Chatback with Michael Orland

Acclaimed musical director and pianist, Michael Orland is currently on the road accompanying the beautiful and equally gifted, Kristin Chenoweth on The Art of Elegance tour. When he’s not traveling the country you can find him collaborating with other industry giants and helping aspiring artists launch their careers. Orland has worked on numerous television projects including NBC’s Little Bigshots, America’s Got Talent, American Juniors and Fox’s hit series, American Idol. Orland is also the music director for the annual stage production of the touring company of The Radio City Christmas Spectacular and The Lythgoe Family Pantomimes in Los Angeles. Chenoweth and Orland will make their return to Southern CA at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, April 15th. I got to chat with the virtuoso recently about his love for the piano, working with Kristin & more!

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At what age did you learn how to play the piano?

When I was 3 years old I saw the movie Mary Poppins and started playing the songs by ear on our piano at home. At 4, my mother took me to a piano teacher. I was one of those kids that loved to practice. In fact, she would would make me stop playing to do my homework. My piano teacher would only teach classical music, which I’m so appreciative of because it’s the basis for all music. I remember thinking classical is so difficult but it did make learning to play Billy Joel, Barry Manilow and The Carpenters so much easier.

What does an arranger and musical director do?

You work with singers to find the best way for them to perform a song. One of my favorite things to do is take an old song and change it up with new treatments. It’s what Kristin [Chenoweth] did with her new album. You take the standard songbook and put your own stamp on it. Basically, it’s me trying to show people how to make a song their own.

You were the pianist, arranger and associate music director on Fox’s American Idol. Please tell us more about that.

When I got the call for American Idol, I was actually booked for another project. A few weeks later, I called them back and said yes. I ended up doing the show for 15 seasons in 14 years. Nobody knew what the show was in the first season and it just became so huge. Again, the big thing on Idol was for the contestants to change up the arrangements of their song selections. But there was always a catch-22 with the judges. For example, they would advise against doing Mariah or Whitney unless you changed it up but later say “why did you change up a perfectly good song? It was no winning on the show.

How much input did you have on their song choices?

We weren’t allowed to tell anyone what not to sing but I definitely voiced my opinion once or twice. Bo [Bice] sang a song acapella in one of the live shows and I thought it would be a mistake. Acapella is difficult because there’s so many outside factors that can throw your pitch off. Anyway, he performed the song and it was amazing! I would also recommend people not to perform Etta James’ At Last because it was the #1 audition song in all the years I’ve worked on the show. When someone would open their mouth and sing that song it was hard to focus.

Which Idol contestant(s) did you feel were voted off too soon?

So many of them. But the first one that comes to mind is Jennifer Hudson in Season 3. The week she got voted off she sang Elton John’s Circle of Life and I remember thinking to myself “that girl was brilliant.” Of course today she is a huge star and I’ve gotten to work with her again and again. It’s all about the timing for them. There were many contestants that didn’t even make it onto television that were jazz or musical theatre vocalists and were amazing but just not right for Idol.

What would you consider your career highlights?

American Idol. Because of the show I got to work on America’s Got Talent and Steve Harvey’s new show called Little Bigshots. We’re also doing a spinoff called Little Bigshots Forever Young with senior citizens. I’m so incredibly honored to have been the music director on those shows. And I’ve worked with so many unbelievably talented people; legends in the business like Kristin Chenoweth. She is everything to me. I have the most fun with her and she sings every style of music I love – Broadway, classical, pop, standards and gospel.

How did you and Kristin first meet?

I did a couple of The Tonight Show episodes and private functions with her a few years back. And when we did Hairspray Live together, she mentioned needing a musical director for some upcoming tour dates, in which I replied “I will drop everything for you.” She’s just unreal. It is the best musical marriage I’ve been involved with in a long time.

What’s your favorite part about The Art of Elegance tour?

We bring a choir in for every city we visit and they take the stage with Kristin. These kids are huge fans of hers and now get to perform with their idol. It’s the most moving experience and such a thrill to watch. I get letters from the high schools afterward thanking us for this life changing experience. It’s really cool. Also, Kristin and I do a couple of songs with just the piano, which has been fun for us. And the last stop on The Art of Elegance tour is in Boston, Massachusetts where I’m from. The whole family is coming to the show. It’s going to be great!

Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?

Love what you do. So much of this business is luck and timing. I have other talented friends, who haven’t had their big break yet because of timing. I was in the right place at the right time. Talent is important but a lot of it is knowing the right people too. But I feel the biggest part is you have to be a fun hang. People have to enjoy working with you. If not, what’s the point? I’m so grateful and thankful for everything.

For more info on Michael, click here and for The Art of Elegance tour dates click here

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