Grand night for playing: Debbie Mielke at the keys for Rodgers & Hammerstein revue

Debbie Mielke. (Photo/Marty Higginbotham for Virginia Samford Theatre)

If you’ve been to see a musical in Birmingham, chances are you’ve seen, or at least heard, Debbie Mielke.

Since 1990, when she and her family (husband Matthew and daughters Robyn, Megyn and Katelyn) came to Birmingham, she’s been at the keyboard and music director for a bunch of them, including “A Grand Night for Singing,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical revue opening Thursday, Sept. 14,  at the Virginia Samford Theatre.

Mielke’s 40-year career includes stints at Walt Disney World, Clemson University and numerous theaters in Birmingham and around the country. She currently works at the Alabama School of Fine Arts with musical theater students and at Homewood High School, where she accompanies the show choirs and soloists during the competition season.

And you can almost always find her involved with a musical production in the area. This time, it’s as music director (Jan Hunter is director) of an evening of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs.

She took some time to answer some questions about herself and her musical work.

Tell me the Debbie Mielke story.

I grew up in northwestern Indiana, about 50 miles east of Chicago, outside Valparaiso. We were out in the country – actually across the road from a dairy farm. I was at a rural elementary and high school until we moved to Florida when I was 16. The move was the best thing in the world for me. I met people who were really serious about music and theatre and really found my place. I did my associate degree at Indian River State College in Fort Pierce. I had two brilliant professors (Anthony and Roberta Allo) guiding my music and theater education, and I’m still teaching students things that they taught me. I finished up at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, doing music education (piano/voice major) and a minor in theater. 

What about piano? Did you start playing at an early age?

I could read music before I could read written words. My mother used to tell a story about finding me sitting on the floor tracing music notes with my finger, trying to find “Brahms’ Lullaby.” I couldn’t read the titles, so I was following the music to find the song I wanted. I was 3. By the time I was 4-1/2 I was driving my parents crazy begging for piano lessons. They took me to the local music store to ask about lessons for their daughter. The owner, Harry Bucci, said “Oh, you have an older daughter at home”? They said no, it was for me. He walked over to a piano in the showroom and played a version of “Jingle Bells.” He had a very distinctive style – full chords, a little jazzy. He asked me if I could play that.  I played note-for-note what he had done. I started lessons on Friday that week. He loved to trot me out for recitals, talent shows, playing at the county fair…anywhere someone would request to have one of his students play. I played my first recital before I was 5: “The Blue Danube Waltz,” “Alley Cat” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I’ve been performing ever since.

What sparked your love for musicals? Did you listen to them when you were growing up?

My parents’ favorite movie was “Oklahoma.” I could sing the entire soundtrack when I was 4. I remember that any time a musical was being aired on television it became a big family occasion. We would actually eat in front of the TV (unheard of any other time in our house). I know we saw the television/film versions of “The King and I,” “Cinderella,” “Flower Drum Song” and so many others that way. The first movie I remember seeing in an actual movie theater (not a drive-in) was “The Sound of Music.” Our local library had a collection of LPs that you could check out after you reached age 10. I would take out the absolute maximum number of musical soundtracks each time. I would listen to them over and over. I used to stay up late in the summers to watch old MGM musicals on one of the stations from Chicago. “Singing in the Rain,” “Show Boat,” “Kiss Me Kate,” so many others.

What’s the first show you played for?

“Godspell.” My first show in college. I had been in shows (community theatre) prior to that but it was the first one I played. I knew I had found my place.

Any idea how many musicals you’ve been a part of?

Not sure of the exact number, but I do know I have been part of more than 150. 

Can you tell me about the process of being a musical director? Do you start from scratch with each show?

I am fortunate to have been a part of so many productions over the years so I frequently re-visit shows I have done before. I absolutely hate, “Well, the last time we did this we did …” I feel like every new production deserves fresh eyes. I go back and read the script again. I review the music. I will frequently listen to recordings of different casts doing the music to see what others have done. I especially go back and re-read the lyrics. I frequently teach young performers that if they are singing in a musical they are acting on pitches. I truly believe that. The acting doesn’t stop when the music starts.

I spend several weeks before starting rehearsal reviewing scores, planning who sings what and where, what order to teach the music, planning the music rehearsals to keep wasted time to a minimum.

Some directors like me to be part of the casting process. Others prefer to do it themselves. With a lot of directors that is fine, but I do occasionally end up with a cast where I have to restructure the parts because I only have one tenor or two soprano.

I view it as part of the challenge: Making a musical work with the personnel I have, not with the “ideal” cast. Unless you’re working on Broadway, you are not always going to have the exact voices and ranges you need. That’s when you get creative.

What’s the most difficult show you’ve ever played for?

The most physically demanding show I have ever played was a production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’”  in Winter Park, Florida.  We ran for eight weeks, and by the end my arms were wrapped every night in ace bandages just for support. The show is a piano tour de force and I played every note. The accompaniment is mostly stride piano, which means your left hand is hitting a note with your little finger and your thumb is hitting one 10 keys away, every other beat.

Is something like “A Grand Night for Singing” easier to do since the music is so well known, or does that in itself bring particular challenges?

It’s an interesting challenge, actually. While there are a some songs from more obscure R&H musicals (“Flower Drum Song,” “Allegro,” “Pipe Dream,” “Me and Juliet”) most of this is from the Big 6: “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” “Carousel,” “The Sound of Music,” “Cinderella.” People think they know what to expect when they see “A Wonderful Guy” or “Kansas City.” Jan Hunter and I had a fun time deciding whether to honor the original arrangements from the show or to shake things up a little. I think we found a great balance. Some songs are as you’d expect. Some are very unexpected, but delightful.

It was interesting to discover, in working on this production, how much R&H have influenced my own personal musical style. From the way I orchestrate, fill chords, arrange chorally, structure accompaniment, even interpret dynamics. It’s very much like visiting with old friends.

What can audiences expect from the show?

 First of all, expect amazing music with amazing vocals. We have a stellar cast in Kristi Tingle Higginbotham, Kristen Campbell, Dana Porter, Richie Lisenby and Caleb Clark. Expect clever vocal arrangements, unexpected moments that will capture your heart and an evening with songs that feel as warm and lush as any you will hear, whether this is your first or your 100th time hearing them.

“A Grand Night for Singing,” Sept. 14-24 at the Virginia Samford Theatre.

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