As a title, it would be hard to top the one David Loud came up with for his memoir. After all, Facing the Music is precisely what he has been doing for 34 years, conducting some of Broadway’s best musicals. The title also works in the negative, coming to grips with incipient Parkinson’s—a career-stopper for any profession, let alone conducting.
Loud begins with the one night he wasn’t facing the music—March 22, 2007, the opening night of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Curtains—when a copy of his conducting score had vanished from the theater, inadvertently sent north to an orchestrator in Connecticut. Forty minutes into the first act, the score was recovered by an industrious intern, delivered to Loud’s podium in the orchestra pit, and all was right with the world. Almost. The stress of this ordeal accentuated something he had been in denial about—that the left side of his body was off-kilter.
“It took me a long time to figure out how I would structure it,” Loud says today. “Once I found how I wanted to open the book, with the missing score on opening night and the revelation that it caused, I thought, ‘This is a place I could come back to because everything changed that night.’”
He was six years old when he started on his musical path as a pianist, trained by a nurturing Miss Corn, who would say things like “You’re not playing with any kind of inquiry” and “Music has consequences.” Loud admits, “She was so unbelievably influential—and so far above my head. I understood it 10 years later. But you need somebody like that who forces you to live up to what you can do.”
His piano skills got him his earliest roles—starting with a high-school Beverly Carlton from The Man Who Came to Dinner. “I loved that part. Cole Porter wrote a song for it that made fun of Noel Coward—a great parody. Students watching the play didn’t get it, but I knew what it was.”
While at Yale in 1981, he got a summer job at Variety, working for peanuts and a free subscription. Racing around town with ad copy was a great way to acquaint himself with New York—plus he landed his first Broadway role via a Variety casting notice. The new and much-anticipated Prince-Sondheim musical, Merrily We Roll Along, needed a young piano-player who could musically-direct a number from the show called “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” and Loud filled that bill.
A super-serious, seemingly humorless Paul Gemignani mentored Loud in the rudiments of conducting. “I don’t think I heard him crack a joke until I had known him for three months,” Loud says. “He was just such an inspiration. He explained the musical director has to be the anchor, the focus, the heartbeat of the show. It’s not just keeping the band running. You’ve got to be doing the entire show. Even to people in the business, it’s a big mystery. There are little challenges that come up on every song in practically every show you do. It’s a high-wire act. It’s making decisions on the fly. ‘Why is she singing out of tune? How can I help her? She didn’t take a breath at the right place. If I go faster, will we get back together? Can I keep everybody in one beat?’”
During rehearsals, Loud did some heavy-duty piano-playing that won the admiration of Sondheim. “You play that section very well,” he told him, “better than I ever could.” Loud thanked him, “but what I was thinking was that if I died that evening it would be fine with me.”
After five weeks of previews, Merrily We Roll Along rolled along in 15 performances—a bruising disappointment for a budding Broadway actor/conductor. “The show closed on my 20th birthday,” Loud recalls. “The whole cast send me a card that said: ‘Happy Fucking Birthday.’”
Loud remembers another Sondheim encounter, in 1995. “After Merrily, I would have thought Sondheim would have been horrified that a chorus boy from Merrily was music-directing his material, but he was always so excited when I was on a project. With Company at the Roundabout, we had this amazing day when he came and coached the entire score, from 10 to 6. He just passed all of the knowledge on to us about what this word means and why he chose that and how you have to change the vowel on this to make it rhyme with that. He gave us all his secrets, and I tried to pass all that on to actors whenever I coach that material. If you get it from the horse’s mouth, you want to make sure it lives in the art form.”
In Billy Bishop Goes to War, which had a shorter Broadway run than Merrily, Loud as Narrator/Pianist shared the stage with Scott Ellis in the title role of the Canadian air ace. When Ellis turned director, he got Loud to conduct Kander and Ebb’s And the World Goes ‘Round.
His piano-playing even drove him into a strong drama (Terrence McNally’s Tony-winning Master Class in 1995) where he was Manny the accompanist for Maria Callas (a Tony-winning Zoe Caldwell).
“That was such an unexpected privilege,” he remembers fondly. “In my career, to wind up working with one of the classical actresses who never sang a note in her life was not what I was expecting to spend a year of my life doing. It was so joyful and so interesting to enter that world, which is very different from musical theater. The parade of high-toned actors who would come back to see Zoe after every performance—like Christopher Plummer—was extraordinary.”
One of the pleasures of his memoir is the way Loud nails how show folk talk. Marian Seldes is a particular delight. “She was from another universe, a very theatrical universe. All of these people are so indelible in my mind. I’d never met anybody like Zoe and Marian before. Obviously, I’m re-creating dialogue that may not have been exactly like that, but I remember when people say things. I became content with thinking that a memoir is going to be the way I remember it.”
Parkinson’s eventually brought Loud’s career to a premature halt. “I couldn’t keep going longer than I did. I was able to do the rest of Curtains and the short run of The Visit. But conducting every week on Broadway was too difficult for me with Parkinson’s, too risky. Anything could go wrong at any time. The fate of a Broadway show couldn’t be depending on me, I felt finally.
“I’m mostly quite mobile and active. I can get around, and I can play the piano, thank God, but there are times in the day when I can’t move. I get very weak and sorta frozen in a way.”
Currently, Loud is on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, where he teaches song interpretation and musical theater history from the early 20th century to the present.
“It has evolved into a beautifully structured four-year program. Marla Allen who was in Merrily We Roll Along, and I co-teach the freshmen on how to sing a song. Then I teach the sophomores a year-long musical theater course. My philosophy for teaching is that I want to inspire them with the material that inspired me. They all have to read Moss Hart’s Act One and Alan Jay Lerner’s book, On the Street Where I Live, and Ted Chapin’s book when he was intern on Follies. We go through the great American works of art, starting with Shuffle Along, then As Thousands Cheer and Lady in the Dark and Carousel. They have to do a big adaptation paper for me at the end. I’ve learned so much from their papers. There’s stuff from my students that surprise me.”
Then, there is his new career: writing books about musicals. He has high hopes for Facing the Music. “I think it’s a piece that theater people are primed to enjoy, but I think, if it is specific enough in its journey through what I experienced these years, it’s open to anyone. The more specific people are in their writing, the more universal it becomes. I hope it’s a look into what it means to make music for a Broadway show. I hope it’s surprising and interesting and educational for people, because it’s a neglected part of the business. People don’t really understand what a music director does. It’s a huge responsibility to be responsible for everything musical in a show.
“The music is the best part of a musical. It’s called musicals. We fell in love with musicals because of our parents’ record albums. That story you hear over and over from people my age. It’s those records that did it. That’s the music I fell in love with—My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, The Music Man. I wish Broadway was like that today. It’s not, but every now and then it is.”