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Second City's Music Director Role Evolves with Technology

By Paul Biasco | June 24, 2014 5:08am
Second City's Music Director Evolves with High-Tech Industry
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

LINCOLN PARK — The handful of music directors at The Second City over the years have provided piano accompaniment some of the country's biggest stars during their formative years.

What started as a role for a jazz pianist in 1959 has since transformed in tune with the greater music industry.

Jesse Case, the theater's newest music director, still sits behind a grand piano, but is equipped with a synthesizer above the main set keys, a third keyboard down below for sound effects and industry standard audio programs on a laptop to his side.

Paul Biasco explains how the a 29-year-old is playing a big role that few before him have had:

Case is the music director of the theater's Mainstage and helped craft the theater's newest revue, "Depraved New World."

Case's fingers fly down the length of the piano during some sets, just like his predecessors, but he also works the magic behind rap, auto-tuned lip syncing and everything in between.

Pulling off the lip-synched auto-tune number requires knowledge of recording and mixing as well as a connection with the actor on stage.

"Technologically, music direction has come a long way," Case said. "A super long way."

While the technology has changed, the core of the comedy and its relationship with music has not.

"The basis of our comedy is this sort of very dark, subversive, intimate cabaret theatrical setting that was just soundtracked by jazz piano," Case said. "We have maintained a certain core element of what it started out as."

The 29-year-old Andersonville resident first started at the theater as an intern after moving to the city from Boulder, Colo.

He found his way to the Mainstage after working up the ladder from intern, to the cruise ship circuit and finally to the Second City's e.t.c. revue where he wrote the music for the Jeff Award-winning revue "We're All In This Room Together."

Case had plans to leave Second City, but couldn't pass up the opportunity to become the fifth music director on the storied Mainstage.

"At the point I was asked to [take the role] I had just left e.t.c. and thought I had put it behind me," Case said. "But something about doing the big room was very appealing."

Another reason was the addition of Mick Napier, who was set to direct "Depraved New World."

Napier, a Chicago comedy icon, founded Annoyance Theatre.

"He tends to like things short and sweet and to the point," Case said. "You really get rid of all the crap that way and are just left with the gold."

His own musical background has been built on improvisation from an early age.

Case began taking piano lessons at age 4 through the early part of elementary school, but never mastered the art of reading sheet music.

He was a self-proclaimed "theater nerd" in college and played in a few bands during that time.

"When I realized that this is a job that Second City has, this job that is based in improv, and everything it has to do is based out of improv and the piano sort of speaking as a language I was like, 'Oh man, this is exactly what I do,'" Case said.

The position not only involves writing set musical pieces for the scripted portions of the revue, but also guiding actors through the improvisation sets.

The process is a give and take.

"He might cue you into a certain style of music or you might cue him," said Mike Kosinski, an ensemble member in "Depraved New World" who had worked with case on "We’re all in This Room Together." "You never really know who is leading and who is following."

Part of that unspoken connection between Case and the six-member cast can be credited to their time spent together.

The group is together at the theater six days a week and when they aren't they are usually all out together.

"Jesse is basically part of the cast," Kosinski said. "We all share that same tiny space and all the same experiences."

While Case enjoys his role as part of the cast, when the job of music director is done right, he shouldn't be noticed at all.

The music should be the mortar between the actors' bricks, Case said.

Sometimes the actors will bring in a weirdly shaped brick.

"They need something to hold them all together and I think that's primarily what my job is," Case said.