For the Jeff award-winning e.t.c. revue "We're All In This Room Together" the musical director, Jesse Case, focused on music that was thematic throughout the entire show, that helped smoothly move one scene to the next and resonated a familiar feeling with the audience. He may not always be seen on stage, but he is definitely heard.
After moving here from Boulder, CO, "the place exists inside this sort of snow globe," he says, Jesse never thought he would find a place where he could combine his musical abilities and his theater degree so well. A musical improviser in his own right, this is his last revue with The Second City and his natural talent will be missed. We sat down with Jesse to talk about how he got to where he is today, what else he's worked on and how "after a while a point came where I realized that I'd inadvertently built something for myself out here that was durable enough to keep Boulder from pulling at me quite so intensely," he says.
You've been the musical director for three Second City e.t.c. revues. How did you get to this point? Tell us the process.
Well I was a Theatre Major at the University of Colorado and acted all through High School, but I've also played piano and written music since I was four or five. So it was always a "which one do I pick" type of situation. And then, a few months after I moved to Chicago, I was in a real rut - working at Borders and deep into my first winter here - and I happened to be looking at the Second City Training Center site and discovered they were accepting applications for this Musical Director internship. And when I read the description of what an MD did, this light went on because it was like exactly what I did, this perfect blend of music and theater. So I wrote this insanely enthusiastic email to Mike Descoteaux (the head of the music program at the time) who brought me into an audition, and shortly afterward I found myself on a cruise ship accompanying archive scenes and improvising. After that I just sort of moved up the ladder, another ship and then a year of touring and then they brought me on to the stage in February of 2010.
What's the difference between musical direction and sound design?
Nothing anymore, at least in the way that Second City defines musical direction. I think it's safe to say that MDs here have pretty much completely taken on the role of sound designer in addition to their accompaniment and compositional duties... which is great because that role used to be non-existent. The theater was originally a lot more of a straightforward cabaret-style revue where live music was the only music, and that helped give those first shows this really subtle, intelligent, subversive vibe. But as audiences and comedy in general and the aesthetic of the theater has grown and changed, the musical direction here - at least up until recently - has been notoriously slow about adapting to new technology accordingly. And today you can't be just a background piano player with some quiet-ass mix CDs anymore. You control everything the audience hears. That is an insane amount of power, and there's too much creative potential in it not to take full advantage.
How would you describe your style?
Well that's exactly it. What I really tried to do here was knock down whatever parts of the wall were left that separated those Sound Design and Musical Direction worlds. Over the three months that it takes to write a new show I try to build a detailed world for the show to exist in, and everything I do - my composition and arrangements, the way I play, the way I have the actors sing or guide their songwriting, the instruments I pick, the sounds and songs and genres of music I use - all is meant to help build that world in a unified way.
What are you listening to right now?
Tell us about your collaboration with The Second City and Lyric Opera.
It is seriously the coolest thing ever and I'm insanely lucky to be a part of it. The short story is that [famed Soprano and Lyric Opera creative consultant] Renee Fleming came to see an e.t.c. show in which I had sampled her voice singing parts of Verdi's Requiem and a couple of Handel arias... and instead of getting pissed about it she got in touch with me through the people at Lyric and suggested some kind of collaboration. So I brought the idea to Kelly Leonard and the rest is history.
Basically the other writers and I learned everything about the world of Opera that we could, talked to everyone and went to everything, and then we went and wrote a thousand jokes about it and plugged them in to a two-act revue. It's been amazing. I'm composing and arranging for these absolutely top-notch singers and musicians, and performing my music in this gorgeous theater where some of the best music of all time is also performed, and it's been totally incredible, not to mention completely terrifying.
What are some other projects you've worked on outside of The Second City?
I've generally tried (with limited success) to venture outside the comedy world, mostly working as a designer and composer for other theaters like Single Carrot in Baltimore, and I write my own music (usually not funny) and music for other people (usually funny). I love scoring movies and producing beats, and about a year and a half ago I produced a 41-track hip hop album for TJ Miller that came out on Comedy Central Records. It's called the Extended Play E.P. and I'm proud to say we earned that title.
Out of all the instruments you play, which one's your favorite? Why?
Gotta be the piano, yo! It's what I write on and how I think about music. After that probably drums. I'm a very percussive piano player as it is, so it's nice to occasionally ditch all the chords and theory and whatnot and just beat the crap out of something.
Whether it be lyrics or poems, what do you often find yourself writing about?
I think I approach comedic and non-comedic writing in pretty much the same way - I try to find a specific element of the subject at hand that I can relate to personally and expound on that, because I find that if I can relate to that particular element, and I write about it in an honest and direct way, other people usually can relate to it too. And I think that's the ultimate goal of any type of creative work, comedic or not - relatable self-expression. So the pretentious answer is that I write about the common human experience, and the better answer is that I write about a lot of different things but I try to be honest about them in whatever way I can.
When you're not writing, improvising, acting or playing music, what are you doing?
Not much. I'm one-track-minded to an unhealthy degree about what I do. If I'm not doing it I'm reading about it or trying to find someone who will pay me to do it. In my down time I guess mostly you can find me on the couch with my lady watching movies, or at the gym halfheartedly lifting whatever weight the last person left on the machine.
You're leaving us on February 28th! What are you going to do instead?
I have no idea. Which is kind of the point of leaving, I think.
By Pamela Birchard