Alum Interview - Broadway Music Director Mike Ruckles
As a music director and vocal technician, Mike Ruckles (BME-02, MM-09) has made an impressive career helping top-tier vocalists and musicians give their best possible performances. This past theatrical season, his music direction helped carry the show A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder to a Tony win for Best Musical. As he continues to mold the next generation of Broadway stars through his expert instruction, he took some time to talk with us about his UNC experience and the passion required to succeed on the Great White Way.
What made UNC an attractive place to study and begin your career as a musical director and instructor?
As a singer and a classically trained pianist, I already knew that music was my goal, but I had no idea how that passion was going to focus itself over the course of my studies in college. So I chose UNC’s School of Music for its strong reputation and well-rounded approach to music education. Coming to UNC was ultimately a great choice because it allowed me to train as a singer while still exploring a broad spectrum of opportunities within the performing arts.
What were your most influential experiences at UNC?
I remember how thrilled I was to be accepted into Dr. Howard Skinner’s prestigious Concert Choir in my very first semester at UNC! At that time, in 1997, he was the interim President of the university in addition to all of his duties on the music faculty. It was through Dr. Skinner’s example that I truly began to understand what it takes to succeed in the performing arts: discipline, fire, perseverance, and a sense of humor about it all.
Every single choir rehearsal, I would ask myself: “How can he demand so much of us? And how can he give so much of himself?” I recall one particular rehearsal for the Verdi Requiem in which he took 20 minutes to go through the Latin text with us, phrase by phrase. He didn’t want us to just sing it; he wanted us to mean it.
He translated each phrase on the spot, talking here and there about the etymology of a certain word. He spoke with soft intensity, and the passion he felt for the text was palpable. You could cut the air with a knife! I remember looking across the classroom to find that we were all on the edge of our seats, many in tears. And then we sang like our lives depended on it. That was and is Howard Skinner, and I thank him for it every day.
Following graduation and your cross-country move to NYC, how did you go about establishing your career in the performing arts?
I’ve not been shy about reaching out to people in the industry whose work I admire. Once in a while I had a door shut in my face or an email left unanswered, but most of the time people were willing to help guide my way. I’m very grateful for that.
This is a tough business. The best advice I can offer to students and alumni pursuing a career in the performing arts would be this: If there’s anything else in the wide world you could imagine yourself doing that would bring you happiness, do that instead. But if music or theatre is the only thing that makes you jump out of bed in the morning, excited for what the day will bring, go for it and give it everything you’ve got.
You’ve taught music in some form or fashion since graduating from UNC. How would you describe your approach to musical instruction?
The fascinating thing about being a vocal technician is that each person who walks through the door brings a new puzzle, a new set of habits, balances, and imbalances to be evaluated. I can’t wait to get to the studio every day and explore.
I sometimes describe teaching as a wonderful game of Jenga! The truly exciting thing is to guide a client toward achieving balance in some area of their performance. Their singing becomes easier instantaneously because they are working with their body not against it. To see that new awareness become habit is the big payoff for a teacher.
And what do your responsibilities include as a Broadway music director?
A music director is in charge of all things musical relating to the production. We teach the music to the cast in the first week of rehearsal in great detail, and it’s our responsibility to continually help them refine their performances. We’re also in charge of rehearsing and conducting the orchestra. We are the ones in the orchestra pit night after night, maintaining the pace of the show and keeping up the high standards that were set on opening night.
With so much responsibility, it can be overwhelming at times, but for me the joy of working with musicians, singers, and actors who are all at the top of their game is worth all the work.
How were you brought in to provide music direction on A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder?
Prior to opening in New York we had two regional productions, first in Hartford and then in San Diego. I was brought onboard to music direct the second production at the Old Globe Theater. It was an enormous sacrifice to leave NYC and my wife and daughter for several months, but the opportunity to music direct at the most prestigious regional theater in America was just too good to pass up. There was hope we would move on to Broadway, but no one knew for sure at that point.
And how did you feel when Gentleman’s Guide was awarded the Tony for best musical?
I never would have dreamed it possible for my first Broadway show to win a Tony. I have always believed in this fantastic show from the start: it’s hilarious, it has a breathtaking score and a cast of extraordinary talents. However, we do not have a celebrity in the lead, nor are we based on a famous movie—the usual recipe for success on Broadway. It was likely that we might run for a few months and then close.
All of that made winning the Tony for Best Musical even more incredible. It gave me great hope for the future of Broadway—that producers will keep taking chances on great storytelling, great music, and substance over flash and spectacle.
Many thanks to Mike for taking the time to share his insights with us! If you’d like to see some examples of his musical collaborations at UNC, be sure to check out these performance videos.
If you’d like keep track of the latest happenings in UNC’s College of Performing and Visual Arts, you’re in luck! They’ve always got lots of interesting updates on their Facebook page AND they’ve just started their very own blog on Tumblr.
If you’d like to give directly in support of the next generation of great performers at UNC, you’ll find many worthy funds on our giving page.
Photo courtesy of Ciara D’Anella Photography