John Bronston
John Bronston
Western Wayne News Podcast

John Bronston is a real Renaissance man. He plays a range of instruments, sings, dances, conducts and composes. And he is the first person to recognize that his love for the arts took root growing up in Richmond. He cut his teeth at Richmond Civic Theatre and Whitewater Opera Company, and was honored by Richmond Symphony Orchestra in its Young Artist competition. For more than 20 years now, he has lived and worked in New York City. When he sat down with Kate Jetmore, not only did he share several stories about his professional career in the performing arts, he spoke about what keeps bringing him back to Wayne County.


John Bronston: I am John Bronston and I’m a pianist and musical director.

Kate Jetmore: From Civic Spark Media and the Western Wayne News in Wayne County Indiana, I’m Kate Jetmore. As a native of Richmond Indiana, I’m excited to be sitting down with some of our neighbors and listening to the stories that define our community. My guest today is John Bronston, who was recently music director of Outer Critics Circle Award winner, the Harder They Come at the Public Theater. Previously, he was the associate music director of A Man of No Importance at Classic Stage Company, was a sub-keyboard player and music direction fellow at Tina on Broadway and was the musical director for the national tour of Hair. He’s the creator, music director and producer of the series Creating in Color, dedicated to producing concerts of classic musicals with predominantly Black casts. Welcome, John. Thanks so much for joining me today.

John Bronston: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to get to talk to you.

Kate Jetmore: I know, and just before we pushed record, we were talking about how we are both natives of Richmond, both moved to New York, but somehow never overlapped until we finally met about a year and a half ago in New York.

John Bronston: Yes, through your friend Tom Sesma, and I just was so excited to finally get to meet you and he was like, “Kate’s going to be around I would love to introduce you all.” And I was like, “Yes, please.”

Kate Jetmore: Yes. So we finally met at the stage door of A Man of No Importance at the Classic Stage, and I’ll just take the opportunity to say I was there because Tom was in the show and he got me tickets to the show. My son and my nephew were also there and we loved it. It was a really beautiful piece.

John Bronston: I had such an incredible experience learning that show, working on that show. It was really magical and I’ve learned so much doing it. I’m so thankful I got to do it.

Kate Jetmore: Well, I want to hear more about your time in New York and the career that you’ve forged in New York, but let’s start with Richmond, if you don’t mind. As I said, we’re both natives of Richmond. Both have moved away from Richmond but still maintain really strong ties to our hometown. I’d love to know how you manage that and what your relationship to Richmond means to you.

John Bronston: Well, I grew up in Richmond and my whole family… A lot of my family is still based in Indiana and Ohio. My parents are still in Richmond, and I got involved in the theater because I was doing school shows and my mother said, “Let’s get you involved at Richmond Civic Theatre.” And with Junior Players at the time, which was their youth theater at that time. And I mean, she got so involved that she got on the board at Richmond Civic Theatre and she was never interested in theater at all, but she was like, “Well, if John’s going to do this, I’m going to dive in with him.” And so I’m so excited that I get to go home at least once or twice a year. I get to spend time and see people that I grew up with from high school. I also get to see shows regularly.

Whenever possible I go to see shows at Richmond Civic. And also, I did a master class at Richmond Civic this past fall, which was really cool with young people, young artists, that they were trying to figure out what is possible for them. And it’s one of the things that is really exciting to me because I wasn’t sure what was possible when I was in Richmond. I mean, I had an idea of it because of you, because people were always like, “Kate Jetmore is someone that found a way to have a professional career in the arts and she’s from Richmond, and so if somebody can do it, then somebody else can do it too.”

Kate Jetmore: Oh wow. Wow, thank you for sharing that with me and I’d love to hear more about that masterclass. I love that RCT offered the masterclass that you were the one who gave it. So talk us through a little bit what that looked like.

John Bronston: Yeah, I mean it was really a lovely afternoon, it was right before Thanksgiving and I had reached out, my friend David Cobine in DC he was my high school English teacher. It’s weird that we’re-

Kate Jetmore: Mine too.

John Bronston: … He and I are friends now, it’s funny. And he had reached out was like, “Would you be interested?” And I was like, “Oh, absolutely.” I was like, “I’ll be home extra time for Thanksgiving so I have more time.” And I had people come in and sing. And it’s different because most of the work that I do in New York is with pop rock musicals, and I know that Richmond Civic and community theaters in general, they mostly do more traditional musicals than I work on. And so I was like, it would be really great if they could come in and sing some pop music for me in addition to just singing musical theater things.

I’d love to give them some feedback about ways that you can do that as an actor and as a musical theater performer that makes that stuff actually live and make sense. And it was wild because I had performers from the age of 30 all the way down to 12 come in and sing for me, and we gave them adjustments and I didn’t know I was going to have people as young as 12 in the room. And it was really exciting and they were all really thrilled to try new things. It was so unfamiliar to all of them, and I had just a blast working with them.

Kate Jetmore: That’s wonderful. What do you think they learned about themselves? What do you think they took away from that experience?

John Bronston: Well, several of them said that they had never sung some of that material any place. They’re like, “Oh, I sing along with this in the car or at home if it’s on TV or something.” And they had never thought about how to make that material specific to them. And it’s one of those things that young performers, especially, you learn things from hearing recordings. And so they were all exploring like, oh, I don’t have to be the recording. I can be individually myself and I can also express something that means something to me and not just because it means something to Billie Eilish. So it’s always weird. I came up not singing Billie Eilish because she didn’t exist then, but I came up singing Elton John songs and I think, oh, those songs have such weird lyrics that sometimes I never know what they mean to him, so I have to kind of make it up for what they mean to me and sing that. And it’s just something that you learn to do by doing.

Kate Jetmore: That kind of is the definition of art, what you just said. How does this apply to me and how does it make sense in the context of my own life and my own experience?

John Bronston: Yeah, I mean, nobody lives the life of Fantine and Les Mis, but you have to act it and figure it out for yourself and what that means for you.

Kate Jetmore: Right. Well, you mentioned RCT, which always played an incredibly important role in my life as well, and in the life of my family in Richmond. What other organizations or experiences really made an impact on you when you were a young person in Richmond?

John Bronston: Well, I mean Whitewater Opera was one of those things that was… I didn’t even realize how formative it had been for me being able to see opera in my own hometown and the Richmond Symphony. But Charles Combopiano from Whitewater Opera was my piano teacher as piano teacher. And so she said that when I was very young that he heard me play and was like, “Oh, that kid really has something. He really should keep doing this.” And she told me that just like a couple of years ago, and it moved me so much because I had no clue that he ever heard me.

Kate Jetmore: And who was it that told you that?

John Bronston: Wendy Oberle.

Kate Jetmore: Oh, okay.

John Bronston: And she still teaches piano there. And my voice teacher still teaches voice in Richmond, Marjorie Johnstone. I actually went to Marjorie for a voice lesson two or three years ago when I was up for a really legit musical theater thing. And I was like, “I just want to have a tune up and see, I’ve been singing all this rock music for 20 years.” I was like, “I would love to have just a session just to see where I’m at.” And it was so useful. So both of them were so formative and I was on tour with Hair. Both of them came out to see me on tour conducting that show, which was really special to me.

I worked so much with what’s now Stage One Players, but Junior Players with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. One of the first things that kind of catapulted me towards college was that I did the Richmond Symphony Orchestra Young Artist Competition. And I was third place in that I placed in that. And then because of that, I entered the Indiana Youth Opera Competition, and I was a finalist for that also. It really made me certain that I was on the right kind of path, that I was learning something useful and that maybe there was going to be a space for me somewhere in the performing arts. I wasn’t sure doing exactly what, but I knew there was definitely going to be some kind of space.

Kate Jetmore: So that was as a singer, not as a pianist?

John Bronston: Yes, all those were… I was doing all those as a singer and not as a pianist. I love playing the piano. It wasn’t my first instrument. My first instrument was the trombone, but I played piano on the side, it was something that kind of snuck in. I was in maybe my sophomore year in high school, and I played piano in the pit in Richmond Civic Theater for Annie Get Your Gun. And it was the first time being in a pit, and I had such a good time doing it that I always was doing that in addition to performing when I was still performing.

Kate Jetmore: Okay. So it sounds like not only was Richmond there for you in many ways as a child, but it really continues to be, and even as a working professional in New York City, in some ways, you continue to seek out those resources in Richmond.

John Bronston: When I started looking… I started composing more, I sent some of my compositions… So Richmond Civic Theatre, when they did Glass Menagerie last, I wrote the incidental score for it.

Kate Jetmore: Wow.

John Bronston: I wrote incidental scores for some of the things that Richmond Shakespeare Festival when they started off. So it’s been something that’s continued to be a part of my artistic life.

Kate Jetmore: I totally get that. I totally get that. And I hope that our listeners hear that too, because I think sometimes the same way that you and I were thinking, I want to get out, who else got out? Who else moved away? Sometimes that can be a bit of a complex for people in Richmond. People want to leave here, they don’t want to come here. And I think these conversations are so important for reminding people. I go back every summer and my sixteen-year-old son has spent every summer of his life except for the pandemic summer in Richmond, Indiana. That’s how important it is to me, and that’s what a special place it is.

John Bronston: Oh no, that’s beautiful. I think that is so true. I also never had any issue about going back to Richmond because I moved to New York the first time right after college, and I kind of flamed out. It was a disaster. And I came back to Richmond and I was there for two and a half years, and I started doing things with Earlham College, and it was my first guest artist contract was at Earlham College. And then they asked me after I performed in a show there, I ended up staying and I choreographed a show and then I directed a show. And because of that, it kind of was like, oh, you can fly again, go back to New York. And then I’ve been here now 21 years after that brief interlude away.

Kate Jetmore: Thank you for sharing that. Looking at it from a different perspective, I’m curious if there are any resources that you wish you had had when you were a kid in Richmond. Maybe you see them now and you think, oh, I wish they’d been around when I was a kid. Or maybe you still don’t see them and you think, you know what would be a good idea, you know what would really work for young people?

John Bronston: I mean, I think that there are some really great, exciting resources. I wish that… One of the things I always wish in every community and arts that I go into is that the different organizations worked together more. There’s orchestral organizations and there’s choral organizations and there’s dramatic organizations and there’s dance studios, but there’s very little that happens where people get to work amongst other disciplines. And one of the things that really helped me was that, I mean, I purposely just sought out ways. I had a paper route and I used the money for my paper route to take dance classes. My parents were like, “We’re already paying for your piano voice lessons we cannot afford any more.” And so I was taking at the old Fred Astaire Dance Studio for a while, and then I was taking at one of the other local dance studios that existed back in the 90s in Richmond. But I mean, it would be great if organizations could figure out ways to work together and build things so that people can explore multiple types of the arts at once.

Kate Jetmore: And it’s interesting because it sort of sounds like you are describing… I mean, you really are a Renaissance man in a lot of ways. You’re like trombone, voice, piano, music direction. I conducted the orchestra for Hair on tour when it was on the road. And it sounds like that all came together for you as part of a very personal exploration. And what you’re saying is that that sort of experience and that sort of exploration could be supported in a way that it’s not currently.

John Bronston: Yeah, that’s definitely true. I mean, I take class all the time, and last year I went back, I started taking dance class again. I don’t know any music directors in New York that take dance classes. And it’s not because I have any desire to get on a stage again, but A, the reason I still sing regularly is because I want to be able to talk to singers from the place that they are at. And I love being able to move. And so I took class with Chryssie Whitehead, who was an original cast member of the Chorus Line Revival. And I met her, I did a promotional event for them at Tavern on the Green with Marvin Hamlisch when they were running. And I kept in touch all these years, and she started offering a class for older dancers and people that weren’t actively dancing all the time. And I was like, “Oh, I’m going to be there.”

Kate Jetmore: Oh, I love it.

John Bronston: “I’m going to take your class.”

Kate Jetmore: I mean, it’s all connected. Let’s talk about New York because you’ve peppered our conversation with some of your credits and some of your memories. And we talked about meeting at the stage door of A Man of No Importance. I know you performed on Broadway when you were with Tina the Musical. I just love to cast a wide net and say what kind of memories can you share? What kind of stories can you share about these 21 years that you’ve been in New York?

John Bronston: Well, it’s so wild. My first time working with a Broadway show was with the original company of Wicked. So the very first year of Wicked, I was working at Educational Theatre in New York, and I was there, I was music directing, and then I was also directing and choreographing for them sometimes. And at the end of the year, we were doing their big benefit, and it was with Wicked, and they didn’t send Eden. They sent a Glenda and an Elphaba. But since it was the first year, Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth were too busy, they were like, “We can’t come and do this benefit.” So they’ll send the covers. So it was Eden Espinosa, and it was Laura Bell Bundy and the kids that were in City Lights, and they did Defying Gravity and One Short Day, they did four or five numbers, and they did For Good with the kids, and I was teaching it to the kids and helping them do that.

And we did those benefits for several years. I think I did five years worth of them with various Broadway casts, but those were places where I was performing with Broadway performers, but not on Broadway. It took me 20 years to make my Broadway debut on Broadway. I had played rehearsals, I’d played auditions, but those aren’t technically performing on Broadway. It’s not the same thing. So two years ago, I made my Broadway debut on stage orchestra for Tina the Musical, and I had a job working for them. I was the music direction fellow, which was a new position, a fellowship position that they had created after the pandemic where I was helping to track changes in the scores, I was following rehearsals and filing reports and helping get the scores ready for the tour. I had a lot of various jobs, but that didn’t mean that I had to actually play anything.

So on top of the Fellowship they were like, “Oh, we trust you as a musician. You’ll be now the rehearsal pianist, and then also we need you to fill in the onstage band and this is your first date.” And I kind of assumed, okay, well, that’s a really nice gesture. Thank you. I’m going to get to make my debut, and that’s going to be the end of that. But then I played regularly. I played it four or five times before we closed and I played it with all of the Tina’s that existed on Broadway, which is wild because there were four of them. My parents got to fly out from Indiana and see me. I had, I think 35 people in the house at my first-

Kate Jetmore: Oh wow.

John Bronston: … Broadway performance. I had to do a group sales to get that many tickets.

Kate Jetmore: Wow. And what did that mean to you, John? I mean, you obviously had some really impressive credits under your belt by the time Tina on Broadway came along and playing in the pit on Broadway, what did that mean to you? I mean, did it mean anything to you?

John Bronston: I mean, it was insane to me. I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous as I was doing that the first time in my entire life. I mean, the music isn’t wildly difficult for a piano player, but it’s pretty exposed. There are a lot of things that’s like the beginning of River Deep-Mountain High is… That’s just the piano player. And I was like, oh, you mess that up, it’s real obvious. And on top of that, the whole last portion of the show is a concert where you’re fully on stage and they take your score away from you right before they come and reveal you, they take everyone’s music stands away, and they took my stand away and I was like, oh God, I don’t remember any of these songs. And it’s like the next 20 minutes of the show, and you are standing there, you can see the whole audience.

I’m right next to the stairs that Tina runs up and down, dancing up and down the stairs, and I’m like, oh, I’m going to just crash and burn. And I didn’t, I felt like I had an out of body experience, but it was so wild. At the end of the curtain call, Kayla Davion was my first Tina, and she turned and she gave me the thumbs up towards the end of the curtain call directly to me. And I was like, oh my God that’s so… She’s busy. She’s really busy at that moment. She’s running around in these five inch heels, singing her face off, kicking her… I was like, she took a moment out to acknowledge me personally, and I was like, that’s wild.

Kate Jetmore: Wow. Yeah. That energy that you’re describing, the energy that zings around among the people among who are on stage together or in the pit together, or even between the stage and the pit, depending on where the musicians are, I think that’s why it’s so exciting to go to the theater as an audience member because you’re witnessing that energy, the energy that you got from her when she gave you that thumbs up, there were hundreds of people or thousands of people, I don’t know, the house witnessing that exchange of energy. And that is something that is so powerful.

John Bronston: Thousands of people. All the shows I have done now in New York, Broadway and off Broadway have been where I’ve been visible in some kind of fashion, which is also its own set of terrors. We met at Man of No Importance where I was not constantly conducting it, but it was very much so the height of COVID. And I ended up having to conduct that show immediately after the opening. And that show was one where there are actor musicians. So the actors are constantly… They would be coming up into our space above the stage, and Jim Parsons is the lead. He’s reciting a monologue right next to me while I’m trying to play a heart patch and conduct the flutist. It’s just a wild situation. I was like, oh, there’s nowhere to run, there’s nowhere to hide. You’re just there

Kate Jetmore: For better or for worse.

John Bronston: It was weird. When I was at the Public with Harder They Come, I had three costume changes in that show, which was… I was like, this is really complicated. I’m playing a lot of keys and conducting. I’m constantly trying to put on a shirt and change pants. And they originally had more costume changes, and I was like, “This is not going to be physically possible.”

Kate Jetmore: Did you have a dresser? Was there someone who was helping y?ou do that?

John Bronston: Oh no. No. So it was basically just like, oh, put two shirts on and rip this one off and then make this other change at intermission so that you are… But there were originally six times I was supposed to be on stage, and I was supposed to be in a different costume every time, and I was like, “This is not actually going to be possible.”

Kate Jetmore: So that must have been quite a rehearsal process to figure out how many there would be.

John Bronston: Oh yeah. It was weird.

Kate Jetmore: John, what you’ve shared up to now in our conversation has everything to do with sort of other people’s productions and how you fit into them and what role you can play to support someone else’s vision. But in our intro, we mentioned Creating in Color, which is a series that you yourself created. As we said, its concert versions of classic musicals featuring predominantly Black casts. I’d love to hear about some of the shows you’ve produced up to now and what’s coming up in 2024?

John Bronston: Yeah, so the musical series came out of, I realized that I see a lot of concerts, and there’s all these spaces in New York that do concerts and cabarets of shows, but often they’re like classic musicals from the past that people have seen before. Or if there are a lot of people of color in the cast, it’s something that’s normally traditionally done with people of color. Oh, they’re going to do… Just like at Encores! this season, they’re going to do Jelly’s Last Jam. Of course, it’s going to be predominantly artists of color in that show, but I was like, there are so many musicals that people of color never get to lay their hands on. And it’s funny, there used to be more opportunities to do that sort of thing. In the 60s, Pearl Bailey went into Hello Dolly, and there was a full Black company of that show.

In the 70s, there was a full Black company of I Love My Wife, a Cy Coleman show. There was in the 70s, there was a full Black version of Guys and Dolls that was done on Broadway. And I was like, it’s interesting that we don’t really do that anymore. And if we do, we are creating a new thing. It’s like The Wiz versus Wicked versus Wizard of Oz, but not, we didn’t get to do a Black Wizard of Oz. We didn’t get to sing any of that music. And I was like, I would love us to get to actually sing this music. And unlike in Hello Dolly, they just sang the arrangements, the original ones, Pearl Bailey might’ve changed the key from Carol Channing, but there wasn’t a lot of jazz or a lot of Black influence on the music because that’s not what the music was written as.

And I was like, I would be also curious to see what that music sounds like when we get to really explore what it is for us as Black performers approaching it. The most famous recording of the song, Hello Dolly is Louis Armstrong’s. It’s not Barbra Streisand’s or Carol Channing’s. I was like, what would it be like if Louis Armstrong was in charge of the music for Hello Dolly was what I was thinking about. And so we did Hello Dolly in concert, and my good friend Kenny Green is a performer and music director. He’s also a really fierce trumpet player. And so he came in and he was my Horace Vandergelder and Tarra Conner Jones, who just won the AUDELCO Award as best actress in a musical for White Girl in Danger. She was my Dolly Levi. And I was like, let’s see what this music sounds like. And it completely sold out, completely sold out.

And I was like, let’s do another one. Why not? And then we did Hair. And Hair is a show that I love and that has been there for me throughout my career. It’s the first show I did when I came back to Richmond at Earlham College. So it was my first guest artist contract as a performer. It was my first union contract as a performer. When I came back to New York, I did it at The Media Theatre in Pennsylvania as an actor. It was my first national tour as a musical director. And I was like, I would love to get to explore what this is when it’s all Black folks singing this music as opposed… Because normally it’s like a little sprinkling of Black folks here and there. And so we did that one, and it was a wild success. And I rearranged the music.

I remember we sang Aquarius, and it was kind of in the style of En Vogue, which is crazy, and it’s so historically inappropriate. But I was like, well, we’re just going to be singing the song so we don’t have to be specific to a period, or we’re just going to see what this sounds like, and we’re going to do Frank Mills, and it’s kind of a doo-wop number now instead. And then a director approached me after that one, and she was like, “I’ve had this idea of Legally Blonde in my head for years set at a historically Black college. And instead of it being at Harvard that it’s at Howard instead, and what would that sound like? And what will the music sound like? And it’s the same period as the show. It’s the early 90s, late 90s, but it’s going to be there instead.” And I was like, “Oh my God, we have to do this. We have to.” And we did, and it was an insane amount of labor. Legally Blonde is… Hello Dolly has 14 songs in it. Legally Blonde has like 25.

Kate Jetmore: Oh, wow.

John Bronston: It’s a monster of a show, and I’ve done the show before, but to get to rearrange that music was really wild, and I had to do it basically in a week to put on this concert. And so the concert series was such a smash, and people have been after me like, “Oh, what are you going to be doing with that further?” And right now we’re looking at doing a musical that was actually just off Broadway in 2017, Bella: An American Tale, because other organizations in New York were reaching out like, “We would love for you to present one of these concerts here with us.” And I was like, “Oh, I would love that.” So Bella: An American Tale was at Playwrights Horizons, and it’s this really beautiful musical, this really insane musical set in the Old West by Kristen Childs, and we’re going to be reuniting some of the original cast from that.

But also part of what the Creating in Color series was exciting for me about was that I always got to work with people I knew, but I also worked with new people every time. And we held auditions, which never happens in these kind of cabaret settings, and especially because there’s no money involved. But I was like, what’s useful to me is I want new people in the room. I want to meet new people, meet new singers. One of the guys that was in my Hair was fresh out of college. He’s now in How to Dance in Ohio on Broadway. And I was like, I would never have met him. And he was one of the most spectacular… He walked in the room and I was like… It was insane, his voice, I started crying when he was auditioning, and I was like, “Where have you been? Who are you?” It was like he was a space alien his voice was so special. And I was like, “How does everyone not know about you?” They do now.

Kate Jetmore: Yeah. So Bella: An American Tale, is that what it’s called?

John Bronston: Yes.

Kate Jetmore: And that’s slated for 2024 with the series?

John Bronston: Yes it is.

Kate Jetmore: Oh, wonderful.

John Bronston: Yes.

Kate Jetmore: Wonderful.

John Bronston: So I’m really excited. That’s going to be in April, I believe. So yeah, we’re finishing up the scheduling for that, but I’m really excited to… It’s also the first time I’m going to get to work with the writer of the show. I had worked with the writers of Hair because I had done that previously, but I didn’t work with them on my concert, on my re-imagining of the piece. And so this time I’ll have a chance to actually work with Kristen and be like, “What is your vision, what things were you never able to dream about with the show before? What things can I absolutely not do?”

Kate Jetmore: Right, what can’t I touch?

John Bronston: So she’ll be like, “Yes, don’t turn this into an En Vogue song, John.” I’ll be happy to take that note. But I’ll also encourage… We’ll encourage each other to dream ridiculous things because we’re not doing the show, we’re just presenting the music. And so as a result, you can get away with doing some weird things sometimes.

Kate Jetmore: Yeah. Yeah. Well, John, I want to thank you so much for this conversation, for taking the time to join us on the show today. It’s been such a pleasure to get to know you and to get to know your career, and I want to wish you and your family all the best.

John Bronston: Thank you. I am really excited just to… I’m always excited to talk about coming from Richmond, going back to Richmond and the stuff that I do in between trips to Richmond. That’s all just exciting stuff that I love to talk about anyway.

Kate Jetmore: Wonderful. Well, thank you, John. Thank you.

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