In the Rotation at Mamma Mia

June 08, 2011
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  Even in The Big Apple, good paying Monday night gigs are about as rare as a blown save by Mariano Rivera. Over the past year though, I've logged a few dozen of them thanks to my role as a guitar sub on Broadway's longest running musical, the ABBA-based Mamma Mia!

  I got the gig thorough a little initiative and a lot of luck back in December of 2009. Looking for a new Broadway gig and lacking any leads, I logged on to the Local 802 Musicians Union website, found the names of the guitarists in all the pit orchestras and began e-mailing. I was fortunate enough to hear back from among others, Rock of Ages' Joel Hoekstra (who offered kind words about the YouTube clips and MP3s I sent but said he didn't need any subs at the moment) and Mamma Mia's Jeff Campbell who said he might be needing a new sub soon and invited me down to the pit to shadow.

   You may not know Jeff Campbell by name but I'll bet some of you saw his incendiary "Little Wing" solo when he performed with Sting on Saturday Night Live back in 1988. In fact, Jeff was Der Stingle's guitarist during the late '80s and early '90s, circumnavigating the globe as part of the Amnesty International "Human Rights Now!" Tour. I had seen Jeff onstage with Sting at the Nassau Coliseum when I was a college freshman and can distinctly remember pondering exactly what pinnacle of six-stringed awesomeness he'd have to have reached to be the first guitarist to tour with Sting after Andy Summers!  Now I was hooking up with him backstage at the Winter Garden Theatre in the hopes that he might possibly consider trusting me to play something remotely resembling a reasonable facsimile of what he plays in his absence.....Bitchin'!

 Despite his impressive resume (which also includes recording and/or performing with everyone from Bon Jovi and Aretha Franklin to Michael Buble' and Southside Johnny, and can be further explored at jeffreyleecampbell.com) Jeff is easygoing and amicable with an unpretentious manner and we quickly developed a good rapport. During the intermission he told me one of his subs was leaving to become the full-time guitarist for American Idiot and that if I was interested in joining the rotation, he'd give me a shot.

 

  Jeff's chair is actually Guitar II (Guitar I being manned by the amazing Mr. Doug Quinn) and it requires me to play a bridge-position-humbucker-loaded Strat through an early model Line6 amp, as well as Taylor 6- and 12-string acoustics. I had only limited experience playing acoustic 12-string in live settings and while shedding the show,  became painfully aware that modulations to certain keys "inhospitable" to guitarists (seriously, how many 12-string Zeppelin or Byrds songs are in freakin' Ab?) would be pretty taxing on my fretting hand over the course of a two-and-a-half-hour gig. Yeesh...

 

 Unlike Moving Out (but LIKE almost every other Broadway show), Mamma Mia's nine-person pit band is led by a conductor. As a result, keeping your peeps front and center is pretty darn crucial—that is unless you actually want to come back in from a vamp at the wrong time, begin or end a song before everyone else, or cause any other type of unwanted extracurricular musical mayhem.

  As someone who's played primarily rock, blues, and wedding-cocktail-hour-worthy jazz, my experience following a conductor would best be described as  non-existent. I do seem to remember someone at the front of the room during high school jazz ensemble rehearsals waving their hands rhythmically and shouting, but like most things occurring in the front of the classroom during my school days, I didn't really pay that much attention to it...

   If you've never done it before, syncing up with a conductor's cues is trickier than it seems, and it isn't exactly something you can practice at home. Since subs don't get to rehearse with the ensemble before coming in, I made it a point to shadow Jeff numerous times, paying particular attention to the conductor's gesticulated prompts. As a result, I was confidently determined to nail them all on my first time subbing the show...

...Ok, so I didn't exactly nail them all on my first (or second, or third...) time subbing the show. Thankfully though, Mamma Mia's principal conductor Wendy Bobbitt Cavett is patient, friendly, patient, encouraging, patient, takes the time to offer useful feedback, and, oh yeah, did I mention she's pretty patient too?

  Eventually, even a dunderheaded rocker like me starts to catch on. Soon I'm rockin' the 12-string while handling the simultaneous tempo change and modulation to Db in "I Do, I Do, I Do" with some degree of competence.

  Suffice to say it's been a couple of seasons and I haven't blown too many saves yet...

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