The This is Lincoln Center podcast offers listeners intimate, enlightening moments with some of the great artistic talents of our time. Hosted by Live From Lincoln Center producer Kristy Geslain, This is Lincoln Center features the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's famous stages.
Kristy Geslain: Ben Cohn started his Broadway career as a substitute musician for the hit show Wicked, eventually becoming the show’s pianist and assistant conductor. After keeping that gig for ten years, he moved on to become music director of another successful show, Dear Evan Hansen. And as music director for his good friend Stephanie J. Block, Ben helped craft her Live from Lincoln Center Stars in Concert show, which will be aired this week on PBS. I spoke to Ben about the elements of his musical style, balancing parenthood with his career, and how he keeps a show interesting and fresh over an extended Broadway run.
This is Lincoln Center with Ben Cohn.
KG: Welcome, Ben Cohn, to This is Lincoln Center.
Ben Cohn: Thank you.
KG: Thank you for being here with us today. Let's begin with what’s bringing you to Lincoln Center right now. Tell us about your Live From Lincoln Center show.
BC: Oh, sure. So I did this show with Stephanie Block, who's the artist. And we were so excited to put together this new show. You know, I've been working with her for years. And this was a great opportunity to sort of start from scratch and put together a brand-new show, and for her to find songs—new songs—that she could really connect with a couple of old ones that we've done sprinkled in there. And that she could talk about her life and what brought her to the place that she is now, and to find songs that sort of highlight her journey and to tell her story.
KG: Great. Well, for our listeners, the show's gonna be airing on PBS on May 4, as part of Live From Lincoln Center's Stars in Concert series. We're really excited for these shows, we have Sutton Foster, Leslie Odom, Jr., Andrew Rannells, and Stephanie J. Block. It's quite a lineup, huh?
BC: It's awesome.
KG: So how did you and Stephanie meet?
BC: We met... let's see, we met years ago on Wicked. She, as you may or may not know, was the very first Elphaba on the west coast when they did it. But then I met her—I was with the show for many years—I met her when she did it on Broadway, just a few years into the run, as Elphaba. And around that time, we also worked on the show Nine to Five together, which she was in. And we just sort of knew each other and were friendly and sort of like "hey" buddies from the shows we were working on. And then she was working on her album with my buddy Dominick Amendum, who was her arranger/M.D. at the time and was helping with her album, and they asked me to do a few arrangements for her for her album, and that's sort of when I started working directly with her creatively.
KG: So tell me about what that connection was that led to the relationship, though. I mean, it's one thing meeting each other and working on something, but was there, was it musical chemistry, just working style? You just liked hanging out with each other?
BC: I think it was probably a combination of both. We just always got along really well as people and, you know, actors work with different musicians all the time, and I think it's important that when they find someone that they can actually connect with, they feel comfortable with, they like how they play, things they come up with for them and just how they work—I think that's an important connection. We always found that together, even when we weren't working directly together or, you know, one-on-one. And when we actually started doing that—you know, she works with many people, many pianist- arrangers—and I think, just found, in a way, comfort with me and how I work.
KG: And what would you say your style is? What is the Ben Cohn style of working?
BC: Musical style?
KG: I guess musical style and just working style as you relate to other artists and whoever you're working with.
BC: Yeah, you know... So my musical style, you know, I'm more into sort of contemporary theater, pop, that's sort of my thing. You know, I enjoy all kinds of music, but that's sort of where my... what I really enjoy doing.
KG: But classically trained?
BC: Classically trained, yes, as many of us are, which I think is really important. You know, and trained in all styles, which I think is also really important. But you sort of find the thing that you enjoy doing the most. Some people are legitimately interested and enjoy doing every style, and that's awesome. I, to an extent, do. But when I'm going to really be working on something and putting my heart and soul into it, you know, it's a certain—there's a pop element, there's a contemporary theater element. And also, so when I'm working with someone, when I'm in a project, it's just.. .I want it to just be easy and joyful and fun. And make... and be beautiful. You know, it's not about doing something wild or complicated or... you know, I don't enjoy a lot of tension, things like that. I like it just to be cool and chill and fun.
KG: So tell me about this process. We call Stephanie, she signs on to do the show, she says, "Great, I'm gonna get Ben to come on as M.D." Then what happens?
BC: We each sort of come up with a bunch of songs that we love to do. Mostly her, because it's her show, and so she basically... we just emailed back and forth and she'd be like, "Well, here are a whole bunch of songs I'm thinking about. What are your thoughts on this?" And I'll email back, "I love this, I love this, I love this..." And then we just get together and sing through stuff. And find what really clicks and what she loves to sing in the context of just in the room and, you know, "What can we do with this? Is there a different kind of..." You know, things that just flow naturally and just feel right. And then we have to look at—and then we sort of narrow down this list of songs that we just love doing and figure out what will actually work in the context of a story that she's trying to tell. And also in the context of the musical fabric of the story and of the show. And we just start narrowing it down. But mostly it's just about sitting in the room and playing songs together just like I did in high school in my basement! You know, nothing has really changed since then.
KG: And at this point, since you've been working together for so long, is it about really rehearsing these numbers again and again and again? Or were they already to a point where they're sort of ready to go?
BC: It depends on the song. I think, you know, some songs require a lot more actual rehearsal than others. You know, initially, things should work like the first time we sing through them. And, you know, when we sit down and just sing through them, you sort of know if something is special, if something feels right. And then eventually—obviously, you know, we do rehearse it so that we can really perfect it together. We find how each of us are interpreting it and make sure that we're on the same page and that we're feeling it the same way, also so that I can then go off and do an orchestration, an arrangement that fits how she is hearing it and feeling it as well. So from that standpoint, yeah, we do rehearse. And then, some songs are just way more complicated songs musically and do require more actual like, "Hey, can you just plunk out the notes in that section to make sure that I'm singing it right" etc., you know, things like that.
KG: And what about a number, let's say, for example, she sings "Defying Gravity."
BC: Mm. I've heard of it.
KG: Now, a song like that that's so iconic that she's so known for, how do you change that piece in terms of moving from a huge Broadway musical, big house setting, to just a standalone piece in relationship to the rest of the show in a much smaller concert setting?
BC: That's a great question, and that's sort of the key question. You know, a lot of Elphabas through the years who do "Defying Gravity" have done their own arrangements of it, versions of it that are smaller, more intimate. I've done versions with people of that song and others from shows like that that require a smaller arrangement.
"Defying Gravity" was actually a song that we decided we weren't gonna do an actual—an arrangement of it. She's just always wanted to do it how she did it in the show and fortunately still has the vocal power and more to be able to still do it like she did it in the show, which is amazing. So for me the challenge was, whatever instrumental—you know, so we’re doing the version from the show, we basically just cut out the dialogue in the middle scene with Glynda and things like that, and do the song as it is. We take away some of the intro and just do it. And so for me the challenge is whatever instrumentation—sometimes it's just piano. Sometimes we're doing a version with just piano and then playing with my elbows to like make sure that I'm filling it out. And then sometimes like in this, where we have, you know, seven people and we want to make it sound like a big orchestra that people are used to hearing, so it's just about finding an arrangement that's still keeps it huge and buoyant and matches the vocal power that she's gonna bring to it because we basically do it as is. But the great thing about a song like "Defying Gravity" is that it's an amazing song, period, with or without the Wicked 23-piece orchestra and the ensemble at the end going: "Get her!" You know, it's still an amazing, exciting song, even if—just two people singing it at the piano. And even when you just hear her singing it with a piano it still has that same, like, goosebumps feeling.
KG: Yeah. I had forgotten. I mean, I had seen Wicked—I think I've seen it two or three times, you know, years ago, though. And I hadn't heard it in quite some time. And when I heard her sing it in rehearsal that day, I thought, "Oh, my god, that song has still, I mean, it has such staying power." And I totally got goosebumps again, just listening to her in the rehearsal room do it. It's really amazing.
BC: Yeah, I get goosebumps every time I hear her sing it. Sometimes she'll just be like "Hey, can we just sing through it so I can..." and I'm like, "oh, man," I still get that same feeling.
KG: So let's stay with Wicked, because from what I read, you started a ten-plus career at Wicked because you were a substitute keyboard player.
KG: Tell me about that, how that came to be.
BC: Sure. So Wicked opened in 2003. There is one of my best friends, Paul Loesel, who I've known for many, many years, is the Keyboard II player over there and was from the very beginning. I came—I think it was even still during previews of Wicked. I came to see the show. I hadn’t subbed on anything yet, which is when you're a substitute player in the orchestra. And I saw Paul after the show and I was like, "Oh my gosh, this show is amazing." And he's like, "Hey, do you wanna come sub for me?" And I was like "Uhhh..."
KG: This was still in previews? It wasn’t a hit yet.
BC: It was still previews. It wasn't a hit yet. But it was an amazing—it was a huge, big show. And I hadn't subbed on a Broadway show or done any Broadway shows. And so I was like, "Yeah! That sounds great!" And so as a sub, you know, you're kinda on your own. You learn the part and then eventually you come in and play it with the orchestra, and you're the new guy and everyone else has been playing it for a long time. And it's very scary and exciting. And I did that, and at the same time I met the conductor at the time, Stephen Oremus, who is still the musical supervisor of Wicked, and the associate conductor, who was the pianist at the time, Alex Lacamoire, two of the greats of Broadway all in one right there at Wicked. And I met them and we became friends. Alex asked me to sub for him on his book eventually, which was the key one, the piano book there, which is the really, really fun one. And then eventually Steven asked me to learn, to become a sub-conductor there. So within like the first year or so of Wicked, I was kind of like a utility guy. I learned eventually all three keyboards. And then in 2006, the piano spot at Wicked opened up, and Alex Lacamoire was conducting and Stephen had gone on to supervise Wicked and do other projects, and they offered me that spot. And so then for the next ten years I was the pianist and assistant conductor for Wicked.
KG: I mean, that's an amazing thing to think about, being on one show for ten plus years. Not many people on Broadway can say that. How did you keep it interesting and fresh, for not only for audiences and your fellow musicians, but for yourself?
BC: That's sort of the number one question that I get and that anyone gets does something—even if you're doing a show for six months, it's still a very long time.
KG: Right. Six weeks, I would think! Doing eight shows a week is a lot.
BC: Exactly. Especially since most of us started in high school, where you do three performances and then it feels like an eternity, and then you're done!
Well, there are a lot of variations that happen from night to night. First of all, in the band, there are other subs. You play with different configurations of people all the time. On stage, there are understudies, that keeps it interesting. And even when it's the regular band and the regular cast.... You know, every performance, somehow when you sit there and the show's about to start, it just... it's a new performance, it's a new day. And somehow you think it wouldn't, you'd think you'd just be like, "Oh my gosh, am I really gonna do this again?" But you don't. You're like, "Okay, we're doing this."
And no matter what happened during the day, which is usually other projects and eventually, a child, and all kinds of other things, you come and... it's like, I would sit down at the piano and just kind of exhale and be like "Oh, okay, is great. Now I can kind of just do this amazing show." And I'm not nervous anymore, because I had been doing it for so long, and there's a certain comfort and just joy that comes along with doing it, and then you have this brand-new audience that's seeing it for the first time and... there's still an excitement about it, every night.
KG: The audience has got to be amazing in that show. People are so just overjoyed about that show. It's such a big house.
BC: It's really, really exciting. Yeah, it's exciting. And you're there in the pit and you hear it all, and you feel it, you can see the front row up there. You know, sometimes they're dressed like Elphaba, you know—adults, kids, you know. And it's still really exciting. That show felt like, you know, you're part of this sort of like huge, epic thing. It's really awesome.
KG: Do you have any great Wicked story that you tell? Any that comes to mind that you would share with listeners?
BC: A great Wicked story. Um, you know, usually people wanna hear about the things that went wrong, you know, during shows. Occasionally at Wicked, something would go wrong with the levitator that helps Elphaba fly. No, it's not magic. So I don't want to give away the... you know, if there's any kids listening, maybe skip past this part. You know, it would happen very, very infrequently but occasionally the thing wouldn't happen... and we would know it... or Elphaba obviously would know ahead of time, some people would know ahead of time. When I was conducting the show, I didn't always know because you don't always hear. Like, you're in the show and sometimes you'd get a call from stage management saying, "Hey, she's not flying tonight." "Okay, cool." But sometimes you didn't. So what would happen is she would stand there on the stage, there's all this smoke happening, and she wouldn't fly. And so I would be like, "Okay, she's not flying. Okay, let's see how this goes." And she's, you know with her arms, and she's going, trying to make the most of the smoke.
KG: Just selling it.
BC: And my favorite part is when the cast then comes, you know, the guards come upstairs and—I don't know if you know the story or not, if you're listening to this, she's basically, you know, trying to escape the guards, and the guards come running in, and sometimes the guards don't know that she's not flying until that moment, where they come on stage and there's all this smoke. And so you see them, I'm standing right there, and you see them come on, and like you watch the look in their eye, and they're like, their eyes get really wide, and they have to get so low onto the stage to make it feel like she's above them. So usually what happens is they're on the stage, they're crazy low, trying to get on their backs to make it look like she's super high, there's smoke all around them, and usually they are hysterical laughing, watching each other try this. So here you are, at the end of this epic, end of Act One, it's super epic. The audience is like gasping at how exciting it is, because they don't know what's happening. They all usually also don't know she’s supposed to fly, so it still looks awesome. And the guards are hysterically laughing. And she's doing her best to like make her arms as long as possible, and I'm just... going like this. And most of the orchestra has no idea what's going on. And that is just... and, you know, it's just the comedy of all those things happening at once.
KG: That's what you get with live theater that you don't get with a lot of other forms.
BC: Exactly. And the best thing is you finish the song and the audience leaps to their feet and everyone's just having a great time. And that's live theater.
KG: So you left Wicked and you went to another little Broadway hit, Dear Evan Hansen, which has been just a tremendous success, congratulations.
BC: Thank you.
KG: So that one had to be a little bit different, coming on a show from the very beginning, through opening night. And still, you're still music directing right?
BC: Still there, yeah. I'll be over there in a few hours.
KG: So how did that come to be? How did it all come together for you and what has it been like as compared to, you know, coming in as a sub and picking up on someone else's work?
BC: Yeah, as we all do, many of us do, we're working on new shows all the time. A show might just have a reading, where everyone gets together to look at the material and see if this is something that we want to pursue? How can we improve it? How can we get producers on board? And so for Dear Evan Hansen they—the writers, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and Steven Levenson were writing this piece called the "Untitled PPL" musical, that they had done like a reading or two, just a very early stages reading of. And I got a call from Alex Lacamoire.
KG: Listeners may know his name from a little show called Hamilton.
BC: Yes, you might know him from Hamilton. He's like the guy at Hamilton, Lin-Manuel's guy, who put that together. And so he called me and he was like, "I'm working on this show with these guys." You know, I knew Benj and Justin from—we had worked peripherally together on a couple of things through the years, so they kind of knew me, and they had brought Alex on board to work with them and to be their music arranger and director and kind of just work with them on the show and he sent me this demo they did of "Waving through a Window" and another song from the show that's not in the show anymore. And I was like, "Oh my god, this is unreal. And so awesome, and exactly what I love."
KG: So you knew it was special and something different.
BC: Yeah, I just... I connect to the music and if I connect to the music, then I'm excited about it. And that's all I knew of it. I read the script that they had, so I went in, did this reading, it was really, really special. It was pretty much the cast that we have now, which is also unbelievable for a musical because usually musicals undergo a lot of cast changes through the years. Just to find people who connect with the roles and as the musical evolves. But this musical was like, you know, it was Ben Platt and Will Roland and Mike Faist and all these guys.
And finally as we sort of progressed, they said, "Well, we're gonna do a production of it in D.C." And Alex said, "Do you wanna go and music direct this thing because I'm doing Hamilton, and I won't be able to physically be there all the time, but I'll still be supervising and orchestrating," and I said, "All right." I was still at Wicked, I took a leave of absence from Wicked, I did the D.C. production, came back. Great. Went back to Wicked. And then they said, "Okay, we're gonna do an Off Broadway production at Second Stage." And Alex said, "What do you think? You want to continue with it?" And I was like, "Yeah! Why not? Let's see what happens." So we did Second Stage, it went well. I did another leave of absence from Wicked, came back to Wicked. And so after Second Stage, they said, "Well, we've got enough support for the show, and people are enjoying it, and we've got the funding, so we're gonna move to Broadway." And so at that point, then I had to decide whether I was gonna leave Wicked or stay at Wicked, and then they move on and find someone else for Dear Evan Hansen. So I talked to Alex about it, I talked to Steven Oremus and Steven was like, "You're crazy if you don’t do this!" And I was like, "You're right." So I decided to leave Wicked and do it. And the rest is history.
KG: What a big leap. You know, finally making a break with that place that had been such a home for you for so many years.
BC: Yeah, it was a tough decision to make. I wasn't tired of Wicked, by any stretch. I could've stayed there and it would've been great. But on the other hand, this was my... you know, basically I'm going through my pros and cons list out loud right now. You know, I also at the time, had, you know, a three-year-old child. And my husband Sean was the drummer for Book of Mormon at the time and he was... he's now at Frozen so he was already in the back of his mind maybe thinking there would be a change for him at some point. So there were all these things to consider. And we just decided, "Okay, I'm gonna take the leap." I love the show. That was really what it was. I knew that I needed to move with it because it was... I couldn't imagine not doing it.
KG: Yeah. Well, it's pretty incredible to be on two just megahits back to back.
BC: Incredible and lucky.
KG: Well, congratulations.
BC: Thank you.
KG: So you mentioned your son. Let's talk about him, because that's one of my favorite topics, is parenthood. So tell me about Alistair, what's he like?
BC: He's a crazy, amazing five-and-a-half-year-old who, you know... We adopted him at birth and just had no idea what we were in for. And here we are, two musicians living in New York City, we assumed we would have this kid who would grow up to be an artistic, amazing musician, and turns out he is gonna be like a pro wrestler! No, but he's super physical and athletic and funny and amazing and he loves music but it's mostly... he loves, loves music, but it's mostly like radio, pop music. "Havana" is his favorite song right now, if you must know. And I have all these people who come up to me and they're like, "Oh my gosh, my son, my daughter, they love Dear Evan Hansen. They listen to it all the time." And I'm like, that's great. I mean, Alistair does, and he knows "Waving through a Window," and things like that but he's more obsessed with sort of... more harder-edge things. But he's great.
KG: And has he gone to the theater? Have you taken him to shows?
BC: His first Broadway show was Frozen and we took him just a couple of weeks ago to the invited dress, which we did on purpose because we didn't want to pay for a ticket to Frozen with his other dad playing it, and then have him leave five minutes into it. But he loved it, he just really... it was so exciting. We've taken him to lots of theater. We go see stuff at New Victory Theater all the time, and we just see live shows as much as we can. And he loves it. But Frozen was really a special first Broadway show experience.
KG: Did he make it through the whole thing?
BC: Oh, yeah. He made it. You know, a couple of bags of Sour Patch Kids later! You know, it took a little bribery. But, no, he loved every minute of it. And he knew that his daddy was down there playing drums.
KG: I was gonna ask, does he make the connection that his dads are actively making this music happen?
BC: Yeah. Totally. And he knows the movie. And he knows the songs, and a friend of ours, Wendy, is on stage. So I was whispering to him, "There's Wendy!" and "Can you hear daddy playing?" and "There's Olaf!" And all the kids in the audience were just freaking out about it, so that was helpful.
KG: This is a question that gets asked a lot, and I'm sure you've answered it a lot, but I always wanna always ask it because the responses are always so great. But how has becoming a parent impacted your artistry, your work as a musician?
BC: It puts a lot of things in perspective, I think. We're always thinking about what we're doing next as an artist and what projects we're gonna work on and once you get to the level that, a lot of things are coming your way, if you're lucky enough to get opportunities, you're always like, "What should I do? What should I not do? Who should I work with? Should I say yes to this?" And now it becomes a lot about, "I really have to connect to something like Dear Evan Hansen, like on a musical level, on a personal level, to be able to want to take the time to work on it." Because the rest of your day is filled with taking care of your child. And we have the benefit of, you know, both of us have our on-shows when we're performing at night, so we are able to, one or both of us, is available during the day to take him to school and pick him up from school, or before school it was just hang out with him all day and go to the park. And that stuff is really, really special and important. So to take time away from that to do a project, it has to be something really, really special and amazing.
KG: So let's end with one more plug from Live From Lincoln Center, May 4, on PBS. Tell our listeners why they should tune into this show.
BC: First of all, Stephanie is the most amazing singer there is. I am biased, but I'm also not biased. Not only does she have the most amazing instrument, voice that you've ever heard and unlimited range, but she's a storyteller when she sings, and she can sing the most... the simplest song and just move you to tears. She's the most expressive performer. And the thing that a lot of people don't know about Stephanie necessarily unless you know her, is that she's probably one of the funniest people I've ever met. She's hysterical and in this show you get glimpses of it, for sure. But mostly you just get a whirlwind of emotions and it's just gonna be an amazing show and I hope that everyone tunes in, because you've never heard a vocalist like this in your life.
KG: Great, I'll watch that show. Thanks, Ben. Thanks so much for being here.
BC: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell, Eileen Willis, Hannah Lyons, Valerie Martinez, and Ian Goldstein.
Our theme music is provided by freemusicarchive.org.
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