North Yarmouth Academy grad has hands full as music coordinator for Broadway and TV

Jan. 13—When Haley Bennett was working as a music assistant on the Broadway musical "Finding Neverland," she offered to teach one of the child actors to play the ukulele for a scene in the show, even though she didn't know how.

She thought back to her days in Ian Ramsey's music class at North Yarmouth Academy, where she was encouraged to try any and every instrument she was interested in, from Japanese flutes to steel drums and lots in between. She decided she'd just teach herself the ukulele, then teach the young performer.

"A lovely outcome of Ian Ramsey's class was that I got very used to trying new things," said Bennett, 30. "I ended up trying 10 different instruments at NYA. It's been really helpful in my professional career."

Bennett's ability to try new instruments and take on new challenges has been critical to her success. Bennett has spent the last eight years or so working on the music side of Broadway and TV shows in a variety of roles, working her way up from a music assistant — someone who does a little bit of everything — to music supervisor. In her various jobs, she's arranged music for orchestras, hired musicians, conducted on stage and performed on keyboards in the band. She learned accordion for one show.

Her latest Broadway show, "& Juliet," debuted in November and is currently running at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York. For that show, she plays keyboards in the band every night and also sometimes conducts. Sometimes, she conducts with one hand and plays keyboard with the other.

"It's such a crazy feeling to be at a sold-out show on Broadway, and there's my daughter, up there conducting," said Bennett's mother, Sandy.

Besides working on Broadway right now, Bennett is also music coordinator for the Apple TV+ series "Schmigadoon!," a parody of Broadway musicals that began airing in 2021 and has been renewed for a second season. Some of her other Broadway credits in recent years include "Diana, The Musical," based on the life of Britain's Princess Diana, "Come From Away," "Once on This Island," "Dear Evan Hansen" and "Finding Neverland."

Her other TV credits include associate music coordinator for "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert" on NBC in 2018 and music assistant for "Peter Pan Live" on NBC in 2014. While working on "& Juliet" on Broadway this past holiday season, she was also one of the music coordinators for the 39-piece orchestra at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in New York City, featuring the world-famous Rockettes.

She's also done work for the Ogunquit Playhouse here in Maine, including in the summer of 2021, when she was music director and conductor of the musical "Escape to Margaritaville," featuring the music of Jimmy Buffett. She has also worked with Buffett on "Tales from Margaritaville," a new musical for his Margaritaville at Sea cruise line. So she sometimes has to take the cruise — from Florida to the Bahamas — to check on the show and make sure it's ship-shape.

"I loved performing in school and when was I younger. But I think, for me, it wasn't really about the performance as much as it was about the community and collaboration and storytelling," said Bennett, who lives in Manhattan. "What I do now, on the music side of it, lets me be a part of all those things."

SINGING CAME FIRST

Bennett started singing before she could talk. She'd sort of hum or make up sounds instead of the lyrics. She was "very loud and perfectly in tune," her mother recalled.

Bennett, who grew up in Cumberland, began piano lessons around the age of 4 and then started taking ballet lessons. In school, she began playing flute as well. She started at North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth in sixth grade, and had Ramsey as her teacher through her senior year in high school. She graduated from NYA in 2009.

Besides trying lots of different instruments, she played in a steel drum band and focused on piano and keyboards. She also sang in school groups and choirs. When she was 10, Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick held auditions for local children for a production of the musical "Ragtime," featuring a professional adult cast. She got the part of a little girl with no name, but had vocal solo moments and lines.

"All the actors were from New York, and I could not have admired them more," said Bennett. "I fell in love with everything about it, the focus, the memorization, playing games with the kids in the cast."

Bennett continued to play music, sing and perform in musicals through high school. She was pretty sure she wanted to continue being involved in music but not necessarily as a career. She went to Harvard University and got a bachelor's degree in psychology in 2013, with minors in dramatic arts and French.

At Harvard, she heard about internships at the university's American Repertory Theatre, housed on campus. She applied for a choreography internship but didn't get it. Instead, she was offered an internship assisting the music supervisor for a production of "Porgy & Bess." Even after that, she wasn't sure she would pursue a music career. After graduating form Harvard, she taught sixth grade for a year at a school in Boston.

She was considering going back to Harvard, for a master's degree in education, when she was offered another position at ART, working with music supervisor David Chase on a production of "Finding Neverland," which later went to Broadway. Chase helped convince her to pursue a career in music, working on shows, and helped her line up some prospective work in New York City. One of the first shows she worked on in New York, as music assistant for Chase, was "Peter Pan Live" for NBC. She then worked on the Broadway version of "Finding Neverland," again with Chase. She's been working steadily ever since.

Chase, who has worked on dozens of Broadway shows, said he encouraged Bennett to consider music as a career. He said he too had loved music for years but had considered other careers, including in medicine, before deciding to pursue what he loved.

"I knew she had the passion for it, a knowledge of music and a skill set that would allow her to do a lot of things," said Chase.

KEEPING SCORE

Some of what Bennett does is behind the scenes, and some of it is out in the open, in front of an audience.

"Schmigadoon!" is a musical comedy TV series that is a parody of and pays homage to musicals of the 1940s and '50s. Stars Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key are a contemporary couple who find themselves stuck in a magical town right out of an old musical, with characters singing original songs and people dressed up like characters in "The Music Man." They can't leave until they find true love. The title is a play on the 1947 musical "Brigadoon," about two American tourists who stumble upon a Scottish town that only appears once every 100 years.

As music coordinator for that show, Bennett is responsible for keeping track of the score and what parts have been recorded, hiring musicians, conducting at recording sessions and some arranging of music. Bennett and the musicians work on the music in New York and then send it to Vancouver, Canada, where the series is filmed.

The new Broadway show "& Juliet" is a comedy musical about what might happen if Juliet, of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," had not killed herself. It's a jukebox musical, using existing pop songs, including "Baby One More Time" by Britney Spears and "Since U Been Gone" by Kelly Clarkson.

As the associate music director/conductor for the show, she conducts some nights and plays keyboards in the band every night. So she's at the theater for every performance, just like the actors. She sometimes conducts and also plays keyboard, using one hand for each task at times.

She's also conducted stage orchestras and bands for the Broadway shows "Come from Away" and "Diana: The Musical," among other shows. An actor with "Ragtime" in Brunswick showed her some of the basic conducting movements — including how to keep 4/4 time — when she was 10 years old. She feels like she's developing her own conducting style. She tries to be efficient in her movements and usually avoids big, sweeping motions or frantic movements.

"I try to do what I need to do to convey the feeling of the movement, make sure everyone is together. I don't want to be moving for the sake of moving," Bennett said.