When life is a mosaic: The musical journey of John Dale Smith


He doesn’t ever quit. Is he indefatigable? He ended 2019 by conducting three performances of the Riverwalk Holiday Cabaret concert and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.

Reviewing John Dale Smith’s life’s work in music, we see a constellation of starring performances — a musical mosaic that spans more than an entire generation.

The glue that holds every musical production together behind the scenes is its musical director and the pit orchestra. I can easily imagine Smith, waving his glue gun around like a baton, and then quickly holstering it to pound away on the piano keys.

The audience never witnesses this feat — pit orchestras and directors are tucked away backstage. And, truth be told, they do not capture the entirety of our attention. Worst-case scenario? Vocalists drowned out by the musicians. Best case?  When the musical direction and the musicians themselves are fantastic.

While City Pulse does mention them in reviews, and pulsar judges also acknowledge them, they do not get a level of appreciation equal to their contributions.

It is not likely that anyone has contributed more music to local theater than John Dale Smith. He became hooked on the craft while a junior in high school.

“It was ‘West Side Story’ and then, one year later, a Gilbert and Sullivan production. I was blown away by the caliber of excellence in the pit and onstage,” Smith said. “My first directing experience was as musical director for ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ at the Okemos Barn Theatre.”

Since that first job, Smith has been music director for productions in multiple theater venues. Lansing Community College, Riverwalk Theatre, several local high schools, Peppermint Creek, BoarsHead, and Spotlight Theatre have all called upon him to contribute.

And that’s without counting the churches. Smith’s the director of music at Plymouth Congregational Church and pianist for Catholic Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church/St. John Church & Student Center.

Does this suggest that Smith has a passion for his work? Smith smiles. “I don’t do musicals to make a living, I do it because I love the process. I love creating a final product that is close to professional.”

One senses that, perhaps, music is his proverbial higher calling.

“I do get bored at times repeating sections of music 16 times in rehearsals, but repetition is what creates perfection,” Smith said. “The interaction with the production team, the constant growth of the cast, the process, from auditions to closing night, seems so complete to me.”

Does Smith have a bucket list? His eyes light up. “Just ‘Les Misérables.’ It’s my belief that if we held auditions, 250 people would show up wanting to be in the chorus. That is an amazing compilation of songs.”


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