Going Pro

Ian ChanMusician Ian Chan '23 had never worked on a Broadway-bound, professional musical theater show. Then this happened. 

By ADF guest blogger Ian Chan '23

Ian Chan '23 is a resident of Winthrop House pursuing a joint concentration in Linguistics and Mathematics, with a secondary in Comparative Literature. He was awarded a Artist Development Fellowship to engage in several internship and mentoring opportunities in musical theater. Chan is a composer, music director and orchestrator involved in almost every aspect of campus theater. He has composed three original musicals: The More You Know, Cruising Altitude and Miss You Til Tomorrow. He has been music director on several student productions including Legally Blonde, West Side Story and Into the Woods. He was also music assistant for the American Repertory Theater’s production of 1776, which will begin its Broadway run at the Roundabout Theatre Company in September 2022.

This spring and summer (and continuing into a bit of the fall), I had the incredible opportunity to be the music assistant at the American Repertory Theater and upcoming Broadway revivals of the Tony Award-winning musical 1776. As someone who had never worked on a professional show of this scale, I didn’t know what to expect. What would I need to do in advance? How was I supposed to anticipate the way the various cogs and mechanisms of professional theater worked? My music supervisor, David, reassured me in our introductory Zoom call: He claimed I already had all the skills I’d need to have. All that remained to do a bang-up job was an open mind and a knack for being adaptable.

And wow, did I get a taste of what being adaptable means right from the get-go. Ninety minutes before my first rehearsal, as I waited for the subway, I got a text: Our music director, Ryan, tested positive for COVID and couldn’t show up to rehearsal. Thankfully, David, Cynthia (our incredible rehearsal pianist) and I were able to devise a plan for the day to run smoothly. For the read-through of the script and score on the following day, Cynthia would step in on the keys instead of Ryan. However, later that evening, I received another text: Cynthia, the associate music director of another show, has to step into tech rehearsals over there since their music director got COVID, too. With Ryan out, and David and Cynthia having other shows to attend to, I was the only musician slated to be at rehearsal on the day of the read-through. And so, that Tuesday afternoon, I led the cast of 1776 – with the help of Nadia, music supervisor of the musical Waitress and developer of the revival’s new arrangements – through a score that I had seen only once before. To say I was nervous is an understatement — and I made tons of mistakes! — but there was no greater feeling than to see the warm smiles of appreciation from everyone after we had finished.

Ian Chan with Creative Team of 1776
Ian Chan '23 (left) with members of the creative team behind "1776" at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge.

And with that, the rest of the spring and summer went by like a breeze. I worked with incredible minds such as David, Ryan, Cynthia, AnnMarie (our vocal designer, who re-did all the vocal harmonies for our cast of female, non-binary and trans folk) and Clancy (our orchestrator, who added an incredible modern flare to this once-very classical soundtrack).

Every day was both exciting and awe-inspiring, and to have had a small hand in building the musical framework for the show is an indescribable feeling.

To be sure, working on a production of 1776 — a story entirely about white Founding Fathers, making decisions on and about land to which they had no inherent right, while subjugating countless marginalized peoples of their own — as a queer immigrant/international student of color, was certainly something to get used to. To what extent could I ever claim a story like this one as my own? What did it mean for me and my own position in this world to be a collaborator and creator in this context?

Over the course of my involvement in 1776, I began to realize that in building and re-telling this story, I, too, am a part of history: Our production deliberately points out the ways in which philosophized America and its actuality must be imperfectly and uncomfortably juxtaposed, and that we, as modern people living in this country, live, breathe and (slowly) amend that idea.

I am so grateful to continue learning and growing in this way, and I can’t wait to be back in the rehearsal room soon.