Dallas — Musical dynamo Michael Mitchell does a little bit of just about everything. He composes, conducts, arranges, and directs everything from Broadway shows to symphonic orchestrations. He’s performed with some of the biggest names in Broadway and acts as musical director for the amateur night at the world-famous Apollo Theater in New York City.
His rich background and deep love for music and performance make him the perfect choice for Dallas Theater Center’s production of Dreamgirls, playing now at the Wyly Theatre. We chatted with him about what makes this show special, what it’s like to be on stage at the Apollo, and keeping things authentic in an era-specific musical.
TheaterJones: What drew you to the music of Dreamgirls?
Michael Mitchell: This kind of music is what I love—music with soul, meaning, feeling…music that gives. Believe it or not, I’ve never seen Dreamgirls live before. But I’ve heard the music for years. It’s fun, easy to learn, and it just sticks with you. Once you get the songs in your head, you go to bed and wake singing them. What I like about this show is that it brings the music of an era to life in an authentic way.
The Apollo Theater features heavily into the plot of the show. What’s it like to be a part of such a historic venue?
Working at the Apollo is very surreal in a sense. I’m in the place where so many others have been able to launch their careers, make their name, and even get booed off. It's amazing to be on the same stage as Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Prince, Lauryn Hill, James Brown—to be music directing the same show they were a part of, it’s very humbling.
Some of those great artists were the ones who directly inspired Dreamgirls. Is that part of where you drew your reference points for the music direction?
Yes, as many people know, some characters in Dreamgirls were drawn from certain real life people, so of course it’s important to find the character in those artists, and use them to help differentiate between the types and styles of singer. Like using Diana Ross as the reference for Deena—her singing needs to be breathy, light, with an airy tone, whereas Effie’s inspiration is Florence Ballard. She’s all about what I refer to as “gut bucket singing.” She just stands there and sings you under a table on the floor!
Where else do you find inspiration to help keep the sound true to the era?
I find inspiration in all kinds of music, all kinds of places. I’m always in collection mode, trying to take in everything I can on a certain style. I can find the right bits of sound in random things like commercials, the background music on a gas station TV, even a child singing a song. I listen to lots of groups to get the right sounds for the different artists in the show, like The Whispers for the Tru-Tones, doo-wop groups for the sisters at the top of the show. The soundtrack for The Five Heartbeats is apropos to a lot of different sections of the show.
I want to be very respectful to the original sound—Dreamgirls is unmistakable—while allowing actors to bring themselves to the role. Sometimes they can be a little too modern, but I want to find a compromise and different ways to sing some of the passages, to be themselves and the artists they are.
What’s your biggest challenge been in taking on this production?
This is a monster of a show, it just does not stop. It's one of those continuously moving things, almost like Jesus Christ Superstar where every line in the show is sung. Dreamgirls has dialogue and there are a few scenes with no underscoring, but otherwise it just goes.
It's hard being the music director, supervisor, and conductor because there are times I just want to not have to focus on so many things. But because it's such a good show, I want to do it all because of the passion I have for music and doing it right. Joel and Ricky are so wonderful and on top of their game that a lot of the music things are just music things. I don’t have to worry about choreography interfering with singing, or blocking and staging not supporting the singing. But at the end of the day it's still a musical, and the music has to be prevalent as well as correct. And it’s nice to be able to know that the cast is a strong cast. A lot of them have done the show before, or are at least familiar with the music.
What have you enjoyed the most about this production?
What's been fun for me is seeing the cast when we married the music in rehearsals with the band rehearsals—the band and the cast coming together and the cast not knowing what the band sounds like and vice versa. Seeing the magic that happens at that moment makes it feel more real, and that’s when I knew we had the makings of a really good show.
You’ve worked on a lot of different productions in the past, how has Dreamgirls been different?
It’s a different show for me in the sense that Motown and Memphis were original shows, brand new music. But this is such a classic show that you don't want to mess it up. Wearing several hats means I have to bounce the ideas off myself, or talk to choreographer and director and have a brainstorming session on how things should look or sound. But it's mostly me doing my homework and doing as much as I can to make sure that the music is as true and genuine as it can be, but still reflective of myself as an artist, and the singers and musicians as artists. It’s my job to create the flexibility and freedom that allow the cast to shine.