BY CARY GINELL
One of the most talented musicians to join the Ventura County musical theater scene in the past few years has been Cassie Nickols. Most audiences haven’t seen Cassie before because she has spent most of her time behind the scenes, working first as a rehearsal pianist and then as assistant musical director. But in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s current production of Damn Yankees, which begins this evening at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, Cassie will be up front, baton in hand, leading the orchestra and the performers on stage as a full-fledged music director. It’s been a long road for Cassie, a gifted musician who spent years studying her craft in college before joining the local musical theatre scene. We talked to Cassie about her thoughts behind making this key transition from performer to leader.
VCOS: Where are you from originally?
CASSIE: Here. The San Fernando Valley.
VCOS: Where did you get your degree?
CASSIE: At USC.
VCOS: What did you do right after college?
CASSIE: Well, I got three degrees there. I did my bachelor’s in piano performance, applied for the master’s program, became a T.A., and then they renewed my scholarship and my T.A.-ship, so I continued into the doctoral program and got my doctorate in music. So I was there from August 2001 to January 2011. I have two graduate degrees, a masters and a doctorate, both in piano performance.
VCOS: So when they call the pianist “The Professor,” they’re being accurate with you.
CASSIE: I guess so (laughs). I never put the “Dr.” in front of my name on any program or anything because I don’t think that’s the protocol in musical theatre. Having a doctorate is not a prerequisite for what I do, but it does give me some cred.
VCOS: Are there many PhD’s in musical theater?
CASSIE: No. And that’s why I got it. I was so involved with the university and my life was totally academic up until four or five years ago, that I thought I’d want to be a professor and teach. But I started working freelance and kind of enjoyed not being near a school at all, doing music without the teaching part of it. So I haven’t gone back and I haven’t applied for any tenured positions. I teach part-time at Valley College and I’ve applied for other positions but nothing for which I’d dedicate my life.
VCOS: So is this is a new thing for you, music directing?
CASSIE: It’s new as of 2013. I started assisting Daryl Archibald a couple of years ago. He was working on Next to Normal in La Mirada and I was hired to be rehearsal pianist for about two days. I was there for the first rehearsal and started taking notes for what he wanted them to do, and had the score in my hand. I remember noticing something and asking him about it and he said, “Oh, are you taking notes and asking questions?” And I said, “Am I not supposed to do that?” That was my first time being asked to be part of a rehearsal for longer than a day as a sub so I just wanted to make sure I did everything right. So I said, “Isn’t that what an accompanist does?” And he said, “Not usually. They just come and play the piano and then they leave.” A week or two later, he said, “Why don’t you keep coming to rehearsals and keep doing what you’re doing?” And then after that, he asked if I wanted to be his assistant music director on the show. So that was my first assistant musical director position. But I wasn’t there for auditions or callbacks or anything like that. When I got to Cabrillo, I assisted for In the Heights, but the first show I did where I was music director for something that wasn’t community theater or school was Memphis. And that was a year ago.
VCOS: Did Lewis Wilkenfeld [Cabrillo’s artistic director] have this in mind for you all along or did you ask to do Damn Yankees?
CASSIE: I think it was because Daryl started talking in his ear about me that I might be interested in something like this. So Lewis asked me if I conducted and was I interested in this and I said yes.
VCOS: Where else have you done this?
CASSIE: I did it at Pierce College and also for a few productions in Santa Clarita for the Canyon Theatre Guild, which is their community theatre. Most of my work has been in playing keyboard for musicals.
VCOS: When you started music directing, were there skills that you think you needed more experience on? Were there any feelings of inadequacy or unreadiness?
CASSIE: It’s funny. I still feel like this. There are always things that I’m not prepared for. Usually it has to do with preparing ahead of time. Directors are very good at troubleshooting before they even get to rehearsal – you know, this is going to be an issue and that is going to be an issue. So I feel like I still need to get better at that. And knowing how to deal with the people running sound; how the music gets communicated to everybody else. I think I’ll get that through experience, though. The more I do, the more I’ll be prepared what to tell them.
VCOS: So there’s a lot more to it than just knowing the score.
CASSIE: Yes. Because everything’s married to each other in a show. Usually, music is the first thing we rehearse in a show. Every show I’ve ever been a part of, whether it was accompanying, assisting, or being music director, music is the first thing we cover in the first few days. So even if I have talked with the director and the choreographer, a lot of things that I’ve decided upon musically, in the beginning, might be completely different two weeks later when we’re working through scenes.
VCOS: Do you have a goal where, five years from now, you see yourself doing more of this?
CASSIE: I still would like to do it all (laughs). I would love to continue music directing anywhere where I’m wanted in Southern California. If I can do it in New York eventually, that would be awesome too. But I also really enjoy playing. I don’t get to play as much on this one, which is OK for me because I get to conduct. But I still want to continue as a performing pianist in some way.
VCOS: Knowing how much you enjoy playing, is it hard to give that part of it up to be solely a conductor? Or do you try and do both, as some conductors do?
CASSIE: On the last shows that I did here, which were Memphis and Company, I realized the importance of needing my hands and needing to be seen clearly. It all worked out just fine, but for both of those productions, we were on stage – back stage almost. For Memphis, we ended up being part of it, but in Company we were back stage the whole time, behind a scrim. Because of that, I couldn’t be front-and-center in front of the whole orchestra and everybody on stage, like I will be this time in the pit. Being on the side and trying to conduct that way was kind of difficult, especially playing Sondheim. When I did “Marry Me a Little,” I’m trying to cue the trumpets on certain syncopations with my head. After practices, we get it, and they’ll figure out what my cues are, but I am looking forward to having my hands free, although I will miss being able to play. But we have Ben Ginsberg, who is a fantastic accompanist and an amazing pianist, so if I didn’t have an amazing pianist, I feel like it would be harder for me. But I get to use my baton, which I haven’t used since college and is still in its case, probably all dusty.
VCOS: Do you prefer using a baton as opposed to just using your hands?
CASSIE: I’m probably going to use a mish-mosh, using my hands for some things and a baton for others. If I’m conducting a chorus or a group of singers, I always use my hands and never use a baton. But because I’m leading an orchestra and the performers on stage, I want my sightline to be a little better. A white stick is easier for everybody to see than just my hands. This will be my first time doing it, so we’ll see!
VCOS: Tell me about the challenges of being a rehearsal pianist. That’s not something that people aspire to. People often just end up doing it. I envision it as being a job more fitting for someone with jazz chops. What’s your take on this?
CASSIE: Yes. I actually think you have to be very well rounded to be a good rehearsal pianist. So you have to have the chops that a jazz player has, so that if something is thrown at you, like “We need to change that ending, it doesn’t really work, but the choreography needs this,” then you have to be able to accommodate. So in that sense, the jazz background or the creativity that a jazz player would have is there. But you also need to be really solid in reading, which a lot of time jazz players don’t have.
VCOS: Do you do a lot of sight-reading?
CASSIE: A LOT of sight-reading. When I’ve been called to sub, you’re literally just given the score right then and there. And then you have to be good at trying to figure out what’s important. You have to watch the dancers and when you see them doing this kick, the trumpets are doing a rip, you have to be able to know that that’s what they want to hear, rather than just chunking the chords. It’s actually a really great skill to have.
VCOS: It’s got to help you as a music director, too, doesn’t it? Because as a rehearsal or substitute pianist, you already know where all those little nuances are.
CASSIE: Yes. Since I was a kid, I always wanted to be IN a show, but never was, because they always wanted me to play the piano. In high school, I auditioned to be in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and they said, “Yeah, we’d love to have you in the show, but actually, we don’t want to hire a pianist, so can you just play instead?” So I always watched the actors and the dancers a lot and I never zone out into the music. I like to see what the director is doing, see what the choreographer is doing so I can help and be part of that.
VCOS: Is Damn Yankees a good choice for you to get your start on?
CASSIE: Yes. But if I got to do In the Heights again, I’d like to be the music director and also play that show. That would be so much fun. But I think that Damn Yankees is a good choice because I’ve always wanted to be well rounded – a classical pianist who also does the jazz thing but can also be in a rock band. I don’t want to be limited and I don’t want be typecast as “she just does the modern stuff.” So it’s nice doing an old-fashioned show this time around. And it’s fun. It’s a really fun show.
VCOS: If you could pick the next show for yourself, what would it be?
CASSIE: I really want to do The Last Five Years. Next to Normal and In the Heights were two of my very favorite musicals and those were the first two ones I did, but I like edgy stuff. I like music I can groove to.
Damn Yankees begins a ten-day run at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza Friday, October 16. For dates and showtimes, plus links to where you can order tickets, visit the VC On Stage Calendar.