The Musical Miracle of Darren Server

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With A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder currently on the Florida Studio Theatre stage, Sarasota audiences have been reveling in the madcap fun and homicidal humor of this Tony Award-winning musical, but none of it would have been possible without a little musical miracle from Music Director Darren Server. Whereas the original score calls for an entire chamber orchestra, Server’s herculean task was to condense the whole thing down to be performed by only three musicians—himself, Alexander W. Ravitz and Amber Svetik. Impossible? Not for Server. “If you look at an orchestra’s books, half of the orchestra sits there for page after page, just waiting to play three measures and then wait again,” he says. “In our production, they’re all working their little butts off.”

The process begins by listening to a CD of the score, following along with the conductor’s book, which contains every note from every performer, including the vocals. Here, Server identifies the most fundamental aspects that must be preserved. In this case, it’s the piano. “That was a blessing,” he says, because not only can he tackle that part no problem, but the octave range of the piano means the instrument can also cover for a whole host of string instruments, like the viola, cello and bass. “So I can eliminate all those immediately,” he says, and 12 parts becomes nine. Only six to go.

The percussion needs to stay, but doesn’t need its own dedicated performer, Server decides, and he’ll divide those duties amongst the eventual three. He’ll cover the majority. “I play the percussion with my right hand and play the left hand on the piano,” he says. “The effect is amazing.” And while he tackles the wood block, bells and bongos, the other two tackle wind chimes and finger cymbals. Down to eight parts.

Next, Server eliminates redundancy and isolates the vocals. In many musicals, he says, instrumentalists play the same melody that the singers are singing. While this may be beautiful, for Server it’s unnecessary. All of those parts can go. And not only does this progress Server’s goal, but also puts a spotlight on the vocalist, letting that part shine a little more.

With only five parts left, Server faces a particular challenge. Many instruments have “significant” solos in the original score, and the woodwind and string sections both represent themes in the play and need to be present. So Server extracts all of the solos and reallocates them to his piano, a clarinet played by Ravitz and a violin in the hands of Svetik. It turns the operation into something of a two-hour musical marathon for the trio, who sometimes performs multiple performances in a day. But them’s the breaks, says Server. “When you boil it down to three people,” he says, “they’ve all got to be working.”

And Server’s not done yet, still looking for a few spare bars here and there to insert a couple more notes for his performers. “We still have five more weeks,” he laughs. “I’m still writing stuff in their books.”

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is currently onstage at Florida Studio Theatre and runs through January 13.


Not Pictured: Darren Server, Alexander W. Ravitz and Amber Svetik behind the scenes and doing the work of an entire orchestra. Photo by Matthew Holler.

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