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Conducting a win: Michelle Perrin Blair takes top prize with Revival Theatre production

Michelle Perrin Blair, shown here conducting the Coe College orchestra in Cedar Rapids, has won first place in the Ameri
Michelle Perrin Blair, shown here conducting the Coe College orchestra in Cedar Rapids, has won first place in the American Prize for Conducting-Musical Theatre for her work with Revival Theatre Company’s production of “Sunday in the Park with George.” The show was staged in November 2018 in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College. (Courtesy of Michelle Perrin Blair)
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Houston native Michelle Perrin Blair grew up attending musical theater productions, but as a violinist and orchestral conductor, most recently at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, she hadn’t had much experience conducting staged works until aligning with Revival Theatre Company for “Funny Girl” in 2016.

“It was just a fantastic partnership,” she said of working with the Cedar Rapids troupe, “so I just kept doing every show I possibly could.”

Unlocking a newfound passion, she picked up her baton for “Evita,” “Victor/Victoria” and “Ragtime” in the next two seasons, and played violin for “Chaplin” and “The Bridges of Madison County.”

But it was “Sunday in the Park with George” in November 2018 that connected all the dots for Blair to feel ready to enter the musical theater category for the 2019-20 American Prize in Conducting.

And she won.

The award was announced online June 29. It comes with a small prize of less than $500, she said, accompanied by immeasurable prestige.

In the habit of attending piano-only rehearsals about three days before bringing in the orchestra, she knew from the opening number that “Sunday in the Park” would be special.

“It just was stunning,” she said. “I was just really, really touched by it, and so I thought, ‘Let’s try this (competition) and see what happens.’ ”

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The rules required her to record the first act from both the orchestra pit and the audience point of view, on the same night. First, however, she needed to contact Music Theatre International, which holds the license to the show.

“They guard that very closely,” she noted, but she was permitted to make the recording — with no extra copies — send it to the competition, “then get rid of it,” she said.

Known for losing her keys “about once a week,” she nervously put the flash drive with the recording somewhere “safe” — and lost it. She turned her office and her desk “upside down,” and just when she had given up hope, months later found it in a bag of Christmas pencils from her former schoolteacher days. She plugged it into her computer, discovered it was, indeed, the missing recording, and cried with relief.

She said the prize “kind of validates” that she has grown in her musical theater work.

She admitted that when she first signed on with Revival Theatre, after being recommended for the job by then-colleague Loralee Songer, Blair felt “impostor syndrome.” She was sure that any day, Brian Glick and Cameron Sullenberger, Revival’s co-founders and directors, would discover that she didn’t know what she was doing.

She kept studying and learning under Sullenberger’s music direction, as well by conducting Coe College productions, and soon felt she was “OK” at this new gig.

“The American Prize just kind of validates that,” she said, adding that musical theater conducting was “something that I didn’t do a lot of before I came to Iowa, and that was an experience Iowa offered me that I might not have gotten anywhere else. And now I have a love for it that I really cherish.”

Collaborations

About a month ago, Blair, 33, her husband, Aaron, and their 7-month-old daughter, Johanna, moved to Dallas. They came to Cedar Rapids in July 2015 for her job opportunity with Coe, and have returned to their home state so Aaron could join his family’s expanding business, a European automotive repair shop he had helped his identical twin brother, Ryan, start seven years ago. The brothers have daughters about the same age, so it also was an opportunity for the girls to grow up together.

Blair said they loved their time in Cedar Rapids so much that they plan on visiting as Johanna grows, and Blair hopes to continue working with Revival Theatre when their schedules allow.

Sullenberger and Glick welcome the opportunity for future collaborations with her.

“What’s unique about Michelle, she really wants me, as musical director, to have what I want,” Sullenberger said. “Most of the time when you work with conductors, they pretty much just want you to do the heavy hitting, and then they’re going to change it and do whatever they want to do because they have the baton in their hand. This is what separates her: She didn’t ever want it to be something I didn’t want it to be.

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“She respected singers more than any person I’ve worked with that is in the instrumental realm. That’s what makes her so good, because the whole point of the show lies in the lyrics of the song, in many instances. If those aren’t clear and together, and you don’t have a balance and you aren’t going with the singers’ instincts from what they were taught from the music director, then it becomes a messy experience. It’s just not good,” Sullenberger said.

She worked with him diligently, late into the night, taking “copious notes,” and “was right there with me every step of the way,” he said. “She adored singers, and that’s why it worked. ... She wanted the production to be great. She wasn’t looking to do her own thing, yet when it was all said and done she did do her own thing, and she did it with professionalism and grace and musicality.”

“We’re always striving to produce the highest-quality art,” Glick, the company’s artistic director, added. “We do this by surrounding ourselves with artists who bring exceptional talents to the team. We want someone who understands what the musicians and the singers need so they are always at their best. She always comes in having done her homework. Michelle nurtured the relationships so the artists felt safe and comfortable performing with her at the baton. That made performers want to work with not only Michelle, but RTC. They were surrounded by the best.”

Both Glick and Sullenberger are thrilled with what the American Prize means for Blair and for the company.

“It just raises our circle of influence,” Sullenberger said. “That’s a wonderful thing. We’re excited for her, but it’s also a reflection on our work. That she would win that prize solidifies our place.”

“I could not be more thrilled for Dr. Blair and the (esteem) it brings to the company,” Glick said. “We’re all extremely honored and proud of the accomplishment — a reminder of how much we’re going to miss her.”

The future

As with all theater companies now, the timeline for upcoming Revival productions is in limbo.

“We have plans A, B and C,” Glick said. “Things are changing daily. We announced last month that we will not open back up until early 2021. Specific dates are (to be determined). Because we are a ‘floating theater,’ we are at the helm of other venues and their guidelines, as well as Equity actors and the union rules.

“So many variables are playing into each decision going forward. We are closely monitoring the data and the experts’ advice, as well as communicating with other theater leaders in our community and across the region to better assemble a plan. The executive board and board of directors meets twice a month over Zoom to keep up to date on where things are at. We will evaluate after Labor Day which plan will be best and go from there,” Glick said.

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“In the meantime, we are continuing to look at virtual performances and have some things in the works for the rest of 2020.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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