Paguia, who is the musical director and conductor of Scott Brown and Anthony King's musical, also plays keyboards in the show's onstage band. It entails much interaction with the comedic co-stars. The nature of those interactions, both scripted and not, challenges Paguia to "not completely lose it laughing."
On Broadway Paguia has also been the music director, conductor, and/or keyboard player for Girl From the North Country, Peter and the Starcatcher, Everyday Rapture, SpongeBob SquarePants, the 2017 revival of Sunday in the Park With George, Tuck Everlasting, If/Then, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Addams Family, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Paguia reveals why Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story was a turning point in his career and shares his thoughts on the musical Buena Vista Social Club, which was just extended Off-Broadway (Paguia is music director, orchestrator, and arranger).
Where did you train/study?
Marco Paguia: I have a Bachelor of Music from Northwestern University.
Was there a teacher/instructor who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this person stand out?
I've had many teachers and mentors in my formative years as a musician, it’s hard to single any one person out. But the first piano teacher who introduced me to jazz was an incredible musician named Kevin Gainer. He taught private lessons at the Jack Benny Center for the Arts in Waukegan, Illinois. I had only played classical piano before taking lessons from Kevin. He completely changed my relationship with making music, showing me the infinite possibilities improvising at the piano. I spent the next few years learning as much as I could from him, listening to every recording he suggested. This was pre-internet, pre-YouTube, so anything you wanted to learn about playing your instrument came from teachers and other musicians.
What are the duties of a music director/conductor before a Broadway show opens and after the show opens?
The work of an MD typically begins years before a show opens on Broadway with readings, labs, and pre-Broadway productions. Once the show has a Broadway theatre, there's a lot of pre-production work—giving input on casting, assembling a music team, and prepping music for the start of Broadway rehearsals. I work with the composer, arranger, orchestrator, music coordinator to staff the music department with rehearsal musicians, orchestra musicians, copyists, and programmers (depending on the technical needs of the show). Adding the orchestra is the last piece when the show moves into the tech and preview process. A lot of work continues with the creative, design, and production teams as we continue to refine the show.
After opening, my job as the MD shifts to managing the music needs of the production over the eight-show week. We work with understudies, sub musicians, new cast members, etc. Once the core creative team members depart from the day-to-day, I deal mostly with the production stage manager and company manager.
Along the way, I'm involved with other events outside of the shows, like press events, TV appearances, and potential Tony performances and cast recordings.
In Gutenberg!, the band is featured on stage. What are the challenges/rewards of being in full view of the audience?
Onstage at Gutenberg!, the constant minute-by-minute challenge is to not completely lose it laughing because of Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells. They are so gifted. On a given night there might be a slightly new take on a line, or some weirdness in the audience that the guys might bring attention to. On Halloween night, a huge DJ party bus/pedicab parked right outside the James Earl Jones Theatre during a quieter, more tender moment during the show. Josh kept referencing it in real time, incorporating it into the scripted moments, and I was crying from laughter.
The reward of being in full view of the audience is that the band really feels part of the show. I’ve been on stage and in costume on my last few Broadway shows, and I love that it really forces me to be present in a way that sitting in the orchestra pit does not. The onstage band, “The Middlesex Six,” gets to interact with Josh and Andrew quite a bit, and have some memorable gags. It's incredible to see how deft Josh and Andrew are at navigating different audiences each night. Each night, they are giving a master class in comedy.
Can you share a favorite onstage moment from this production so far?
We have a cameo guest producer every night at Gutenberg! So many people I admire have come onstage with us, but Steve Martin and Martin Short's appearance might have been the most is-this-really-happening moment for me. They came backstage at intermission to talk through their onstage moment, and our brilliant director, Alex Timbers, told me that they had an idea for a bit. Martin Short was going to call for a line, and I was going to feed it to him on stage. It was surreal.
After the show, I got to meet and chat with them for a moment. Every night at Gutenberg!, I introduce Josh and Andrew's characters (Bud and Doug) at the top of each act. Steve and Martin told me they thought my bits were great and that I was funny. I’m grateful to be part of this show for moments like this, and especially thankful to Scott Brown and Anthony King for the hilarious lines.
What do you consider your big break?
I wouldn't say there was one big moment that is responsible for where I am now. I've had a series of gradual steps forward in my career; I feel like I've been diligently working my way up through the industry, learning as much I can along the way, trying to remain curious and open to all kinds of shows and experiences. But what really felt like a turning point for me was playing piano for Steven Spielberg's West Side Story film.
I started as a sub dance rehearsal pianist for the film. From there, after weeks of playing with the creatives in the room, I was asked to play on the scoring sessions with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. It's impossible to really prepare for a moment like that. I was nervous at first, surrounded by world-class musicians, and the score was not something I had a long history with. It was hard not to be intimidated by the many legends in the room. But I had 20 years in NYC as a professional musician to fall back on. I was able to settle in, and had an incredible experience recording and am extremely proud to have been a part of the stunning film and soundtrack.
What is the most memorable day job you ever had?
I briefly worked at a temp agency when I first moved to New York. One of the first gigs they sent me on was passing out freebies to the first few thousand fans at a New York Liberty game at Madison Square Garden.
Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
I have so much respect and admiration for Saheem Ali (director of Fat Ham). I have been working with him over the last few years on two new musicals, Goddess (by Jocelyn Bioh and Michael Thurber) and Buena Vista Social Club (book by Marco Ramirez). Both of these musicals are very music and musician-forward. It's refreshing to be working with someone who cares so deeply for the importance of music and the music makers. Saheem is brilliant, incredibly gracious, and a gifted leader. I’ve never seen him raise his voice or use negativity as a directing tactic. And the artists in the room are free to bring themselves into the work. Working with him has helped me find my own voice as a leader in the room.
What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
Confidence comes from doing. Preparation is important, but that alone doesn’t give you confidence. You can draw from a previous experience to give you the confidence to get through a new experience.
I was a sub conductor on the recent Lincoln Center Theater production of Camelot. I had never conducted at Lincoln Center, and had never conducted an orchestra of that size (30 pieces!). And for all orchestra subs, including conductors, there is typically no rehearsal before you do your first show. I just had to stand on the podium and do it. And each time I got up there, I felt a little more calm and confident. No amount of preparation would have given me the confidence that the doing gave me.
What is your proudest achievement as a musical director?
There are so many productions I have been proud to work on. I’m very excited for the work I’m currently doing on Buena Vista Social Club at the Atlantic Theater. It's a special kind of show where I feel that my unique set of experiences and talents are being used to the fullest. It’s not just about what I bring as a musician, but also as a leader in the room. The talent onstage and offstage is astonishing, and I'm so proud to be part of the creative team bringing this incredible story and music to the stage.