‘Wicked’ Path to Broadway
Eating ramen noodles for frugal meals – on borrowed utensils. Daily six-mile walks to midtown Manhattan to save subway fare – uphill both ways! In his “starving artist” period in NYC, Matt Doebler cobbled together odd jobs like coaching singers for auditions or playing rehearsal piano for one-off shows. He considered himself fortunate for always finding musical work; he never waited tables.
Before NYC, he was a full-time pianist and faculty member in Penn State’s musical theatre program for six years. Through that program, Doebler met Broadway music professionals who suggested he had the “right stuff” to make it in New York. He finally threw caution to the wind and moved there, accompanying some recent graduates.
The (Ruby) Slipper Fits
One of his Penn State friends knew an actress in the cast of Wicked who also taught acting classes. She needed a pianist for these classes and Doebler’s friend recommended him enthusiastically, not even certain he had the right qualifications. “Without my friend bragging about me, I might have never got the chance,” Doebler recalls. Through this new connection, he later learned Wicked needed a new rehearsal pianist. Doebler auditioned and was hired in 2005, just six months after moving to New York.
He appreciates how serendipitously his career was launched. When the keyboardists in the Wicked pit orchestra needed more sub musicians, Doebler learned to play their parts. Then he was asked learn to conduct the 23-member pit orchestra, since they would be short of conductors over the summer. He worked on ‘Wicked’ for four years on Broadway, then toured nationally with the show as associate conductor for three years. This led to work on other shows, including Les Misérables on Broadway and touring with The Book of Mormon. While the years touring interrupted his on-Broadway career, Doebler says it was a fabulous experience.
In the fall of 2016 Doebler will make his full-time Broadway debut as associate conductor and accordion chair for a new musical, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. (Doebler has dabbled with the accordion since high school, following tradition in his father’s family.) This show promises to capture headlines as singer Josh Groban’s Broadway premiere.
Love for Learning
Throughout his career, Doebler believes knowing and absorbing different musical styles has been very helpful. He advises aspiring Broadway musicians to do the same. “For example, you should be familiar with hip hop and rap if you’re auditioning for the current hit Hamilton,” he explains.
In college Doebler played with a swing band in local bars, while also singing with the concert choir, glee club and serving as pianist for the show choir. “Concert choir repertoire doesn’t directly relate to Broadway music, but I learned how it feels to sing in a choir and I have those sensibilities now when teaching Broadway singers new parts,” remarks Doebler. Throughout his musical education and career, he’s been both a follower and leader; Doebler strives to retain that dual perspective.
Once on the Wicked tour, he was conducting when a woodwind player asked him to breathe before giving the pit orchestra a downbeat. “She knew I was a keyboard player, who didn’t need breath to play my instrument,” he recalls. “But without air support and time to phonate, woodwinds can’t create a good sound.” Doebler welcomed the input and modified his technique. Several cities later on the same tour, another woodwind player thanked him for breathing with them. Listening made him a better conductor.
“If I had moved to New York with zero connections, nobody would have known my skill set or who I was,” Doebler says. “There are very few open auditions where you have the opportunity to demonstrate your ability.” Because the business of Broadway moves so fast, hiring someone off the street is a huge risk.
After a Penn State connection provided his Wicked break, things snowballed. Work begets more work. Doebler appreciates his good fortune now because opportunities often come to him. Recommendations and referrals mean there are very few times he must audition. His only pressure is making good on those referrals.
He remembers those people who help him and tries to return the favors. Doebler believes you should treat everyone nicely, in part because you never know who might have the power to hire you in the future.
“In my field, there’s no direct, clear career path,” he concludes. “No specific training will guarantee anything. It’s more about coincidence, circumstances and networking – lots of crazy things conspire.”