Free Image of Ken Clifton, Musical Director, Riverside Theatre
WITH 35 MUSICALS UNDER HIS BELT AT THE OGUNQUIT PLAYHOUSE, OGUNQUIT, ME, THE NEW YORK THEATRE COMPANY, THE ORLANDO, FL SHAKESPEARE THEATRE, CHELSEA STUDIOS, NY NY AND NOW AT THE RIVERSIDE THEATRE, KEN CLIFTON DOESN’T LISTEN TO MUSIC AT HOME OR IN HIS CAR.
“Music is my work. Does a surgeon do surgeries at home?”
“Everyone of the 700 people who come to one of our musicals have no expectation of what they are going to experience. What we do is just for them and we only have one chance to make their memory and heart. My job is to spend two and one-half hours with my audience and make that memory. It is a shared moment between people; a different kind of church. I am responsible for anything that comes out of anyone’s mouth or instrument.”
“It’s also an ephemeral experience for our audience that comes and goes.”
Mr. Clifton said the Riverside Theatre performs more work in one year than any theatre in the US.
Although born in Plant City, FL his family relocated to East Tennessee when he was a youngster. “I went from being a redneck to a Hillbilly.”
His path to success began in high school in East Tennessee when he was a journalist for his school newspaper. Here he developed a “passion” for words. “Everyone has a story and I was interested in people and words. With music, its the lyrics that pull me. It’s how you wrap words around music.”
Mr. Clifton then went on and eventually went to Stetson University for a degree in piano. “After that I was freelancing as a pianist for 20 years.”
Then, after being music director at the Ogunquit Playhouse, in Ogunquit, he joined the Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach as Music Director.
But what happens behind the scenes to prepare for the ephemeral performance is where Mr. Clifton shines. “If people come to a musical and have no idea what has gone on beforehand to provide them with their perfect experience, then I have done my job.”
But what does happen to prepare for the performance?
“Everyone of our performances are built from the ground up. We produce our own work. In a way, we figure it out as we build it.”
We create sets, lighting, props, scenic stuff such as painting and select costumes.
We need actors, painters, sculptures, welders, craftsmen, installation and lighting people. We find and interview them. They are the best at what they do. Our painter lives in Virginia.
And then, what’s challenging, is that we only have an orchestra of 10 people, including me at the piano, and I have to make the music sound like a 35 person orchestra.
It’s also challenging when the Director want me to create other music than what was not in the original musical.
Everything we do is for our audience.”
But Mr. Clifton is not just the music director.
He creates dancing routines.
For Les-Miserables, he interviewed 700 pedigreed actors with Broadway resumes, selected 20 and then taught them their parts.
“And when the musical is over, its over. The actors go to their next jobs and the set goes in the dumpster.”
Riverside Theatre is a not-for-profit organization, which Mr. Clifton said has an annual budget of roughly $ 8 million, of which half comes from ticket sales. When I remarked that “that’s a lot of money to raise” he said they probably spent $ 7 million on costumes for Hello Dolly on Broadway and Bette Midler probably makes $ 20,000 a week.
Actually, he says, with regard to the funding, “I don’t like information I don’t need to know.”
But what’s new and exciting is that in 2015 Riverside Theatre created a fantastic new for-profit initiative called Riverside Theatrical.
Essentially, what it is, is creating a musical from a book and then selling the video of the musical of the book.
In 2015 a literary agent in NYC who had a connection with Riverside’s CEO and Artistic Director Allen D. Cornell asked if the theatre would be interested in turning a book into a musical.
Mr. Clifton indicated “no-one would take the risk to create a musical on a book because it might be impossible to sell. But we did it and “it could be the beginnings of a machine.”
Allen D. Cornell, Riverside’s artistic director and CEO, brought together the theater’s Mr. Clifton and Director D.J. Salisbury to create a musical based on Cynthia Bardes’ engaging “Pansy Mystery Series;” children’s books about the exploits of a loving little poodle named Pansy.
Mr. Clifton and Mr. Salisbury came up with the one-hour “Poodleful: A K9 Mystery Musical.” Based on Mrs. Bardes’ first book in the series, Pansy at the Palace, sweet little Pansy gets adopted by a sweet little girl who lives at the Palace Hotel in Beverly Hills. After meeting some colorful characters, Pansy helps solve a mystery.
It was a limited three-day performance in which Mr. Clifton created 10 new songs. A cast of six took on 15 roles.
The literary agent has sent down three of four more books for consideration.
“What fascinates me is how we as human beings can formulate perspectives and create ways to say it.”
His favorite words are: potent, visceral, technicolor, alive and saturated.”
Ken Clifton. Thank you for you perspective. Hopefully we created a way to say it.