New York conductor returns to Houston with original music for TUTS
by Donalevan Maines
Photo by Matthew Murphy
When Rosie O’Donnell went looking for a music director for her ambitious inner-city New York charity, Rosie’s Theater Kids, she picked a young composer from Houston.
This month, we get him back for not one, but two projects. Steven Jamail, who grew up in Friendswood, will see Theater Under the Stars’ (TUTS) Humphreys School of Musical Theatre present the Southwest premiere of his show, VOTE! A New Musical, at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
Then Jamail conducts the orchestra for Guys and Dolls, which kicks off TUTS’ 2011–12 “Seeing Is Believing!” season at the Hobby Center with a production of the popular musical.
Jamail couldn’t have asked for a sweeter gig than Guys and Dolls to show off his skills as a conductor and music director. While the script won the Pulitzer Prize in 1951, Frank Loesser’s phenomenal score is what hooks audiences with the Overture, which previews the classic love song “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and the chorus number “Luck Be a Lady Tonight.” Before you know it, you’re swept into Damon Runyonland.
Jamail picked up a baton when he conducted the marching band as a drum major his junior and senior years at Friendswood High School, where he graduated in 1998. He also played in the pit orchestra for three school musicals.
“I saw a lot of theater growing up, but I remember the Alley doing the world premiere of Jekyll & Hyde. When Linda Eder sang Someone Like You, I knew that I wanted to write a song like that so someone like her would sing it.”
His music composition professors at Rice University supported Jamail’s ambition to write musical comedies, but they insisted that he learn music theory by studying the works of artists such as Schoenberg, Boulez, and Elliott Carter.
At Rice, Jamail got to know his VOTE! writing partner, Ryann Ferguson, when he was a music director on a pro
duction of Sweeney Todd at Rice, and Ferguson played a patient in an insane asylum. “She was this crazy girl,” he says, “who was on a full-ride scholarship majoring in creative writing, so I figured she’s got to be a genius.
“A Catholic boy from Friendswood and a Buddhist from Las Vegas. What a pair!”
Jamail says that Sweeney Todd was one of several shows that their dormitory, called Brown College, put on each year at Rice in competition with other dorms (also called colleges). “Those were some of the coolest artistic experiences I’ve ever had,” he recalls. “The unique spirit of competition was like something out of Harry Potter. It definitely spoiled me.”
Following graduation, Ferguson moved to New York to become a theatrical producer while Jamail stayed in Houston. He came out at age 22. “I came out to everyone at once,” he says. “There was literally no drama. I have a really great family.
“Houston has a really strong gay community, and one of my regrets is that I didn’t participate more in the community,” he adds.
Jamail stayed busy practicing the piano. “I knew what it would take for me to become a musical director in New York and eventually make my living full-time as a writer.”
While honing his skills on the ivories, Jamail enjoyed the good fortune of penning two scores under the direction of famed Broadway impresario Stuart Ostrow at the University of Houston. “It beat Julliard,” says Jamail. “The man is a genius. He would talk to me as a business person, and he was really specific with what he taught me about writing musicals.”
Jamail was weighing a move to the Big Apple when he saw an advertisement at Playbill.com for a full-time music supervisor for Rosie’s Theater Kids, a Rosie O’Donnell charity that teaches music and dance to students in New York City’s poorest schools.
In New York, Jamail also re-teamed with Ferguson to write VOTE!, which follows three high school students running for student council president.
Attending VOTE! and conducting Guys and Dolls will be a working vacation from Jamail’s day job with O’Donnell, a gig that offers a variety of opportunities for Jamail to collaborate with Broadway professionals.
In May, he accompanied O’Donnell to Chicago for her appearance on “Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular” at the United Center to commemorate The Oprah Winfrey Show ending its run after 25 years. Jamail’s job was to arrange a parody of the song “Fever” for O’Donnell. The serenade to Winfrey included quips about Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Nate Berkus. “It was a lot of fun to be part of that crazy Oprah finale thing,” says Jamail.
VOTE! A New Musical
When: September 16, 7:30 p.m.; and September 17, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Guys and Dolls
When: September 27–October 9
VOTE! The New Musical and Guys and Dolls
Where: Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby.
Tickets: online at tuts.com, by phone at 713/558-TUTS (8887), outside the Houston area at 888/558-3882, or in person at the TUTS box office.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.