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Broadway stage not too big for Virginia Tech alumnus

Bryson Baumgartel, who has been playing the piano since he was a child, credits Virginia Tech for being a positive influence in starting him on the path toward a career in theater. Photo courtesy of Jacob Keith Watson

Many students enroll at Virginia Tech with well-placed desires of pursuing an engineering degree, using their math and science skills to design, test, and building machines that better society.

So, too, did Bryson Baumgartel ’14. But just a week into his first semester at Virginia Tech, he opted to strike a different chord and seek a rather unlikely course of study for a man of his mathematical aptitude. And in doing so, he decided to pull back the curtain on a new career plan.

Baumgartel’s decision to pursue a degree in piano performance from Virginia Tech led to him being front and center on the world’s biggest stage. In early October, the Ashburn, Virginia native made his Broadway conducting debut when he conducted the American musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” a show that tells the story of how three friends’ lives and friendship change over the course of 20 years. This musical originally premiered in New York City’s famous theater district 42 years ago.

For those in the theater and music industry, performing on Broadway often represents one’s biggest career highlight.

“It was really thrilling,” Baumgartel admitted. “I had been playing the show already for a few weeks, rehearsing with the cast and rehearsing with the orchestra through a few initial preview performances. Plus, I had conducted it as the associate music director from the piano off Broadway last year when it had its run in New York Theatre Workshop, so in a lot of ways, it felt like comfortable, familiar territory, having been sort of steeped in the music, steeped in the show for the better part of the last year.

“Everybody around me, all the musicians in the orchestra, all the cast were super supportive. Joel Fram, the music director of ‘Merrily,’ enthusiastically supported me and got me ready for my first conducting performance. So, a lot of people just made it easy and low stress. The first time, I didn't have the most fun, but the second time then the following week, I got to come back around to it with the confidence of having one in the bag and feeling a little bit more settled. I was able to remind myself to enjoy it and have fun with leading that incredible orchestra with incredible music.”

Good fortune helped Baumgartel land this Broadway conducting role with “Merrily We Roll Along.” He was working on another show, “Hercules,” in summer 2022 when Alvin Hough Jr., a good friend and mentor and a well-known music director on Broadway, emailed a small group of people about a matter related to Hercules. The group included Baumgartel, and at the end of the email, Hough told one of the recipients that he looked forward to seeing him in the winter for “Merrily We Roll Along.”

“I saw him the next day, and I was like, ‘You have to tell me what this is. What's your involvement? Because I love the show,’” Baumgartel said.

Hough informed Baumgartel that he wanted to hire him as an associate music director for the show. The process took some time because the theater and show producers were reluctant to hire for a non-playing role, but Hough and Baumgartel pitched them on the importance of having associates, particularly considering how the COVID pandemic had forced performance cancellations because of staffing shortages.

Eventually, the producers went for it, and Hough hired Baumgartel, which ultimately led to his Broadway conducting debut.

“So much of this industry is just sort of right place, right time and leaning on the people that you know,” Baumgartel said. “It’s just continually being somebody whom people will want to continue to work with and continue to be in the trenches with eight hours a day, six days a week.”

The performance marked the latest in an ascending career – one that can be traced to his time at Virginia Tech. He started studying and playing the piano at a young age, but stopped taking private lessons before going to high school to pursue other interests and only played casually until he arrived in Blacksburg.

Returning to it meant a lot of work simply getting his technique back, which he ultimately did under the guidance of Tracy Cowden, his applied piano professor and the former chair of Virginia Tech’s music department who now works as the director of UTSA School of Music in San Antonio. The relatively small size of the department back then afforded Baumgartel a lot of opportunities, too, and both his work ethic and communication skills won the trust of those around him.

Bryson Baumgartel and his fiancé, Emily Grace Tucker, posed for a photo on the red carpet for the Broadway opening of "Merrily We Roll Along." Photo courtesy of Michael Hull

“To do this sort of thing, talent is important,” said Travis Cross, a professor of conducting and music performance at UCLA who used to work as a wind ensemble conductor at Virginia Tech and taught Baumgartel. “Talent is sort of a baseline prerequisite, but what's more important is work ethic and the ability to build relationships, be a good colleague, and earn trust. Those sorts of things. Bryson always had that in abundance, and I think being a part of all those ensembles he did at Virginia Tech is a great way to build those skills.

“There are lots of talented people who don't have those skills and they don't succeed, especially in this field, so it's not a surprise at all that Bryson has been successful because he has those skills in addition to the talent.”

Baumgartel served as the music director for Juxtaposition, an all-male acapella group, while at Virginia Tech. Also, while at Virginia Tech – and thanks in part to a family connection – he secured an internship with Disney during his junior year with noted conductor and music director Michael Kosarin. He performed music assistant work on the pre-Broadway production of “Aladdin” with Kosarin, and that sparked his desire to pursue a career in theater.

That internship took him to New York City and to Toronto, where he performed such tasks as music notation input, keeping score up to date, and keeping departments updated with their current copies of music.

“I still had two semesters of school to finish up, and they wanted me to come back to New York to continue the role for getting ready to open on Broadway, and I had a hard decision to make,” Baumgartel said. “I needed to go back and finish school because I felt like if I took any more time away, I'd just never finish. It felt important to me at the time to see my education through to the end, and I didn't feel like I was maybe done learning everything that I needed there.”

Baumgartel graduated from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, though now the piano program resides in the College of Architecture, Arts and Design. After graduation, he worked as a rehearsal pianist and music assistant under Kosarin again, this time in “Beauty and the Beast,” which ended up taking him to London for six weeks and on an international tour throughout Asia and the Middle East for six months.

He later spent parts of four seasons working at Tuacahn Center in Ivins, Utah, where he landed his first job stick conducting a show and worked with Broadway-type talent. He also has worked for other regional theaters throughout his career and played auditions and classes at other locations, including in New York City. He subbed on the keyboard for “Aladdin” in 2018 and reached a big milestone when he played for the show on Broadway.

Those are some heady accomplishments for this 32-year-old former engineering major who expressed gratitude for Virginia Tech’s influence on his career.

“Virginia Tech was such a good fit for me, and I had professors who were just happy to meet me where I was and just take it in stride and work on getting my technique back into shape, getting my sight reading back into shape,” he said. “I really enjoyed just diving in 100 percent, studying theory history and piano pedagogy. I always tell people I don't think that I could have arrived the way that I did at many other schools, so I felt super lucky in that regard.”

Baumgartel, who now lives in New Jersey and is planning a wedding to his longtime fiancé, will remain in his role as associate music director for “Merrily We Roll Along” until next March. He hopes the producers extend the show, but if not, he remains optimistic about the next project, whatever it is.

He feels confident that his career hasn’t reached a crescendo just yet.

“I will miss ‘Merrily’ deeply when it is done because it has been so wonderful,” Baumgartel said. “But I’m also excited about the always changing aspect of this world. The next thing I will do will probably be totally different from this thing.”

Written by Jimmy Robertson