Neil Bergby Pati Buehler
You might say that Neil Berg is Broadway's Billy Joel, with one hand on the keys of a piano and the other stuffed in a baseball glove. He's a successful musical director to a handful of some pretty impressive Broadway talent, including Brad Little and Rob Evan, a composer/producer/performer as well as charity concert co-coordinator (with a benefit coming up on on November 17 - "100 Years of Broadway Comes to Tappan Zee High School") and, last but not least, a serious competitive baseball player.
I recently caught up with Neil, a busy man, for an enjoyable chat.
Pati Buehler: I know that you have three loves; baseball and music are two of them. When did you decide to make a career of music?
Neil Berg: My senior year of college while playing baseball. I was an All State center fielder. Everybody knew that I played piano in piano bars. I was asked to write a musical, which was produced by the school. The professors ripped the story apart ... but, asked what they thought about the music, they said it was great, just put it in another show. That's when I knew that was what I wanted to do the rest of my life.
PB: You studied under Maury Yeston at SUNY at Binghamton. Who else helped you hone your skills?
NB: When I was growing up, a local piano teacher named Robert Printz helped me learn to love to play. I started writing the moment I touched the piano at around 11 or 12. It probably wasn't very good but he always critiqued my work kindly and encouraged me. In high school I had a teacher, Joseph Maggio ... he was moonlighting in the pit in Chorus Line and he was very supportive . When I would write something he would play it through with me on his flute. Very encouraging. At Bingham I had a teacher by the name of Sue Peters who was a composer in charge of the Music Department and she was the one who took me under her wing and really helped me blossom as a composer.
PB: Your "Broadway Series Concerts" are without a doubt the best ticket in town. How did that come about?
NB: I would say "Do unto others as other would do unto you." I started out as a performing artist, so I'm on the side of the performers. I spent the first 8 to 10 years doing nothing but performing for free, doing benefits for anyone who asked me. I just gave a lot early in my career. What goes around comes around, sooner or later. I always try to treat people with respect and honesty. I've been fortunate to maintain wonderful relationships with everybody I started out with ... now the people who are dominating the business. I just keep acquiring new wonderful friends. It's a small business, you help people out and they're gonna help you out.
Also, I think we've created a unique thing with these concerts. People are finding they come up to see these wonderful performers and are really loving it. It's very professional of course, but it's casual. The performers can relax because they have nothing to prove to anyone. The audience gets to see a relaxed intimate performer.
PB: Many of your concerts are benefits. A few years back you did a concert, "The Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber," in Irvington to benefit the Kosovo refugees, just to name one unique event. But your next concert on Nov. 17th takes on a more personal meaning for you. Tell us about this and how people can help.
NB: This is, up to this date, probably the most important benefit I'll do. In most of these concerts, I was asked to participate. This is the first one I've actually gone out and organized myself. Back in August, I thought of giving back to my old high school, as a graduate who went on to become a Broadway producer and giving back to his former baseball team.
Of course Sept. 11th happened and my baseball coach of 20 years and I agreed that this benefit couldn't just be for the baseball team. We had lost a classmate, a firefighter by the name of Dennis McHugh, who went to Tappan Zee High School, class of '85. He was the first person I knew personally lost in the tragic event. Half of the proceeds of the concert will go directly to his children and wife. We have phenomenal performers coming out. Robert Evan, Rita Harvey, Sean McDermott, Anika Larsen, Shoshana Bean from Godspell,, Danny Zolli and many more. Everyone knows this is a personal cause and no one has said "no" to me. I realize many people were lost and affected by this event, and this is my small contribution to a personal cause. It's going to be at the Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg, NY in Rockland County, only 15 miles from New York City.
PB: It seems that you have combined your first two loves, baseball and Broadway, and found your third love, Phantom's Rita Harvey. Please tell us how you met.
NB: Well, I dated an actress in college and that didn't work out. I vowed I would never ever be involved with an actress again and I wasn't ... until I was playing softball in the Broadway Softball League with some friends from Phantom. I saw this beautiful, stunning woman on the bench, so I asked my friend "who was that?" He said, "don't even bother. Don't talk to her. She's just getting over a bad relationship and is not talking to any men!"
(laughing) So of course, as stupid as I am I started talking to her and, well, five months later I wore her down and she finally did agree to go out with me! I "accidentally" ended up seeing her in Cincinnati. Well, persistence wins and it's absolutely the best thing that's happened to me in my life!
PB: What a nice outcome that was!
You've traveled and worked with so many great actors such as Betty Buckley, Ben Vereen, and Michael Crawford. Who would you like to work with if given the opportunity?
NB: Living or dead? Just kidding. Growing up, like every impressionable young composer, I wore the bumper sticker "Sondheim is God" on my car. I actually met Stephen at the opening night of Assassins at a backstage party. At the buffet table, I was introduced and, not wanting to gush like a fan, I casually said to him "So, how's the taco dip?" He returned "not too spicy" and that was IT ! (laughing)
Of course there are some rock composers, especially Roger Waters of Pink Floyd who was a big influence on me growing up. Pete Townshend of Tommy fame. Billy Joel, who's working on a musical. Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen - these are all great story-telling composers.
PB: Most people know your talents through such projects as The Prince and the Pauper, which recently was well presented at Radio City, Tim: A New Musical and your two Chess concerts. If you could take one or two to Broadway next week, which ones would they be?
NB: The Prince and the Pauper. The story telling has been worked on and it is a worthwhile story in a musical form. It would be exciting to see how people responded to it in a commercial vehicle. I'm very proud of that work and my collaborators because nothing gets on Broadway by your efforts alone.
PB: Any new projects?
NB: Two new projects, which I'm excited about. The first is The Man Who Would Be King. We just had our first reading of that and it went very well. We will offer the production of that show next October at the Antrim Playhouse in Suffern, NY. I was asked to write two children's shows, one called Percy Penguin Comes to America, opening next year at the Penguin Rep. Theater in Stony Point, NY. Another show I'm writing is The Life and Rhymes of Fiona Gander, which takes nursery rhymes and how they relate to one another, somewhat like Into the Woods and is geared toward children, though not entirely, plus it has a surprise ending. This will open in Westchester in April at the Irvington Town Hall Theatre.
PB: Sounds like you've got a lot going on. Thank you, Neil, it's always a pleasure chatting with you.
"100 Years of Broadway Comes to Tappan Zee High School" will take place on November 17th at 8:00pm. Tickets ($30 adults - $20 seniors/students) will be on sale at the door or can be purchased by calling Mark Stanford at (845)680-1000, Ext. 7772, or emailing Mark at StanMarkstan1@aol.com.
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