The Stockton Record, July 17, 2011
Civic's Coleman a prodigy from the start
Stockton Civic Theatre Artistic Director Jim Coleman, watching the cast rehearse a scene in June from the hit musical “42nd Street,” has a renowned history on Broadway, working with the likes of Angela Lansbury, Leslie Uggams and Patti Lupone. “I never thought of it as being a step back,” Coleman said of his move to Stockton. “I wouldn't have gone to just any community theater. This community theater is different to me.” CLIFFORD OTO/The Record By Lori Gilbert Record Staff Writer July 17, 2011 12:01 AM
The easy smile and upbeat demeanor of Jim Coleman these days doesn't stem from the success of his current Stockton Civic Theatre hit, "42nd Street." The artistic director of SCT since 2005 always bubbles with enthusiasm when he's in the theater, whether he's directing, conducting the music, playing the piano or telling the audience where the emergency exits are located. He was to the theater born, and long before he was raising the quality of local productions or shaking up the status quo by bringing in cutting-edge material like
"The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and "The Full Monty," Coleman enjoyed a 30-year professional career as a director and musical director on Broadway and national tours, a part of 96 different musicals and operas. "I've been very fortunate," Coleman said. "I've worked with some great people. I've worked with some not so great people. I could write a book, but I have to wait for a few more people to die." Actually, the 65-year-old Coleman has quite a tale to share even if he doesn't dish the dirt, beginning when he was hired at 16 to play the piano for a dinnertheater production of "The Fantasticks" at Santa Rosa's Flamingo Hotel. He'd been something of a musical prodigy. At 6, when his family lived in Stockton, he'd come home from church and pick out the hymns he'd heard on the piano, prompting his mom to sign him up for lessons. "He really flourished," said his sister, Nancy Bowles. "His teacher told my stepdad he was the best person he'd ever worked with. He said he was closer to pitch perfect than anyone he'd ever known." Music was his first love, but he majored in that and theater at Northwestern University. Not long after graduation, in 1973, he made his way to New York, invited by a friend who had a spare bedroom and guaranteed that those with talent got work. Within a week he was making $80 a month playing at the equity library theater, which was run by the union. The bonus was being discovered by industry people who attended shows looking for young talent. Coleman found fairly steady work, but being musical director Paul Gemignani's assistant for a summer tour of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" proved to be the most fortuitous. When Gemignani was working as the musical director of "Sweeney Todd" on Broadway, he called Coleman to encourage him to audition for that position for the planned national tour of the show. "I'll send you the music for the first half of the first act. You can come to the theater and hang out and when you're ready, we'll put you on for a Wednesday matinee and a Wednesday night," Coleman remembers Gemignani telling him. Coleman showed up and, without rehearsal, was thrown into the orchestra pit to direct the music. He was terrified, but the show's star, Angela Lansbury, liked his work and he was hired for the tour.
Six months later, with auditions for the cast under way, he was sitting with director Harold Prince and Gemignani when Prince asked Gemignani to take over as musical director of "Evita," the other show he was directing at the time. "We're eating lunch (at 'Sweeney Todd' auditions). I remember I'm eating a tuna fish sandwich," Coleman said. "This was a Wednesday. He looked at me and said, 'Can you take this over on Tuesday?' 'Sweeney Todd?' 'On Broadway?' I said, 'Yes.' Well, I only knew half of (the score). I spent the whole weekend in the theater and the next Tuesday night he was at 'Evita' and I was in the pit, with no rehearsal, opening my first job on Broadway." "That's what youth will do for you," Coleman said. It carried him through the final three months of "Sweeney Todd's" Broadway run and the 16-month national tour, which ended in Los Angeles, where it was filmed for television. "Sweeney Todd" led to more Broadway productions, including a revival of "Mame," with Lansbury; a Lincoln Center revival of "Anything Goes," first with Patti Lupone and later with Leslie Uggams; and national tours. While conducting a show at New Jersey's Paper Mill Theatre, located about 30 minutes from New York City, Beverly Sills saw him and asked him to conduct for her at the Civic Opera. At his debut there, just as with his Broadway debut, his parents were in the audience. "They never said, 'Don't you think you ought to be a school teacher? Don't you need to have something to fall back on?' " Coleman said. They let him pursue his dream, which he did until one of the few rejections of his career, the job as musical director for the national tour of "Titanic," prompted his departure from New York. "I was really led to believe it was going to be mine," Coleman said. "Then I found out that the musical director who was doing it at the time wanted somebody else. It would have been OK, but the person who ended up with the job was not good. When I saw the show, it was terrible. I thought, 'This is a sign.' It broke my heart. I thought, 'OK, I don't need this anymore.' " The setback made it easier to take the SCT job, to move to Stockton and reunite with his sister, who'd raised a family here and been an active backstage volunteer at SCT for years.
"I never thought of it as being a step back," Coleman said. "It's theater, and I love theater and I love talent and I love nurturing talent. I love the creative process. I wouldn't have gone to just any community theater. This community theater is different to me. When I walked in the door, there was a sense of history, of caring, of talent." Coleman isn't just uttering platitudes. His love of SCT is evident in his commitment to the shows and the relationships he's formed. "Jim is really a consensus builder," said veteran director Al Muller, who was on the board that hired Coleman in 2005. "To create a positive environment is work." It's something that seems to come naturally. "My uncle Jim has always been one of those people that everyone loves. He's humble and has a very quick wit, but then you hear him play the piano or go see one of his shows or watch him at rehearsals he just leaves you in a state of awe," said his niece, Cindy Bowles-Aspevig, who with her friends flew to different cities, beginning in 1997, to see Coleman's national tours. His approach is to focus on the story being told, and the individuals involved. "He's great because he sits down and really talks at the beginning of rehearsals about what the story is," said Dominee Muller Kimball, who first acted under Coleman in "The Producers." "He brings the cast together and asks, 'What is the story we are going to tell?' It's all about communication, talking to each individual in the cast. The cast could be 35, but he still connects with each one of us." James Haffner's University of the Pacific opera students who performed Steven Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" got the same individualized attention. "What was exciting was he brought his score with Sondheim's markings, all the corrections, all the notes," Haffner said. "We not only benefitted from his expertise, but to have that in the room was fun for me. I think he came to every performance. The kids loved him." As with his SCT actors, Coleman taught the students about their characters at the same time he taught them the music and lyrics. It's an approach that amazed fellow musician and conductor Paul Kimball, who said he's a better teacher because of his association with Coleman. He's further inspired by Coleman's piano playing, particularly during the pops portion of the St. John's Church chamber festival the two conduct.
"He's the big draw," Kimball said. "He sits down and plays the daylights out of the piano. He never practices. He just sits down and plays. He's a virtuoso piano player. And he's very giving as an accompanist." Coleman's piano playing can make a singer feel as though she has a full orchestra backing her. He provides a similar level of emotional support for other performers. "When we directed ('The Spelling Bee of Putnam County') he was the musical director and played the piano in the orchestra," Muller said. "He was very supportive of me and complimentary of the way I approached the directing concept and characterization. He's just a supportive guy." Coleman lets directors of all experience levels have a free hand. "He's very nurturing, very accommodating," said Melissa Esau, a veteran actor Coleman encouraged to direct. "He said, 'You're ready, you're going to do ("I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change").' He was my musical director, and he never once said, 'You shouldn't do that or you should do that.' He kept his mouth shut. He did the music. He never said anything unless I asked." Trying to serve as artistic director and business manager of SCT proved too much for Coleman and he had to take a brief leave in 2010. It resulted in the hiring of a separate business manager and meant that when Bobbie Wallinger directed "Hats," she didn't have Coleman to guide her through her directorial debut. Still, she raves about him. "He doesn't rest on the laurels of his previous accomplishments on Broadway," said Wallinger, who acted for Coleman's "Guys and Dolls." "Every show and every leading lady is as important to him now as Angela Lansbury or Patti Lupone or the other actors he's worked with. I think he has the ability to make you think that you can do a much better job than you can, so it comes to pass." Bringing out the best in others is only part Coleman's lore. "He is just a good guy," Wallinger said. "When you're that talented, I don't think it goes together automatically to be a good guy, but he really is."