Julian Reeve is a powerhouse in every sense of the word. Musical director and conductor of the first national tour of Hamilton, co-founder of successful London based talent agency, Boland & Reeve, and internationally celebrated multi-instrumentalist, composer, and arranger. In advance of Hamilton's highly anticipated Los Angeles run at Hollywood Pantages, I had a sensational discussion with Julian about his pivotal role in the global phenomenon and the significance of musical theatre in his life.
You have served as a musical director for an astounding number of high profile musicals, including Grease, The Wizard of Oz, Cats, Oliver!, and The Sound of Music. What's your secret to being the go-to man for the job?
I've been very lucky. With every job I take on, my objective is to be the best I can be and encourage others to do the same. I try to challenge boundaries and I'm always focused on the detail in my approach to the work. I’d like to think that this ethos is reflected in the quality of the performance, something in turn that is appreciated by employers. It could just be luck though, of course!
How did you transition from rehearsal pianist for Hamilton on Broadway to the musical director for the national tour? What has been the greatest challenge thus far?
I first worked with Alex Lacamoire when he was serving as the arranger, supervisor, and orchestrator for the national tour of Bring It On three years ago. We have enjoyed a solid friendship and working relationship ever since. When Hamilton needed another rehearsal pianist on Broadway, Lac reached out and asked me to learn the show. At that point, I knew that they were starting to have a think about the team for the tour, and so I registered my interest, and after a very diligent audition process, here I am!
There have been many challenges! Conducting and playing Hamilton is like performing an opera; Two and a half hours of music, ranging from hip-hop to baroque, pop to legitimate musical theatre, leaves you feeling exhausted but thoroughly rewarded every night, and maintaining this for eight shows a week is certainly a challenge. It’s as much about maintaining yourself in order to maintain the show, and I’ve learned a lot about myself in this regard.
Can you describe a typical day in the life on the Hamilton tour?
We learned very early on that there is no such thing as a typical day on Hamilton! I try and keep my personal routine similar each day if I can, as this helps me stay on top of things. I wake up around 9 am, clear emails and handle other business after breakfast, before leaving the afternoon to do whatever is required that particular day. My daily responsibilities for Hamilton include cast/dance rehearsals, vocal clean-ups, reporting to the creative team, taking and giving notes, tour logistics, the hiring of personnel, and scheduling - all on top of conducting the show.
The routine is always slightly variable, as is the show in the evening. It might be the same show, with the same music, the same cast (mostly!), and the same musicians, but every single performance of Hamilton is unique. There will always be something that makes it different from last night or the night before. I really value being able to call that environment ‘work’.
Hamilton is the most successful musical to surface in recent years. In your opinion, what makes the show sensational? When you first came into the picture, did you expect it would go on to become this popular?
I first saw Hamilton at the Public Theatre in New York in February 2016, and I knew immediately that it would be the ‘next big thing’. I was there on the same night as Andrew Lloyd Webber, and he suggested that “it was the next Rent." I agreed and suggested it could also be the new Les Miserables. I think we were both right!
What makes it so successful? In my opinion, it’s the genius of the writing, and the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work has been flawlessly and beautifully crafted on stage by a creative team that is completely at the top of their game; every creative in every department, from choreography to direction, lighting, costume, design, sound, and of course music, have produced their A-game. There is no weak link in this show, which is a very rare thing. If you then add in the fact that Hamilton is one of the most musically accessible scores ever written - one that reaches numerous demographics for very different reasons - I think you have your answer.
Thousands of students across America have been given the opportunity to see Hamilton for a mere $10 per ticket. What can you tell us about The Hamilton Education Program?
EduHam started in New York City as a project to raise funds for 20,000 public school students to experience Hamilton. The Rockefeller Foundation pledged $6 million dollars to expand the program by subsidizing the running cost of the show. Now, in collaboration with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, we present exclusive matinees nationally.
This was a genius idea. Ostensibly, Hamilton is a very interesting and important history lesson. Knowing that the show is so musically accessible to the younger generation, they realized that this was a valuable opportunity to offer this experience to underprivileged kids, who wouldn't normally be able to visit the theatre.
When we first got to San Francisco, we did four EduHams on Wednesday afternoons. Students from a number of local schools are invited. Everyone shows up around 10:30 am and they wait patiently in the auditorium. We conduct an interactive Q&A with three or four members of the cast. Then it gets super special because amongst the invitations to see the show is also an invitation to prepare a performance. So, a number of these kids get to perform on the Hamilton stage. They either perform songs from the show or present pieces based on a lesson in history that is associated with the time of the musical. Seeing their faces light up in the auditorium and watching them receive adoration from their peers is incredible. They file out and eat their lunch around City Hall while we prepare the auditorium. They return to their seats and we perform the show just for them.
During our upcoming Los Angeles run, I think we have four EduHams slated to occur and I'm excited to be in that environment again.
How did your affinity for musical theater develop? What was your first job in this industry?
I saw the opening night performance of the musical, Chess in Cambridge during its national tour of the UK in 1989, and went back four times that week. I loved it! I was 15, and this was the show that made me decide that this was the career for me. At that time, drum kit was my main instrument - I stopped taking piano lessons when I was around 11 years old - so, this was my focus.
The drummer on Chess was a guy called Kevin Campbell, one of the leading session players in London. Kevin and I first met in 2005, over fifteen years later, when he subbed on the musical Footloose in London, for which I was the Associate Music Director. I ended up sharing this story with him over a beer, opening the conversation with ‘you’re not THE Kevin Campbell are you?!’. We’ve been good friends ever since, and I spent a very happy two years in London subbing for him on the musical, Chicago, before going on to play the drum book on the international tour of the same show - where I met my now wife! Kevin has unwittingly had a big influence on my life, for sure!
You attended Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England. What did you learn during your course of study that has served you in your career?
How to drink, which has definitely helped on occasion! University was a funny time for me – I was very busy gigging and teaching, and I didn’t take studying as seriously as I could and should have because of that. I’ll be honest and say the list of things I regret not learning probably outweighs the things I valued learning. It had nothing to do with the standard of education or the talents and commitment of the lecturers, but everything to do with my outlook and approach.
Who are some of the drummers and musical minds that have influenced you?
I think the guy that really stands out is Vinnie Colaiuta. I've always really enjoyed Vinnie's musicianship and articulation. I loved his work with Sting in the 90's. Another stand out is Dennis Chambers; arguably not as well known, but I was always into his style and groove. Others? Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl, Gregg Bissonette, Chester Thompson, Omar Hakim… it’s a long list!
My drum teacher, Chris Maitland, who was the original drummer for the prog rock band, Porcupine Tree, was a huge influence early on. So was Chris Wong, who is now the music director for Toyah Willcox.
You are the co-founder of Boland and Reeve, a boutique talent agency based in London. What events led to the creation of this company and who are a few talents on your roster that hold great promise?
I’ve always had business interests. I’ve always been someone that needed ‘something else’ in addition to performing professionally and pursuing a music career. I owned a production company at one point (not the most successful venture, I might add!), worked for record companies, promoted the American soul artist, Oleta Adams, on a tour of the UK, and also had interests as a theatre producer. None of them really felt ‘right’ though - until the creation of Boland & Reeve.
I initially had the idea to start the company when I found out that several talented performer friends were frustrated with their agents not delivering. Very quickly afterward, I also found out that an agent friend, Adam Boland was looking for a change in scene, and I saw an opportunity to bring all this together. We launched the company with a promise of ‘personal representation’ to our clients. 8 years later, we now look after over 120 clients in theatre, TV, and film in projects around the world, and we still represent the friends that we launched the company with!
As for talents that hold great promise – it would be unfair to single out any one individual, it really would. All of our clients are outstanding at what they do, and we’re proud to represent them!
In your opinion, what is the difference between a great artist and a star?
A true star has presence. It’s like you can ‘feel’ them in a room. It’s a very special thing to be around.
You came to New York in 2012. What was the motivation behind relocating to America? What about the atmosphere of New York inspired you?
New York, or the U.S, wasn’t on my radar until I met my wife, Lisa. We met on the musical Chicago in Istanbul. She was playing the lead, Velma Kelly, and I was on drums. On our second date, she mentioned that she’d just applied for the Green Card because she wanted to explore new career possibilities. Cutting a long and quite romantic story short, we re-located to NYC a year and a half later. We’ve loved every minute of our journey; it wasn’t easy at times, but we worked hard and stayed committed to our new start. I can’t imagine us ever going back to the UK. There’s something about the American way of ‘you CAN do/be anything you want to be’ that I love – we both do. That would be hard to let go.
These days, Lisa is predominantly a film producer. Her latest project is called Early Mourning. It won the Best Audience Award at the SOHO International Film Festival in New York and was recently featured at Newport Beach International Film Festival, amongst others. She has a lot of other projects on the go, and is in development for a feature film as we speak – she’s incredible!
You have traveled all around the world in pursuit of sharing these fantastic theatrical productions with international audiences. What locations hold a special place in your heart and why?
I’ve been very lucky! Many places have been special, but if I had to name one, I’d choose Japan. Each time I go, I’m reminded how much I value their culture. The people are so respectful of themselves, their surroundings, and ultimately, each other. Even a very busy city like Tokyo ‘feels’ very different from somewhere like New York as a result, and I love it! Add in the beauty of Kyoto, with all those ancient temples and gardens, and I’m hooked!
What guilty pleasures would we be surprised to know are a part of your music collection?
Ha! Easy – I’m a huge lover of 80’s music. Driving along the coast in California, an hour before sunset with the top down and an 80’s power ballad blaring from the speakers, is my idea of heaven! I love Chaka Khan. Hall & Oates. Level 42. Michael Jackson. Prince. Simply Red. Sting. Even people like Rachelle Ferrell and The Rippingtons.
In the context of your career, can you share your proudest moment?
Ooh – tough one! The success of Boland & Reeve is right up there, but it probably has to be getting to be a part of Hamilton. I’ve always had to work hard at the piano to be able to ‘compete’ at this level because drums are my first instrument.
When I was first asked to come on board as a rehearsal pianist for the Broadway production, hours went into learning and finessing, not only the piano parts but the vocal singing and rapping as well. In committing to the work, I think my talents were better showcased, and that is probably why I’m now the music director of the first national tour!
I was also able to share the news that I’d got the job with my Mum just before her quick decline with Pancreatic cancer last year. It made her very happy – which makes me proud.
Catch Hamilton at Hollywood Pantages in Los Angeles from August 11th - December 30th. Get tickets here.