The Olney Theatre Center has beefed up its musical theater muscle in the past few years, but it all may have sounded different if music director Christopher Youstra had gone ahead and quit the business the way he’d planned.
“I was just done,” Youstra says. “I didn’t have resources. I was tired of freelancing, working at a bunch of different theaters, always in my car.” In addition to the perpetual frustration of fighting for budgets to hire enough musicians to make his shows sound good, his daughter had just turned 13, and he could barely find time to see her. “I am done,” he repeats, recalling his vow.
[The revolting children have comic bite in “Matilda the Musical”]
But then Jason Loewith was hired as the Olney’s artistic director — this was in 2013, with Youstra on the search committee — and the troupe’s musical ambitions ramped up. Marvin Hamlisch’s brassy “A Chorus Line,” Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy “On the Town,” the premiere of writer-director Moisés Kaufman’s and composer Arturo O’Farrill’s “Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical” and a sellout sensation with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop “In the Heights” (co-produced with Bethesda’s Round House Theatre) all typify the reach, built on an increasingly sturdy foundation of musical values. A bristling production of Tim Minchin’s “Matilda” is currently onstage, with Youstra’s nine-piece orchestra driving the sarcastic, sneering score.
Christopher Youstra plays an accordion for the Olney Theatre Center production of “Once.” (Stan Barouh)
Youstra, now the troupe’s associate artistic director of music theater, first knew Loewith as the lyricist of the musical “The Adding Machine” with composer Joshua Schmidt. Together, Loewith and Youstra wrote the family-friendly musical “Big Nate” that premiered in 2013 at Adventure Theatre MTC. When Loewith took the Olney job, he persuaded Youstra to stick around for “A Chorus Line,” with its high-strung score of backstage angst and big dance breaks.
Highlights since then include this past winter’s “Once,” the stage adaptation of the Dublin-set movie about an Irish singer-songwriter and a Czech pianist nearly falling in love. Youstra led a zesty onstage band for that, briefly joining Actors’ Equity so he could be in the show, and at one point even playing accordion.
“ ‘Once’ was my baby,” Youstra says with characteristic enthusiasm. He generally prefers having his musicians onstage rather than apart in an orchestra pit (the “Matilda” players are offstage left), and with “Once,” “The visceral reaction of the audience hearing the playing — that’s what it’s about. It’s sitting there and having that music hit you.”
“There are no classes to teach you how to conduct from a keyboard,” he explains. Because he had played piano for musicals in college (persuaded by three magic words from a faculty member: “We’ll pay you”), he had an instinct for what he needed to know. “You’re a vocal coach, rehearsal pianist, conductor, orchestrator, arranger, transposer, and you’re even working with electronics; we have three laptops for ‘Matilda.’ And a lot of that you have to learn on the job.”
Are musicals his favorite form of music? “Sort of,” he says, noting that he started too late to excel as a classical performer and never worked enough at really getting jazz. “But I’m not a musicals fanboy. I’m a musician first. I love connecting with people through music. And I use theater for that.”
“He knows I can’t do it,” Youstra says. “He stands behind me the whole time, which is so unnerving. And then he started fiddling with the registers” — the switches that change the instrument’s tone and character — “while I’m playing. It was horrifying and awesome at the same time.”
The “Matilda” ensemble at the Olney Theatre Center. (Stan Barouh)
As another way to push the envelope at Olney, Youstra and Loewith have started an Applause Series of musicals in one-night-only concert format. “Finian’s Rainbow” and Stephen Sondheim’s early, seldom-seen “Anyone Can Whistle” were featured earlier in a season that closes July 26 with “Children of Eden.” Youstra rates “Children” as the best score by “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “Wicked” composer Stephen Schwartz.
Having 14 musicians for last year’s full-scale production of “On the Town” was a joy, but also half as many as Youstra knows the sassy show really demands. The concerts are a way to keep audiences and budget-conscious decision-makers hearing good scores and listening to the difference that more musicians can make. “Any chance to get people used to [orchestra] numbers in the teens,” Youstra says, is an opportunity he’ll grab. “I want them to know that 16 is not a ridiculous number.”