The Olney Theatre Center has beefed up its musical theater muscle in the past few years, but it all may have sounded different if music director Christopher Youstra had gone ahead and quit the business the way he’d planned.
“I was just done,” Youstra says. “I didn’t have resources. I was tired of freelancing, working at a bunch of different theaters, always in my car.” In addition to the perpetual frustration of fighting for budgets to hire enough musicians to make his shows sound good, his daughter had just turned 13, and he could barely find time to see her. “I am done,” he repeats, recalling his vow.
But then Jason Loewith was hired as the Olney’s artistic director — this was in 2013, with Youstra on the search committee — and the troupe’s musical ambitions ramped up. Marvin Hamlisch’s brassy “A Chorus Line,” Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy “On the Town,” the premiere of writer-director Moisés Kaufman’s and composer Arturo O’Farrill’s “Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical” and a sellout sensation with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop “In the Heights” (co-produced with Bethesda’s Round House Theatre) all typify the reach, built on an increasingly sturdy foundation of musical values. A bristling production of Tim Minchin’s “Matilda” is currently onstage, with Youstra’s nine-piece orchestra driving the sarcastic, sneering score.
Youstra, now the troupe’s associate artistic director of music theater, first knew Loewith as the lyricist of the musical “The Adding Machine” with composer Joshua Schmidt. Together, Loewith and Youstra wrote the family-friendly musical “Big Nate” that premiered in 2013 at Adventure Theatre MTC. When Loewith took the Olney job, he persuaded Youstra to stick around for “A Chorus Line,” with its high-strung score of backstage angst and big dance breaks.
“That was a great first salvo for us,” says Youstra, whose first show at the Olney was “Bye Bye Birdie” in 2001. “There were a lot of theaters that told us, ‘You can’t handle it.’ We were definitely fighting outside our weight.”
Highlights since then include this past winter’s “Once,” the stage adaptation of the Dublin-set movie about an Irish singer-songwriter and a Czech pianist nearly falling in love. Youstra led a zesty onstage band for that, briefly joining Actors’ Equity so he could be in the show, and at one point even playing accordion.
“ ‘Once’ was my baby,” Youstra says with characteristic enthusiasm. He generally prefers having his musicians onstage rather than apart in an orchestra pit (the “Matilda” players are offstage left), and with “Once,” “The visceral reaction of the audience hearing the playing — that’s what it’s about. It’s sitting there and having that music hit you.”
Youstra, 49, grew up 10 minutes from the Olney, and he studied psychology at Ohio’s Dayton University while gradually deciding that music was what he really wanted to do. He got a master’s degree in piano performance and vocal coaching from Eastern Illinois University, two years he describes as “woodshedding” and cobbling together musical theater skills that weren’t at all packaged in his course of study.
“There are no classes to teach you how to conduct from a keyboard,” he explains. Because he had played piano for musicals in college (persuaded by three magic words from a faculty member: “We’ll pay you”), he had an instinct for what he needed to know. “You’re a vocal coach, rehearsal pianist, conductor, orchestrator, arranger, transposer, and you’re even working with electronics; we have three laptops for ‘Matilda.’ And a lot of that you have to learn on the job.”
Are musicals his favorite form of music? “Sort of,” he says, noting that he started too late to excel as a classical performer and never worked enough at really getting jazz. “But I’m not a musicals fanboy. I’m a musician first. I love connecting with people through music. And I use theater for that.”
Youstra is also the longtime music director at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Columbia, Md., and he led the church choir on a recent trip to Rome. He got to play the Vatican’s main organ — a stretch, since in his parish he has only a piano, and the Vatican’s main organist hovered nearby as he played.
“He knows I can’t do it,” Youstra says. “He stands behind me the whole time, which is so unnerving. And then he started fiddling with the registers” — the switches that change the instrument’s tone and character — “while I’m playing. It was horrifying and awesome at the same time.”
As another way to push the envelope at Olney, Youstra and Loewith have started an Applause Series of musicals in one-night-only concert format. “Finian’s Rainbow” and Stephen Sondheim’s early, seldom-seen “Anyone Can Whistle” were featured earlier in a season that closes July 26 with “Children of Eden.” Youstra rates “Children” as the best score by “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “Wicked” composer Stephen Schwartz.
The 2019-20 concert slate includes “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” the John Kander-Fred Ebb epic that’s paired with the full production of their “Cabaret” this fall. To go with next spring’s staging of “Miss You Like Hell,” a road-trip musical about an undocumented Mexican woman and her estranged daughter by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Erin McKeown, the concert offering will be “Dessa Rose” by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty — whose majestic “Ragtime” is Youstra’s favorite musical. (He music directed the 2017 production at Ford’s Theatre.) The concert of the 1947 Lerner and Loewe musical “Brigadoon,” scheduled for July 2020, is already sold out.
Having 14 musicians for last year’s full-scale production of “On the Town” was a joy, but also half as many as Youstra knows the sassy show really demands. The concerts are a way to keep audiences and budget-conscious decision-makers hearing good scores and listening to the difference that more musicians can make. “Any chance to get people used to [orchestra] numbers in the teens,” Youstra says, is an opportunity he’ll grab. “I want them to know that 16 is not a ridiculous number.”
Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400 or olneytheatre.org.
Dates: Through July 21.