Stephen Oremus: Tips and Tricks from the Musical Director of "The Book of Mormon"

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EVEN FOR SOMEONE AS EXPERIENCED AS GRAMMY-NOMINATED AND TONY winning musical director Stephen Oremus, piloting a Broadway show night after night is a challenge. For his current gig on The Book of Mormon, Stephen simultaneously conducts actors onstage, leads a nine-piece band, plays a Yamaha S90 while changing patches in Apple MainStage, and passes a light saber to the show’s lead at just the right moment. This octopus-like multitasking typifies his career, and we wanted to find out how he does it.

Loops Plus Live

To handle often-intense percussion requirements, Oremus and band use a variety of tools. “Drummer Sean McDaniel triggers samples with a Roland SPD-S pad,” Stephen says. “We have a series of loops and clicks that he controls with it.” Some of the clicks only go to the headphones of the rhythm section, while other sampled loops flesh out heavier drumming sections, freeing up Sean to add live djembe to the mix on certain songs, for example. “We created and mixed all the loops in Logic before loading them into the SPD-S,” Stephen says. “Except for those percussion loops, everything in the show is played live.”

Sound Design

“There were some very specific sounds that my co-orchestrator Larry Hochman and I created in collaboration with our synth programmer, Randy Cohen,” Stephen says. “Randy chained the sounds together in Apple MainStage. We access them for each show from two Yamaha S90 synths.” Stephen plays one S90 from the conductor chair and keyboardist Adam Ben-David handles the other. While both musicians often play multiple patches and splits within a single song, Adam “gets all the fun stuff ,” according to Stephen. “He sometimes has three or four zones going. He plays Theremins, anvils falling, and all sorts of other wild sounds.”

Staying Organized

For Adam and Stephen, written comments in the show’s sheet music keep their multiple patch changes and keyboard splits manageable. “We might write into the score, ‘play two octaves up, but it sounds three octaves lower,’ for example,” Stephen explains. “When we’re orchestrating, we always consider how things work between the player and the instrument, so we don’t try to jam too much in. Each song is labeled in the S90 itself as well—its display shows the song name and the measure where the patch change occurs.”

Multiple Backups

“Each S90 has its own computer and backup,” Stephen says. “If the primary computer goes down, I have a pedal that switches over immediately.” Stephen has had to use his backup more than once: “During one high-pressure show, with critics in the audience, a sound started cutting out. I was holding a note, and all of a sudden—[makes a stuttering noise]. I immediately switched to backup and Adam got under my podium and restarted my primary computer. As I was playing the backup, the primary was rebooting.” A third option is to use the S90 for its internal sounds instead of just as a MIDI controller. “If all else fails,” he says, “at least I can have a piano sound.”