10 Questions for David Warrack

The most impressive display of sight-reading i ever saw? when David Warrack sat down with my piano vocal score of Candide and played the overture, up to speed, more or less perfectly.


David first performed on radio when he was five, and it’s been pretty much non-stop since then.   David has a varied career as a Composer, Conductor, Pianist, Vocalist, Lyricist, Librettist, Arranger, Orchestrator, Music Director, Director, Satirist, Comedian, Actor, Poet, Producer, Impresario, Bon Vivant, and Hockey Coach – he has truly done it all! And judging by his project board, “he’s only just begun”.

As a writer he has had fifty-two shows produced professionally and he has been Musical Director for over two hundred productions across North America, including Shenandoah starring John Cullum on Broadway.

He won a Dora Mavor Moore Award in Toronto for his production of Toronto, Toronto, and for outstanding Music Direction on the production of Closer Than Ever.

David is also the music director/conductor for the Canada Pops Orchestra.

Any given week there’s always something new and exciting.   This week,  it’s a CD release.  On the occasion of next week’s launch of the CD at Hugh’s Room, I ask David ten questions: five about him, and five more about the CD The Three Davids.

David Warrack

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

Interesting – I’ve never thought about this previously. I suspect it’s a two-stage answer. When I was younger, I would have answered (easily) my Mother. Much as I loved my Father, all the things that he did with such ease seemed totally beyond me. His business was Warrack Electric, so obviously he was an Electrician, but beyond that, he was a carpenter, a plumber, a painter, an auto mechanic, a builder, a businessman, and nothing seemed beyond him. My Mother was the one pushing for the piano and voice lessons (and, oh poor misguided her) the dance lessons! So we had an obvious point of reference. Dad would want to know how I was doing financially. Mom would want to know about the artistic “stuff” and personal aspects. But hey, it was a great balance. But she died at 62 and over the last 30 years of my Father’s life, I came to understand him much better and realize that much of my philosophy towards life came directly from this amazing guy. By the time he died, at 98, in 2010, I was determined to never stop trying to be as good a person as him.

2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being a jazz pianist?

I don’t think of myself as a jazz pianist. I think of myself as a pianist who is fortunate enough to work in every imaginable style. This past week alone, I had a Musical Theatre performance with Michael Burgess, a jazz performance with Jackie Richardson, a performance of the classics with Pat Rose, and an evening singing my comedy songs for a group of people so easily impressed that they found them funny. I enjoyed every experience equally. I do suppose the difference when one is playing jazz is the total freedom. Michael expects and deserves to expect a certain consistency in his accompaniment. Jackie loves the freedom within the context of the form, and that is what jazz allows. I bow my head in awe to the great jazz instrumentalists, and just consider myself fortunate that I get to work in this arena on an ongoing basis, since at the end of the day, it’s so damn much fun!! I guess the worst thing is that, because of the freedom inherent in the style, you are always questioning what you just did, what you are currently doing, and what you are about to do, and wondering what you can do to make it better.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

David Warrack and Jeff Hyslop

Wow. Who do I like to listen or watch? My tastes are so eclectic, that it is a very difficult question to answer. First and foremost, I love to watch people doing things I could never hope to do. Dancers. OMG. To have that control of your body. What a marvel. I saw the movie of Billy Elliot with my dear friend Jeff Hyslop. It’s like he was living his life through the film. Dancers are an awesome breed – so disciplined, so supportive of each other, so dedicated, so smart, and so deliciously transparent. It’s all there in the dance. One of my favourite songs I’ve ever written is “I Just Dance”, and, of course, I don’t. But I can only imagine what it must be like.

I love to listen to Tschaikovsky to try to learn how he can make the orchestra sound so magnificent. I love to listen to Bernstein, in awe of his equal mastery of melody, rhythm, chord structure, and instrumentation. I listen to Sondheim to learn how one must never take the easy path, to Mozart to wonder why I even bother to compose, to Bach to wonder what he would do if he were alive today, to Welsh Choirs to find the essence of a choir, to Pavarotti (still), to the two brilliant ends of the jazz spectrum (Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson) cuz of who there are and cuz 2 of my dear friends played with them (not to mention Oscar’s predecessor Art Tatum!), to Ute Lemper, to my pal (lucky me) Ben Heppner, to Weill, to Porter, to G&S, to Led Zeppelin, to Maureen Forrester (did we really work together all those years?), to INTO THE WOODS, to SWEENEY TODD, to anything of Verdi’s, to Copland, to Ella. And that list is only talking about Friday nights! I don’t even know where to draw the line.

I’m a huge sports fan (my younger son and I had season’s tix to the Raptors this past season). Live and die with the Leafs, the Jays, and the Argos. One of the few on the planet who still loves Tiger. Tennis blows me away, as does figure skating. Try to see everything new in town, in New York, in Stratford or Shaw that we can.

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I wish I could dance, not like the ballet or jazz or theatre geniuses, but my parents were magic on the dance floor. Not me! And I wish I knew how to make the world better.

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

I love to read, although I don’t get enough opportunity. On planes, I prefer best-sellers just cuz, but at home, I love history, biographies, autobiographies (!), and political treatises. Dinner with family or friends is high on the list. Enjoy golf, but I’m an awful player – don’t get out enough (or at least, that’s my excuse). We’re big fans of BLUE BLOODS cuz Len [Cariou] is on the show, but also because it’s well written and well acted. Not much else on tv.


Five more about The Three Davids,to be launched next week at Hugh’s Room

1) Talk about the challenges you face in reconciling so many different creative personas (a classical musician, a conductor, a jazz pianist, composer & writer of music theatre).

David Warrack and contralto Maureen Forrester

I have the joy and honour of working with the best of the best on an ongoing basis. I have different roles in different situations, and I honestly don’t think I have a favourite. What I love is the variety. I am certainly at home at the piano, performing or accompanying (two quite separate skills), but I also love being on the podium, as I know I can make it a good experience for the musicians and for the audience. I don’t really care whether it’s a classical concert or a Pops concert, it’s simply a marvelous place to be. I can remember one night with Maureen in a major U.S. concert where I was holding the orchestra, and turned to her to watch for when we should come in. I remember (Rubenstein called them “moments of eternity” where you not only remember what happened, but you remember precisely how you felt at that moment) thinking to myself, OMG – there’s M/F and here’s this awesome collection of musicians and here’s this sold-out concert hall, and I am on the stick. Wow-double-wow-double-wow! The consistent aspect for me is that if I am performing in a tiny space or a 3000 seat venue, I simply love the fact that I am allowed to be the one on that stage at that moment, and can think of nowhere else I would rather be.

There is a fact of life that certain musicians or singers have a prejudice for one particular style and assume since you bounce back and forth between disciplines you are not truly an artist but a jack-of-all-trades who really is not committed to any particular specific style or place. Guilty as charged. Because I am committed to them all. Whether I’m on the organ at church, the piano in a studio, conducting a choir or orchestra, writing a song or a script, doing an orchestration, or leading a singalong (!), I am in my element. I am not a legendary figure or a ground-breaking genius or a virtuosic master, but I am a consummate professional, and I’m good at what I do. I’m offered more work than I can handle, and when I accept a job, I defy anyone to say they don’t get the best of me, since I honestly don’t know how else to approach it. The song I wrote to tell my life story in 3 minutes concentrates on the fact that when I go back home to Calgary, they don’t much care what I do “out there”. They want me to pick up the guitar and sing country songs. And I do. And I love it. If I were to have to give up the writing, the arranging, the conducting, the piano, I would miss every single one, because they all contribute to what I would deem is my mission – to offer as much joy and passion and fulfillment through my music as I can to as many people as I can possibly reach. And I can’t imagine ever feeling any less committed to it than I do today. I just hope I’m allowed to continue what I do for a very long time.

Working on THE THREE DAVIDS project is an excellent example of what I experience. Stevie Vallance, who I knew from way back at the Charlottetown Festival, brought the idea to me of doing a show on the music of Frishberg, Shire and myself. I’m a huge fan of both of the other composers. And one of my Dora awards was for Music Directing Shire’s CLOSER THAN EVER, which is when I first met him. I jumped at the opportunity. We went over oodles of material, connecting up with Frishberg and Shire (both legends) for input. The idea was a jazz cabaret. But where to perform it. We did an evening up north, but still couldn’t find a locale that was right. We finally decided the best thing to do was record a few songs from the show and use that as a selling tool. We brought in Dave Young (!) on bass and connected up with Charlie Gray to do it at his studio. Recorded the first few songs fairly quickly, but Stevie had to head back to L.A. Charlie added himself playing trumpet on a couple of tunes, but that was as far as we got initially, and we all got busy doing other things. Nevertheless, we would pull the demo CD out every now and then and promise each other we had to finish it off. When the opportunity finally presented itself, with Stevie coming to town, we finished off what we had started. Charlie weighed in on a couple more tunes and we brought Perry White in to play on a couple of others. These are all magical people, which therefore didn’t surprise me when we got a magical result. We figured the CD was the best road to finally getting a production up onstage. We are releasing the CD here and then in New York in the fall, where we hope to do an expanded version of “the show”. Whatever happens, we are thrilled with what we have at hand.

Michael Burgess and Rebecca Caine

Of course, we are all working on various other projects simultaneously – I had two converging writing deadlines the week before last: Eva (a musical I have just finished on Eva Tanguay, the huge Vaudeville star, for producer John McKellar with Jim Warren directing and starring Nora McLellan) and A Snow White Christmas (which is written with the brilliant Norm Foster and opens at Theatre Orangeville in November). I was behind because I had just come off a 19-concert tour with Rebecca Caine and Michael Burgess across Canada (doesn’t get any better than that). And this summer I’m writing an Oratorio Abram which has its first presentation in Toronto in September. And on and on and on. It is all so incredibly exciting that I have to pinch myself and make sure it isn’t all a dream. As Gershwin said (did I mention him in who I like to listen to?), “Who could ask for anything more?”.

2) What do you love about this kind of music?

I would describe our recording as a jazz “take” on a selection of music which is not necessarily considered jazz. Frishberg has always been immersed in the Jazz world, but Shire and myself are undoubtedly more recognized for our theatrical writing, and one does not always speak of the two in the same breath. However, we have found that by choosing the right material from each composer, there is a definite sense that all these songs do indeed belong together, and make sense as an evening’s entertainment. Of course Frishberg and I normally write our own lyrics, while Shire generally has collaborated with the superb Richard Maltby Jr. We even considered calling the show THE THREE DAVIDS AND A DICK, but it was not a big vote-getter! Frishberg did collaborate on a couple of the tunes we chose (with legends) and we have even included a song that Frishberg and Shire wrote together! I’d refer to it as “soft jazz”. Definitely not cutting edge, but solid, mainstream, and entertaining. I’m delighted with the result, and look forward to this being the first step of getting the stage show on its feet.

3) Do you have a favourite song or composition on the CD? 

Favourite song? Tough one. We had a heck of a time reducing the total number of tunes down to a baker’s dozen. I did love the opportunity of doing Maltby and Shire’s AUTUMN as a piano solo. I don’t know if it’s jazz, but I sure had fun doing it, and got a lovely tip of the cap from Mr. Shire. All the takes make me smile, but one that stands out is our opening cut, “Back On Base”, from CLOSER THAN EVER. We started into it and I stopped, suggesting Dave (Young) and Stevie should do it without me on piano, just the two of them. It’s a tough number. They did an astounding job in one take. I love what Charlie (Mr. Taste) brought to bear on the songs he played for. “Another Night In Another Room” was written for Maureen [Forrester], and has been recorded by a number of people. But what Stevie does with it takes it to another level, and Charlie’s overlay is a study in “less is more”. Magic. And Charlie suggested Perry, and I can’t imagine the CD now without his contribution. What a master! By the way, at the launch, we will play the 13 tunes from the CD, as well as 7 others that were under consideration, and will certainly be seriously considered for the stage show if and when that develops.

4) How do you relate to this kind of music as a modern musician?

I am most comfortable in a theatre or a concert hall. I’ve never really been as much a part of the “club scene” or the “jazz world”. But when an Alex Dean (we have him in place of Perry at the release as Mr. White was otherwise engaged), a Charlie Gray, a Dave Young, a Russ Little, or a Bruce Harvey do what they do, there’s no place else I would rather be. The creativity, the atmosphere, the musicianship, the sharing, the giving, the excitement, the magical moments are astounding. Joe Sealy was performing recently and got so far into one number, I didn’t think it would end, and very much hoped it never would. I spoke to him afterwards and said, “You’ve always been special, but that was transcendent.” Those are the moments we live for. The jazz scene is not as strong as it used to be anywhere, and that is a terrible shame. However, things evolve. The new Jazz Bistro is a wonderful addition. But as long as any of us have the chance in a huge or a tiny venue (or anything in between) to “do what we do”, we’ll be there, and audience members will always find that particular world to be an ever-evolving magical place to be.

5) Is there an influence or a colleague that you especially admire?

I love and admire so very many people in this city, in this country and beyond that I have had the opportunity to work with (or not!) over the years. It’s even more difficult to single people out than choosing what I listen to, as the list is virtually endless. I have had a few awesome mentors who helped me get where I am, and I mentor young people at any opportunity as a way of thanking those who were there for me. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my wife Lona (pianist/conductor) and my dear friend Bill Bridges (guitar). They are heroes.

This is an answer to the 11th question., even though it wasn’t asked! Why am I so happy?

Because my childhood was bathed in sunlight, because my brother is a gem, because my wife takes my breath away, because I have three children beyond description and two them (plus their incredible partners) are about to turn us into grandparents, because my friends are such a blessing, because I continue to work in an industry that has been so good to me, because I have my health, and all my dreams came true, even a few I forgot to think of ahead of time!


The Three Davids release is celebrated in Hugh’s Room June 8th, featuring compositions by

  • David Frishberg
  • David Shire
  • David Warrack

And with lyrics and further music contributions by

  • Johnny Hodges
  • Jerry Mulligan
  • Jack Sims
  • Richard Maltby Jr.

L.A. based vocalist Stevie Vallance will be joined onstage June 8 by David Warrack  on piano, David Young on bass,  Charlie Gray, trumpet/flugelhorn and Alex Dean, sax/flute.

Hugh’s Room guests will be able to purchase the CD for a reduced price of $15.

If your name is David?  You pay no cover charge for entrance to Hugh’s Room, at 2261 Dundas Street West for the release of The Three Davids. For everyone else, it’s $25 at the door, $20 for advance purchase at (416) 531-6604 or www.hughsroom.com. Dinner served from 6 p.m. Music begins at 8 pm.

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1 Response to 10 Questions for David Warrack

  1. Pingback: (Q + A) x 300: questions and conversations | barczablog

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