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Wednesday, June 4,2014

Magic carpet ride

Lansing musician zips between orchestra pits in Lansing and Broadway

by Dylan Sowle

Musical theater runs in the family for Jonathan Smith. In March, the Lansing native — and son of prolific Lansing band director and musician John Dale Smith — joined the elite ranks of the Broadway pit orchestra as a substitute percussionist for the new Disney musical “Aladdin.”

As the show’s sole substitute percussionist, Smith fills in on days that the permanent musicians can’t be make it to the theater. But don´t let the deceptively underwhelming “substitute” title fool you: Smith knows every note of the score, which is necessary when he has join the 50-plus-piece percussion section at a moment’s notice.

But Smith, 26, only spends part of his time playing for sold-out crowds on the Great White Way; the Haslett High grad is also occupied pretty regularly back here in Michigan, where he´s working on finishing his doctorate in percussion performance at the University of Michigan. (He received his bachelor’s degree from there before getting a master’s at Julliard.)

The idea of a pit musician commuting to Broadway from Ann Arbor might seem a bit unusual, but Smith makes it work.

“I´ve played eight shows so far and I´ve only been working on it for about a month,” Smith said. “But there could be a month that goes by where I only play once, so I need to keep it finely tuned and play it perfect every single time.”

Broadway does seem like a logical place for the son of a musical theater guru. His father has been an active part of the Lansing music scene for over 30 years.

“I´ve done 100 musicals since 1980, at Lansing Community College, Riverwalk Theatre, high schools, the BoarsHead,” said Smith, 63. “There was a point where I did six shows, one right after another. It was a great time.”

Jonathan Smith said his parents have constantly supported him in his pursuits, even as they’ve maintained their own musical careers. Smith’s father is the musical director for local variety show “The Evan Michael Show,” as well as for many local community theater performances. He’s also the leader of multiple smaller musical groups and the director of music at several churches. Smith’s mother, Janine Smith, is a private voice and scene class instructor at LCC, where both Smith and his father have accompanied her in her work.

“One of the reasons I´m so successful is because my parents have always had really high quality products in what they´ve done,” Smith said. “Having so many experiences, not only playing, but just being around them is what makes me a good musician. From really early on until now, I´ve been around probably every production they´ve put on.”

In addition to working on his doctorate, he´s also teaching a class at U of M and the band at Plymouth-Canton High School. He manages to do all this and still be able to hop on a plane whenever “Aladdin” summons him — at least most of the time.

“I just had to turn down the Wednesday matinee for ‘Aladdin’ because I committed to this show in Lansing,” Smith said. “At first it sounded strange to turn it down, but a commitment´s a commitment, no matter what production I´m doing.”

That “show in Lansing” is playing for his father in the Riverwalk Theatre´s production of “Godspell” (see review, above). What kind of a person chooses to perform in Lansing than in the pit on Broadway?

“We joked that he really lowered himself down to be playing community theater,” John Dale Smith said.

After his time at school is up, Smith is looking for even more ways to spread his talent.

“The future is great because as of right now I don´t know what´s going to happen,” he said. “For a freelance musician, if you´re bored, it means you´re not working.”

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