By Quinn Rigg
There are around 1000 questions lingering in the minds of every theatregoer, artist, and producer in a pandemic that’s irrevocably unhinged the cultural norm. The Beautiful City Project has created an event to honor and contribute to a recovering artistic community with “The Top 100” — a collaborative musical theatre marathon between many of Chicago’s most prolific performers, bringing quarantined audiences a song a day for 100 days for the next three months.
Artistic director of The Beautiful City Project, David Fiorello wears many hats: music director, professor, vocal coach, musician, not to mention his signature baseball caps. Chicagoland Musical Theatre had the honored opportunity to ask Fiorello about this event and how it relates to artistic activism, hope for the future, and a hilarious Chewbacca impression.
CMT: As a quick review for any who don’t know, what is the goal of The Beautiful City Project, and what is the intended result of this 100-day musical theatre marathon?
DF: Well, The Beautiful City Project’s mission statement describes us well (one would hope), and it reads: The Beautiful City Project is committed to using musical theatre as a tool to give back to the Chicago community, intent on building a promising tomorrow for a beautiful city. Cabaret performances highlight a different organization every month, while the mainstage programming of musicals in concert take a community issue head-on, raising awareness and funds to be given directly to an organization in need, making an immediate impact. A city-wide campaign of beautification and positivity will be the hallmark of a project intent on taking real action in our beautiful city.
So, the goal is really to use our gifts to bless others, bless those who make it their mission to help others on a daily basis. The intended result of this 100-day project is to join forces with some of the most outrageously lovely folks in the Chicago musical theatre community, and bring funds and awareness to 10 different charities over the next 3 months or so.
CMT: As a seasoned theatrical professional, what do you find challenging about this new virtual normal of theatre-making? Do you find any excitement in such unique problem solving with the new online medium?
DF: This is a great question, indeed. I’ll tell you, it’s phenomenal to see the theatre community nationwide find creative solutions to this current time. And I remember reading a great article that talked about how art, and specifically theatre had survived through so many different world events, and if you could really kill it, it would have been killed already. I think the beauty of this artistic community is that it’s full of innovation, and I’ve found it thrilling to brainstorm new ways to encourage, support and create art in this time. Through my own studio (Fiorello Studios), I’ve moved to a completely online model, but started offering different courses in theatre, started new programs, and it’s been wild to see folks really taking this time that could appear to be forlorn and a pause of sorts, to really strive to make great art. And as long as people in the arts are like that, this artform isn’t going anywhere. Constantly in awe of the innovators.
CMT: How does one compile 100 “best of’s” — has this list been at the ready for a while, or did it take significant work to compile?
DF: Well, first of all, ANY list of “best of” is going to be subjective, and our list is thoroughly objective. I’ve got about 100,000 musical theatre songs bouncing around in my brain at all times, so the toughest thing was narrowing it down to 100. But I wanted to make sure that our list was a collection of some familiar songs, some songs that people likely haven’t heard of, and some songs that have stood the test of time. A big qualifier is that we don’t repeat any musicals. It’s 100 songs, and 100 different shows. So one might have 3 songs from West Side Story or Dreamgirls that would objectively make the list, but we thought a variety would be more fun. When I was on tour with John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd, I remember making my first Top 100 list while we were in tech, and it’s so fascinating to see how much that list has changed over the years, as I put together this new list. We run the gamut from early Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter all the way up through shows that have premiered in the last few years.
CMT: What aspect of “The Big 100” are you most looking forward to — whether that be a specific song, performer, etc.?
DF: Oh, I’m positively giddy about some of these selections. We’re being very tight-lipped about what songs will appear, but I’m very much looking forward to Kathy Voytko singing my favorite Sondheim song, we’re bring back some recent casts of musicals around town to perform songs from their production, and the performers are all Chicago-based, which was very important to us, as everything we do is intentionally hyper-local. But I’ll also say that I love the different types of performers we have. Diversity was incredibly important to us, and I’ve loved hearing videos come in from folks who would bring something incredible to a certain role that might not have landed in your head on first thought. There will be lovely surprises from our incredible performers, all of which are donating their time and talents. Can’t talk enough about how in awe I am of our great Chicago theatre community.
CMT: How do you find resolve in the face of such adversity to the performing arts?
DF: Well, I think adversity is everywhere, and it’s important to remember that there’s always, no matter what. Someone who’s suffering significantly more than you. When my incredible Co-Founder and Executive Director Jessica Needham and I began this organization, we knew the only way we’d want to do it is if it could be a tool for giving. Both of us (and our spouses) feel very strongly about giving back whenever we can. There are certain organizations that my wife and I give to that have us in tears when we even THINK about the difference they’re making and what even $100 does to change their entire world, operationally. So I’m a big believer in using God-given gifts to bring light to folks in darkness. And partnering with so many fine performers over our first 5 months have proven to us that there are more people out there like us. Creating a movement of dedicated artists who stand with us to create something larger than ourselves proves that adversity can be muted by intentionality. Maybe that’s too optimistic, but I’ve seen it first hand.
CMT: Do you see this company producing any events similar to this in the future?
DF: Well, I think so! Certainly more things online, but we’ve got a couple of very different ideas in pre-production as well.
CMT: Would you have expected to be involved with this kind of project a year ago?
DF: I hope the answer is yes! A year ago I was getting ready to teach and music direct in a summer musical theatre program in Italy, and while there I had a bit of an epiphany about how I wanted to be more about creation and innovation, which is I think what happens when you’re in the midst of such architectural and culinary magnificence. But I knew that pioneering was going to be in the cards for 2020. And no pats on the back here, it’s because of the incredible people we have on our staff, and the hearts of audiences that want to give back as much as we do. And this city is better because of those people.
CMT: Your commitment to the Chicago community is a strong through line throughout your work: given that you’ve traveled and toured through your career, what makes Chicago the sit-down home for your work and this mission?
DF: I came out here to teach, coach and music direct in Northwestern University’s Musical Theatre Certificate program, and simply driving up Lakeshore Drive for the first time as the sun was setting is enough to give you pause. But being that my wife and I have been here nearly 10 years now, something about the grittiness of this city always attracted me. I was living in Manhattan before coming here, and I ADORE NYC, love going back, lots of friends there. But NYC has a bit of a polished sheen to it’s art, as emphasis is really placed so often on the finished commercial product.
Here in Chicago, you’ve got hard-edged people battling the wind and snow, really mettle-tested warriors running around, scraping things together. And I think it’s a Midwestern thing, but I love the earthiness of folks here in such a big city. L.A. and NYC are just a touch more glamorous (by need), and here I feel a sense of realness that’s more easily on the top. And I think because of that, and because it’s a big city with big challenges, you’ve got a lot of people fiercely protective of Chicago, and it’s a great place to roll up your sleeves and try to help in any way you can. And because people are hard-worn, I think they respect that. Love this city.
CMT: It certainly takes a lot of love to live here, not sure how else we’d tolerate six months of perpetual winter. You mentioned your work with your vocal studio: how do you feel your constant switching of hats in the arts has influenced your need to give back to this community?
DF: I’m blessed and lucky enough to have been in all different positions in the theatre world, and I think everything informs the rest. Being able to direct, music direct, perform, arrange, orchestrate, playwright, teach, be behind the table, be behind the piano, and vocal coach leads to an understanding of not only all that goes into making things successful in its mission, but also an understanding of the people. It’s why I think such great casting directors like Bob Mason are so good at their jobs, because they’ve been on the other side. Same with directors, music directors, etc..
The great playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin went to Syracuse University and majored in Musical Theatre. I think that has shaped him in incredible ways as a writer. And you look at the Stephen Schellhardts and Michael Webers in this town, and you see folks who simply understand theatre as a whole from wearing so many different hats.
Again, lucky to have been able to do all of these things, but I think it takes a certain tenacity to know what you want to accomplish, and then realize that it’s mostly you that’s going to get in the way of that happening. I don’t love performing the way that I used to, and I LOVE vocal coaching and music directing now more than before, so life just shifts!
CMT: This last one’s just for fun: What is your favorite special skill, that you’ve either seen behind the table, or that you’ve had on your resume?
DF: I’ll tell one of my FAVORITE Special Skills stories, and leave out all names to protect the innocent.
We were auditioning a show that I was music directing, and a lovely actress sang a lovely song, and left the room. We had a little downtime before the next auditionee, so we were passing around her resume, and I saw that she had a Chewbacca impression listed under special skills. Now I have a healthy respect for creative special skills, so I had the monitor go and catch her before she left the building.
In the room, we were seeing who out of the 6 of us had a decent Chewbacca voice (mine is, in fact, pretty decent), while we waited for her to return. She then came into the room and we asked her, and she gave a longer, quiet squawk that resembled something more like a rare Polynesian bird, we politely and over-enthusiastically said “thank you”, and she left the room. We were so confused as to why they would have listed it on their resume…it was as if this person had never even seen the film, just so baffling.
About four minutes later, the producer who passed along the resume said “Oh my God, that was the wrong girl.” We had asked someone who in fact DID NOT list Chewbacca Voice on her Special Skills, it was just a mix-up of who’s resume it was…So this poor girl, who was COMPLETELY GAME, and positive and didn’t do anything except give it her best shot (and leave likely very confused), must have thought we were insane.
Needless to say we ran after her to see if she was still in the building, and she was, and we profusely apologized for the mixup. And I just remember thinking this is the EXACT type of performer I want to work with, Someone who’s willing and game for anything, living in a world of positive expectation and positivity. Earned a lot of points in my book, and an absolutely mortifying experience!
CMT: It’s the commitment to that team-player attitude that makes The Beautiful City Project something worth celebrating. As Chicagoland anticipates the inauguration of “The Top 100,” we also anticipate coming together as a stronger, holistic artistic community. Not only does The Beautiful City Project remind us of the resilience and tenacity of our city, but of the genuine good done by artistic activism and charity outreach.