I had a chance to chat with Benjamin Rauhala who is currently the Music Assistant at Fiddler on the Roof, and is also an Original Programming Producer at Feinstein’s/54 Below. We discussed how he got to work with Jeremy Jordan, what it’s like to play with a Broadway orchestra, and lots more.
What was your first exposure to Broadway and musical theater, and how did that influence you and your music?
My father is a lawyer by day and a professional musician by night, so I grew up watching him play trumpet in various community theater productions – everything from Crazy For You to Man of La Mancha. Once, he was playing a sold-out run of The Sound of Music and I really wanted to go, so we dressed me in musician blacks and I sat in with the pit orchestra to get a view. I remember some of the “Von Trapp” children looking into the pit a bit from the stage because they saw a fellow kid down there – I was probably about eight years old. I loved getting to live within the music that way, and I loved seeing how it all works behind the scenes.
My mother grew up in Long Island and we used to travel there from Massachusetts to visit my grandmother every few months and, once my brother and I were old enough, we would all go see Broadway shows. My first was Beauty and the Beast when I was 7, and I was hooked. After seeing the show, I used to drape a blanket over two chairs and pretend I was playing piano with Susan Egan on the original cast recording. I was obsessed. And then I began taking piano lessons, and the big journey really got started.
You have also worked with a lot of cool people like Jeremy Jordan and other Broadway performers, how did you get them all involved, and who do you want to work with in the future?
My college roommate JT (who’s still my roomie now) grew up just outside of the city in New Jersey, so we used to travel from UMass to NYC all the time while we were in college, and I was able to make friends and network my way into the scene really slowly, and just for fun. We used to go to this open mic at the Laurie Beechman Theater called The After Party on Friday nights, and I’d hear all these brilliant singers get up there and perform – people used to come after their shows and sing, and young folk used to go and belt face, just for fun. I was super ensnared with everyone, and I started asking people if they wanted to sing with me some time, just casually, and just for fun. The first friend I made was a singing bartender there by the name of Alysha Umphress, and I used to play Sara Bareilles’ “Gravity” with her every time I came. The more I performed, the more I met people, and the more I met people the more I was performing. But more importantly, and unknowingly, I was starting to build a community of friends here, that would end up carrying me through my darkest and brightest moments here.
As for Mr. Jordan specifically – Jeremy and I had met back in October of 2011 when his wife (then, girlfriend) Ashley and I became friends while working on a reading of Ever After, but Jeremy and I didn’t really become friends until December of 2013 when we worked on the Hit List concerts. We really bonded at the cast party after our closing, and we started putting his first solo concert act together a few months later. We’ve been two dysfunctional peas in a pod ever since!
As for who I want to work with in the future – my biggest dream is to be Britney Spears’ music director! I actually used to tell people ten years ago that I wanted to do her Vegas show with her when she was in her 40’s…and then she did it while she was in her 30’s before I had a chance to make a name for myself! Rude. But that’s still the dream!
What’s the best part about being the Music Assistant for Fiddler on the Roof? Can you explain your job a little more? I read you made your Broadway debut with the orchestra – congratulations! What’s that like?
The best part about being the Music Assistant at Fiddler is getting to collaborate with all of the brilliant musicians involved in our production, day in and day out – from my wonderful music director mentors Ted Sperling and John Bell, to our genius dance arranger Oran Eldor, to our meticulous music copyist Emily Grishman, to the very best orchestra on Broadway and our splendid cast of actors. It’s really a remarkable family of folks that take really beautiful care of me!
During rehearsals, my role as the Music Assistant was to help keep our music team organized and coordinated. My largest job was generating our Piano-Vocal score in Finale and keeping it updated as we added dance and transition music and crafted our new arrangements. Once we began the orchestration process, communicating with Emily Grishman’s office, our music copyist, became a large part of my job. Ted Sperling, our music director, would handwrite the orchestrations and then I’d run them over to Emily’s office as soon as the pages were ready, where her team would put the music in the computer and make it look beautiful. As always, it was a wild process getting all of the music ready for the first orchestra rehearsals – but what a joy and relief hearing our orchestra read Ted and Oran’s arrangements for the first time!
Nowadays, I help run and accompany understudy rehearsals, I often play in the orchestra when one of our conductors sub out, and I do a lot of our press and promo performances with the cast. My job was initially just for the rehearsal process, so I am enormously lucky that my team has kept me around for the run so I can keep learning, keep making music, and keep being a part of our Fiddler family!
And indeed, I made my Broadway debut playing the Keyboard book about two weeks ago, subbing in for John Bell, our Associate Conductor. It was one of the most thrilling and nerve-wracking nights of my life. I didn’t really tell many people that I was going on before it happened because I was so nervous that I’d somehow forget how to read music and be a complete disaster. Very luckily, Ted and John had me play with the orchestra a bit during tech rehearsals early on, so I had played in the pit before, and was very comfortable with the people around me. I’d been working with all of the orchestra members for weeks, so they were all cheering me on and being so sweet and supportive. And, directly in front of me, was my cellist, Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf, who I’ve known for over six years, and have been performing with for ages. She and Will Curry, our violist, supported me with love SO much throughout my first show – turning around to give me thumbs up when I did well, and sending hearts back at me to keep me smiling. I really don’t know if I would have made it through without them! I played my second performance later that weekend, and it was SO FUN. Now I’m having the best time! It looks like I’m going to be playing the show all weekend, and I am SO EXCITED.
What were your biggest challenges to making it today?
My goodness. I’m a big self-sabotager, for sure. It took me a long time to realize that I had to stop being in awe and reverence of the people and things around me in order to deserve and accept my place among them. I wasted a lot of time feeling like I didn’t deserve to be where I was, or work with who I was working with, and really got in my own way. Nowadays, I do my best to remind myself that I am where I am for a reason, and if I make sure I keep doing great work and being the best person I can be, there’s nothing that can stop me but myself. And I’m working on making sure I stay out of my own way.
Is it different being a part of a Broadway show than a part of a show at Feinstein’s/54 Below?
Oh, absolutely. The trickiest thing about a show at 54 is that you’re putting in all of this effort for, very often, one performance, or one night of shows, and then it’s all over! Working on Broadway, you’ve got all of this time to hone and perfect your performances before you open – you even get preview performances with an audience – in concert land, it’s very often like being shot out of a cannon, and then it’s over as quick as it began. But indeed – that’s some of the fun of these shows – the legendary moments happen – Jeremy sings “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” or Laura Osnes sings her “Cinderepic Medley” – it’s wild and amazing, and then the moment’s gone! At Fiddler, as long as we’re open, you can always come back to Anatevka, 8 times a week!
What was your favorite show to produce at Feinstein’s/54 Below, and why?
Oh my goodness – this is like trying to pick a favorite child! Well…I have three. “Broadway Loves Celine Dion” was my first show as an official Original Programming Producer, and those singers really cranked out their A-game for me on those WILD and iconic songs. “Broadway Loves Sam Smith” holds a special place in my heart, because that music had become so personal to me over the year, having gone through a Sam Smith-style breakup. Getting to re-create those beautifully truthful records with so many of my best friends was ULTRA-cathartic. And, how could I *not* mention “The Broadway Princess Party” – I got to be Laura Osnes’ “Fairy God-Fairy,” and hang out with some of the prettiest girls on Broadway for a night. What could be better? And we get to do it all again on March 13th!
What is the most played song on your iPhone/iPod, and what is your go-to karaoke song?
Hilariously, my iPhone is telling me that Britney Spears’ “Till The World Ends” is the most-played song on my iPhone…by a LONGSHOT. Strange, because I haven’t listened to it in ages – but it’s a GREAT one. Lately, I can’t stop listening to Selena Gomez’s Revival album – particularly the song “Camouflage” (I’m always a sucker for a great piano ballad! And I’m making Daniel Quadrino sing it with me ASAP.)
My go-to karaoke song is LFO’s “Summer Girls.” (You know, the one with the “I like girls that wear Abercrombie and Fitch” line in the the chorus!) It’s basically a rap song, but you’d be surprised at my white boy flow skills. There are some CLASSIC rhymes like “Fell deep in love, but now we ain’t speakin/Michael J. Fox was Alex P. Keaton” and “There was a good man named Paul Revere/I feel much better baby, when you’re near.” EPIC.
How do you feel social media has affected your music? Do you feel it helps you? And what platform do you like the most?
I used to joke that I was “Broadway-adjacent Ben” – I worked with Broadway folks, for Broadway folks, near Broadway folks, but just not ON Broadway. Despite that, because of my YouTube presence, I was able to make a name for myself as a music director and producer. In an epic way, YouTube allows these ultra-stressful one-night concerts to live on forever – so, when lightning strikes, it’s captured! Watching Jeremy Jordan’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” video go wildly viral was one of the most exciting moments of my career. I get so exhilarated sharing a new performance I’m proud of on YouTube. Plus, I know my mom likes getting to rewatch all of these shows, and that makes my heart really happy.
At what age did you want to become an entertainer, and how early did you start performing?
I started piano lessons in the second grade, after I had become enamored with the Beauty and the Beast cast recording, so I believe I was seven years old at the time. My first public performance was in my third grade talent show where I played “Over The Rainbow.” The sheet music I had didn’t include the final tag (“If happy little bluebirds fly…”) and it upset me so much that my piano teacher (Mrs. Springer) wrote out the ending music for me. Even at age 8, I demanded custom arrangements and transcriptions. Lordy.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you’re doing?
Don’t be afraid to say “hello” to people. So many of the most important connections I made in my life stemmed from me simply being brave enough to say “hi” to someone.
Don’t be afraid to create your own work – if the kind of concert or show you want to do isn’t being offered to you, throw your own show! The world will be drawn to your creative energy.
Be a great friend, and the best human being you can be – people will choose to work with you time and again.
Don’t waste your time being loyal to people who aren’t loyal to you.
Spend as much time as you can being loyal to the people who are loyal to you.
What is your motto for life? Do you have your own ‘Hakuna Matata’ from The Lion King?
It’s a quote from Stephen Chbosky’s novel, The Perks of Being A Wallfower: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” And to piggyback on that, my roomie Ariana DeBose once said to me, “Know your worth, and don’t accept discounts.” If you believe in yourself, and trust that you are deserving of the great things you work towards, the great things will come to you. And if someone tries to make you accept less than what you deserve, REFUSE, because if you don’t value yourself, who will?
If you had to pick a different profession, what would it be?
I always wanted to be a writer growing up – my dream was to be a journalist for Rolling Stone.
Would you rather always have to sing rather than talk, or always have to dance rather than walk?
I’d rather always sing than talk – my dance moves are pretty tragic.
Favorite cast album?
Next to Normal, Original Broadway Cast
Best day-off activity?
Drinks at Bourbon Street with my girls Tiffany and Vinyetta
Favorite Guilty Pleasure?
The film Spice World.
Hidden quirky talent?
I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Spice Girls and Britney Spears trivia.
I know I’m so basic, but I love Facebook.
Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower
All-time favorite show?
Favorite thing about NYC?
The limitless possibilities every morning.
Favorite dance move?
The belly-dancing part of Britney Spears’ “I’m A Slave 4 U”
Favorite Disney character?
Ariel from The Little Mermaid