
Stuart: Hey, great to be here.
Kelly: So, Stuart, we are so excited. This is your first time at the State Theatre, and your first time guest conducting for New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
Stuart: I know, man. I’m so excited, It’s going to be awesome, and what a way to go! The original, old-school Mary Poppins.
Kelly: Yes! The original, Julie Andrews. Can’t beat her, you know? Can’t beat her. But, we are- I mean-this is always exciting for us to see audiences come out for these because, you know, sometimes it’s the first time they’re experiencing something like this. I mean, this is a very unique thing. Have you done performances like this before in other – with other orchestras?
Stuart: Absolutely. In fact, just before I got on the phone with you guys I was studying Jurassic Park.
Stuart: I’m the principle pops conductor for the Colobus Symphony in Ohio, and we’re doing that this weekend! So, this is a phenomenon that has just taken on a life of its own. And as you say, there’s first timers coming to the symphony, and when they hear the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for the first time it’s–they’re blown away. You know? And this–what a great way–they normally probably wouldn’t think to just come see a classics with the New Jersey Symphony, but what a gate way! Because came –they are coming to see Mary Poppins, and very often I’ll ask before the movie “First time to the symphony? Round of applause,” and it’s like half to three quarters of the audience applaud, like wildly. Which is like, ok, this is great! We’re reaching that part of the community that normally wouldn’t come to the New Jersey Symphony. They’re coming for the first time, they’re hearing this great orchestra, and we’re going to get them hooked.
Bert: Yeah, I believe it. ‘Cause I know my first time in catching the New Jersey Symphony, Stuart, all that went through my mind was “Have I been missing this all this time? This is the coolest thing ever! How have I denied myself the privilege of just this incredible experience?” So, it’s something that I urge everybody if you haven’t done so, and even with the movie, people say “You know what? I’ve seen that movie a bunch of times, but I feel like I’ve seen it for the very first time tonight.”
Stuart: Yeah, absolutely! In fact, you know, it’s amazing. All the music that goes through the credits, and all the things where most people are getting up, they’re tossing their popcorn, they stick around to the very end to hear it because they’re just mesmerized by nothing like a live symphony orchestra kind of whaling, and it’s–you don’t need speakers–it’s all right there, and it’s an incredible feeling! And also, getting the compliment which I completely–it didn’t even register until after–when I was conducting The Nightmare Before Christmas, the Tim Burton film, people actually said “You know, we forgot there was an orchestra!” Which is like a compliment, which means that like we were synced up so well, and–so, that’s like my goal. You know? To be able to just make it like a unique experience, and it’s like all melded together. But, man, I’ll tell you, just feeling the vibrations of the huge percussion and brass, there’s nothing like it, man.
Kelly: Yeah, and I’ll tell you, it definitely has spoiled me. So, when I go to see regular movies without an orchestra…
Stuart: Right?! I know!
Kelly: You know, it’s just a different experience, right?
Kelly: Do you–Have you been to, or have you ever performed in New Jersey before, or is this going to be your first time in New Jersey, or?
Stuart: You know, it’s funny, I did a show with the Philly Pops in Trenton a couple years back. It was like a–I believe it was a Billy Joel tribute show with Michael Cavanaugh, and we had a blast! Now, I grew up in Long Island, and so I also years ago actually played with–as a guest– with the New York Philharmonic … at NJPAC. A classical runout with the New York Philharmonic, can you believe that?
Stuart: So, yeah. So, it’s like, it’s full circle for me, you know? I was a percussionist; I went, as I say now as a conductor, I went from two sticks down to one.
Bert: Right. Yeah, and a much better view of what’s going on that’s for sure too.
Stuart: Oh my god, no kidding, man. It’s the best seat in the house.
Bert: Yeah, no question about it. The arrangements in Mary Poppins, from your perspective, are these arrangements–are they dated, or do they hold up well? ‘Cause if I listened to a song from today versus a song 50 years ago, the arrangements for me just sound and feel differently, but for a piece like this, this is timeless stuff, right? This could’ve been written at any time.
Stuart: Unbelievable. And thing is is that, you know, as we grew up as we were kids, man, I mean we’d listen to this–"A Spoon Full of Sugar," and "Step in Time," but when I, you know, started learning this it’s so intense. And, you know, Irwin Kostal and his arranging skills are like, it’s amazing. And it’s full orchestra stuff. It’s stuff that rarely written, I mean, John Williams is, you know, one of the only ones that uses full orchestra as well . So, he sort of picked up where these greats left off, but I mean the music itself is so powerful , and very fast. Like, there’s like six–seven minutes of just like marathon quick stuff. Dun-da-da-dun-dun-dun-dun, and I realize how difficult it was. You know, you just take it for granted, but as I’m watching the scores, I’m looking through it, I’m saying to myself “This is a total challenge for the orchestra,” and–but the music is timeless as you say, but it’s orchestrated so well that you know, you just, it brings, it’ll put a smile on your face because it brings back all that–and then to see the beautiful Julie Andrews , you know, and Dick Van Dyke, I mean it’s truly a masterpiece.
Kelly: Yeah, and, you know, you mentioned the other pieces that you’ve performed. Are there other films you’ve performed the last score to, Nightmare Before Christmas, Jurassic Park. These are three very different films Mary Poppins, Jurassic Park, and Nightmare Before Christmas don’t exist on the same platform, you know? They’re just completely different…
Kelly: And obviously a lot of what, you know, the orchestra is following the conductor in every way , and includes like your intensity, and your emotions, and, so I can imagine, do you ever find yourself when you’re like one day you’re performing Jurassic Park, and the next day you’re performing Mary Poppins, and then you kind of forget yourself, and then all of the sudden you’re with dinosaurs and Mary Poppins, does it kind of all mix together sometimes?
Stuart: Well, you know, it’s–yes. And every score is a little different the way they set it up. The format, there’s like a clip-track that goes a long with it, and the way a film is designed is different. So, you know, like next year I’m going to be doing Psycho with Atlanta Symphony, and that’s like a completely different sound the way they have the way it’s all set up. You know, you just sort of–you know I’m looking forward to–also I’m going to be doing the new–the very first Star Wars this summer as well. So, there’s just all of these varieties of wonderful music. And yes, I mean, as I said, I was working on dinosaurs five minutes before talking to you, and now I’m thinking about Mary Poppins. And so, it’s hard sometimes to keep it all straight, but it’s also a testament to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and their ability to just kind of–they’re chameleons! I mean, they’re doing Beethoven and Mozart one week, and then the next week they’re doing Mary Poppins! And that’s a testament to their skill level.
Bert: Yeah, incredible players, and my favorite for a good reason, that’s for sure. And Stuart, don’t be surprised if Kelly in the very near future pitches you some kind of mash-up of all these shows because she’s very creative. I can see her coming up with something like this, but…
Stuart: I like that wheels are turning.
Bert: Oh, I can tell. I can smell them over here, something is burning, of course. When it came to the original score for Mary Poppins, we’ve talked to people on the show before that have scored films, and you kind of watch the film and interpret it, and come up with some stuff. What must it have been like to be able to–Mary Poppins stripped down, no music, and like, “Ok, come up with something.” How cool must that process have been?
Stuart: I mean, I can’t even imagine what it was like to sit there, you know, with Richard and Robert Sherman. I mean, these songs, and this underscore by Irwin Kostal who… I can’t even imagine. It is so complicated; I wish you could see from my view the score. There is so much going on, and the idea that it’s, you know, I imagine in the studio back then they could do it in chunks, you know what I mean? They could take it one step at a time, but, you know, when you’re in concert band you have to be ready to go. And there’s hardly any time off just maybe a minute, and then you’re back on again. And this – I have these four huge scores. I had no idea when it arrived in the mail I was like “How am I going to fit this on the plane?” You know? I’m like “There’s a lot going on here.” So, just to – I can’t even imagine what that – right- just kind of a clean slate, what that must be like. To just like “Ok, go for it!” I mean, it’s just way – it’s I can’t even imagine, you know? I have enough trouble just kind of conducting it, I can’t even imaging coming up with it. But, it’s genius, and it’s brilliant, you know?
Kelly: Yeah, and, you know, when you’re actually putting it out there, what has been, like, the most challenging moments? You say there’s obviously a lot of quick things going on, and then there’s this fast pace of Mary Poppins, right? I mean, I know just singing the songs sometimes I’m like “Oh, I forgot like five lyrics!” You know? What do you find has been the most challenging, yet most rewarding song in the piece to perform?
Stuart: Oh, man. There’s so many good ones, but, you know, A Spoon Full of Sugar, it helps – I mean, it goes through the entire film, you know? There are little snippets of it kind of tying other melodies together, but what I find the most challenging is we have literally two rehearsals. Ok? To put together this entire film, and so you have to sort of have a game plan as to how to get through it, and to rehearse it, and there’s certain things that you have to move on, and there’s other things that you have to focus on. And very often, you don’t know this issue until it comes up in rehearsal. So, just, really there is no time to waste. So, if you need to go through a section again, you have to stop the film, and then you have to rewind it, and then you have to plug it into a certain spot, and make sure everyone is all lined up, and – so, there’s a lot of nuts and bolts to make it seem so seamless. And, I mean, two rehearsals is a challenge, but not for New Jersey. I mean, they’re going to be, they’re going to eat it up, and I just– you know, I’m just so looking forward to it.
Bert: Well, I’ll keep a close eye on you, and if I see one of these songs where you kind of, you know, crack your knuckles and catch your breath that means you’re getting ready for a big moment. So–so we’ll be ready for that! As we wrap up, Stuart, I feel good about the future of classical music in our country, and I think the next great players, and the next great composers, some of them are coming from some very unexpected sources. We hear about classical music getting back into our inner cities, and our city-school programs. Do you feel good about the future of classical music as I do?
Stuart: Absolutely, I do. And I see a lot of very interest fresh faces at the symphony. Younger generations, and, you know, this is definitely one of the path ways to that, and I definitely feel good. I think we are in for a complete renascence. Especially just the arts in general, it’s so important to us, you know? It really is, and I think people a realizing that more and more.
Kelly: Yeah, and Stuart, we will look forward to seeing you on April 14th for the Sunday matinee with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra: Mary Poppins in concert! And is there any way - anywhere we can find information on you, and follow your career?
Stuart: Aw! Well, that’s very nice. You can just plug into stuartchafetz.com, and it’ll take you to various things, and my manager’s web page and everything like that, but mostly, you know, I’m around. I’m kind of various places every week, and just enjoy it. You know, a variety of different types of music and programs, and I just love it. I love the pops. I love engaging the audience, and, you know, when someone sees you on the street and says “Hey, man, that was so much fun. I had a really good time at the symphony.” I’m like “There you go.”
Bert: That’s the pay off, you’re right. Stuart Chafetz , conductor for Mary Poppins and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, we will see you at State Theatre on April 14th, and thank you for your time today on All Access with State Theatre New Jersey, pleasure speaking with you!
Stuart: Likewise, you take care!