Award-Winning Musical Director Roberta Duchak’s notable music and theater career recently took a memorable turn when she was asked to serve as Russell Crowe’s voice coach in preparation for his role in the film version of Les Misérables. The Burr Ridge resident ended up going on set and coaching Crowe and fellow Les Mis star Hugh Jackman throughout the filming of the movie.
Q} You started out as an actress and vocalist yourself, touring nationally as a Broadway performer and recording your own solo CD. Can you give us a bit of your background and what made you decide that music was your destiny? Was there any defining moment?
That’s a good question. I started playing the piano at 3 1/2 years old. My Dad was a musician and there was always music in our house. My oldest sister is a choir director at Riverside Brookfield High School. So music is part of my DNA. After college, I had planned on pursuing broadcast journalism but instead decided to work at Opryland music theme park in Nashville. That was definitely the first turning point. I never really thought about doing anything else. Music is what I do, I never questioned it.
Capri in Burr Ridge
2. Favorite Chicago venue to
Whoever hires me!
3. Favorite musical?
4. What’s on your iPod?
All jazz music.
5. Best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Show up every day.
6. Most talented actor/actress out there now?
Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman, of course!
7. If you could have any other job, what would it be?
I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.
Q} As a performer, and weknow this is probably a hard question, what has been your favorite role to perform? If you can’t pinpoint one, feel free to offer a few.
Yes, it’s always hard to pick one role. I have three favorites. I was fortunate to play the role of Mother in Ragtime on Broadway. It’s without a doubt one of my favorite musical scores of all time. It was a privilege to sing that role. I also loved playing Rona Lisa Peretti in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I played her four different times and absolutely loved playing her! The show is so much fun because it involved improvisation on stage. I was able to write jokes about audience members we would invite on stage during the spelling bee portion of our show. The show was different every day. It was fun and challenging. And my third favorite was playing Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That was a challenging role. She definitely took me out of my comfort zone.
Q} The nature of the business is that, unfortunately, you don’t get every part for which you audition. Has there been an experience of trying out for a role that you didn’t get that was especially painful?
It’s funny. I don’t really remember all of the painful times. I do remember that I only allowed myself to mourn losing a part for 24 hours and then I had to move on. It was a way for me to always look forward.
Q} You are now an accomplished Jeff Award-winning musical director and vocal coach. Why the switch to a more behind-the-scenes role and do you ever miss being on stage?
This was not a conscious choice. It sort of just happened. I was working at the Marriott performing in a show, and they asked me if I’d ever want to musical direct. I thought, why not? My Dad always told me “just say yes, you can figure it out later!” I was always sort of an “arm-chair music director!” Then my career sort of took off! I’m now the resident musical director at Drury Lane Oakbrook. We are one big family there and it’s a joy to work for them. I have been vocal coaching all my life. I started out helping my friends with their auditions, and then it became a career. I performed on stage for over 20 years. I feel satisfied. All the boxes checked. I do miss singing though. Perhaps there is a concert or two in my future!
Q} So, Les Misérables. You were vocal coach to both Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe. What an experience that must have been, especially since the film has garnered so much positive attention. What were your favorite parts about a job that was undoubtedly the envy of many?
It was a very exciting project. We all knew we were doing something historic, so we all put our heart and soul into the project. I know how lucky I was to work on the movie. And I have Russell Crowe to thank for the opportunity. I started working with him while he was filming Superman here in the western suburbs. He was living in Naperville, and I would go to his house and coach him. After he left, he asked me to continue working with him. He wanted me to stay with him throughout the film, so I did! Once I was on the set, I met Hugh Jackman and he, too, asked me to work with him throughout the film.
Q} What are those actors like in “real life”? Any fun stories?
I was surprised how truly down to earth they are. Both Russell and Hugh are two of the hardest working men I have ever met in my life. They treat their jobs like Olympic events. That’s what it takes to become and stay at the top of your game. They were great role models for everyone on the set. And Russell would have parties on Friday nights after we’d wrap for the week. Annie (Hathaway), Samantha (Barks) and Amanda (Seyfried) would come over and everyone would have to sing. I was playing the piano, taking requests! It was a terrific bonding experience for everyone.
Q} Of course, we’re sure that job didn’t come without its struggles. Critics have said the movie’s vocals weren’t as polished as they could have been. How do you respond to that kind of criticism? And was working with performers that are primarily actors, not vocalists, a challenging task?
I’m not surprised that the Broadway community has a lot of opinions. But I am surprised that we are all not embracing singing “live” on set. Tom Hooper stuck to his vision and we are all better for it. For years, we, within the musical theatre industry would moan about the lip syncing and the vocal ghosting in the movie industry. Finally, the Les Mis team was brave enough to take a risk with all live singing, and it was risky. You can imagine how difficult it is for the sound design team on a noisy movie set to isolate the voices. Still, many in the industry are complaining. It just proves you can’t please everyone. I just hope that it becomes the industry standard. I think we can all agree that we’ve never seen a musical that has moved us so emotionally. Sure, we could have sweetened everyone’s voices, but we wanted the audience to experience the real, authentic and raw performances.
Q} You are also an adjunct faculty member at Columbia College in Chicago. Has that proved to be a rewarding experience for you?
Yes. I have learned that I can teach anyone how to sing! It has been invaluable training for me and I am constantly inspired by the students I teach on a daily basis. I am so lucky.
Q} The job title “Musical Director” might sound pretty vague to the average audience member. Can you give us an overview of what your job actually entails?
I keep telling myself it was so much easier being an actor! It’s a big job. I first meet with the director to understand his or her vision for the piece. We go scene by scene and talk about all the scenic elements and objectives of the show. When rehearsal begins, I am in charge of teaching everyone their notes! I continue to work with the principals and the ensemble and make sure everyone is on the same page musically! I sit in the house through all the previews and take notes on orchestrations, the singing, and work with the sound design team to make sure we are understanding every word.
Q} It’s not an easy economic environment out there, especially for performers.What advice do you have for those who are thinking about dedicating themselves to the arts?
I talk to kids all the time about this. The first question I ask a new student is, “Why do you want to be a musical theatre actor?” Most of their answers move me to tears. They all want it so badly. That’s a good start. You have to be creative and a self-starter. I do believe that there is room for everyone in this business, you just have to be smart and figure out what your niche is. It will be a bumpy ride, but it’s worth it!
Q} With live performances, something — however minor or major — is almost guaranteed to occur unexpectedly. Is there a time you can remember, either as a performer or behind the scenes, when something happened that made you cringe?
How much time do you have? I could write a book on all the mistakes I’ve made on and off stage. I have so many audition stories that would make you cringe! But I also remember once when I was playing Cinderella and I got to the part where I say, “Oh, how I wish I could go to the ball, how I wish I could go to the ball.” This little girl, probably 7 or 8 years old, walked on stage and came up to me and said, “Don’t worry Cinderella, you’re going to the ball!” Live theatre is the BEST!
Q} Your most recent project is that of Musical Director on Drury Lane’s Sunset Boulevard. And with each new show, it’s certain that something is different or unique about the process. How is this musical special to you?
I didn’t realize how difficult this score is musically! It seems like I’m always working on the “operas” — Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, Sweeney Todd and now Sunset Boulevard. The entire musical is almost completely sung. There is very little dialogue that isn’t underscored with music, too. That’s what makes it challenging. Timing out the underscoring to establish the correct mood of the scene. It’s even more difficult because actors don’t always feel the scene the same every show. But when the audience leaves humming the tunes, that is always rewarding for us in the music department!
Q} You live in Burr Ridge. What’s your favorite part about living in the western suburbs?
I grew up here, in Darien. I knew I’d always return. I love Chicago and it’s so convenient for me to get into the city every day. My family is here, and that’s what is most important.
See article in West Suburban Living here.