Todd Ellison, the out gay music director of the Philly POPS, will be conducting “Hamlisch: With Love,” Jan. 17-20 at Verizon Hall. The show is a tribute to Ellison’s mentor, who he described in a recent phone interview as being someone “Instrumental in my life — no pun intended.”
Ellison majored in piano in college, studying classical music, but he claimed, “I’d always knew I’d do Broadway music.” Moving to New York after college, Ellison began playing shows as a pianist and worked his way up to become an assistant director and then a conductor.
He was the musical director for the 2000 Broadway show, “The Wild Party,” starring Mandy Patinkin, Eartha Kitt and Toni Collette. The musical ran for only two months, but it was nominated for seven Tony Awards. It also paved the way for Ellison to work on “42nd Street,” “An American in Paris” and “Spamalot,” among other productions.
Ellison is enjoying his current tenure as musical director and principal conductor of the Philly POPS, which began July 1, 2019. The 2019-2020 season consists of seven concerts a year plus Christmas, and Ellison will conduct five of the shows. Selecting the music is a group effort, and he enjoys the process.
He acknowledged, “What I found is that if there’s a personal connection to the music that is chosen, it is easier to speak about it. If a singer performs ‘Our Love Is Here to Stay,’ and they’ve never been in love, it’s a dud. But if their heart is broken, audiences will be so much more moved. It makes it deeper, a better concert. In my POPS Christmastime concerts, I wanted to figure out a way to bring the audience into it, so they were not being sung at, but participating.”
The draw of the POPS for both Ellison and audiences is the opportunity to be bathed in a wall of glorious sound. “I have a 65-piece orchestra at my disposal with 44 strings and a brass section playing at you. I feel lucky being surrounded by wonderful music. That doesn’t happen anymore on Broadway.”
He observed, “Broadway, when I started out, the shows had orchestras of 24 and 26 people. And I did ‘An American in Paris’ with 19 in the pit. I did a mini-version of ‘La Cage’ that had 8, and they are now turning into 5-piece rock band groups. That didn’t appeal to me.”
Ellison developed his appreciation for Broadway and show tunes as a kid. He joined the Columbia Record and Tape Club, where members got 13 albums for a penny. After selecting the Moody Blues, the Carpenters, and Elton John, he found a soundtrack to “No, No, Nanette.” He chose it because, he admitted, “It had a racy cover.”
He continued, “When it came, I put on the overture, and I got goosebumps. To this day, when I hear the overture, it puts me in a great mood. Knowing your style and saying in your overture: ‘This is what you’re getting: nothing but fabulosity!’ I started immersing myself in the Broadway canon.”
The lifelong engagement has paid off handsomely. Ellison has worked with the grandson and daughter of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and has conducted 17 Broadway shows and is presently working on two more.
He also worked with gay singer-songwriter Barry Manilow on his musical, “Harmony.” He effused, “I learned a lot working with him. You pick up things from everyone you work with. It was great to work with one of my idols. I also got to work with Elton John, which took gay to a place you couldn’t believe. Everything was over the top.”
But it is Hamlisch whom Ellison admires above all others. “He is the Gershwin of his generation. He wrote songs that are timeless.” Ellison credited Hamlisch with pushing him into POPS.
To thank his mentor, he has Ashley Brown, who played “Mary Poppins” on Broadway, singing Hamlisch songs from the classic, “The Way We Were,” to “No More,” from the musical “The Goodbye Girl.” In the January show, Ellison also promised music from Hamlisch’s movie scores from “The Sting” and “Sophie’s Choice,” as well as a suite from the film “The Informant!” and Hamlisch’s score from “The Nutty Professor.”
He added, “I’ll tell stories about his life and my interactions with him. It’s the most personal thing I’ll ever do.”
Ellison also plans to sing, but he claimed, “I am not a singer per se, but I have sung with the POPS.” He explained, “I did a duet during Broadway week, and at Christmastime, there was a song I wanted to do, but the person couldn’t sing it. I didn’t want to lose the song, so I sat at the piano, and the orchestra played. It was fun. We did 12 performances, but I was so tired of having to protect my voice. I don’t want to be that person who has to rely on their instrument like that. But I can sing a song and have fun with it.”
That said, or that sung as it were, Ellison won’t be found hanging out at piano bars anymore. The conductor lives in New York with his partner of 15 years — an actor he met during “42nd Street” — and their two kids. The proud papa explained, “We did surrogacy, so one child is biologically his, and one is biologically mine. They love music.”
If either of Ellison’s children goes into music, they will have a good foundation because Ellison understands the power of song. Moreover, he gets tremendous joy in sharing music with others through POPS and Broadway.
When asked about catering to gay men who love show tunes, he demurred, “You celebrate it together because the show tunes of the ‘30s ‘40s and ‘50s made it into the soundtrack of our lives. The American songbook — Gershwin and Porter sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Now it’s ‘Dear Evan Hanson’ and ‘Rent’ and the rock shows.”
But for Ellison, it is also Barry Manilow, Bette Midler and Billy Joel. And of course, Marvin Hamlisch.
“Hamlisch: With Love,” Conducted by Todd Ellison at Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, Jan. 17-19, 2020. For tickets and more information, visit https://www.phillypops.org/concerts-events/2019-20-tops-pops-season/hamlisch-love.