Small observation helps lead to big break

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Jonathan Smith knew he was ready for musical theater’s biggest stage.

He just had to make sure others did, and his keen ear and a triangle are partly to thank for getting him there.

Eleven years ago, Smith, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan and The Juilliard School, started bartending in New York to make money and grow personal connections.

He learned bicoastal freelance percussionist Michael Englander also studied at U-M and was in the waning months of a Broadway production of “Sister Act.” Smith reached out to Englander to see if he could come watch him perform, and Englander agreed.

Jonathan Smith, percussion program manager at U-M, has performed nearly 200 shows for “Aladdin” on Broadway since 2014 as the designated sub for the musical’s full-time percussionist. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Smith)
Jonathan Smith, percussion program manager at U-M, has performed nearly 200 shows for “Aladdin” on Broadway since 2014 as the designated sub for the musical’s full-time percussionist. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Smith)

“He told me in 2011, he was really impressed with one of the comments I made, and it was about his triangle playing,” said Smith, percussion program manager at U-M. “It seems a little silly to a non-percussionist, but to a classically trained percussionist, you can sound really bad on a triangle. Anyone can play it, but to make it sound right takes a lot of skill.

“He said to me, ‘That one comment, when you told me my triangle playing was of caliber, that’s when I said, “This kid knows what he’s talking about.”’”

Three years later that “kid” would occasionally take Englander’s seat amid a massive setup of dozens of percussion instruments to play the challenging musical score to “Aladdin” on Broadway — musical theater’s biggest stage.

Preparing for such a daunting undertaking — especially for a perfectionist like Smith — was a lengthy process. “Aladdin” was being developed in Toronto before making its Broadway debut in 2014, so Smith drove from the Ann Arbor apartment he and his wife shared to watch Englander perform the “book” for the show.

Knowing he would eventually be Englander’s sub once the musical hit Broadway, Smith crammed into a 200-square-foot extra room in the apartment the entire percussion ensemble needed to do the show.

Using an audio recording of the show as his accompaniment, he spent every day, twice a day, for the next three months in that room performing the entire 2½-hour show.

“I would practice it just like Mike plays it, not like I would play it,” Smith said. “This was my first shot at doing it, and it needed to be done right. … There’s no room for mistakes. You don’t get to play it wrong. Every show has to be perfect, especially a 1990s Disney movie that everyone knows.

“You can’t play the theme song to ‘A Whole New World’ wrong. Even a 6-year-old kid would say, ‘That doesn’t sound right.’”

At the same time he was preparing to play on Broadway, Smith was pursuing his Doctor of Musical Arts degree at U-M. But he was eager to make a name for himself so the prospect of being a sub for a Broadway show was enticing.

After practicing and perfecting the nuances of a story set in the musical style of the Middle East and mastering the many forms of percussion it takes to create the proper sound, Smith’s debut arrived not long after the show premiered.

Jonathan Smith crammed into a 200-square-foot spare room of he and his wife's apartment this percussion ensemble so he could practice for his performances of "Aladdin" on Broadway. (Photo by Jonathan Smith)
Jonathan Smith crammed into a 200-square-foot spare room of he and his wife’s apartment this percussion ensemble so he could practice for his performances of “Aladdin” on Broadway. (Photo by Jonathan Smith)

Because the shows are nightly and the musicians are highly skilled, there are no rehearsals once a production starts — a prospect Smith said was “kind of terrifying” for his first time. Smith arrived in New York a couple days before he was to perform to watch Englander play before the mentor turned over the setup to the understudy.

The morning of his show, Smith stood among the five stations of various instruments he would bang, shake or strike over 2½ hours. He played through the score, took a break for lunch, played through it again and then calmed his nerves until the curtain rose.

The percussionist is separated from the other orchestra members, surrounded by plexiglass, and listens through headphones and watches five video monitors for the source of time since the conductor is out of view.

“It’s like this crane picks you up and drops you in the cage, ‘Ready, play,’ and then 2½ hours later you’re done,” he said. “You have to tell yourself, ‘Are you prepared? Yes. Do you know the show? I do. Have you had a rehearsal with them yet to have a good feel? No. All right, well, here it is.’

“It was like slow motion but fast forward at the same time. But it went well.”

The first people he texted letting them know he had performed his first show were his parents, both longtime and accomplished musicians in the Lansing area. His father is a pianist, his mother is a singer, and they are both musical directors. 

Smith started out playing the trumpet as a youth, but his band director who was a percussionist helped move him to drums in sixth grade. By the time he got to Haslett High School, he was studying music with Jon Weber, the drumline instructor at Michigan State University, who encouraged him to explore all forms of classical percussion.

While playing in the Detroit Civic Youth Ensemble and being mentored by a U-M student, he received a call from Michael Udow, now retired professor emeritus of music, who helped inform his decision to attend U-M.

“When I got to the university, the scope of possibilities changed,” he said. “I was fortunate to perform concerts with local symphony orchestras like Ann Arbor, Lansing and Jackson. Being at U-M continued to provide many opportunities to do musical theater, classical performances, and other various performance gigs.

“What makes the student experience at the University of Michigan so unique is having the opportunity to do everything.”

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The exposure to so many percussion instruments — including those in “Aladdin” — helped make Smith the perfect fit for his current position at U-M as percussion program manager. He oversees the scheduling, care and security of one of the largest and finest inventories of percussion instruments in the country — everything ranging from large timpani sets to the felt that holds a cymbal on its stand.

The job, plus a growing family that includes two young children, and being a member of the percussion section with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra since 2016, makes it challenging for Smith to get to New York, but he remains a part of the production as the only designated sub.

“Aladdin” is still running on Broadway, and Smith said he performed close to 200 times since 2014, but he has not been back since after the birth of his second child and the COVID-19 pandemic. But the experience of performing a show based on a movie that came out the year he turned 5 continues to resonate.

“I grew up watching (‘Aladdin’), so to have the opportunity to play that show is really cool, and it’s good music,” he said. “But things change. I have a family. My priority isn’t necessarily running to New York as often to play shows these days.

“I’m most interested in doing the job well, getting the work done but then getting home to the family.”

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