Composer Jacob Kerzner shapes music from Broadway to Edinburgh to COVID-19

While our rapidly changing world is in the midst of COVID-19 and political unrest, music and musical theater is evolving quickly – even if most theaters are closed for the time being. Musician, composer and teacher Jacob Kerzner is experiencing this evolution firsthand.

He has worked on the team for many musicals, including the 2015 revival of Oklahoma! that plays on the sounds of bluegrass music — and moved Broadway in 2019, winning a Tony for Best Musical Revival — and now he is moving more toward teaching. This summer, he led a series of online music workshops with Berkshire Theatre Group, and he is adapting that curriculum to teach a college course in the fall.

Since graduating from Ithaca College in 2018 with a B.M. in Music Composition and Voice Performance, Kerzner has studied and performed internationally. While finishing his studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, last summer he worked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where he played keyboards for a production of Legally Blonde and worked with a team developing a new original musical by Jon Bauerfeld and Casey Kendall called The Jury, which tells the story of the limbo after a young woman has died from an opiate addiction and seven people have to decide whether she should be saved.

The Future of Musical Theater

Even in what can be discouraging times, and especially due to these discouraging times, Kerzner said he is excited for what the future of musical theater will look like.

“Post-COVID and post-this incredible civil rights movement that is underway in our country,” he said, “I don’t think theater and specifically Broadway will be at all the same once it can get back to normal in 2021.”

Considering Broadway and theater in New York City, he questioned the sustainability of musical theater.

“Part of me wonders, is New York going to be able to sustain itself as the theater capital of the world anymore?” he said. “Not that Broadway will die, but the reason it is the theater capital of our country is because of how many people are able to go there and do go there for theater, and so if people are more scared to go to New York … I think we may also see a geographic shift of where and how theater is produced.”

He mulled over what content will be written and performed for musical theater in the future, expressing hope that current activist movements will be given a voice on the Broadway stage.

“I think, in a really exciting way,” he said, “a lot of new voices will hopefully be given a chance to create work on the New York stage and in general and really change what it is.”

Kerzner also said he thinks that musical theater is now focusing on its own history more than ever.

‘I think we’re getting into a really interesting time in the arts and in the politics of our country where people are revisiting the past and revisiting history.’

“I think we’re getting into a really interesting time in the arts and in the politics of our country where people are revisiting the past and revisiting history,” he said, “and are looking at, for example, Confederate statues across the country, or other projects like that, and I think that same attitude and approach to thinking is becoming huge in theater. I think people are revisiting the classics and saying okay, how do we come to terms with these golden age musicals that are in a lot of ways a big problem, but there must be some way to understand them and where our culture comes from.”

He recalled the recent Broadway revival of Oklahoma! as a major example of this phenomenon. He worked as a music assistant during the development process for this revival starting in 2015, working closely with the music director, Nathan Koci, and the arranger, Daniel Kluger. The 2015 Bard SummerScape Workshop production went on to run at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2018 and then opened on Broadway in 2019.

This revival challenged the original production in 1943 in many ways, strongly in the musical arrangement. The music team got permission to redesign all of the arrangements for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s well-known songs, originally composed for a pit orchestra, and re-cast them for a bluegrass ensemble — double bass, guitar, mandolin, banjo, accordion, violin and cello. Kerzner played piano for rehearsals and formatted and printed music charts for the band.

A smooth, amplified acoustic guitar combined with the twang of the violin and other string instruments backs Curly and Laurey as they sing a slowed down version of “People Will Say We’re In Love,” contrasting the upbeat way the song has been performed in the past.

“Daniel Fish, the director, is such a brilliant man,” Kerzner said, “and he was able to look at this story from 80 years ago and make it feel so relevant to our time of how we let outsiders into our society, or how we don’t let outsiders in our society and how we interact with each other during a time of fear, and all of these elements were integrated into a production of a show that was written 80 years ago.”

The revival changed more than just the music.

“Other than the arrangements, the music was mostly the same,” he said, “but the production at large was new, exciting and controversial because of some bold staging choices, including live video projections, minimal set, and serving chili and cornbread during intermission.”

Rifles lined the walls, and the production underscored a new interpretation on Curly’s climactic fight scene with Jud Fry. Ali Stroker, a powerful singer and the first actor to use a wheelchair for mobility to perform on Broadway, performed as Ado Annie.

“It was really amazing to see on a Broadway stage, this piece that I had seen grow and develop over five years,” Kerzner said.

Local and international collaborations

Kerzner has worked on a number of new projects recently. He collaborated with some musicians in the U.K. on a project called Vaulting Ambition, a virtual project inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones. Kerzner and his colleagues developed a 20-minute video in isolation featuring two performers working in Liverpool and Kerzner’s original music.

“It was a cool way to collaborate from afar during this lockdown,” Kerzner said.

He is also working with lyricist Seth Roseman, whom Kerzner met at Bard College at Simon’s Rock when the two were first-year students. As a director and writer, Roseman has worked on productions including The Royal Family of Broadway and Fall Springs at Barrington Stage Company. He now lives in Atlanta, and he and Kerzner have been writing during lockdown, from a distance.

Kerzner and Roseman were supposed to travel to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut for a week-long artist residency, which was cancelled due to COVID-19. The program is now being postponed to the fall, and Kerzner said he hopes to be able to work on a new environmentally-focused musical he is writing with Roseman.

“There are many directions it could end up going,” Kerzner said of the musical, “but I can most certainly tell you that there will be plenty of dancing birds.”

Jacob Kerzner performs on keyboard with Mathew McAteer, Andy Manning, and Sarah Jones.
American Music Theatre Project

Jacob Kerzner performs on keyboard with Mathew McAteer, Andy Manning, and Sarah Jones.

Facing the Music Online

Kerzner is currently back home in the Berkshires. In the beginning of the summer, he worked with Berkshire Theatre Group as a teacher in its virtual Learn from Home program. He grew up in Sheffield and has been involved with Berkshire Theatre Group for most of his life.

“Really ever since I was a kid I’ve been involved in musical theater,” he said, “and more and more I’ve been able to explore the other forms and styles around that, like vocal choral music, or a cappella music, or opera. But I always seem to come back to musical theater, because that’s in a lot of ways what I’ve been doing longest.”

He returned to Berkshire Theatre Group as an artist in residence in the school program, until it paused in mid-March because of COVID-19.

This summer, he found a creative way to teach music in quarantine; he worked on a series of videos called Face the Music: Storytelling Through Song, in which he taught music theory by deconstructing musical theater songs.

Travis Daly, a teaching artist at Berkshire Theatre Group, reached out to Kerzner and other artists, asking what they would want to teach if they could teach anything.

“Immediately, I thought of… something with the building of music,” he said. “I had a bunch of ideas, but I kept returning to this idea of how to teach music theory through individual songs that people may or may not know.”

For his first video, he used “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music to teach an introduction to music theory. Throughout the series, he moved on to teach about syncopation, the pentatonic scale, 16-bar form, diminished chords, modulation, chord structure, modal rhythms, motifs, the foundations of reading and understanding musical rhythm and other concepts. To teach these concepts, he deconstructed songs from musicals like Fiddler on the Roof, Big Fish, Pippin, Sunday in the Park with George and Next to Normal.

For his video on motifs, in which he looked at Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, he video-called in a guest to help him teach his lesson. His guest was Heather Conder, a friend from grad school, who wrote her dissertation on the musical, which is about the 19th century artist Georges Seurat. Together, they identified and deconstructed ten different motifs found throughout the musical, including the “creation motif,” which is heard at the very beginning of the musical and many times throughout, the “frozen motif,” which is more static and the “imagination motif,” which Conder associates with the character Dot and describes as ethereal and magical.

In just a couple weeks, Kerzner will be moving to North Carolina to teach a course called Music Theatre Fundamentals at East Carolina University. He said the curriculum for his course will be similar, but more in depth, to the curriculum of his Face the Music video series for Berkshire Theatre Group.

Making music in COVID-19

COVID-19 has caused Broadway, as well as theaters around the country, to close. But Berkshire Theatre Group has become one of the first theater groups in the country to have been granted permission from the Equity Actors Union to put on a show this summer, and the first to put on a musical — a production of Godspell, which will be performed in August.

Though Kerzner isn’t personally working on the production, he expressed excitement about it.

“It’s a big deal that they will get the chance to put on one of the first theater pieces in the COVID era,” Kerzner said.

During the year, Kerzner also does copyist work and arranges music upon request. But because the musical theater world has been so negatively affected by the pandemic, he said that there hasn’t been as much of a demand for this type of work.

“I have my computer and all the software that I need,” he said. “That’s not a problem. The problem is no one needs it right now.”

Kerzner has also composed vocal music in the past, but right now, he said he is on a concert music composing hiatus.

“I’ve been taking some of this time in lockdown to revisit that, to sort of explore the work that I made in undergrad,” he said.

As a young musician in a rapidly changing world, Kerzner stressed the importance of grounding himself, and recommended that all young musicians find ways to ground themselves.

“I think that’s been what I’ve been learning in this quarantine,” he said, “is just finding ways, habits [and] routines that can ground me in the work, because music work will never be totally safe from things like this. That’s what we’re learning. Even if and when we get through COVID safely, as soon as something similar happens again, the performing arts is at risk; it will always be at risk.”

Even in general, he said that learning to be patient and focus less on the output of his work has made a positive impact on the way he works.

“I think there needs to be more patience in making art and writing music that I know I didn’t have just a year or two ago,” he said, “but I’m beginning to really appreciate [it].”

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