Mary Poppins music director Annbritt duChateau had no intention of pursuing a career in musical theatre while she was completing her doctorate degree in piano performance and pedagogy at Northwestern.
Growing up in Aurora, Ill. she studied the French horn with the Chicago Youth Symphony and thought she might play the instrument professionally someday. She later completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees at DePaul University, where she studied under Chicago Symphony Orchestra pianist Mary Sauer.
Unsure of what to focus on, she took classes in everything from jazz piano to jingle writing. At DePaul she was the assistant to the head of the choral department and continued that work at Northwestern with Dr. Robert Harris. Like many students, the talented faculty and beautiful campus rank among some of her favorite things about attending Northwestern. She also enjoyed teaching group piano classes because it allowed her to interact with musicians from every department of the music school.
As she was starting her projects, she was offered the chance to play piano downtown for a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love. When producers decided to create a national tour for the show, she figured she’d go on the road for a year and then come back to finish her degree. However, a series of job offers sent her on a different path. “This is the first time I’ve worked in Chicago since then,” she explained. “It’s been one of those crazy stories where one thing truly did lead to the next.”
For now, the path has led her to the Palace Theatre for the National Tour of Mary Poppins. The show, which stars original Broadway cast members Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee, is based on both P.L. Travers’s original stories and the classic Disney film about the mysterious, flying nanny to the Banks children. The score includes familiar songs from the film, such as “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
duChateau was working on the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Pal Joey, which was recently nominated for four Tony awards, when she got a call offering her the chance to work on Poppins. A week later, she was headed home to Chicago to start rehearsals. One of the reasons she took the job was the chance to work with the 16-person orchestra, many of whom are local musicians. “It’s been such an amazing experience to conduct this orchestra. They are fantastic every single show,” she said.
Once the show goes on the road, it will be her responsibility to maintain the music and make sure everyone stays sharp. In the meantime, she conducts six or seven of the eight performances a week and works a great deal with the production’s young actors, helping them warm up their voices and get focused before every show. To add to her already busy schedule, she’s recently been working to prepare the understudies for when they might be presented the opportunity to perform. Brown had some prior concert commitments, so one actress has already gone on as Mary. “It’s pretty exciting when you have an extremely talented cast and someone can just step into the Mary Poppins role and it’s equally as thrilling for the audience,” duCheateau said.
duChateau believes the show appeals to such a wide audience because it offers something for everyone, whether you’re seven or 70. “What’s fun about conducting this show is you turn around and see these little kids watching the show and they see no wires. My three-year-old still hasn’t figured out that Mary’s got wires on her back. He thinks that she really flies and that Bert really walks up walls,” she explained.
But there is a deeper meaning for audience members who are old enough to realize the magical happenings are nothing more than stage effects. “The show is not just about these nasty kids and teaching them how to behave, although that is part of it, but rather teaching the adults how to behave and be better parents, better people,” she added.
After finishing work on Aspects of Love, she moved to the San Francisco production of The Phantom of the Opera and later to the national tour of Miss Saigon, where she met her husband, a cellist and fellow conductor. Towards the end of her run at Saigon, a friend introduced her to Stephen Sondheim’s music director and conductor Paul Gemignani. He offered her a chance to be his assistant conductor on the 1999 revival of Kiss Me Kate, despite the fact he hadn’t heard her play piano or seen her conduct. “To have someone introduce you to a Broadway icon that then becomes your mentor is kind of unheard of. I’ve been extremely, extremely lucky in that department,” she acknowledged.
Her association with Gemignani gave her the opportunity to work with Mr. Sondheim on the Tony Award-winning revival of Into the Woods and later on the 2002 production of The Frogs. “He likes us to call him Steve but that’s like calling Beethoven by his first name,” she said of the renowned composer who was very hands-on with both shows.
In September, duChateau will take part in a concert reading of a new musical called Kristina, which is based on a series of novels called The Emigrants. Former ABBA members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus wrote the show but duChateau said it is completely different musically from the pair’s hit Mamma Mia! She looks forward to being part of an original show that people haven’t heard before. “I’ll finally get to play Carnegie Hall, which I know sounds cliché, but really is something I think every musician hopes to do some day,” she added.
duChateau attributes part of her success to the musical versatility she developed while in school. Producers look for people who can take on multiple roles in a production and perform them well. To that effect, she suggests that students studying music become as involved as possible and consider every opportunity they find. “If you had told me 20 years ago that I was going to be a music director for Broadway shows, I would’ve probably laughed. Keep yourself open to everything. The opportunities present themselves and can often lead to other things—even your career.”