Reporting from the Broadway Trenches
by Jon Berger
I am often asked how you make it on Broadway.
The short answer is true passion, hard work, determination, and a deep reserve of patience.
I started playing drums at age two when I was banging on anything I could find in the house. Watching The Beatles’ 1964 American debut on live TV hit me like lightning instantly. I also saw the Boston Pops and was struck by their dynamic drum set player, Fred Buddah, who would also move over to the percussion section and I thought, “who is this man and how can I do all of that?”
These life-changing experiences left no doubt in my young mind that this was who I was.
My parents took me to a wide variety of concerts and events at Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, and on Broadway. I had formal lessons starting in the 4th grade with my band director, Joe Vasili, who had studied classical percussion. My Junior high band director, Danny Sciscente, had studied at the Manhattan School of Music. He became my private teacher and who I credit for my successful career. He got me started on timpani and mallets and insisted I study classical percussion in college. He had given the New York City music scene a go back in the 60’s and knew what I would be up against.
After high school, I chose to study at SUNY Purchase and was drowning in the intense theory classes (having only recently learned to play mallets to get into college). My mentor, Ray Desroches, and the Met Principal Timpanist, Dick Horowitz, both helped shape me into a complete musician. I also studied with New York session great Gary Chester, and was playing drums in a fusion and punk band. My goal was being a versatile New York session player.
SUNY Purchase Senior Recital.
After a grueling four years at SUNY I still had one theory class left to finish. I was really depressed. A classmate of mine recommended me for a tour of a Broadway show. This completely changed the course of my life.
"The night before my audition I started panicking. I was suddenly worried that the batteries in my tape recorder might not have been fully charged and was wondering if I had transcribed the vibe part into the wrong key."
After one of my tours my Mom mentioned an old friend of hers who was a top NYC contractor. He was kind enough to have me sit in the pit and audit the percussion book for Dreamgirls which was being played by legendary percussionist Nick Cerrato. The contractor had “unofficially” asked me to audition for a sub spot. I watched the show a bunch of times, made a recording, and picked two big production numbers from the show to play. However, I stupidly never asked for any of the music! I immediately began transcribing the tunes. I was confident I could now break into the NYC scene. The night before my audition I started panicking. I was suddenly worried that the batteries in my tape recorder might not have been fully charged and was wondering if I had transcribed the vibe part into the wrong key.
Jon's setup for the Off-Broadway production of Romeo and Bernadette.
I was incredibly nervous the night I played. The production number went ok, but the other tune I picked was the show’s huge hit song; "And I Am Telling You” sung by Jennifer Holliday. The number opened with an exposed vibraphone part and I was so nervous that the music looked like a blank sheet of paper. I played clam chord after clam chord — I was playing strong and wrong. Later, Nick told me it was not good. The contractor was not there but the next day he said he heard it did not go well. I was so depressed and convinced everyone was talking about how bad I played and was sure I would never work in NYC again. I had convinced myself that New York professional musicians never made a single mistake. This was especially how Dick Horowitz had taught me, “Get it right the first time” he would always say. Fortunately, I continued to tour throughout the US and Europe and also doing freelance shows and stints in NYC. I continued to stay on the road for the next 15 years and was feeling increasingly more confident about my playing but still telling myself “I am not perfect enough“.
In 1997, Ben Whitely (conductor for Cats on Broadway) and I were on the road together. He had recommended me to the Cats drummer, Ron Tierno, who gave me my first break subbing. I over-prepared despite having a very pregnant wife and having just moved into our first home. I nailed my first show and afterwards, one of the percussionists came over, gave me a big hug, and said, “Now that’s how you sub a show, you sound exactly like our drummer.” This percussionist was Nick Cerrato who I had crashed and burned in front of 15 years before. I told him my horror story and he fell off his chair laughing, he had no recollection of that night and said, “Never make a mistake ever? Welcome to Broadway“.
Jon in the pit of the Broadway production of Saturday Night Fever.
Six months later, the contractor who sent me on all my tours hired me to play timpani and percussion for the upcoming Broadway production of Saturday Night Fever. I also got to sub for our drummer, the legendary New York session man, Chris Parker. Playing along side New York’s best on both books helped get the word out on what I had to offer. I also got to work with so many Musical Directors who were playing or conducting in our pit. Since then I have played 23 Broadway shows most as a sub on kit and percussion. I did a medical leave on the Broadway production of The Addams Family for Damien Bassman, and had a few Off-Broadway shows of my own. Connections made early on, hard work, persistence, and learning how to coexist in the pit, has payed off.
"I worked on my shy and insecure nature. I also challenged my doubts by taking on books that initially seemed impossible."
I had previously met Chris Parker in 1987, at a jazz club he was playing in, and he gave me invaluable advice, “Every pro in this town can play, so get your people chops together. Leaders hire friends, people they know who will be fun to work with.” I worked on my shy and insecure nature. I also challenged my doubts by taking on books that initially seemed impossible.
Soundcheck for The New York Tenors.
After learning Next to Normal, the new Tom Kitt show, in only four days as a sub for the New York Musical Festival, both Tom and the Musical Director, Alex Lacamoire, started recommending me for work. Also, Alex got me to become the first drum sub on the brand new Broadway production of In the Heights. Andres Forero (Heights’ drummer) was dealing with many medical issues at the time and needed me ASAP. I learned that massive book in two weeks and played three out of the four weeks of previews while he recovered. I became his first call sub for the rest of the Broadway run. I also tackled Damien Bassman’s challenging African Drumming featured percussion book at The Color Purple. New skills were added to my bag. Damien then moved to the Broadway run of Next to Normal. Tom asked Damien to call me and I became his first sub.
Jon's, at home, "flight simulator" for In the Heights.
Yes, connections and timing are helpful factors to break into the scene, but I think the insane detailed work one must do to sound just like the show’s drummer is far more important. This includes detailed transcribing, regularly traveling to practice on their set ups, creating accurate “flight simulators” at home, and endless hours over-preparing. When necessary, taking lessons from masters on various styles and instrument techniques is also helpful. When learning a show it is not enough to simply learn the notes on the page. When we study the vocabulary and dialects of a musical language that each show calls for, it will start to come to life, as opposed to a perfectly executed yet mechanical performance.
Performing on stage in Noah Racey's Pulse.
All of this effort has not only paid dividends on Broadway but enabled me to play concerts and tours with some iconic artists such as Gloria Gaynor, Petula Clark, Aretha Franklin, Hiram Bullock, The Washington Ballet, The Ocean City Pops, and with lots of fun and creative bands and recording projects. Until COVID-19 hit, my Off-Broadway show, Romeo and Bernadette, was about to transfer to a larger theater with a union contract. We will likely return at some point in time. I have since built a home drum recording and teaching studio. I am continuing to hone my craft. I want to be well prepared for the time when we can start playing live music again.
My advice to all is follow your heart, never give up, and never listen to your doubting mind.
Jon Berger has traveled his entire life while simultaneously studying and absorbing a wide variety of musical languages.
He's played on 23 Broadway shows including Saturday Night Fever, My Fair Lady, The Donna Summer Musical, Hello Dolly, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Les Miserables, In the Heights, Jersey Boys, Next to Normal, and Cats.
Jon has played with Aretha Franklin, Michelle Shocked, The Roy Meriwether Trio with Bassists Harvie S., and Santi Dibriano, The Ocean City Pops, The Washington Ballet, and Brazilian Keyboard Master, Cidinho Teixeria.
He has recently worked with Gloria Gaynor, Petula Clarke, the Off-Broadway production of Romeo and Bernadette, and The Roy Orbison & Buddy Holly Hologram Tour.
Jon also presents Kids Outreach Workshops for Urban Stages, Master Classes, and teaches at an annual band camp.
Jon holds a BFA from SUNY Purchase.
He is a proud endorser of Paiste Cymbals, Vater Sticks and Mallets, DW Drums and Hardware, Remo Drumheads, and Drumtacs Sound Control Pads.
Performing with Gloria Gaynor at The Bitter End in New York City.
"Superboy and The Invisible Girl" from Next To Normal 2009 Tony Awards Nominations Concert.
Live at NuBlu NYC, with Diana Hickman.
Petula Clark Concert, Austin, Texas.
Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" with Dave Geist on Piano, and Dan Martin on Bass.
Master Class - Adding Spice To Drumming with Percussion.
10Kforte Podcast - Musicians Through Social Media.