Commuting to "Waitress"

Isaac Alter ’16 talks about the actual – and aspirational – bus trip between his senior year and Broadway. 

By Olivia Munk '16

While there are many paths to pursue extra-curricular activities in college, it’s not often that one of those is an actual bus journey between Boston and Broadway. In the case of Isaac Alter ’16, however, the bus is where he finds himself each Wednesday night, and again on Sunday, commuting between his senior spring at Harvard and his job as music assistant with the Broadway musical Waitress. I spoke with Alter about balancing his two worlds, what kinds of projects he is drawn to and advice for students interested in pursuing musical theater.

What are you doing now, and how did you get there?
I’m one of two music assistants, and the copyist, on Waitress. Basically, I do a bunch of things for the music team. I play rehearsal piano, oversee the score and transcribe new songs. The copyist has to produce the band parts that the band reads in performance. I was an intern on Waitress over the summer [at American Repertory Theater] on the music team. As the summer was coming to a close, Nadia DiGiallonardo, our music director, would joke that I should join the team on Broadway, but I knew I couldn’t miss the school year. After the show closed, Diane Borger told me that Nadia had put in an official request to have me come work on the Broadway transfer. I told her I was flattered and that I’d given it a lot of thought, but that I couldn’t drop out of school. Diane told me that they never expected me to leave school, but wondered if I would be able to juggle. I told them that it was something I could look into. I wrote a thesis and that took up a lot of my time, but that meant it was one class out of the way. I took five classes during one semester my freshman year, so that means I am only taking three classes this semester ­– two since I submitted my thesis. I have class Monday through Wednesday, and I commute every Wednesday night and come back every Sunday night.

Isaac Alter ’16 at the piano accompanying a Learning From Performers master class with Broadway performer Kelli O'Hara at HarvardHow do you juggle school and work?
I try to keep my two lives as separate as possible. I try to finish all my schoolwork when I’m on campus. My musical life is starting to bleed into my Harvard life, but now that my thesis is over, I have a lot more free time. It’s a lot of time on a bus, and it’s definitely difficult. When I told my thesis advisor, he said: You’re doing WHAT? Looking back, it’s kind of insane that I’ve been able to do this, but there’s never been a time that it’s felt jeopardizing. It’s actually been kind of Zen.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
The end goal is to be music directing on Broadway. That might be a little more than five years off though. For the next couple of years, I’ll be assisting on shows, and perhaps music directing smaller projects. After Waitress, I’ll be working on the Broadway transfer of Natasha, Pierra, and the Great Comet of 1812 and a revival of Smokey Joe’s Café. I’m also music directing a show at Feinstein’s/54 Below in September. There’s a NYMF show happening this summer, and I was asked to be an assistant music director on the project. I’m still figuring things out. Madeleine [Smith ’14] has been a great mentor for me since she’s been living this life for two years already. She has given me referrals, and that’s been so helpful. The end goal is to eventually be conducting something on Broadway.

What kinds of projects are you drawn to?
I’m still pretty young and bright-eyed about “Broadway.” It’s been really exciting to have three Broadway shows hire me while I’m still technically in college. I think Comet is really a special show. I listened to the soundtrack so many times, and when I heard it was coming to the A.R.T., I knew I wanted to work on it. I ended up getting in touch with the right people and worked on it. I like working on shows whose music I like a lot. I’m lucky that it has lined up for me in that way. I’m at a point, in the beginning of my career, where I say “yes” to anything that gets offered to me. I’m not “in-demand” enough to be choosy, so I’m drawn to everything at the moment. It’s exciting since it means I’m exposed to lots of different things. I didn’t know Smokey Joe’s Café at all before I was asked to work on it, and I ended up loving the music, which makes me even more excited to begin working on it.

What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing musical theater?
The A.R.T. is such a great resource. Even just being in the room when professional theater is happening at that level is so valuable. The A.R.T. is a place where incredible theater is happening right now. Theater is about being talented, for sure, but in production roles, it’s a lot about knowing the right people and doing good work for them so they’ll pass it along to more of the right people. You do good work, and it’s all about word of mouth. I sent my resume in for the Waitress internship, and have not sent it out since, despite landing jobs for Smokey Joe’s Café and Comet. It’s also kind of scary. You can never slack off. If you do bad work for someone, that’s any number of connections you don’t have anymore. Being open to crazy things happening is useful. I came into Harvard thinking I was going to go to medical school or pursue a PhD. I got swept up into the amazing world of student theater and found a passion for musical theater. I decided I wanted to do it professionally and follow where it leads. It brought me to this amazing path.