Inside D.C. entertainment

Signature's Gabriel Mangiante can direct two musicals at once

September 23, 2011 - 11:31 AM
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When Gabriel Mangiante moved to Washington in 2005, he expected to spend the next chapter of his adult life sitting behind a computer, not in front of an orchestra. A graduate of the University of South Carolina at Aiken, he held degrees in computer science and mathematics, and had no problem getting hired by a defense contractor.

But he had a problem with getting bored.

And there’s nothing more interesting then what has turned out to be his alternative career: conducting two musicals a day at Signature Theatre.

Through Oct. 16, the Arlington venue is running a pair of world premieres in repertory: The Hollow, a liberal adaptation of Washington Irving’s legend, and The Boy Detective Fails, a stage arrangement of the 2006 novel by its author, Joe Meno. Both shows were two years in the works, and Mangiante was at nearly every workshop.

It was, in Mangiante’s words, “a rather unbelievably pioneering process.”

The multitasking he does now — showing up for work and trying to remember which show he’s playing when — is easy compared to simultaneously rehearsing two shows.

“It meant using my time effectively, and for a while, that meant using 18 hours a day effectively,” Mangiante says. “Both shows excited me in different ways. It wasn’t a matter of not wanting to be there, it was a matter of me wanting to be everywhere at once.”

In addition to the everyday tasks of playing the piano during rehearsal, Mangiante programmed the keyboards, hired musicians, and served as liaison between the composers, orchestrators, and Signature’s artistic team. He got to know both Matt Connor (The Hollow) and Adam Gwon (Boy Detective) well, and their musical languages even better.

If you’ve seen both shows, you’ve seen Mangiante’s shock of dark hair bobbing behind a scrim in the orchestra loft above the stage. And you’ve heard textbook examples of just how differently scores can function in a musical. Boy Detective is what music-types call “through composed.” There are very few moments of silence. The music punctuates the dialogue rather than just providing atmosphere, and narrative lyrics push the plot along. There’s lots of color in the music, with bright solos for wind instruments, faux harp on the keyboards and plenty of Mangiante’s piano.

“’Whimsical’ is the word that is tiresomely applied to (Gwon’s) music, but I think that’s the right word,” Mangiante says. “He writes more like he’s scoring a movie, with very specific language. There are a lot of almost pastiche moments in (Boy Detective), but they are so artfully done.”

For example, there’s a rather funny scene where recovering child detectives — now adults with mental illness issues — sit around in a support group setting. As each character stands to sing and share, there’s a staccato backdrop like you might hear at the end of a crime show, when the sleuth explains he (or she) has cracked the case. It’s an homage to film noir, Mangiante says. Another scene evokes vaudeville, and others, children’s television show themes.

The Hollow’s score includes musical references as well, but those are intended as historical hints. For example, versatile pit musician Lee Lachman plays the recorder (plus five other instruments) and the opening chorale sounds a bit like an early American hymn. In the development process, Connor was the more passive of the two composers, responding to book writer Hunter Foster. When a song begins in The Hollow, the action stops, as if the music and lyrics are an emotional reaction rather than the next twist in the plot.

“(Connor) lets his music express the subtext, which means that his music tends to set atmosphere, it tends to have a hypnotic, sort of minimalist effect, that I think is unique,” Mangiante says.

He offers a description that sounds rather like how fans of minimalism defend works by composer Philip Glass. “His harmonic language seems deceptively simple at first, but then it takes very unexpected turns, which I appreciate very much,” Mangiante says. “My background is classical, and I have a special affection for 20th- and 21st-century music, so anything that’s harmonically interesting is one-up.”

The son of a pianist and an engineer, Mangiante studied piano with his mother a child, but he wasn’t a model student. “If you want to keep going, go do it on your own,” he recalls her saying, and that is essentially what he did. He stayed active in music, but planned to pursue a more-lucrative, less-fun career in computer science. Art kept beckoning, however, and despite lacking a music degree, he gave playing the piano for a living a shot.

Things are working out. His credits include a dozen Signature gigs and two shows at Studio (This Beautiful City and Reefer Madness, which won a Helen Hayes Award). This season he’s basically full time at Signature. He’ll be sitting at the piano during various cabarets, in the pit for Hairspray for two months, and then music directing Brother Russia and Xanadu in the spring. Ideally, Mangiante would have time to pursue a bit of “art music,” on the side, but he is quick to remind himself that all music is art. And that he’d rather play new tunes at Signature than Rodgers and Hammerstein or some sort of pop-rock music revue.

“I’m so glad that I work for a theater that is brave enough to make these kind of choices in terms of throwing new things out there,” Mangiante says. “I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. I have infinite respect for the theaters that produce the classics, but I prefer the leading edge myself.”

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