‘Musical wunderkind’: a lunch date with Doug Peck, Chicago theatre music director

At a relatively young age, Doug Peck has made quite a name for himself in the Chicago theatre scene over the past half decade. He’s served as musical director for Goodman Theatre, Marriott Theatre, Drury Lake Oakbrook, Court Theatre, TimeLine Theatre, Apple Tree Theatre, and Northlight Theatre — to name just a few. (For a recent bio that provides a good list of his impressive credits, go here and scroll down a bit.) He’s won four Jeff Awards for music direction and is one of the most in-demand artists in the city. People seem to love working with him.

And it’s not hard to see why. He’s a nice guy. I had lunch with him at Elephant and Castle on Monday this week and we talked a million miles an hour about musicals, favorite Chicago musical theatre actresses, his background and training, past shows he’s worked on, and what excites him when working on a new project (his newest project is an innovative reworking of Candide helmed by Mary Zimmerman at the Goodman Theatre opening next month). It’s clear that not only is he smart and talented, but he’s a true fan of theatre, and his passion is contagious.

Below are some highlights from that chatty lunch interview:

So tell me about Candide? What do you and Mary Zimmerman have in store?
It’s a very exciting and unique project because Mary is writing the book completely from scratch. She has permission to adapt any previous version of Candide, but Mary is basically going back to Voltaire’s novel as her primary source. So, we start rehearsals with the cast tomorrow, and the script will be created in collaboration with the cast.

Wait — there’s no script and rehearsals start tomorrow?
She has a solid idea and a concept, but the actual script and scenes will be written during the rehearsal process. Mary has asked everyone in the cast to read Voltaire’s book so they all have an idea of what the story is about. But before we get into scene work, the first few days of rehearsal will be focused on learning that wonderful Bernstein score.

So, which version of the score will you be doing?
Mary had the entire creative team at her summer house in Maine, and we spent time going through the different versions of the score to figure out which version we wanted to use. And I have been communicating with the Bernstein estate as to what songs we’re doing, what song we aren’t doing, the instrumentation, and number of cast members, etc. And, it may change as the rehearsal process gets underway. And then Mary will write the scenes around that. It’s an exciting process.

Ok – so stepping back a bit. What does a music director do?
It really varies from show to show. But I can tell you what I like to do, and what I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot in Chicago. I like to oversee the entire musical life of a show. I like to teach all the music to the actors, play the piano in rehearsal, do the orchestrations, and conduct the show throughout the run. At some places, like at Marriott which has a resident conductor, my role is simply to teach the music in rehearsal. And that’s great, too.

So, you do orchestrations, too? I’d imagine it’s reducing them, right?
Yes. That’s a loaded word for some — reducing — but it’s a necessity in Chicago theatre. And I think it works very well for our smaller, more intimate productions we’re known for doing in Chicago. Carousel at the Court Theatre is a great example of this, where I reworked the score for eight musicians. It was a challenge, but I think it came off well. For Candide, we will use 12 pieces.

What about working with directors — how does that work in your role as music director?
It’s completely collaborative. In some cases, like working with someone like Marc Robin who is so well-versed in the language of musical theatre, you’re there to help the music shine. But I love working with directors like Charlie Newell [at the Court Theatre] and Mary Zimmerman, who don’t have a huge musical theatre background, and I can help them figure out the best way to make a show work as a musical — where the applause is, how to pace a production number, that sort of thing. I’m like their musical theatre consultant, in a way.

Speaking of theatre artists who cross over from straight plays to musicals, how do you go about teaching a score to an actor or actress who may not be a natural vocalist?
It’s all about confidence building. I help them learn the score, and the proper way to sing it, how to count the beats. But it’s mostly about helping them find ways to use the talents they have to make a song work, and building up their confidence to do it night after night. It’s not always about having the best voice — it’s about connecting to the material. And, conversely, working with actors who can sing exceptionally well and can do virtually anything with a song, such as Hollis Resnik or Paula Scrofano, it’s about pushing them to go further, or helping them make a choice.

What’s your favorite musical?
Oh gosh. That’s a hard one. Right now, I’ll say Nine. I love Maury Yeston’s score so much. But Sweeney Todd and Gypsy are right up there, too, of course. Ask me tomorrow; I’m sure it will change!

Ok, so we’re jumping around. What’s your background? How did you get where you are?
I credit Interlochen for a lot. I studied acting, voice and piano there for several summers as a teenager. They treat you like an adult there, which was great training. After that, I worked for five years at Wagon Wheel Theatre as their music director, thanks to my friend Beckie Menzie who connected me with them. From that experience, I conducted 30 shows before I was 21. And then I found out Court Theatre was looking for a music director for James Joyce’s The Dead, and I got the job. And then it took off from there.

What do you consider the highlights in your career so far?
Man of La Mancha [at the Court Theatre] comes to mind. It was a complete statement — even if we had another month of rehearsal, I don’t think we would have changed a thing. The acting, design and music were completely tied together. I loved working on Caroline, or Change, too. Debuts of revised or new pieces are also great — such as Animal Crackers at the Goodman. It was also fun to work on Curtains at Oakbrook — to be in an actual orchestra pit was fun. Usually I’m on the stage directing a band or playing a piano, or backstage behind a screen.

What’s coming up — beyond Candide?
Porgy and Bess at the Court Theatre this spring. It’s very exciting, because theatre companies don’t get the chance to do that show. We’ll have 14 actors and six musicians, and I can’t wait to begin working on it with director Charlie Newell.

And finally, what’s your dream project?
Follies. Rob Lindley [Chicago-based actor and Doug’s partner] and I are actually planning on doing a concert of that [Stephen Sondheim] score at the Humanities Festival in the fall. But I’d love to music direct a full production.

You can catch Doug in the pit at the Goodman Theatre’s production of Candide, starting Sept. 17. More info here >

9 thoughts on “‘Musical wunderkind’: a lunch date with Doug Peck, Chicago theatre music director

  1. Doug is efing brilliant–he makes every show he works on sound great. (and he does great things with orchestrations.) And he’s a lovely guy as well. I’m glad he’s doing so well, I just hope we don’t lose him.

    1. Agreed. I loved what he did with “Caroline, or Change” and “Grey Gardens.” I get the impression he loves Chicago and the performers here too much to abandon us any time soon. Let’s hope!

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