A conversation with Charlie Alterman: Broadway music, ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’

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On Nov. 14, Ram’s Head Theatrical Society hosted “A Conversation with Charlie Alterman” as part of its professional development series. Alterman, a Broadway musical director and musical consultant of the musical TV show “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” gave insight into his musical career journey through a virtual discussion moderated by Jessica Fry ’19.

Calling in from Vancouver, Alterman explained that he had been interested in music and theater since he was a kid, playing the piano since he was four years old. When asked how exactly he broke into the world of music directing, he explained that it sort of happened by chance. 

As a freshman, Alterman auditioned for his high school’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors, but because of the small cast, he ended up not landing a role. Still, the director and the rest of the crew loved him, so he was asked to assist the musical director. And that was the start to his music directing journey. 

What Alterman specifically loves about music directing is that it brings everything together. He always feels like “an extra cast member” because of the unique opportunity to use his “theater brain,” as he calls it, “in terms of how the music is supporting the storytelling and how it’s supporting the actors.”

Alterman’s “theater brain” especially comes into play while transitioning between different “musical language[s]” when speaking with choreographers, composers, music copyists and the director. 

“A friend of mine once described it perfectly — that being a music director for the theater is like being an English-to-English translator,” he described. This type of translating entails musical directors to possess a code-switching ability in order to bring their musical vision to life. They have to learn and transition among various musical languages, using specific words that only directors, composers, orchestrators and music copyists would understand.

Alterman has taken on this role of the “English-to-English translator” as musical director of Broadway shows like “Pippin,” “Godspell” and “Next to Normal.” Specifically with “Next to Normal,” he said, “the music is such an enormous part of the storytelling; almost the whole story is told through music.” Music directing has cultivated his passion for storytelling, and by working with “the best of the best on Broadway,” he is surrounded by people who want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. 

Alterman explained that his collaborators often say he is a “breath of fresh air,” referencing the positive attitude that he strives to maintain. It simply baffles him that there are people in this industry who come in with a negative attitude and do not treat others with the respect they deserve.

“We’re getting paid to make art, to make music, to do theater. If you’re going to come to work in a bad mood, then go be a stockbroker or something, where you might actually make some money,” he joked.

Alterman recognizes that there are aspects of this industry that can be tiring and even “annoying” at times, but he tries to keep a glass half full mentality, reminding himself of all the good things. 

For Alterman, the sitzprobe is definitely his favorite moment in the production: “It’s the first time that you actually hear all of the music come together with the cast and the band and everything. I’ve literally been brought to tears, tears of joy.”

However, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, opportunities for Alterman to partake in this creative process with others in-person have been non-existent; many of his friends and colleagues have been out of work. 

So, when he was brought on as the music consultant and vocal coach of NBC’s hit show “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” it was a “small miracle.” The real difference being a musical director for a TV show instead of a Broadway show is “only need[ing] to get it right once.” In addition, coaching actors how to lip sync is “a whole piece of the puzzle” that is entirely new to Alterman. 

Being the music director for “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” has been a learning process for him, but the goal remains the same in helping “land an emotional moment in the story” through music. 

As for advice to aspiring actors and musicians, Alterman believes that “anything that you can do to get your work out there” is a must. And he especially encourages people to create their work during quarantine, even if “it’s more daunting.” 

But when live theater does return, Alterman relays that the “old cliche” rings true. The audition starts “the minute you walk in the room,” so being your authentic self is what is going to “get you hired in the long run,” according to Alterman. 

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