So, I Orchestrated a Musical… (Part IV)

When last we left off, Toronto Fringe had just announced a return to an in-person theatre festival in the summer of 2022. Almost a year and a half had passed since the four-song demo version of Back and Forth: The Musical streamed as part of the Toronto Fringe Collective, the festival’s response to the shuttering of live stages as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Ten songs out of twelve had been arranged, I had ideas for the overture and curtain call, and Dayjan was revising the ending of the show. We were in early negotiations with a venue about staging a live, in-concert reading of the music from the show, which we would later parlay into our rehearsal site for the entire process.

Only one thing was missing: our cast.

2022 or Bust!

In the spring of 2022, we officially extended an offer to all members of our 2020 company to return to the fold for our upcoming production. As Toronto Fringe indicated that there would be no further deferrals or extensions — on top of which a direct scheduling conflict arose with Winnipeg Fringe — this would be the sole opportunity to perform, at least for now. Declining this opportunity after all this time was untenable for us, but for our cast, two years’ worth of life had happened; some were no longer residing in the Toronto area, whereas for others, ongoing concerns about the pandemic loomed too large for performing live to be a viable activity.

Unfortunately, we could neither project what the state of COVID would be in Toronto that coming summer, nor could we fully promise what protective guidelines might be in place at any of the venues, especially with regard to audience members. We respected that people’s comfort levels would be tested throughout this process, and made assurances over what we as a company could control. In the end, however, we had to replace all but one cast member.

With rehearsals set to begin in April, a fresh set of casting calls went out in March — essentially picking up where we left off two years prior. We shared a wry chuckle at how self-tapes had become de rigueur, wheras they had been the exception for a couple of callback candidates back in February of 2020. Considerations were different now: prior concerns about sacrificing a month for our show in both Toronto and Winnipeg were replaced with ones of COVID safety. Response from candidates felt sparse compared to the legions of applicants we auditioned in the Before Times; we were effectively shaking a dormant industry awake, and the festival in July would place us among an early wave of live theatre returning to Toronto.

In the meantime, I rebuilt the arranging template for the last remaining numbers on my new scoring computer! While my old, pre-Retina MacBook Pro — the last of its kind, purchased in 2013 shortly before I began this blog in the first place! — was still technically functional, the proverbial “money light” was coming on most fiercely during my slate of work in the fall of 2020. With the workhorse of a laptop showing its age (and a lucky bout of work coming in at just the right time), conditions were finally right to upgrade both hardware and software. I took the new system, a 2019-model iMac, on a shakedown cruise with a video game score, which spanned from the late summer of 2021 to the early spring of 2022, conveniently wrapping up in time to turn my attention back (…and forth?) to Back and Forth.

I tested the new template on the overture, translating what I had vocalized to Dayjan a few months prior, note for note, into a proper, usable format. The “Procrastinatory Overture” was energetic and animated, influenced by cartoonish ragtime and frenetic conga, and introduced the melodies to a number of songs, primarily “Back and Forth,” the Swordsman theme, and “Time for Me.” While fewer musicals in contemporary theatre maintain a traditional overture (a custom that dates back to the 17th century) and instead launch directly into the action, this was conceived as a choreographed prologue, serving as a prelude to the show and to introduce the alternately playful and antagonistic relationship between Cass and the Procrastination Fairy.

With my new virtual ensemble tuned up, we were ready to welcome a stellar collection of cast members to fill every role… except for one.

Cass-ting Decisions

As in 2020, finding the right person to play Cass was of paramount importance, and similar to our prior experience, we came very close to landing the perfect candidate. By this time, Dayjan had reluctantly resigned himself to portraying a role in his own show, and was ready to don the wings of the Procrastination Fairy, in addition to sharing directorial responsibilities with Alanna. He remained adamant that someone else should play the lead.

While we had a viable alternative for the Fairy in our cast already, we had no one who fit the bill to play Cass — and with our rehearsals scheduled to commence in less than two weeks, we were quickly running out of time. After much soul-searching and, ahem, back-and-forthing, Dayjan concluded that, given the circumstances, he would step into the role. While he would retain creative control over the show, he would call upon me and Alanna to more directly oversee the music and the stage, respectively.

With our cast now effectively filled, we set the date for our table read… and realized that we had two songs left to finish.

I spent early April working overtime to complete the eleventh and twelfth songs: an expanded version of the theme from The Swordsman to represent the full pitch for the animated series, and the grand finale (and longest song in the entire show), “All This Time.” However, since these two songs had been revised since Dayjan’s round of vocal demos in 2020, we had to adjust our workflow. In a departure from our previous practice, we had the opportunity to collaborate directly (albeit remotely) on crafting the vocal scores for these songs together, in order for me to have a roadmap for my arrangements. With our table read fast approaching, there wasn’t enough time for Dayjan to record new vocal demos; I would have to imagine them.

After having been away from the project for more than a year — arranging “The Mission” at the end of 2020 was one of the last things I did on my old system — returning to it felt strange, like I was coming home to someone else’s house. I tried so hard to recapture the momentum that we had two years earlier, and if I’m honest, I never truly felt like I got there. Despite my faster, more efficient computer, I felt that I had become slow, my writing stodgy and clumsy. Yet, in spite of feeling rusty and out of practice, I managed to go from completing the vocal score of “All This Time” with Dayjan to having the arrangement fully realized all in one final three-day push.

About 15 hours later, after I put the finishing touches on the updated piano/vocal score, the cast of Back and Forth: The Musical finally met in person.

Members of the cast and creative team gather for Back and Forth: The Table Read.


On April 10, two years to the day since our virtual read-through with our original 2020 cast, we officially began the rehearsal process for our 2022 Toronto Fringe production with a live table read. This was a major milestone for the company, and while the real work still lay ahead, the preliminary sing-through gave me a tremendous sense of relief. Admittedly, I had become so accustomed to listening to the music from the show as an album over the course of those two years that I had almost forgotten that there were, in fact, scenes in between those songs!

However, to Dayjan’s credit as a writer, so much plot and character development occurs within those songs that one could listen to just the musical numbers alone and still have a strong grasp of the narrative. My role as music director, in addition to teaching the songs to the cast and helping them interpret the music in accordance with Dayjan’s vision, was to instill in them an understanding of the intention and subtext contained within each musical number, laying the foundation for characterization that Alanna could later work with, build upon, and refine.

With less than three months between our table read and our premiere at Fringe, and out of respect for the schedules (and lives) of our cast and crew, we operated on an incredibly compressed rehearsal timeline. Our initial six(!) rehearsals were dedicated purely to vocals as we hurtled headlong towards our first checkpoint, our long-awaited public showcase.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that we faced during our vocal rehearsals was that, in accordance with our company’s COVID safety protocols, we were singing while wearing protective masks. While primarily designed to inhibit the spread of droplets and particles, we found that our personal protective equipment also expertly filtered sound, which forced us to work harder to overcome the diminished projection and muffled diction. With Fringe’s assurances that masking would be mandatory for audiences, we had planned from the beginning to perform unmasked, with our cast’s voices enhanced with a set of radio microphones, mixed live against my backing tracks by our sound designer, Adam Borohov.

Rehearsing masked, in addition to being for safety reasons, was effectively the vocal equivalent of training with added weights, with an end goal of enabling our singers to relax and perform comfortably once on stage. However, in early June, during our technical walkthrough of the venue, we were informed that having a second technician to mix our sound live, even if we provided our own, would be prohibitively expensive. With this sudden change in our technical plan, we could see that all of those weeks spent training our performers to access that extra ounce of vocal strength and clarity of diction would pay off.

I (at right) direct (L-R, on stage) Ben Skipper, Dante Toccacelli, and Dayjan Lesmond in rehearsal. Photo: Madeleine Monteleone.

Back and Forth: The Musical: In Concert: For Real

A mere five weeks after our first read-through — because there’s nothing like a hard deadline to give you that extra motivation! — the cast of Back and Forth took the stage in front of a live audience to sing through the show in a concert setting, accompanied by the full show’s worth of backing tracks. Presented as a work-in-progress and a promotional stop on the road to Fringe, the audience was introduced to our concert cast, featuring Dayjan Lesmond (Cass), Dante Toccacelli (Procrastination Fairy), Nikki Haggart (Ace), Georgia Grant (Dr. Grace), Ben Skipper (Ben), and Maria Kapoglis (Ensemble). For my part, I was thrilled at the dedication and professionalism shown by the cast in learning the material — over 20 minutes of music for a 45-minute show — so well in such a short period of time.

With the notes under their belt, we could confidently proceed with our next slate of rehearsals dedicated to scene work, blocking, and choreography, headed by Alanna. I remained on-hand to maintain the quality of the cast’s vocals, and to supervise the placement of the cue-in points of each song, working with the team to ensure that we transitioned into each number at the appropriate dramatic moment. Week by week, scene by scene, the show took shape.

Alanna O’Reilly (standing, at left) directs (L-R, on stage) Dayjan Lesmond, Nikki Haggart, and Dante Toccacelli through a scene while Madeleine Monteleone (seated, at left) looks on.

Meanwhile, I wrote two underscore cues, based on Dayjan’s melodies from the show, to facilitate certain scene transitions. As with my arrangements for the songs themselves, I held myself to a strict rule for these cues not to foreshadow or quote any themes or motifs that had not yet appeared in the score, to ensure that we preserved the dramatic impact of hearing those themes in their proper context. These cues effectively functioned as playoffs, as they were based on the melody of the preceding song, but I took the opportunity to reimagine them in the dramatic context of the moment. As we neared our final rehearsals, I arranged the music for the curtain call, finally giving a proper voice to an idea I’d had two years earlier (which we heard in a hilarious rendition by Camille Holland at the end of Back and Forth: In Quarantine).

We welcomed three new cast members through the latter half of the rehearsal process: Josh Alcantara (Ensemble) joined us immediately after Back and Forth: In Concert, and Mercedes Ranjit (Ensemble, replacing Maria Kapoglis) and Mateo Chavez Lewis (Ben, replacing Ben Skipper), joined us in June. We held one more edition of Back and Forth: In Concert as part of an outdoor performance about two weeks before we were scheduled to open at Fringe. By the time of our technical rehearsal and final run-throughs, we were ready and eager to take the stage.

…but before we get to Fringe, let me tell you more about the show itself!

Plot Synopsis

Cass is an artist who has been given the opportunity to pitch their animated series, The Swordsman, to a room full of network executives at the highest level, courtesy of their agent, Ace. On the morning of the presentation, however, Cass scrambles to finish (“PROCRASTINATORY OVERTURE”). Even though Cass pulls off a good performance (“THE SWORDSMAN PITCH”), Ace calls them out for having recycled their previous pitch from four months prior, and demands to know what they have been doing instead of working (“BACK AND FORTH”). Ace gives Cass an ultimatum: deliver a new pitch in three days, or she walks. Cass tries to get to work, but finds themself increasingly subject to distractions, culminating in an all-night video gaming session with their best friend, Ben (“BOSS FIGHT!”). At sunrise, as Cass finally logs off to go to bed, the Procrastination Fairy reminds them that, even while asleep, they always make “TIME FOR ME.”

The Procrastination Fairy (Dante Toccacelli) strikes a pose with their minions (Mercedes Ranjit and Josh Alcantara) as Cass (Dayjan Lesmond) tries to sleep. Photo: Brandon Goncalves.

The next day, Cass confides their insecurities in their therapist, Dr. Grace (“YOU’RE ENOUGH”). Feeling better about their trajectory, Cass tries to get back to work, but is again distracted by Ben, who wants to play for the second night in a row. Cass declines, and they have a falling out (“FINAL BOSS FIGHT”). Just as Cass settles down to work, the Procrastination Fairy reappears as a distraction, conjuring visions of Cass’ friends and associates to taunt them (“NOT GOOD ENOUGH”).

Cass (Dayjan Lesmond) is taunted by the voices in his head (clockwise, from lower left: Nikki Haggart, Georgia Grant, Mateo Chavez Lewis, Josh Alcantara, Mercedes Ranjit, Dante Toccacelli). Photo: Brandon Goncalves.

Day Three. Cass has almost started working on the pitch when Ace checks in. Thoroughly unimpressed by their lack of performance, she fires Cass as a client (“WE’RE DONE”). Both Ace and Cass, frustrated and in despair, respectively seek therapy for these recent developments (“I’M A MESS”). Dr. Grace suggests that Ace would benefit from a vacation, and gives Cass guidance on how to better focus. Cass, filled with purpose, spends the following week buried in their work, and writes a new pitch for The Swordsman, despite the Procrastination Fairy’s repeated attempts at distraction and sabotage (“THE MISSION”).

With the pitch now complete, Cass and Ace reconcile. Cass delivers their new, fully fleshed-out pitch for their show (“THE SWORDSMAN COMPLETE”). The pilot for the series is greenlit, and Cass resolves to move forward with a healthier, more balanced relationship between their work and their friends (“ALL THIS TIME”).

The cast assembles for the grand finale (L-R: Nikki Haggart, Dayjan Lesmond, Mateo Chavez Lewis, Theodore Dragon, Dante Toccacelli, Josh Alcantara, Georgia Grant, Mercedes Ranjit). Photo: Brandon Goncalves.


Almost three years (and one pandemic) since Dayjan first put pen to paper, we were about to see Back and Forth take form, live on stage at the Factory Theatre in downtown Toronto. Our first performance was scheduled for a matinee on July 8, the third day of the festival. Giddy with nervous anticipation, Dayjan and Dante took the stage in their respective roles as Cass and the Procrastination Fairy, with the rest of the cast waiting in the wings. The frisson in the air was palpable. The opening notes of the overture rumbled through the theatre, and…

…the lighting system failed.

The beauty of live theatre, as in life itself, is that one never knows just what will happen. The lighting board at the venue froze, and half of the lights in the rig, meticulously designed and programmed by our lighting designer, Brandon Goncalves, failed to respond. Conditions on stage suddenly became less safe as whole scenes were played in darkness. Halfway through the show, the in-house technical team in the booth raised the house lights as they scrambled to engineer a hotfix without pausing the performance. Shortly before the number with the most demanding lighting cues, “I’m a Mess,” the house lights were lowered again. We held our breath, waiting for the moment of truth, and the stage positively glowed with Brandon’s design.

It is absolutely a testament to the training and professionalism of the cast that they were able to keep performing through the technical malfunctions. The house technicians assured us that these problems would not recur, and we looked forward to mounting our second performance, with the lighting as intended, two days later.

In the meantime, I had been planning three more underscore cues to facilitate additional scene transitions. I hurried to finish them after our opening performance, rationalizing that much larger shows undergo more substantial changes during their runs (especially during previews). I handed off the files to our stage manager, Madeleine Monteleone, to quickly import into our show session (on top of guaranteeing the integrity of the lighting program with the house technicians) during our scant minutes before the house opened for our next show. With all of the lights and sounds in their proper place, I am happy to report that the strength of our second performance more than made up for our opening.

Once all of the technical issues were sorted out over the next couple of performances, the rest of the run went by in a blur. Equal parts exhausted and relieved, we bowed after our seventh performance, as scheduled, on the closing day of the festival. For what was effectively a first workshop of Dayjan’s first musical, especially considering how ambitious it was, I would say that our run went fairly well overall. There was much that we all learned from the experience that we hope to apply to future projects going forward, both for new musicals and an anticipated expansion of Back and Forth into a full-length production.

Team Back and Forth takes its final bow. L-R: David Federman (arranger/orchestrator/music director), Alanna O’Reilly (choreographer/associate director), Mercedes Ranjit (Ensemble), Georgia Grant (Dr. Grace), Dante Toccacelli (Procrastination Fairy), Dayjan Lesmond (music/book/lyrics/director/Cass), Nikki Haggart (Ace), Adam Borohov (sound designer), Mateo Chavez Lewis (Ben), Josh Alcantara (Ensemble).

So, Is This What You Do Now?

Along with a host of other things that I do in the realm of media and concert music, I suppose that the staging of Back and Forth means that arranging/orchestration for musical theatre can now be added to my list of composer-adjacent skills. However, composing remains my first love, and even though I have been on a hiatus from writing for much of this year, I am already returning to the composer’s chair with a slate of upcoming scoring projects.

…and who knows? Maybe I’ll end up writing a stage musical of my own someday. Dayjan made it look like so much fun. 😉


I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to the members of the Back and Forth family whose efforts have made these iterations of our show possible: Kimberly Ramón, Camille Holland, Rosie Callaghan, Elizabeth Rose Morriss, Taryn Wichenko, Chihiro Nagamatsu, Rev. Brian Stevens at Hope United Church, Olivia Esther, Dante Toccacelli, Nikki Haggart, Georgia Grant, Ben Skipper, Maria Kapoglis, Mercedes Ranjit, Mateo Chavez Lewis, Alanna O’Reilly, Madeleine “Monty” Monteleone, Brandon Goncalves, Adam Borohov, Ross Hammond, our venue technicians, the supportive team at The Toronto Fringe…

…and, of course, to Dayjan Lesmond, whose dream of dragons finally took flight. Thank you for trusting me with your vision, for letting me help you find your sound and tell your story, and for allowing me to be the Hamilton to your Washington.

Back and Forth: The Musical © 2022 Nightjan Productions. All Rights Reserved.

So, I Orchestrated a Musical… (Part III)

When last we left off, the creative team of Back and Forth had fully taken shape, two-thirds of the songs in the show had been arranged, our cast was all but finalized, and we were soon to begin rehearsals when the outbreak of the global coronavirus pandemic forced an abrupt shutdown to everything.

We, along with everyone else, remained hopeful that we would be able to get back to work after a brief pause, but as the weeks dragged on, only one thing became clear to us: live theatre as we knew it was on hiatus.


I tried to look on the bright side: with my weekly commitments and other gigs having been cancelled, I suddenly had all the time in the world to plow through the remaining arrangements for the show. I had already worked them out in my head; all I had to do was sit down and…

I just… couldn’t.

We all deal with pain in our own way, dear readers, and unfortunately for me, the onset of the pandemic cast me back a year to when I was freshly injured. After having just spent 13 months “adjusting to the new normal” and being largely isolated due to my brain injury, the global trauma that we experienced in March of 2020 felt all too familiar: the sudden impact, the uncertain severity of symptoms on any given day, the unknowable prognosis, the allostatic overload — the similarities were nothing short of overwhelming. On top of that, this represented the third time in as many years in which my ability to play music with others, live and in-person, was suddenly taken away, which was an injury on the soul level. Then came the grief — the bereavement for everything that I had been looking forward to doing — now renewed for a second straight year.

I know that this is relatable to many of you, and I want to believe that if I had any resilience to spare after that first post-concussion year, I might have been able to respond more deftly to the rapidly-evolving situation. Instead, feeling thoroughly retraumatized, I fell into a depressive episode, the acute phase of which lasted for two whole months.


In that time, I kept creating — little things, mind you, hardly any magnum opus — but honestly, even though much of what I wrote, arranged, or produced was intended for the benefit of others, it did nothing to alleviate the overwhelming feeling of pointlessness. Even if it was vaguely amusing to learn that my normal composerly lifestyle looked indistinguishable from quarantine at the best of times, it required that my collaborators, be they on film sets or in studios, be allowed to go about their work unimpeded; work-from-home equivalents ranged from unwieldy to impossible. During this time, for many of us in the arts sector, not only were we unable to continue doing what we had spent our lives training for, but we were actively prevented from doing so.

After having clawed my way back to almost being ready to attempt living and working somewhat normally again, I was once again knocked into crisis mode and focused heavily on survival; creating anything at all, never mind anything of substance or significance, was of much lower priority for me. Truth be told, the only thing that the pandemic inspired in me was an identity crisis: if creating wasn’t my top priority, was I even really an artist anymore?

To keep our spirits elevated, the creative team of Back and Forth stayed in touch by video chat on almost a weekly basis, but reassuring words, amusing video filters, and funny memes did little to cover for the fact that we were, at best, adrift. Contrary to the platitudes at the time, we were not all in the same boat, but the same storm, and I was drowning.

Just Keep Swimming

A few weeks into the shutdown, with Fringe yet to make a decision about whether they would commit to holding a festival of any kind, we were resolved to remain as focused as we could, and continue to work as if our 2020 festivals were going ahead until we were told otherwise. We invited the cast and crew for a virtual table read, which would also serve as a de facto meet and greet; doing so through the confines of our screens was less than ideal, but we felt that we had no better, safer option.

Three days before our scheduled table read, Toronto Fringe officially announced its cancellation.

By that time, it had seemed inevitable, but we went ahead and ran our cast and crew meeting anyway. The company gathered online, with the cast reading the script and listening to the eight arrangements that I had completed to that point (and to Dayjan’s rough sketches for the remainder). We made notes and discussed revisions based on our impressions from the table read. We were committed to continuing the work… even if it would be a while before the world would get to see what we were working on.

Fortunately, a few weeks later, Toronto Fringe contacted us with an invitation to prepare a short prerecorded presentation for inclusion in a digital festival, slated for streaming that summer! The Fringe would go on! We would have a platform to show something after all! The content of this virtual offering, they explained, did not have to be connected to our intended Fringe show, but we figured that since we had a cast, a script, and songs (with screen-ready backing tracks, even!), the potential to showcase some of the above as an early work-in-progress demo was too good to pass up.

The call to participate in the online Toronto Fringe Collective was enough to transition me out of my funk and back to work on the next song in my docket: a Latin-influenced mental breakdown conga called “I’m a Mess” — something to which I believe we could all relate at that time. I thought back to my year at Berklee in Valencia and getting to meet, work with, and learn from a host of musicians from the Latin music world. As always, drawing on what I knew (and reminding myself with research just to be sure), I took great care to render the tumbao rhythm just right, and I delighted in teaching Dayjan a thing or two about things like clave and groove. (By all accounts, I almost seemed cool. 😎 )

Back and Forth: In (Virtual) Concert

We put out a call amongst our cast to gauge interest in this new opportunity, and most of our cast members were as eager as we were! In response to the five who stepped forward, Dayjan and I began our preparations for what we initially styled as Back and Forth: The Musical: In Concert. First, we would need to adjust the script; since we no longer had our hour-long time slot of the live festival, nor did we have our full complement of cast, telling the full story of Back and Forth would have to wait. Instead, we decided to make our prerecorded performance more applicable to what we, as artists, were going through during the pandemic, filmed and edited in the style of video calls. Some scenes and ideas from the full show were retained, but we otherwise considered In Concert to be a separate entity in the BackandForthiverse.

In parallel with the script redevelopment, we chose four of our favourite songs from the show, our selections informed by those who comprised our ad hoc cast. We decided to feature “Back and Forth,” “Time for Me,” “You’re Enough,” and my most recent addition, “I’m a Mess.” Making slight adjustments to the piano/vocal scores, we equipped our cast with demo recordings and organized a fresh table read. With barely nine days to our delivery deadline, we asked our cast to record both their audio and their video as quickly as possible, so as to give us as much time as possible to edit everything together.

Our cast dutifully sent video and audio tests for us to review. We were limited in our time and ability to give notes (let alone actually rehearse in real-time with our singers), but our performers handled the task of bringing their self-isolated characters to life with the utmost aplomb.

We’re a Mess… But We Try!

As with everything in the early stages of the pandemic, our objective was to do the best we could with the resources available. Having heard from session musicians who had suddenly been displaced from their scoring stages, I was bracing for all of the difficulties that these professionals had reported with rapidly having had to figure out how best to self-record something that (by dint of enough post-production magic) could be screenworthy. Yes, we all enjoyed many self-recorded performances, with offerings ranging from amateur virtual choirs to Broadway stars, and I can assure you, faithful readers, that they were, all and each, the result of an arduous journey.

In our case, as it would have been unsafe to make house calls to record our singers using professional-grade equipment, and impractical at best to rent a microphone (with or without an interface) to share amongst our cast, we just had to make do with what we had… and summon up as much engineering magic as we could. It was going to be awkward and unwieldy, but we were determined to make it work.

As Dayjan and I emerged from days of round-the-clock editing (with him taking responsibility for the video edit, and I the music edit and mix), we looked forward to two things: working with our amazing cast of talented performers in person the following year, and never having to do a virtual recording project again.

A little more than 3 weeks later, our pandemic-size demo premiered in the Toronto Fringe Collective to great acclaim, featuring the performances of Kimberly Ramón, Rosie Callaghan, Camille Holland, Elizabeth Rose Morriss, and Taryn Wichenko. We would later rebrand it as Back and Forth: In Quarantine, and release it for public viewing on YouTube, which you can see below:

The title screen of Back and Forth: In Quarantine. Click to view (opens in a new tab).

Now What?

We were granted the opportunity for an encore performance, which streamed about six weeks later, and then… that was pretty much it.

We had been guaranteed our performance slot at the next live edition of the Toronto Fringe… whenever that might be. We were optimistic that we would only have to wait a year — which for us would mean enjoying several months of downtime continuing our work on the show before reconvening for rehearsals — but the uncertainty born of new COVID variants surging quelled any enthusiasm that we might have had.

For me, a new slate of projects and responsibilities took over in the fall, which saw me through to the end of the year. In December, I finally had the bandwidth to arrange the tenth song in the show, “The Mission” (the ideas for which I had been holding in since March!). Dayjan, meanwhile, was considering some script revisions to the end of the show, which meant that writing my arrangements of the last two songs would have to wait.

With things looking progressively more bleak as we headed into the winter, and Toronto Fringe being initially noncommittal about their future plans, we fell back into how I essentially approached things from the start: nothing more was going to be material until it materialized. Our hope was not enough to end the pandemic, and having all the time in the world only inspired us to procrastinate (the Fairy would be so proud of us!).

Early in the new year, Toronto Fringe decided that its 2021 festival would be exclusively online. With our hearts set on realizing this show live on stage, we were not in a rush to use up our Fringe slot on another virtual performance. They offered us the option to defer until 2022, and we accepted.

Time Skip!

Things effectively lay fallow until November of 2021, when a dear friend and colleague of mine contacted me with a proposal. She was offering us a venue for a staged reading of the music from Back and Forth, intended to give us some exposure on our road to Fringe. How could we possibly say no to doing a real edition of Back and Forth: In Concert, something that Dayjan had been dreaming of for two years already?

A few days thereafter, with my mind once again in Back and Forth mode, I conceived of a new overture for the show (borrowing from and punching up Dayjan’s sketch from early 2020), imagining Alanna’s choreography and all! Before I could even render it in my audio workstation, I excitedly sang it for Dayjan over the phone. He seemed to like my ideas (inelegantly sung as they were), and granted me leave to properly arrange it at an appropriate time.

About a week later, Toronto Fringe announced its dates for a live theatre festival in the summer of 2022! There were plenty of concerns to go around, not least of which being the projected state of COVID and public health mandates, let alone the logistics of rehearsing and performing safely, but as there were no further deferrals or extensions on offer, it didn’t take much convincing for us to accept.

However, as it was now almost a year and a half since our virtual performance in the 2020 Toronto Fringe Collective, would we still have a cast waiting for us?

End of Act Three

Visit the lobby for some refreshments, and come back next week for Act Four!

So, I Orchestrated a Musical… (Part II)

When last we left off, I had been asked by actor/writer/director Dayjan Lesmond to join the creative team of his new musical, Back and Forth. Through the autumn of 2019, while we awaited the results of various Fringe lotteries, Dayjan sent me preliminary drafts of his first few songs, giving me ample time to sit with the material and to organize the nascent ideas for my orchestrations.

Dayjan Lesmond (centre) greets the applause of the crowd as Nightjan Productions is drawn for the 2020 Toronto Fringe Festival. Photo: Colleen Yates.

On December 3, 2019, our path became clear as we were drawn for the 2020 Toronto Fringe Festival. The Directorial Team, consisting of Dayjan as writer and director, Alanna O’Reilly as choreographer and assistant director, and yours truly as arranger/orchestrator and music director, sprung into action that very night, ducking away to a nearby bar to begin charting a course that would take us through the following months.

With our premiere set for Toronto Fringe, and an encore slated for the Winnipeg Fringe Festival immediately thereafter, my work to help Dayjan find the musical voice of Back and Forth began in earnest.

The Sound of the Show

For me, regardless of medium, the sound of a project works best when it is consistent with the overall concept of the narrative. To list examples from my own filmography, John Lives Again borrowed aesthetics and attitudes from the 1980s, The Suitcase used an internal animated movie as a framing device, and Haru’s New Year captured a yearning for home and the pang of homesickness with a stylistic homage to Japanese cinema; the directors of each asked for my scores to match those concepts accordingly.

In the case of Back and Forth, our protagonist, Cass, is an artist — a writer working on the pilot to an animated series, The Swordsman, which forms the basis of the major narrative through-line of the piece. Animation often lends itself to memorable scores written for large forces (even rendered on virtual instruments in the case of contemporary television), and is perhaps a more forgiving medium for writing music that may seem whimsical, overly emotional, or otherwise over-the-top or on-the-nose; I hold the countless hours I spent as a youngster watching cartoons responsible for having been able to turn out cues like The Frog Chase rapidly (and have fun while doing so!). Cass is also a gamer, devoting their free time to playing epic multiplayer quests with their best friend, Ben — again, another source of memorable music which has also left an indelible imprint on the DNA of my own scores.

Suffice it to say, I understood the sonic world in which Cass was steeped very well.

As I became more familiar with the show overall, I could see that Cass identified very strongly with their work (any resemblance to artists that you may know being purely coincidental, of course) to the extent, in my estimation, that they interacted with the world through the musical-narrative lens of their interests. Further, as my understanding deepened, the concept that drove my arrangements — that not only was Cass well-versed in animation, musicals, and video games, but that this was where they sought refuge and took comfort — grew in parallel.

My understanding and interpretation of Dayjan’s concept for the show — especially because we were representing such lush pools of music as animation and video games — led me to write for a 14-piece pit orchestra in order to adequately cover timbres across all instrumental families: three reeds (with Broadway-style doublings*), four brass, three strings, one bass (doubling upright and electric), one keyboard, and two percussionists.

*In concert music and film score, woodwind musicians, in addition to playing their primary instrument, can be asked to perform double duty by playing auxiliary instruments of the same kind (e.g., a flautist could be expected to also play piccolo or alto flute, an oboist could double on English horn, etc.). However, Broadway wind parts (or “reed books”) commonly have less usual combinations (e.g., a “Reed I” player could be asked to double on flute, piccolo, clarinet, and saxophone all in the same show).

On a Fringe budget and timeframe, having a live ensemble for this version of the show would not be feasible. However, as we considered this to be a proof-of-concept for a larger production in the future, and since Dayjan was satisfied with the sound of the backing track that I had written for “Time for Me,” then rendering the accompaniment on virtual instruments would suffice.

Notwithstanding that if I’m only being asked to produce backing tracks without the need for the music to be performed live, then technically the instrumentation can be whatever I want. However, since our overall ambition for Back and Forth saw Toronto Fringe as a checkpoint, not a destination, my contribution would include planning for the future; if I wanted to have a hope of ever seeing this realized with an ensemble of real musicians, I knew that I had to keep the instrumentation (relatively) manageable and reasonable, and the writing playable and idiomatic.

In the face of shrinking budgets and changing aesthetics, a 14-piece ensemble feels like a luxury. Indeed, the sound of contemporary musical theatre tends more towards adopting a small form-factor for accompaniment. Some of my favourite examples include Urinetown (comp. Mark Hollmann, orch. Bruce Coughlin) with five, Avenue Q (comp. Jeff Marks and Robert Lopez, orch. Stephen Oremus) and Waitress (comp. Sarah Bareilles, orch. Nadia DiGiallonardo) both with six, and Come From Away (comp. Irene Sankoff and David Hein, orch. August Eriksmoen) with nine. Even Hamilton (comp. Lin-Manuel Miranda, orch. Alex Lacamoire) makes do with ten on Broadway (11 when it was here in Toronto) — definitely a far cry from when Phantom (comp. Andrew Lloyd Webber, orch. David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber) opened in Toronto with 29 (plus conductor)!

…and yet, within those orchestrations, you largely find that they are consistent with the show’s concept: Avenue Q contains the core essence of a certain long-running children’s television show, Waitress sounds like what you could fit inside a diner, Come From Away a ceilidh band… and Phantom was the grandeur of the Paris Opera… plus synthesizer and drum machine (okay, so it doesn’t have to be literal).

However, Back and Forth is not a rock musical, neither would a small band or combo match the concept of the show as it stands today. While the balance of pit ensembles is admittedly skewing smaller compared to the mega-musicals of yesteryear, musicals boasting pit complements of around 14 are not unheard of, even among contemporary productions — including one that also got its start at the Toronto Fringe, The Drowsy Chaperone (comp. Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, orch. Larry Blank).

This core of 14 formed the basis of our sonic framework. Dayjan further requested that I refrain from the now-standard practice of filling out the more intimate chamber orchestra sound with additional keyboards (to give, for example, the illusion of a larger string ensemble without the need for hiring commensurately more live musicians), and I was happy to agree. As much as I am capable of writing for the sound of 50-piece orchestras (and as much as I’d really like more brass in some of the tunes), this was not the time; we’ll save that for the 25th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall. 😉

Enough Dreaming – Back to Reality!

Our next checkpoint would be our audition process, scheduled for early February of 2020, by which time I would need to produce a slate of arrangements to serve as callback materials for each of our five principal characters. With the Procrastination Fairy’s zany “Time for Me” solo already complete, I set to work on the remaining four: “Boss Fight,” a video game-inspired trio led by Ben, “We’re Done,” a smoky jazz-blues number to represent Cass’ harried agent, Ace, “You’re Enough,” an eleven-o’clock number for Cass’ therapist, Dr. Grace, and “Back and Forth,” the title song of the show itself, for Cass.

However, as I was already working on two films, Joey Boy (dir. Mark Matechuk) and Double Edged (dir. Cliona Concetta), plus finishing the Christmas season as the director of the Rosewood Consort and actively preparing for an ambitious year ahead, all while actively managing the concerns and limitations of my health, I would only have a scant few weeks in which to complete this round of arrangements.

My arranging process for each song remained essentially the same as it had been on “Time for Me” a few months earlier, starting with Dayjan sending me a demo recording of him singing the vocal lines and a rough draft piano/vocal score. I would then study the script to glean insight about context and motivation, and, perhaps most importantly, how the number served to further the plot. From there, I would find musical ways, such as using a recurring instrument, motif, or chord progression, to build characterization and link everything in the narrative together. I would look for lyrics where I could get away with injecting my particular sense of humour, or think of moments that I could set up for Alanna to highlight with her choreography. All of these ideas would inform my musical choices, from the broader artistic strokes of instrumentation and texture to more technical aspects like reharmonization and interpolating countermelodies.

With all of this in mind, I would then craft my arrangements by musically painting around Dayjan’s vocals. As Dayjan himself is an expert singer, his rough vocal demos were not only a delight to work with — even the ones in which he needed to sing outside of his normal baritone register! — but they were also a boon to my process: the ideas he had shared over coffee were suddenly all the more tangible for me, and in turn, hearing his ideas fleshed out with a proper accompaniment (albeit realized with virtual instruments) made this show all the more real for him.

As with “Time for Me,” Dayjan granted me the latitude to go completely off the page and rebuild the accompaniment for each song in the manner that would best express his intentions (within our stated parameters, of course). While Dayjan characterized my process of writing the arrangements as reading his mind, I would tend to describe it more as listening.

I would often let my mind wander to the balcony of some imagined theatre in a hopeful future, in which I could see and hear every detail of the fully-staged Broadway production of Back and Forth. The costumes, lighting, and choreography for every scene appeared in my mind’s eye, and, perhaps more pertinently, every note of the orchestrations resounded in the playhouse of my mind. In the end, as I mentioned in my previous entry, my inspiration largely came from unearthing the core essence of the songs themselves, and, exactly as with my arrangement of “Time for Me,” it felt akin to remembering the music that was supposed to be there; all I had to do was listen.

After completing each arrangement, I would send a new demo recording back to Dayjan, this one featuring his vocals accompanied by my virtual 14-piece pit orchestra, for his approval. Once approved, I would transition from arranger to orchestrator, transcribing my virtual orchestrations into a fully-engraved score to serve as a final proofread of my arrangements. This also enabled me to make decisions about interpretation (such as dynamics, articulations, stylistic markings, etc.) in preparation for a future iteration in which we get to perform everything live; when the time comes, everything will be ready (or, at least, we will have a very good starting point!). More practically, however, the engraved score would form the basis of my last step: translating my arrangement into a piano reduction in order to create a piano/vocal book from which the singers would learn their parts (and from which, as music director, I would conduct the performers in rehearsal).

One arranging decision that I made early on, inspired by the memorable melodies that Dayjan had written for this show (and perhaps influenced by the strength of his demo performances), was to allow the vocal lines to stand on their own, rather than following the time-honoured practice of having the accompaniment double the singers in unison (which often makes it sound like you’re trying to help them stay in tune!). Maintaining the independence of the vocal lines in this way would make the songs more challenging to learn on a tight rehearsal schedule and potentially more risky to perform, but would absolutely highlight the musicianship of our performers in the end, provided we could pull it off (and, for my part, free up valuable instrumental lines for the rich accompaniment I was planning. Everybody wins!). All we would need to do in order to accomplish this feat is find a cast of strong singers.

No pressure!


A casting call went out in mid-January of 2020. For what could easily be written off as “just a Fringe show,” an overwhelming proportion of our applicants pleasantly surprised us with CVs that boasted impressive credits and credentials; we found that what looked at first blush to be “overqualified” on paper often translated into a strong performance from an eminently qualified candidate. As each of us on the Directorial Team had been on the other side of the table before, Dayjan, Alanna, and I were committed to engendering as positive and congenial an atmosphere as possible to set our candidates at ease, and we did our best to see past their inevitable nerves. Without revealing too much about our methodology, the casting process for me illustrated the merit in a candidate being prepared, having the ability to project a feeling of being comfortable in the room with us, and delivering an outstanding performance that felt truly genuine (rather than imitative). After auditioning so many skilled candidates, I certainly came away with a greater appreciation for what a film director might go through when hiring a composer!

We finished our initial round of casting fully satisfied that we would take the stage that summer with an incredibly strong cast. As we selected our short-list of candidates, I hurried to put the finishing touches on our callback repertoire; in addition to the songs for our five principals, I was asked to arrange a short group number representing the pitch of Cass’ show, The Swordsman, just in case we needed it. Song by song, Back and Forth slowly quickly took shape.

Dayjan’s giddy excitement at hearing his work performed live for the first time was absolutely palpable (and for me, quite nostalgic). We thrilled at several of our candidates being practically the embodiment of our characters, and loved the variety of interpretations that the applicants brought to the roles.

However, as Back and Forth is semi-autobiographical, the role that required the greatest consideration was that of the lead, Cass. Dayjan, as the author of the work, was very particular about many aspects of the character, especially the written vocal range and his preference to cast a BIPOC actor in the role. However, finding Dayjan’s clone — especially someone who was available for not only our rehearsals in the spring, but also for the runs in both Toronto and Winnipeg (representing almost all of July) — was no easy task. We extended our deadlines and launched additional casting calls to search specifically for our Cass. We came close a couple of times, but we found ourselves headed into March without a lead.

We thought back to a promotional performance that we had organized during the holiday season. Dayjan and Alanna put together a skit in which the Procrastination Fairy (portrayed by Alanna) threw Twelve Days of Distractions at a certain artist (portrayed by Dayjan) before breaking into a spirited rendition of “Time for Me,” which you can enjoy here:

…but no, Dayjan remained adamant about not playing Cass at Fringe under any circumstances.

At the same time, our search turned up a late applicant — a classically-trained treble-voiced Latinx performer — to whom we offered an audition for one last swing/ensemble/understudy role to round out our cast. When we heard her sing, however, we immediately thought back to Alanna’s performance as the Fairy in Days of Distraction: it demonstrated a certain flexibility in the character, and even though the Fairy was originally written as a baritone, Alanna’s rendition effectively gave us permission to consider (and ultimately cast) a treble to play the role in our upcoming production.

Standing there in the audition room, the three of us collectively realized that if the Procrastination Fairy is meant to be a mirror for Cass (singing, “I’m you, don’t you see?”), and if we could have a treble Fairy, then why couldn’t we have a treble Cass?

On March 11, 2020, we breathed a sigh of relief as we confirmed our Cass. Cassting — excuse me, casting was now all but complete, two more song arrangements had been written in the interim, and rehearsals were soon to commence…

The members of the Back and Forth: The Musical Directorial Team (L-R: Alanna O’Reilly, David Federman, Dayjan Lesmond) are all smiles at the conclusion of auditions. Photo: Chihiro Nagamatsu.

…when the global COVID-19 outbreak forced an abrupt shutdown to live theatre.

End of Act Two

Enjoy the intermission, and come back next week for Act Three!

So, I Orchestrated a Musical…

I found something in my sport coat the other day.

I was on my way to attend a live performance when I noticed something left behind from the last time I wore that jacket. I don’t know if it just didn’t consciously occur to me that it had been hanging in my closet untouched for more than two and a half years — I used to wear this coat to events all the time! — but I guess I was just surprised to have found anything in there at all.

Tell me you haven’t worn something in over two years without telling me you haven’t worn something in over two years.

Tucked away in my inner jacket pocket was my ticket to Hamilton, dated Friday, March 13, 2020, 8:00 p.m. curtain. It would be the final performance of that company; Mirvish stages closed the following day.

In that moment, the distance of the past two-and-a-half years hit me, and I remembered just how abruptly life had come to a screeching halt. There it was: my second-last night out before Toronto instituted widespread lockdown protocols, perfectly preserved. For my coat, at least, life stood still, and I was finally pressing the play button after over two years of pause.

For those of you who have been wondering where I’ve been lately, most of my energy this year has been devoted to picking things up where we left off before the pandemic. While it’s true that, as Flaherty and Ahrens said, “We can never go back to before,” the desire to reclaim that which has been lost is a very human response. As we move forward, it is only natural to try to reforge a connection to what we had and what we did, to say nothing of who and what we were, before so many things were suddenly interrupted; this is part of our healing process as we emerge from the haze of the past two years.

Welcome back to the Podium.

Back in 2020, one of the projects that I had been looking forward to the most represented making a real foray into the world of musical theatre. I was hired on as the arranger/orchestrator and music director of a new stage musical called Back and Forth (book, music, and lyrics by Dayjan Lesmond), which follows an artist, Cass, as they literally fight against their procrastination while striving to create their best work… tomorrow.

(…and, by the way, there is a dragon.)

…but before I go any further into the show, first, a bit of background.

In addition to my steady diet of classical music, film scores, and video game music, I was raised with a deep affection for musical theatre (helped in no small part by also coming of age during the Disney Renaissance). I grew up with cast albums and greatest hits compilations close at hand; one of my favourite childhood activities was to put on the LP of The Phantom of the Opera (the Original London Cast, no less) and follow along with the libretto, spending countless hours listening and reading along with rapt attention. I am lucky to have grown up at a time when Toronto was a particularly robust theatre hub, home to not only pre-Broadway tryouts and US National Tours, but also to lavish productions that would run for years.

As a child, I also took private violin lessons from two musicians who just so happened to play in the pit orchestra of the long-running Toronto production of Phantom in its early years, which a very young me thought was the coolest thing ever (and I’m all but certain that my teachers were equal parts amused and annoyed by my insistence on noodling those tunes by ear during my lessons). On the playground, I nerded out with kids who were even bigger fans of musicals than I (including one precocious classmate who would write new lyrics to popular showtunes for school assignments). Years later, I would end my high school career as the concertmaster of the pit orchestra, even contributing an orchestration to that year’s musical theatre revue!

Yet, as the years went on, to borrow from a certain popular contemporary musical, I perpetually found myself on the outside, always looking in. In parallel with my emerging career as a composer, I had tried to translate my interest in theatre and experience with writing and conducting into working on musicals in various capacities. Yet, while I certainly gained useful experience with these opportunities, none of them ever seemed to gain much of any traction.

It Sounds Like You Could Use an Orchestrator

One late September night in 2019, an actor with whom I was acquainted by the name of Dayjan Lesmond excitedly told me about a song that he had written as part of an upcoming show. He went on to explain that he planned to perform it with a flashmob of singers at Nuit Blanche a little more than a week later, and that he was looking for someone who could produce a backing track for him. After a little further prodding to find out what I could do to help him bridge the gap between what he had and what he needed, I turned to him and said that it sounded like he could use an orchestrator.

With no time to waste, Dayjan sent me a rough demo recording and a copy of a barebones piano/vocal score for a song called “Time for Me,” sung by a puckish character called the Procrastination Fairy. Trusting that the inside of my head sounded like what he really meant, he gave me free rein to completely rework the arrangement to express his true artistic intentions — or, at least, my interpretation thereof.

I am, as you know, no stranger to tight deadlines. However, this opportunity came when I was barely seven months post-concussion; my condition was still wildly unpredictable, everything that I had done to that point in my rehabilitation had come as a struggle, and I only had a short window in which to turn this track around.

To my surprise, as soon as I listened to his rough demo, I heard the Procrastination Fairy spring to life and every note of the fully-fledged accompaniment burst into my mind’s ear! It felt like something had unlocked in my still-fractured memory, as if I was remembering the music that was supposed to be there. In an uncharacteristic burst of clarity and lucidity (but a welcome return to form!), I worked at lightning speed, completing the arrangement of the two-minute song within 24 hours.

Working Backwards (and Forthwards?)

Just as I do when I am scoring a film, I prepared a track for Dayjan with a full and complete instrumentation, as close to fully-produced as possible, and ready for the screen (or stage… or street corner, in this case). In other words, I gave him the end result first.

Notwithstanding that this is precisely what was required, this is apparently backwards — at least, when it comes to musicals.

The process of developing a new musical often takes years at the best of times. I am given to understand that it typically begins with writing the show for piano accompaniment alone, and that only through the iterative process of workshops and development does orchestration get more involved, gradually adding instruments according to need, vision, and budget — mostly budget.

…and here I am with the audacity to skip a few steps — notably the parts where I get to haggle with producers over the number of musicians I can write for. Yet, Dayjan and I knew exactly where we wanted to end up, given the nature of the themes and concepts explored through the narrative, as well as the overall scope and style of the show.

That said, what I was doing was for not even a demo, but a demo of a demo, something done for fun at Nuit Blanche… and I only had a few days to complete it. No time for iteration or development; I had a song to arrange.

A few weeks later, Dayjan asked me to meet with him for coffee. I had passed the audition, and he asked me formally to come on board as his arranger/orchestrator.

The Next Stage

As a composer primarily for collaborative media, my primary and overarching goal for every project is to find the correct sound for the story, often delving deep into the narrative to unearth its very soul and understand every nuance as well as my creative partner does. As the arranger and orchestrator for Back and Forth, my objective was essentially the same: to find the soul of the story and the sound that would properly support the narrative.

As an arranger, I have a hand in shaping the structure of the songs, and I enrich the melodies by interpreting, interpolating, and intuiting harmonies and countermelodies. As an orchestrator, I am responsible for selecting the instrumentation that builds a cohesive sonic palette for the entire show, sculpting moments throughout the musical experience to support the action and propel the plot.

In all of these instances, I am a member of the narrative team. Whether the writer, director, and I are joined by a cinematographer or a choreographer, our overall objective remains the same: to not only tell the story, but to tell the truth of the story; my job is to do so with music.

Over coffee, Dayjan walked me through the plot of the entire production, playing all of his rough demos for me and asking for my feedback and input. He spoke at length about his plans for this production, indicating that he planned to enter Fringe lotteries all over the country, and that he aimed to put together a concert-style staged reading of about half of the songs in the show for publicity purposes. He was resolved, one way or another, to find a stage for this show.

I came away from our meeting with a lot of ideas to let percolate over the following weeks. As Dayjan assembled more of his creative team and finalized more of his songs, I spent my time considering the overall sound palette for the show, and how that would develop and evolve over the course of the narrative. We would need something that sounded like a lighthearted showtune in one scene, could appropriately represent video games in another, and then we would later have a Latin number — stylistically, this show couldn’t sit still! — but it would all make sense in context.

It was my responsibility to make it all make sense in context.

However, as dutifully supportive and encouraging of Dayjan’s unbridled enthusiasm as I was, I knew that it would take more than mere excitement to actually put on a show. Getting into a Fringe festival would be an ideal springboard for a production like this, granting us a stage, a scheduled run, and production support in a relatively low-stakes environment, but it would take a boatload of luck to be drawn for one. Despite Dayjan’s determination to get this show mounted regardless of the outcome of the various Fringe lotteries that we had entered, nothing about the show for me was going to be material until it materialized.

Then, in early December, we were selected for the 2020 Toronto Fringe Festival in their annual lottery. We were in! It was real! I…

The Directorial Team of Back and Forth: The Musical. L-R: David Federman, Dayjan Lesmond, Alanna O’Reilly. Photo: Colleen Yates.

…suddenly had a lot of work to do.

End of Act One

Come back next week for Act Two!