“For me, this is where math becomes art”… explains Fiddler cellist Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf, when describing her experience playing the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. “It was overwhelming to play…very intimidating…it’s like playing Bach!” This is a fair, and weighty statement made by a seasoned Broadway musician who had one once planned to be a mathematician herself.
Haling from a family of skilled Scottish musicians, Mairi began playing violin by 4 years old, piano by 6, and the cello by 7; and began attending a British musical boarding school at the start of her high school years. Though, her parents goal for her at school was not to be a professional musician, but to teach her the skill and discipline to be an Oxford or Cambridge mathematician. Until, she explains, “I was bitten by the expressiveness of the cello.” She auditioned for the famed Guildhall School of Music in London, and after being awarded a scholarship to the competitive and technically demanding school, had to decide whether to fulfill predetermined expectations, or follow the path to becoming a professional musician
After finishing school in the U.K., Mairi set her sights on America, landing a job at Buck’s Rock Performing Arts Camp in the Berkshires. And while making life-long friends, she would be introduced to America’s long-standing musical theatre traditions. She then continued to Colorado to begin her graduate studies in music, when she landed her first contracted position playing the road company of Cathy Rigby’s Peter Pan, during its stop in Denver. Following Pan, in September 2000, Mairi was asked to play a show called Parade, written and conducted by a young composer named Jason Robert Brown. “It was at that point that I knew…whatever this theatre thing was, I wanted to do it”, reveals Dorman-Phaneuf.
She went on to explain that she had always wanted to add a visual aspect to playing classical music. “I would draw a Spanish dancer to interpret a Cassado piece, or something else to illustrate a Bach suite…I need an emotional reason to play, and connect with a piece…sad, yearning, etc. All the reasons are there for you in musical theatre.”
Following Parade, Mairi was offered JRB’s next endeavor, The Last Five Years in Chicago. “The charts came hard and fast…we were sometimes given new charts thirty minutes before curtain.” I asked about the pressure of performing in that type situation… “We never knew what to expect…we were constantly surprised at the new directions he would take.” “Jason knows the colors that he wants, and it is up to us to convey them.” She would later be featured in one of the most memorable, and haunting cello roles in recent history during JRB’s The Bridges of Madison County. And listening to the first few chords of this impeccable cast recording proves Dorman-Phaneuf’s ability to illustrate these varied “colors” in a fashion that will surely break your heart (moments before Kelli O’Hara has the opportunity.)
I asked her about any memorable mishaps that may have occurred on stage… “Well, there ARE mishaps!” She describes the first preview of Bridges where a butcher block table rolled out from under actress Cass Morgan, and started heading towards the orchestra pit. Conductor Tom Murray yelled at Phaneuf to move, as she had only moments to push her cello under the lip of the stage. “A very brave audience member reached out to help break the fall, luckily…but they did have to stop the show.” “Hair pins, hats, and props come our way on a regular basis!” She explained the need for proper netting over the pit, adding that safety is a legitimate concern for the orchestra members who are playing both expensive, and beloved instruments (Mairi plays her Mother’s cello). In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Mairi describes one of the featured (adopt-a-dog) animal actors, complete with cataracts, who ended up falling off of the stage and into the orchestra pit netting, “I just tickled his feet until someone could come get him.”
In a resume that boasts holding chairs in over 13 Broadway shows, Phaneuf has worked with a few legends in her day. And when asked about the potential challenges of accompanying Stritch in A Little Night Music, she says “It was real theatre with Elaine. She was SO committed to being there…it was thrilling to hear her.” Having seen that cast a couple of times, I asked about about the pitfalls when an actor looses their place in the music. “(Conductor) Rob Bowman could sense if she was getting off…and in cases like this the orchestra will generally adjust.”
Dorman-Phaneuf recalls another memorable star turn while playing The Boy from Oz with Hugh Jackman. “He was joyful, and brilliant…we had to be ready for anything!” Apparently Jackman would interact with the orchestra quite a bit; and on Mairi’s birthday, he serenaded her…leading the entire audience in a rousing chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’. “He was always doing things like that, it was so much fun.”
The critically acclaimed revival of The Fiddler on the Roof starring Danny Burstein, currently running at the Broadway Theater, is Mairi’s current workspace. I asked how Fiddler has been different from the many other shows she’s played. “This show is a revival, but it feels very new, and the music is very vibrant. The dance arrangements were created for this production by Oran Eldor and Ted Sperling and, as the conductor, Ted encourages us to bring out the klezmer elements. In the longer dance sections, after “To Life” and in “The Wedding” there’s no-one singing, so there are fewer balance concerns. The band just takes off! Andrew Sterman, our klezmer clarinetist, is a close friend Sheldon Harnick’s, and played the last production of Fiddler also. Here he’s featured even more, and leads the way as the soloist in these sections. It’s a lot of fun.”
I also asked about the differences between playing a revival score such as Fiddler versus a contemporary score? She notes “One thing to pay attention to is if you’re playing an existing chart, they may reflect an old production. The director, the music director and the actor all influence the pacing and phrasing of the song, so some of the pauses/crescendos/articulations that are written won’t be relevant. It can be tricky at first figuring what’s inherent to the song, and what was added to either match the singer, or create a better blend or balance in that previous orchestra. But that’s one of the great things about musical theater — it changes and adapts as the years go by.”
When questioned about the process an up-and-coming musician might follow to land a Broadway gig, Dorman-Phaneuf assures “There is no audition process…you have to reach out and make the connections. Joining the musicians union is one way to contact people directly if you’ve seen their name in a program. Or Facebook works too!” She adds “I always recommend starting by subbing off-Broadway. The shows don’t pay as much, but they need good subs. Most Music Directors also work off-Broadway, so you can get to know people there.”
We last discussed the strong connection between the cello, and the unique emotional intensity it produces; perhaps like no other instrument. Phaneuf’s theory: “It has the same range as the human voice, from bass to soprano. And it’s almost the same size as a human, it matches us…the way you sit with it, very human. Which is why, I believe, so many people can relate to it…I don’t know, that’s probably part of why I love it.”
Mairi Phaneuf-Dorman currently resides in Hartsdale, N.Y. with husband Marc Phaneuf, a Broadway saxophone doubler.
Watch a song preview from Broadway’s Waitress (cello arrangement by Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf):