As the leaves change color and the air starts to feel a little crisper, outdoor concerts will still be in full swing in the days ahead. Such concerts will be held at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ), which is offering their Autumn Night Music series at their Back Yard Stage in Florham Park, NJ. Be prepared for lively music from October 8-15 during individual concerts by Elena Shaddow, Benjamin Eakeley, and Kate Baldwin.
I checked in with Benjamin Eakeley, who is a Broadway actor, singer, and voice instructor. He is currently planning for his October 9 concert, where he will present his “Best of the Songbook” series. His onstage endeavor will also include a vibrant jazz trio led by Music Director James Olmstead on piano and featuring Matthew Rybicki on bass. I was very excited to hear more from Eakeley about his experiences at the STNJ, his career, and his approach to developing arrangements for his concerts. He is a well-known face at the STNJ from many shows, including his 2019 appearance in The Rainmaker, a production by Bonnie J. Monte.
Since you’re performing your concert at the Shakespeare Theatre, I wanted to ask you what your favorite Shakespeare play is.
First of all, performing in these plays at the Shakespeare Theatre has changed my view on a lot of these pieces. For example, something like Titus Andronicus, which most people might write off for the violence, was an amazing experience. I think a lot of people might dismiss A Midsummer Night’s Dream because they’ve seen it a million times. For me, performing it was a transforming experience.
I would say that right now, my favorite play is still my traditional favorite play, As You Like It. That play to me combines all the elements of his best writing. It is romance, adventure, comedy, and action—everything but the kitchen sink and I love it.
From your perspective as a voice instructor, what is something a lot of newbie singers overlook?
The first and most important thing to work on for all singers, new and old, is a good foundation in breathing. Newbie singers don’t even think about how the breath relates to the sound that we produce. It is something that is an interesting and general adjustment that can transform everything. A number of my students are adults who sing for themselves in their own enjoyment and passion.
I find that the breath work is important not only for singing, but also for speaking and communicating. If somebody is going to give a presentation in a boardroom, that connection to the breath is just as valuable as if that person will be singing a Donna Summer song.
Whom do you admire among the great crooners and why?
I’m going to put Ella Fitzgerald in the category of great crooners. Maybe we tend to think about crooners more as men, but her orchestrations are the greatest. Her musicality is unparalleled. Of that era, she is the person I will listen to again and again. Otherwise, Tony Bennett is one of my favorites ever. We’ve been blessed to have had him sing throughout our lifetime, as well as before [that]. I love Julie London and Dean Martin. There’s a great loungey feel and beat behind them. You want to sit in your living room or the club and experience whatever they have going on.
What’s a role in your career that you look back on with fond memories?
I played Cliff in Cabaret on Broadway. I got to do it opposite Emma Stone, Sienna Miller, and Michelle Williams. I also toured the country with it, playing in the first national tour. That role was a gift. The production was just so much fun.
What are you looking forward to about collaborating with James Olmstead and the musicians this time around?
James and I met when I was doing a production of White Christmas with him maybe 10 years ago at the Engeman Theater in Long Island. I was playing the Bing Crosby role and I replaced a guy in this production… I found as I was on stage singing that James plays with the best and most profound sense of rhythm of any music director that I’ve ever worked with. I found that his rhythm was so great that I felt supported in doing whatever I wanted to do on stage. [While] singing something like “Love and the Weather,” I would find myself changing the melody a little bit, trying a new riff. James was always game for it and that was the beginning of our music making together.
This is the core of what we do with our orchestra. Whenever we can get the band together, for me it is an opportunity to embrace our own musicality in a way that we don’t necessarily get to do when we’re on stage working in a show.
The difference between doing a show like this at the Shakespeare Theatre and doing a show on Broadway is—for example, if you are in a production of Wicked, you need to sing the material in the way that Stephen Schwartz wrote it, a musical director prescribes it, and how the audience expects to receive it. When you create your own show, you are free to express it in whatever way you want. James gives me the opportunity to do that. We have a great dialogue when we work on the arrangements and with the musicians.
Could you give an example of how you approach constructing arrangements?
Let’s say we are going to do an arrangement of Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me.” We understand how Smith did it originally and it’s a fabulous piece. We think about what we want to bring out of this song. How can the song translate itself [into] a cabaret format? How do we get the audience to focus on the text or take note of this interesting chord in the middle? Or, if we deliberately change a chord or a rhythm, how does the audience experience the song that they know well in a different way? Orchestrally, how would we use the upright bass, a piano, or a trumpet to bring out a particular musical motif in the song?
The ability to dive into popular songs, analyze them from within, and hopefully bring them to life in a new way for the audience is a great and fun process.
You were comparing the Shakespeare Theatre to Broadway theatres earlier. Would you like to elaborate more about the differences in performing for those venues?
Broadway is always an awesome experience, but I’ve actually found that the Shakespeare Theatre has been equally awesome in different ways. At the Shakespeare Theatre for example, we have more of a connection to the audience that we are performing to because they are literally right there. We can hear them laugh, sigh, and—if someone gets stabbed—scream or groan. That interaction is unmatched from the performing aspect because we get more information from the audience at the Shakespeare Theatre than we do in a huge and dark theatre on Broadway.
Secondly, I would say the material that the Shakespeare Theatre puts up—because of its nature as Shakespeare—is good classic theatre but provocative. I think that the audiences go to the Shakespeare Theatre expecting to be challenged more than a Broadway audience does. The Broadway audience wants to sit back, not think, and be rewarded. There is more intellectual dialogue going on between the audience and the piece at the Shakespeare Theatre.
It is a rare thing, because it allows us as performers to work with more risk. We know that the audiences at the Shakespeare Theatre are up for something that is more abstract. Let me see if I can play this moment in a different way and if the scene reads it the same way and as impactful. Therefore, there’s a lot more freedom in the performances that we do at the Shakespeare Theatre than there is on Broadway.
I am looking forward to doing [the concert] in the outdoor stage, [which offers] a lot of freedom in that construct. I [also] found that with A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the outdoor stage a couple of years ago. With this performance, how do we take this great music and engage and entertain the audience over the course of the evening? How does being outside change the presentation of the material and what I will say between songs?
I think because the Shakespeare Theatre is a place where I really cut my teeth on stage, I feel like it’s a home base and a home crowd for me. In my speeches between songs, I can be a little more honest in telling people about my experiences on stage and off and what music and theatre means to me.
You received positive reviews for the first and second volumes of your Broadway Swinger series. Are you considering a third volume in the near future?
I absolutely am. We are debuting some of the material during the concert at the Shakespeare Theatre. I received a grant from an organization called the New York City Artists Corps. It’s a grant during the pandemic that the de Blasio administration has put into effect to help put artists back to work.
We are in the process of writing the program right now and trying some arrangements. I am performing at the Shakespeare Theatre. I am also looking—hopefully towards the New York Library for the Performing Arts for a final concert. The Shakespeare Theatre is going to be the first audience to hear some of this material in an orchestrated version. We’re very excited about it.
For more information about the Autumn Night Music series, visit the STNJ website.