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A Journey Through The Blockbusters Of Musical Theatre - Steven Reineke

ABOVE: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Steven Reineke (Photo by: Julie Soefer)

A Journey Through The Blockbusters Of Musical Theatre

We sat down with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Steven Reineke for more on Broadway Blockbusters with Ramin Karimloo and Mikaela Bennett…

This June, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) is inviting guests to experience a little bit of Broadway as part of an exciting concert at Roy Thomson Hall, which is part of a major cultural partnership for Pride Toronto 2024. Broadway Blockbusters joins in on Toronto’s Pride festivities with signature songs and duets from the blockbusters of musical theatre, from the Golden Age to favourites of today, including West Side StoryLes MisérablesThe Phantom of the OperaFunny Girl, and many more.

Acclaimed Broadway star and Toronto native Ramin Karimloo will join celebrated Canadian vocalist Mikaela Bennett for three performances on Tuesday, June 25, and Wednesday, June 26, for the journey through the blockbusters of musical theatre. Karimloo has most notably starred in The Phantom of the OperaFunny Girland multiple productions of Les Misérables, including the Canadian production in 2013/14, while Bennett has been in West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and is also a recent recipient of the Lincoln Center Award for Emerging Artists.

The performances of Broadway Blockbusters will be conducted by Steven Reineke, the TSO’s Principal Pops Conductor, who is also part of the institution’s leadership team that programs the Pops Series. Reineke has established himself as one of North America’s leading conductors of popular music. Along with his role as principal pops conductor of the TSO, Reineke is Music Director of The New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, Principal Pops Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and Principal Pops Conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

On stage, Reineke has created programs and collaborated with a range of leading artists from the worlds of hip-hop, Broadway, television and rock, including Cynthia Erivo, Common, Kendrick Lamar, Nas, Sutton Foster, Megan Hilty, Cheyenne Jackson, Wayne Brady, Peter Frampton and Ben Folds, among others. In 2017, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered featured Reineke leading the National Symphony Orchestra as it performed live music excerpts between news segments – a first in the show’s 45-year history. In 2018, Reineke led the National Symphony Orchestra with hip-hop legend Nas performing his seminal album Illmatic on PBS’s Great Performances.

In anticipation of the TSO’s upcoming Broadway Blockbusters for Pride Month, IN sat down with Reineke to find out what guests can expect from the performance, what it has been like working with Karimloo and Bennett, what Pride means to him…and what his favourite Broadway tune is.

Let’s kick things off and talk about Broadway Blockbusters. What should the audience expect?
This is the close of our popular pop series season and we are going to go out with a bang. The show will feature some great Broadway songs from classic Broadway all the way up to some more contemporary musicals. And we have two Canadian-born singers, Ramin Karimloo and Mikaela Bennett, who really are two of the brightest stars in musical theatre today. I’m so excited to have both of them joining the TSO.

You’ve worked with Ramin before, right?
Yes, I have, and I’ve known him for some years now! He’s such a dream to work with because he’s such a great guy and a wonderful collaborator. But, also, his voice is so good…one of my favourite voices from the stage.

Have you had the opportunity to work with Mikaela before?
No, and we’ve never actually met in person. We’ve been working virtually so far on this production. I’ve been wanting to work with her, and we thought this was a great opportunity to bring her to Toronto. I really try to feature as many Canadian artists as possible throughout the year, and this was a prime opportunity with this concert to finally work with her. I’m going to be meeting her in New York before she comes to Toronto and I think it will be fun to finally meet her in person.

ABOVE: Ramin Karimloo and Mikaela Bennett will appear in Broadway Blockbusters on June 25 and 26 at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto

What was the process like putting the production together?
I started putting together this particular production by reaching out to both of them via email and started the conversation. I said, here’s the theme of Broadway Blockbusters, and obviously we’d like to feature some highlights from your career and the productions you’ve been a part of. What would you like to do with this program? What are some of your dream songs that you haven’t had the opportunity to perform? Then they each got back to me separately and gave me a list of solos that they were interested in as well as some duets. Of course, I already have my own ideas as well, so I incorporated their ideas with my ideas and I put together a show that features both of them in duets and solos, as well as features for the orchestra. 

It sounds very collaborative.
It is very collaborative. Once I put the show together, I sent it off to both Ramin and Mikaela and they let me know if they liked it [laughs]. It’s a very fun process and smooth. We only had two different drafts of the program. It came together very nicely and very quickly.

Obviously, the program features some things from their careers. Mikaela is a Juilliard graduate and she is much more in the classical vein, so she’s done some crossover work where she’s played Maria in The Sound Of Music and Maria in West Side Story. [pause] Oh, wait.… They’re both named Maria!

How do you solve a problem like Maria?
Exactly! [laughs] And, of course, Ramin is known for The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, and he was in the recent revival of Funny Girl.

When did you start working on putting Broadway Blockbusters together?
Ideas have been percolating for years, but we started really working on this about three months ago. That’s when I fully started fleshing out the program.

Broadway Blockbusters will take place during Toronto’s Pride Month. What does “Pride” mean to you?
Pride is a very personal thing. I know a lot of people think of Pride and it’s a party and a parade and dancing in the streets – and it is all of those things. It’s a celebration. But when I really think about it, and when I internalize it, it is the opposite of shame and the opposite of guilt. That’s what Pride is. For so many of us, we grew up feeling shame and guilt, so Pride is a chance to live your true authentic life and to love yourself completely.

Tell us about your role with and connection to the TSO.
Gustavo Gimeno is the TSO’s Musical Director and he does the classical programming throughout the year, and as the Principal Pops Conductor I do the more popular music programming. Actually, I’m the first Principal Pops Conductor that the TSO has ever had! They have had a pop series for a very long time, but the role was officially created for me in 2012. But I’ve got to tell you that I’ve got a very long relationship with the TSO. I first guest conducted their orchestra back in 1997. I was 26 or 27 years old and my teacher got sick and I had to step in at the last minute, and they’ve been inviting me back ever since. I was a baby the first time I got up there.… I was so nervous.

What do you want people to know about you that they might not already know?
That’s a good question because I am kind of an open book. I like to do crossword puzzles! I do at least two every morning: USA Today and the New York Times crossword puzzles.

Of course, we have to ask…what is your favourite Broadway musical?
Oh! This is really hard. My favourite musical is Sweeney Todd, because I think it’s such a genius work. Opera companies have done it and you might want to call it opera or operetta.… It’s just so brilliantly created. I just think it is a perfect musical. There is not one wrong note in it, and by that, I mean every note of Sweeney Todd is exactly as it should be in my mind. It is a perfect creation and one of Stephen Sondheim’s true masterpieces.

What about your favourite song from a Broadway musical?
Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote some good ones; I think my favourite has to be “You’ll Never Walk Alone” [from the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel]. It’s such a powerful, anthemic ballad. I think Carousel might be my favourite [Rodgers and Hammerstein] musical.

Last question. After Broadway Blockbusters, what’s next for you and the TSO?
I have an incredibly busy summer elsewhere. My season is finished with the TSO until we start back up in October with the world premiere of a brand new show we are creating called Simply The Best: A Tina Turner Tribute. I’m putting this together with my good friend Adrienne Warren, who won a Tony Award for her performance in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical on Broadway. It’s going to be a lot of fun!


Broadway Blockbusters with Ramin Karimloo and Mikaela Bennett will be led by Steven Reineke, TSO’s Principal Pops Conductor; performances will be on June 25 and 26 at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.tso.ca.

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