Current show: "Cabaret"
By: Book by Joe Masteroff, based on play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood; music by John Kander; lyrics by Fred Ebb
Produced by: City Lights Theater Company
Directed by: Kit Wilder
Choreographed by: Wilder
Music direction by: Katie Coleman
Featuring: Josiah Frampton, Samantha Rasler, Shachar-Lee Yaakabovitz, Sarah Haas, Kay Thornton, Jennifer C. Maggio, Tonya Duncan, Jeremy Ryan, David Randolph Evans, Jonathan Wright, Ryan Mardesich, Nick Mandracchia, Karen DeHart, Caitlin Papp, Brian Herndon, Marley Westley, Amy Soriano-Palagi, Noah Lerner, Alex Driggers, Jennifer C. Marrio, Emily Ann Beets, Ari Lagomarsino, Krista Warner, Sarah Younan, Alex Driggers
When: July 18-August 25, 2019
Where: City Lights Theatre Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose
Tickets: $25-$46 (upgrade for table seating; discounts available for seniors, educators, students). Visit cltc.org or call 408-295-4200.
Current show: "Hamilton"
By: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Produced by: Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs, Jill Furman and The Public Theater
Directed by: Thomas Kail
Choreographed by: Andy Blankenbuehler
Stage manager: Kimberly Fisk
Scenic design: David Korins
Costume design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting design: Howell Binkley
Sound design: Nevin Steinberg
Featuring: Brandon Louis Armstrong, Ruben J. Carbajal, Darilyn Castillo, Julia K. Harriman, Isaiah Johnson, Simon Longnight, Rick Negron, Sabrina Sloan, Julius Thomas III and Donald Webber Jr.
Running time: 165 minutes, one intermission
When: Through January 5, 2020
Where: SHN Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco
Tickets: $111-$686 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com
and absolutely loving it
Through talent, hard work and perseverance, she makes a living at it
It takes a lot to become a successful music director in musical theater, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Coleman, born and raised in Mountain View, “just loved musical theater from a young age,” she said during a phone interview. She started piano lessons when she was 6 years old, but, “when I would play piano for fun, I would play musical theater songs.”
She also did some acting, at Palo Alto Youth Theatre and at Los Altos Youth Theatre.
After college, at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, she came back to the Bay Area, and landed a job in the development department at San Jose Repertory Theatre.
“I worked at San Jose Rep for about six months,” she said, “and realized two things: I hated sitting at computer — I just wanted to be in the rehearsal hall. I would sneak in to watch rehearsals. And I realized that was where I wanted to be.
“I met people who were making a living making music in theater. I quit my job, and tried to make it as a piano player, in 2005. In the 14 years since, I’ve basically been playing music, doing theater.”
Coleman is a confident, self-respecting and well-spoken person, with plenty of charisma and wit.
In the Bay Area, she’s made music at San Jose Stage, City Lights, Los Altos Stage Company, and elsewhere, but she came up against a hard reality: “I got to the point where I was music-directing shows for a living, paying my rent doing it — it was really hard to afford to do that — I could pay my rent, but couldn’t save anything. … Silicon Valley doesn’t support artists, and it’s expensive to live here. There are so few professional companies that pay well. Companies don’t expect people to make their living in theater. … I don't want to live in a community that doesn’t support the arts.”
So, in 2018, when offered a bedroom to rent in New York with a friend, she moved to that city, which used to be the most expensive place to live in the United States, before the Silicon Valley showed everybody what’s what.
Speaking in July from Aquitaine Wine Bistro in San Francisco, where she’d stopped during a break from her “Hamilton” duties to talk with me, Coleman said she “came back here to do a couple of projects. I did ‘Hedwig’ (San Jose Stage’s brilliant production), then I went back to New York, then came back to do ‘Mary Poppins’ at San Francisco Playhouse, and also worked at A.C.T.." She started to get better gigs in San Francisco, and then "Hamilton" called, so she finds herself back here in the most expensive place. "That allowed me to work on ‘Cabaret.’”
Many of her belongings are in storage in New York, and the bedroom she’d had there has been sublet.
“I have to figure out how long I want to keep my stuff there. I like that I could build a community for myself there. It’s not an easy decision, either way. It’s kind of like choosing family and friends here, over better work. … I wish I could make a good living here, in the Bay Area. I don’t think that’s possible.”
But for now, here she is. Before she took the “Hamilton” gig, and the “Cabaret” gig, she’d done a couple of months on tour with “Falsettos.”
“Cabaret,” which has an all-woman band at City Lights, “traditionally has a male band dressed in drag,” said Coleman. “It was written for 20 musicians, but we can only afford four. I’m on piano, Brietta Greger is on drums (she was on drums for ‘Lizzie,” too, at City Lights), Cellista is on cello (she played in ‘Sweeney Todd’ with me at San Jose Stage), and Pauline Samson is on woodwinds and accordion.”
The four are behind a stage curtain for part of the show, and fully on view part of the time, wearing sequined flare dresses with fringes.
Coleman needed on-call substitutes because of her duties with “Hamilton,” so brought in Amanda Ku and Sarah Hirsch. Hirsch also has a conflict — she’s part of the music crew for Theatre Works Silicon Valley’s New Works Festival.
It’s a small community, really, of top-flight musical theater musicians.
“Hamilton,” Coleman said, “is a challenge. The most difficult show I’ve ever worked on. The music is very challenging. It’s written very specifically, and the expectations are very high. They want it played in a certain way. They want you to be on top of it. I am a better musician because of it.”
Coleman is part of a four-person keyboards team who rotate playing at rehearsals and playing in the pit during the show. “They have a lot of rehearsals,” Coleman said, “ three to five times a week, from simple music touch-ups to full-on understudy run-throughs.
“It’s interesting to be a part of something like that. It’s not creating something new, but trying to exactly emulate something that was done prior. Everyone involved are just lovely humans. I’ve really enjoyed most of them.”
Of course, in “Hamilton,” the audience never knows Coleman is there. If she has the night off, she is replaced by some other perfectionist pianist, and the show goes on.
But part of what Coleman loves about musical theater is being able to be on stage, performing with the actors, singers and dancers.
She’s done plenty of that, including currently in “Cabaret.” But also:
— “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the brilliant production at San Jose Stage in 2018. She led a punk-rock band, wearing leather, fishnets, “a fake Mohawk and crazy ’80s makeup.” She and the band were on stage full time, and she sang backup. “We had to have the music memorized (no sight-reading reading from scores). It was probably the most different experience in terms of being really involved, connecting with the audience in ways I never did before.”
— In “Sweeney Todd” in 2018, also at San Jose Stage, “We were not super visible, but had to fit that world. We were stage right, kind of tucked behind a column. The costumes sort of fit that world. The makeup was a little dirty and a little dark.”
— “1940s Radio Hour,” at Los Altos Stage Company in 2017. “I was fully on stage, as Zelda,” Coleman said. “I wore a little black-and-white ’40s dress and hat.”
— “Lizzie,” at City Lights in 2017, also saw Coleman on stage, but just in regular, black clothes.
— “title of show” at Los Altos in 2017 saw Coleman as a character in the play, as well as a musician. “I had lines — I had to storm off the stage at one point.”
— “Chicago” at Palo Alto Players in 2015 was an excellent production, with Coleman as music director of a band fully on stage the whole time. “I wore a black kind of flapper dress,” Coleman said. ‘They gave us hats so we didn’t have to curl our hair.”
Whatever the play, the costumes, Coleman said, have to fit the show. Fit the vibe.
“I am a musical-theater-to-the-core person,” Coleman said. “It’s what I live and breathe.
“I love being a part of the performance in that way. It took me a while to get there. I used to enjoy more being in the background,” said Coleman. “But I am getting used to being around actors. It’s such a high to perform.
“‘Hedwig’ was so much fun to do … we were rock stars on that stage, and connected with the audience. Now, just sitting in the pit is less thrilling.”