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On the Road With Faith Seetoo

Seattle Local 76-493 member Faith Seetoo has spent most of her adult life as an associate conductor on the road with over a dozen touring Broadway shows including The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Mamma Mia!, A Chorus Line, and Newsies. Since April she has been on the North American tour of Aladdin.

Faith’s first glimpse into the world of theatre music came when she saw Peter Pan at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles as a child. She was so taken by the show that she wrote to both the show’s star, Sandy Duncan, and the conductor of the orchestra, Jack Lee.

“I was equally thrilled to get a response from both of them,” she recalls. “In my letter, I asked Jack how you become a Broadway pit keyboardist.” He wrote back telling the 12-year-old two things: practice and it’s who you know.

Faith earned degrees in performance and psychology from the Oberlin Conservatory and College in Ohio. When she entered college she’d planned to become a classical pianist, but changed her mind. “When I graduated I didn’t know how to play pop music so I went to study at the Dick Grove School of Music [in Los Angeles],” she says.

Learning the Craft
One of her classmates was a close friend of Jeffrey Silverman, first keyboardist of The Phantom of the Opera orchestra at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. “So there’s the ‘who you know,’” laughs Faith who, at that point, had little experience in musical theatre.

Eventually, she got a chance to sub for Silverman. Prior to the gig, he offered her a few tips: “If you make a mistake when everyone else is playing, no one else will notice; but you have to nail your solos. Know them inside and out, backwards and forwards, and by heart.” Determined to succeed, Faith memorized the solos.

“Good thing I did,” she says. “I took my pulse after my first solo and it was 180 beats per minute because I was so freaking scared and nervous!” At 24 years old, she was hooked. For the following months, she continued to sub for the show.

“About a year later, Edward G. Robinson became our associate conductor; I wasted no time asking him how you become a Broadway conductor,” says Faith, who eventually followed him to New York City for private lessons. “Through his instruction and his contacts I got my first tour and that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing since 1992.”

“I love all the shows for different reasons,” says Faith. “I worked on Aladdin during its workshop at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, in the summer of 2011. I’ve seen it grow and evolve. They affectionately called it ‘the mattress on a stick’ production because they didn’t spend any money on the carpet. The main goal was just to see if they could expand it beyond the 45-minute stage show that was playing at Disney’s California Adventure. It’s a special thrill to be involved with a new work.”

Faith says that among favorite past shows is Mamma Mia!, which she toured with twice, 2001 to 2004 and 2009 to 2010. “I was on the first national tour when it was brand new and the hot ticket. Nobody knew what song was coming next,” she says. “I played air piano to Abba when I was a kid listening to the radio, so every time I played that little lick from ‘Dancing Queen’ it tickled me.”

Working Union
An AFM member from the start of her career, Faith appreciates working union when she’s on the road. In 25 years she’s seen Pamplhlet B, AFM’s touring theater contract, evolve and become more comprehensive.

“When I first started out, Pamphlet B didn’t have a lot of things spelled out,” she says. “For instance, we didn’t have a piano rehearsal rate. When I was working for Cameron Mackintosh on Miss Saigon, they defaulted to the Broadway rate, which was something like $50—really nice. But I heard from another touring company that they decided to take the orchestra day rehearsal rate, around $30. That was a huge discrepancy, which I argued against. The rehearsal pianist isn’t sitting in an orchestra—you are the orchestra. There’s a lot of responsibility. Our Pamphlet B negotiating committee eventually succeeded in making the piano rehearsal rate the same as the associate conductor rate.”

Similar to the rest of the music industry, technology has permanently and profoundly changed the work life of Broadway touring musicians, both negatively and positively.

“When I started with Phantom I knew I was lucky, but I didn’t know how lucky. We traveled with everyone—an 18-piece orchestra. It was the same for Miss Saigon. That was the golden age of touring. Nowadays, orchestra sizes are definitely shrinking,” Faith says. Like it or not, technology allows the keyboard to play many instruments that would have been found in a full pit.

Among the positives, relocating city to city is easier now. “Before the Internet, if I didn’t want to stay in a place the company manager chose for official housing, I’d have to call the local chamber of commerce and guess,” she says. It’s the simple things that are easier, like finding a post office and not having to rely on maps to locate the next destination.

Around 2010, Faith took a few years off the road and ended up being the unofficial resident associate music director and conductor at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. Working on more than 18 different shows in Seattle from 2006 through 2013, she says it was a learning experience in the role of associate.

“I learned that different conductors have different ideas of what their ideal associate is,” she says. “I remember two very extreme examples at the 5th. One person gave me a huge amount of freedom in my job responsibilities, and the other one felt I was overstepping my bounds if I tried to be too helpful. I closed one show on a Sunday and started rehearsal for the next on Monday, so I had to quickly shift gears.”

“Now, when I interview to be associate, I always ask the conductor what is most important to them in an associate. This piece of information tells me a lot,” she says.

To Faith, the role of associate conductor encompasses the best of both worlds—playing and conducting. “Also, while most conductors negotiate a salary, under Pamphlet B I get associate conductor scale; I am paid hourly any time I am in the theatre,” she says, plus she is shielded from the responsibility of managing personnel issues.

In her position, she supports the conductor both technically and emotionally. “I enjoy working with someone and finding out what makes them the best musical director they can be,” she says, summoning her earlier training in psychology. “I never realized how much that would help me. I think people skills are highly underrated. Artistic people can be very sensitive.”

When Faith conducts in any given city, a local keyboard player subs for her. Another part of her job is marking her music very clearly. “I’ve been a keyboard sub and it’s terrifying. I give them all the help I can, keeping in mind that something that is second nature to me, definitely is not to them,” she says.

The Zen Challenge
Among the more difficult parts of Faith’s work is what she calls the “Zen challenge” of keeping each performance fresh, even when she’s passing her 200th performance of Aladdin or 1,500th performance of Miss Saigon. “There is a Zen saying that you can never step into the same stream twice,” she says. “The challenge is to remember that this is something new for the people in the audience.”

Her trick to overcome weariness is to look in the conductor monitors. “I can often see the people in the front row behind the conductor. Watching their faces reminds me that they don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s such a gift to be able to give people an escape—joy, laughter, and tears—for two and a half hours,” she says.

The first show after arriving in a new city can be extremely tiring. In fact, our interview took place as she traveled from Minneapolis to Seattle. Monday, she drove 12 hours from Minneapolis to Billings, Montana, and then another 12 hours on Tuesday, from Billings to Seattle. Wednesday morning, load-in day, began at 8:00 a.m. and ended at 11:00 p.m. Thursday also began at 8:00 a.m. and ended with the first Seattle performance.

The variety of the touring lifestyle fits Faith’s outgoing and adventurous personality. “It’s fascinating to me to work with all the different orchestras and see how they respond, and to meet all the great musicians and make new friends as well,” she says. “I’ve been touring so long that I have friends and family all around the country.”

She’s quick to admit that this type of lifestyle doesn’t work for everyone. “A good contractor and music director will not only take into account the musicianship of the people they want on their tour, but also the personality. I would say it’s an equal factor. Let’s say someone is a really great musician, but they are terrible to get along with—that can turn into a toxic environment on the road because you are together a lot,” she says.

“It’s like a big family and it can get pretty insular moving city to city. You are with each other a lot more than normal and you can’t go home,” she says, adding that it helps to be an open communicator. “If somebody bothers you, talk to them right away, Don’t let it fester. And be respectful; be a good person in general.”

Faith advises touring musicians to seek outside activities, apart from their colleagues, whenever they can. “You can get so myopic being on the road with a show,” she explains. “I’m a big foodie, so I try new cuisines all over.” She drives so that she can travel with her companion cat, Huckle (aka Piggy)—also a foodie. Plus she brings along a French press and coffee grinder. A good cup of coffee at the start of the day puts her in a good mood and the cat helps her with much-needed perspective.