Most serious musicians concentrate on one or two instruments or disciplines within the musical realm. Not Ted Sperling. The Tony Award winner – perhaps best known for his work on the Broadway revival of “South Pacific” and “The Light in the Piazza” – has won acclaim as a conductor, music director, arranger, singer, pianist and violinist.
As if that weren’t enough, he’s even directed musicals and a short film as well as conducted the scores for such movies as “The Manchurian Candidate” remake and “Everything Is Illuminated.”
It’s a sign not only of his many gifts, but of a questing spirit.
“I started very young (musically),” says Sperling, who’ll return to the Westchester Philharmonic Dec. 16 to conduct “Winter Pops: A Broadway Romance.” “I’m sort of a restless soul. I like to keep challenging myself.”
Sundays with Sondheim
Given his talents and temperament, Sperling probably could not have grown up in a better place than New Rochelle, a city well known for its commitment to all the arts. As a youngster, he studied piano and violin and was introduced to conducting, attending the New Rochelle public schools until the superb music programs of Horace Mann School in Riverdale and Yale University in New Haven beckoned.
“I grew up with a love of Baroque music. It was the ’70s, and there was a renaissance of early music….I had always been attracted to Bach and his music. There’s a certain science and mathematics in the way he approaches ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier,’ with pieces in every key. There’s also something about Baroque music that makes you want to dance.”
Sperling was probably the only bar mitzvah boy who asked his parents for the gift of a harpsichord kit. He assembled it himself and the instrument is still in his parents’ New Rochelle home.
Classical music, then, was a pull. But there was something else tugging at his heartstrings.
“All through school I pursued (classical and Broadway music). When I got out of college I was still unsure of which I wanted to pursue.”
The turning point came in 1984 with the original Broadway production of the groundbreaking musical “Sunday in the Park With George.”
Sperling played synthesizer in the orchestra pit and served as rehearsal pianist. Yet the experience was so much more than that.
“(Composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim) took a very avuncular interest in me,” he remembers. “He had assisted Oscar Hammerstein II on ‘Allegro,’ and I think he drew parallels to me on ‘Sunday’ and his experience on ‘Allegro.’”
The young musician played through the score with Sondheim, four-hand piano, for the cast and even played a new song at Sondheim’s apartment.
“He was very kind,” Sperling recalls. “I had a lot to learn. I was very naïve, particularly when it came to the interpersonal dynamics of working with stars. Working on a Broadway show is a collaborative experience. You have to be a master at working with big personalities.”
Sperling mastered those dynamics. A partial list of his credits as music director/conductor/pianist include “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “The Full Monty,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Angels in America,” “My Favorite Year,” “Falsettos,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Les Misérables” and “Roza.”
In 2005, he won Tony and Drama Desk awards with Adam Guettel and Bruce Coughlin for the orchestrations of “The Light in the Piazza,” on which he also served as music director. Sperling was music director and conductor for the 2008 revival of “South Pacific,” which won seven Tonys and packed Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, as well as for the 2009 Tony-nominated revival of “Guys and Dolls.”
Same thing, only different
This winter Sperling brings the Great White Way to Purchase College’s Performing Arts Center in a pops concert that is still being fine-tuned.
“I did a concert with the New York Philharmonic that was very well-received, a program of Broadway music from the golden era of the 1940s.”
That led to a call from Joshua Worby, the Westchester Philharmonic’s executive director, and an appearance last year. Now he’s gearing up for another.
Conducting a Broadway orchestra and a symphony orchestra is “both different and the same,” he says. “Most of the great players play every kind of music.”
The difference is perhaps one of emphasis, with the rhythm section of the Broadway orchestra, front and center, laying down the beat and taking the lead. In the symphony orchestra, the strings dominate with the rhythm section in the back, and there’s more give-and-take between the conductor and the musicians, Sperling says.
Both are vastly different experiences from conducting an orchestra on a movie soundtrack.
“That’s a very interesting process. You record a movie score at the end of the picture and people expect it to knit all the elements together.”
The movie conductor and orchestra have to hit certain cues. On the 2004 remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” – which featured the biggest orchestra Sperling ever conducted with well over 100 players – Oscar-winning composer Rachel Portman was less interested in lining up certain elements than in achieving a particular romantic, emotional effect, he says.
With such a background in theater and film, it was perhaps inevitable that Sperling should try his hand at stage and film direction. He’s done “See What I Wanna See” in Williamstown, Mass., and at the Public Theater in Manhattan and “V-Day” at the New York Music Theatre Festival. His musical short, “Love Mom,” has generated buzz on the film festival scene – no small feat considering the movie had a $100 budget that Sperling says went for pizza.
“I love working with actors and have a great interest in art and design.”
Can opera – which Wagner said encompasses all the arts – be far behind? Funny you should mention that. Sperling did a concert version of Ricky Gordon’s opera “The Grapes of Wrath” at Carnegie Hall. It was narrated by Jane Fonda, in tribute to dad Henry, who played the iconic Tom Joad in the 1940 film.
Sperling’s in discussion to do more opera. While the New York City resident is weighing those options, he and partner Noah are busy running after their fraternal twin girls, who are just over a year old. The dads get a kick out of the pair, who mimic playing the piano on their high-chair trays.
To Sperling, it’s beautiful music
For more on Ted Sperling and the Westchester Philharmonic’s upcoming season, call (914) 682-3707 or visit westchesterphil.org.