NEW YORK – Tim Stella works six days a week in the pit of Broadway’s longest-running show ever, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “The Phantom of the Opera,” which recently celebrated a milestone of 1,100 performances at the Majestic Theater on West 44th Street.
On Sundays, Mr. Stella puts aside his Broadway baton and turns liturgical as the musical director of two Catholic churches: St. Peter Claver in West Hartford and the Church of St. Patrick in Farmington.
Mr. Stella took time out to talk at the Majestic Theater, where he was sitting in an orchestra seat in an empty theater after a sold-out matinee.
“I love what I do here,” he said, looking at the darkened stage. “I have been working on this ‘Phantom’ for 18 years. I’m the associate conductor on some days and other days, I play the keyboard. It can get repetitious, playing the same notes night after night, even though every audience is different. But that’s what I get paid for.”
The church work, on the other hand, “is wonderful therapy” because he can do something new every week.
“Depending on the liturgy, I can be creative and spontaneous. Sacred and religious music draws on people’s emotions in so many different ways, whether it’s for joyous occasions, funerals or seasonal holidays. There is something powerful and heartfelt that people take out of the church and bring home with them. Hopefully, it makes them want to come back the next week.”
Mr. Stella said his interest in church music was sparked at St. Peter Claver in 1973.
“St. Peter Claver’s been a home for me, except when I was on tour conducting ‘Evita’ – another popular Andrew Lloyd Webber work – where I met my wife Florence Lacey, who was playing Evita Peron,” Mr. Stella said.
Ms. Lacey is one of the most talented musical voices in the theater. Besides singing Andrew Lloyd Webber, she has worked with composer Jerry Herman in “Hello, Dolly” and “The Grand Tour,” and was most recently in the New York revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” he said.
When the “Evita” tour ended, Mr. Stella said, one of their first dates was a trip to St. Peter Claver. “Then I drove her through Farmington and she said, ‘I want to live here.’ We were married at St. Peter Claver’s 26 years ago,” he said.
“Flo sings in both my church choirs and on some Sundays, we do up to five Masses, ping-ponging between the two churches, since they are just a few miles apart.”
Mr. Stella’s interest in music began early. His father was a World War II B17 pilot. When he returned home to Connecticut, he bought a piano and some self-teaching piano lesson books. The young Mr. Stella, at age 4½, tried to decipher them. His parents found him a teacher, and as a result, he said, “I’ve been playing the piano every day since I was 5. I later taught myself how to play the organ. I played at St. Anthony’s grammar school in Bristol, where I was also an altar boy. At 9, a nun found out I played the organ, so they booted me up to the choir loft. That was the end of my altar boy days.”
He got involved in theater music while at the Hartt School of Music, the arts conservatory of the University of Hartford. A local high school asked him to conduct a production of Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls”; it was the first show he served on as a musical director. He worked on the Nathan Lane 1992 Broadway musical revival of “Guys and Dolls,” and another production of a Frank Loesser show, “The Most Happy Fella,” a production that started at the Goodspeed Opera House and transferred to New York for a run. Mr. Webber’s works “Evita” and “Phantom” have kept him busy for several decades.
In assembling the two church choirs, Mr. Stella uses the standard Catholic approach. “I use a volunteer choir model,” he said. “I feel that is important because it establishes a core spirit in a parish. If you can get everyone on the same page with an amateur choir, you can get extraordinary results. At both churches, we have large impressive choirs that we have built and built over the years. I also have a wonderful cantor, Marion Maccarone, who leads the choirs in both churches.”
How different is his approach with the local amateurs after conducting Broadway pros all week? “My approach is basically the same,” he said. The main difference is that he only has to tell a professional something once; with an amateur, “you have to be patient and go over and over a point.”
He tries to find music that people enjoy singing, such as “Here I Am, Lord” and the old chestnut “How Great Thou Art.”
Every Christmas, Mr. Stella stages and orchestrates special concerts that sell out at each church. Last November, he also did a Stephen Sondheim “Symphonic Sondheim” evening at the Bushnell Auditorium with the Hartford Symphony, featuring some “Phantom” singers such as Hugh Panaro, Lisa Vroman, Ron Raines and, of course, Ms. Lacey.
Mr. Stella said his proudest moment came at the end of the concert, when “50 voices from my two church groups joined the cast and ended the program with the finale of Act One of Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George,’” he said.
“It was a thrill for them and a thrill for me to link my church singers together with my musical theater weekday job. It was the ideal concert finale.”