Meet the Music Director Teaching Kids How to Sing Like “Dog Man”

Courtesy TheaterWorksUSA

If you know any children between the ages of 7-12, chances are you’ve heard them rave about Dog Man, he’s the half-man/half-dog hero of Dav Pilkey’s eponymous graphic novel series. Although he’s committed to fighting crime, Dog Man often tends to attract chaos in his pursuit of justice. His approach to cases being as messy as what happens when a dog’s head is transplanted to a police officer’s body. 

Pilkey’s inventive series combines multiple genres and relies on simple illustrations to teach its young readers about the power of imagination and the importance of treating everyone with kindness, even those who sometimes fail us.

In 2019, TheaterWorksUSA produced a stage version called Dog Man: The Musical, featuring music by Brad Alexander, and book & lyrics by Kevin del Aguila. Although at first, I attended the show simply because I wanted to take a friend’s son – he’s a huge fan of the books – I found myself completely captivated by the production’s DIY aesthetics, the energy of the ensemble (so many BIPOC actors!), the references to classic Broadway shows (most of which most likely flew over kids’ heads), and the songs. 

I went to the show once more last summer, downloaded the cast recording when it was released, and there hasn’t been a day since when I haven’t sung “Go! Dog Man is go!” at the top of my lungs. 

This summer, TheaterWorksUSA is letting kids be part of the magic by hosting Dog Man: The Musical Camp, an immersive virtual summer program where children ages 8-12 can take part in the magic of the show. Participants take master classes with costume designers, set designers, and vocal coaches, leading to a digital opening night where parents can delight with a performance of highlights from the musical.

I have never resented being an adult as much as I did when I realized I was too old to attend Dog Man: The Musical Camp. 

Continuing TheaterWorksUSA’s commitment to providing equal opportunities to BIPOC artists both on stage and behind the scenes, I was keen to learn more about the camp from musical director, Jarred Lee, the 25-year-old gay Black man, in charge of introducing children to how to sing on stage. We spoke while he spent quarantine in London.

What does a typical day at Dog Man: The Musical Camp look like for you?

This has been definitely a learning process for all of us, because I don’t think anyone expected to have to be running a virtual theater camp this summer. But we’ve made the absolute best of it and our students are such a pleasure to work with. My job is teaching the music and how to perform that music with an instrumental track. For an adult or seasoned performer, it may not be that difficult, but our younger students tend to have some issues singing with an instrumental track that doesn’ have a vocal guide, or someone else singing along with them.

Within that period of time, I’m also able to throw in some really cool vocal tidbits about singing and posture, and other cool things that they can just add on to their summer plate of knowledge throughout the camp.

Courtesy of Jarred Lee

How did you end up working in Dog Man: The Musical Camp?

I got the job with TheatreWorksUSA when they were looking for musical directors. I was recommended to them by my friend Rachel, who I’ve worked with at Pace University. We directed a production of Guys and Dolls this past fall. When I got the job, I have to be honest, I didn’t know what Dog Man was. I’d never heard the book, but I listened to the cast recording and I immediately fell in love. 

It’s a kids’ show, but it’s honestly a lot of fun. Most of all, it was really cool seeing the kids interact with it and the connection that they have to this material. Seeing that alone definitely inspired me. I’m just having so much fun watching them love this material as much as they do. 

I can not get enough of this musical. I sing “Dog Man is Go” 24/7!

The writing of it is so catchy! My roommates here have all been singing the songs as well, just from hearing me teaching it. It’s just so easy for it to get stuck in your head. 

What’s a song that you particularly love teaching the kids?

I would have to say the opening number, and I know that sounds really cheesy because in your classic musical theater, the opening number is all about setting up the story. But I happen to love classic musical theater. I love that cheese, so that that song was definitely right up my alley. 

Courtesy TheaterWorksUSA

You’re 25 right now, what were some shows like Dog Man that you loved when you were your students’ age?

I should preface this by saying that my musical theatre background started very, very late in my life. I was a freshman in high school and they were having auditions for the big drama, which was Oliver! At the time, I was a sports guy, I didn’t imagine myself ever doing a musical and I ended up loving it. I started by trying it out for fun and here I am all these years later in my career doing professional musical theatre. 

I would have to say in terms of something similar to Dog Man, I think High School Musical might be that. High School Musical didn’t have the books that Dog Man has, but it had the movie which at the time was so relatable. 

I loved High School Musical too, and I’m much older than you. I wonder if you ever felt the need to justify yourself when you went from sports to theatre? Kids can be quite cruel with their peers who show any interest in the arts.

Throughout high school for sure, I definitely was able to manage doing both sports and musical theater because the schedules didn’t really conflict that much. There was a point when I got to senior year, or end of junior year rather, where I was starting to look at colleges and where to apply. At that point, I kind of stepped back from sports so I could focus on music. Even though music was something I had started doing for fun, I just kind of wanted to stick with it and see how far I could go.

Do the kids call you Mr. Lee, or Mr. Jarred?

It is so strange being a teacher and also being young. I’ve worked in so many situations where the students call you by your first name, and it’s super chill. I never mind but I  like to gauge it off of the vibe of the company. TheatreWorksUSA is a very professional company and right from day one, we were Mr. Jarred, Miss Lisa…every adult had a handle on it just because these are young kids and that’s what they’re used to. So for these kids I’m Mr. Jarred.

The other day a teenager called me sir and I clutched my pearls so hard I almost choked myself. Like you, I started doing what I love from a very early age so I want us to talk about mentors. As BIPOC people in the arts, we tend to grow up without any mentorship and especially without the mentorship of other BIPOC artists. People don’t expect a 34-year-old gay Latino to show up when they hear a theatre critic is coming and I’m sure when people think about musical directors they instantly assume it will be an elderly white man. To some of these kids, even at 25, you will be like Yoda! So when you were growing up did you have mentors? Or was mentorship, something that you craved? 

At this moment, looking back, I don’t really think I had much of a mentor in my life when it comes to music and theater, just for the sheer fact that my family is not a musical family. They’re all about sports. So when I kind of found that I was good at music, I kind of carved my own way and path to get to where I am.

Obviously I’ve had help from several people, but I can’t say that there’s been one person that’s kind of been around that I looked up to through the entire process. I do take the position I hold very seriously being  a gay person of color. I know for a fact that I am not what these kids are used to seeing, as a teacher, as someone working in musical theater, as someone playing a violin. That is not something they’re used to seeing. So it makes me feel so great to know that I might be the first person that this kid has ever seen, do what I do that looks like me.

Being able to change those stereotypes and what the norm is is great because this is the generation to do it with. It makes me really, really happy to know that I can have that effect on these young people. I think because of that, I definitely try to hold myself to a very high standard, not only when it comes to my own work and performance, but also just as a human, following rules and the law. I know eyes are on me so I want to try to be a good example for all these kids that I end up teaching.

I know for a fact that I am not what these kids are used to seeing, as a teacher, as someone working in musical theater, as someone playing a violin.

jarred lee

People never get to see the music director unless they’re working in the show. So giving visibility to positions like these, that again people never imagine anyone but a white man having is so exciting.

What I can tell you is that teaching was not something that I’d seen on my to do list as an adult. At this point in my life, I thought I’d be working a little bit more on Broadway full time playing in musicals. But a big chunk of my yearly income comes from teaching. I teach at an elementary school in Brooklyn, and also do short term projects at various elementary schools and high schools throughout the Tri State Area. I never saw myself as a teacher but knowing that I’m breaking those barriers for those kids is what keeps me in the career of teaching. 

What is one thing about being a music director that people get wrong, that even probably you didn’t know was true until you started doing it? 

I think a lot of people think the music director is just the guy who plays the piano. I’ve heard that quite a few times. I could go down the checklist of all the other things that we have to do [Laughs] There’s just so much more to it. At times I find myself being a life coach all of a sudden, because when you’re working with actors sometimes we’re in a one on one situation where you have that vulnerability with someone, and a lot of things can come up. All of a sudden, they’re talking about a home situation, because the song that they were singing really brought back a memory. So there’s just a lot of different hats that we have to wear while also being the guy playing the piano.

Because a lot of people assume that you’re kind of like a human karaoke track, right?

Oh, all the time. But what I’ve always loved about music directors is that I have seen them at work. They’re the people who sometimes convince the artists and the performers that this part, or this song, can be for them, and about them with a key change or with some tweaks and stuff. 

I wonder if you have any particular experiences where you’ve maybe rediscovered something about a performer and about yourself because of a slight change in a key?

The key thing happens quite often and it gets really tricky when you’re dealing with licensed work with changing keys because nowadays you have to go through the licensing company to request the key change. They send you all the additional orchestra parts in the new key. It becomes a bit of an ordeal rather than just having someone that can just do it on their own that’s on your team. But legally we have to go through the licensing agencies.

I worked on a production of Guys and Dolls at Pace University this past year, and our Nathan had a lot of difficulty singing the songs in the original keys. It was really, really messing with him. It wasn’t like sitting right, but he was so right for the part. So what we were able to do was change all those keys to make it something that would make him feel very comfortable and really in his body singing it. The day when we changed the keys he couldn’t even stop crying, he was just so happy. 

Luckily, because TheatreWorksUSA owns the rights to all of their shows, working in Dog Man has made life a lot easier for doing those types of edits. So far, we haven’t had to change any keys for the songs for our kids. But there have been several moments where a child is getting upset because they can’t hit a certain note. So I will do my best to coach them there. But sometimes it’s just out of their range, so what we do is we’ll create a track that’s in the same kind of range of what we’re going for. Watching these kids make that transition, they’re just so happy to know that we can modify the music to make them feel good and feel comfortable.

[Music directors are] the people who sometimes convince the artists and the performers that this part, or this song, can be for them, and about them with a key change or with some tweaks.

jarred lee

I wish I could be in this camp. Is there a piece of musical theater or a piece of music specifically that you wish that you could live in forever?

Okay, it’s gonna sound crazy, but I think it has to be my favorite musical, which is Wicked. That was the first show I ever saw on Broadway. It was the first Broadway album I ever listened to, right at the very introduction of musical theatre in my life.  I’d read the book, but when I saw Wicked on stage, I’m sure a lot of people have a similar story, but it was just such an out of this world experience. They made Oz seem like such an amazing place. 

Should parents and adults who might want to send their kids to the camp need to worry about their kids not being baby Audra? Is the camp welcoming to those of us who can’t sing to save their lives?

Oh, absolutely. I will say one of the things I’ve loved about this is the fact that we make every single child involved in our shows feel special. We find the place where they fit in perfectly, whether it be a little bit more singing, less speaking part, or more speaking parts with less singing. We’ve worked really hard to make sure that we can accommodate every child. We make sure they’re engaged the entire time during the camp process. 

You know, a lot of us have had our first online teaching experiences. I know my first was this past spring when everything was moved online on teaching music at my elementary school via Google Classroom. There are times where you’re not being spoken to directly and it is so easy to lose focus, and kind of just be staring at a screen which is, as you know I’m sure, absolutely exhausting. With this camp, we make sure that every second these kids are engaged and that they’re doing something so that they’re not bored. And that they can truly, truly have fun with the material. 

And the last thing I’ll ask you for now is: who’s your favorite character in Dog Man?

It’s got to be Petey. I love a good villain.

For more information on Dog Man: The Musical Camp go here.

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