“This is what a New York apartment looks like the week before a Broadway show.”
HSPVA graduate Wiley DeWeese flips his FaceTime screen to reveal an organized mess that is his Upper West Side home. He purposefully paces toward a FedEx box filled with updated music scores for The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical. For the better part of 2019, he music directed The Lightning Thief on its national tour, a venture so successful, it resulted in a limited Broadway engagement opening this October. DeWeese is sticking around for the ride.
At 27, DeWeese is no stranger to Broadway. Previously, he conducted Amélie (he’s wearing the show’s T-shirt the night of our conversation) and The Band’s Visit. Next year, he’ll join the Bob Dylan musical Girl from the North Country. Stacked resume, budding career, and all, there is a distinction to make when it comes to this job.
“This is my Broadway debut as the person in charge. And as the person who conducts every night,” says the Bellaire native.
He digs through his kitchen freezer after realizing he hasn’t eaten dinner. It’s at capacity with frozen meals – Amy’s Burritos, mostly.
“I’m assuming I’m not going to have time to cook for the next few weeks so I just stocked up,” he says early into our discussion on his journey to a career milestone.
“This is really like The Little Show That Could, right?,” he says, debating on whether to sit or pace his apartment while his burrito cools. His couch wins the battle.
“We all got involved with this show when it was Off-Broadway and it was this little scrappy thing that had a fan base because of the book series that it’s based on.”
The musical, adapted from Rick Riordan’s bestselling novel, was initially developed as a one hour musical for young audiences by TheatreWorks USA in 2014, before growing into a two hour musical for all ages.
“That’s when I came on board,” says DeWeese.
His early days with the show began with a workshop in 2016, an Off-Broadway run in 2017, and a memorable rehearsal process.
“We were trying to figure out how to get a way for someone to pretend to be a centaur onstage with no budget. Like – how to make that happen. Stuff like fooling around with wheelchairs and figuring out how the guy would stand up in the wheelchair to seem like a centaur. Dumb-dumb-dumb things like that,” he says, amazed at the show’s trajectory.
“Seeing how much gas is in the tank is ridiculous. We keep on being like, ‘Okay, okay, okay, it’s about to run out, it’s about to run out. And we felt that way about the Off-Broadway run. Then we had this amazing national tour and then we felt this way about the end of the national tour and then a week before the tour ended I got the call: ‘We have an opportunity to do a limited Broadway engagement.’ The whole experience is crazy only because it proves that you can never know what the project will be that will actually go the distance. I love the show but if you had told me two years ago that we were going to be on Broadway I would’ve laughed in your face. I mean that with love towards the show because I love the show and I think it’s great. I’m so happy it’s going to be on Broadway because it means that a bigger audience is going to be able to experience this little show that has so, so much heart. Yeah, that’s how I feel about it. That’s how I feel at the present moment. I’m like flabbergasted and happy.”
HSPVA moved downtown, Diedrich’s is a Snap Kitchen now, and surely, Wiley DeWeese didn’t make it to Broadway without a sense of humor.
While studying jazz piano at HSPVA’s Montrose campus, he auditioned for the all-school musical Seussical. He
had a callback audition for the role of Jojo but wasn’t cast – an experience, he says, that helped him realize that he preferred playing theater music to being onstage. DeWeese was interested in contemporary theater composer Jason Robert Brown’s work at the time, so in the summer of 2008, he independently produced Brown’s Songs for a New World at Bellaire United Methodist Church. It was here (not Diedrich’s) where DeWeese realized he wanted to be in theater.
“This is the sweet spot of what I like doing. That is, using the musician part of my brain to help make theater happen and to make other people feel things through theater. And that was really when it kind of crystalized,” he says of that inaugural project that gave him his first taste of music directing – something he says wouldn’t have happened had he approached a local theater company.
“I wouldn’t have had the opportunity – no one would let a 15- or 16-year-old music direct,” he says. “We had to engineer our own experiences.” Before graduating high school, he produced two more musicals, Company and Adding Machine.
“I got another hit of the same drug,” he says. “By the time I got to college I was a hundred percent certain that this is what I wanted to do.”
He moved to New York City in 2010 to study music education at NYU, but still had plenty of momentum in the Houston theater community. In 2011, he and two friends launched an independent theater company, Bit of a Stretch.
“It gave me a chance to really hone my craft.”
For three summers, DeWeese produced shows with Bit of a Stretch in Houston while home on break from college. The company presented grittier, less traditional shows such as Floyd Collins, First Lady Suite, Myths and Hymns, and No Exit – shows, he says, that gave the creative team a chance to flex their creative muscles. As the company came to an end, he says the process helped him realize that he no longer wanted to produce shows.
“There’s no visceral satisfaction from it. I enjoy conducting and I enjoy being a music director. All of that actively makes me feel like I’m contributing something that’s tangible and good.”
Back In New York, DeWeese made meaningful connections. Two figures proved to be instrumental to his career. Teresa McCarthy, Broadway actress and NYU faculty at the time, recommended DeWeese to her colleagues for projects after he served as pianist for a class she taught. Musical theater composer Joshua Schmidt, (Adding Machine) recommended DeWeese to Kyle Jarrow (SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical), who later recommended DeWeese to TheatreWorks USA for the two-hour musical of The Lightning Thief.
“That’s how I got Percy,” says DeWeese.
“You never know what is going to be the connection that makes it for you. And I can literally trace every job I’ve ever gotten back to those two people.”
“Both of my parents worked in the theater. I was kind of raised in that.”
DeWeese’s mom worked in wardrobe for tours that came through San Francisco. His dad was a spotlight operator for the city’s sit down production of The Phantom of the Opera.
“I have really fond memories of getting in the booth with him and him showing me, ‘Okay, so when the chandelier falls, I point the light there, and then it falls there, and then I point it there’ and being like ‘Woahhh!,’” he says, reliving the excitement.
“I grew up in that theater environment and then when I moved in with my family in Houston, I kind of drifted away from theater for a part of elementary school and early middle school and I got into more nerdy stuff. Then I kind of found my way back.”
His mom’s breast cancer was genetic. His dad’s lung cancer seemingly came from exposure to asbestos in theater fire curtains. They died within eight months of each other. DeWeese finished the fifth grade in San Francisco, then moved in with the Brackendorff family, Houston-based relatives of DeWeese’s mother. The Brackendorffs became his guardians. After a year, they decided as a family to adopt him.
“It was always planned that I would move in with them if something happened to my parents. That was well established and I knew that well before they passed.”
He says his family in Houston is “very excited” for his Broadway run.
“They’ve been so supportive from the very beginning. If anything, I’m just happy that them coming to see all of the weirder things I’ve done over the years has paid off. They sat through a lot of teenagers not totally knowing what they’re doing. I’m just glad that their time in supporting me doing this, seemingly paid off. It’s also so nice because none of them are theater people. Their support comes with a genuine excitement that is cool, you know? They help me keep a perspective,” he says.
“They help me keep a perspective in two ways. They help me keep a perspective on – this is something cool. I have a tendency to forget that it’s cool.”
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DeWeese says the other way they help him is by letting him know that the stakes aren’t as high as they seem.
“Nothing that I do is life and death. Nothing that I do is brain surgery. The stakes are low and they help me remind me that the stakes are low even as sometimes they feel like they’re high.”
“As someone who works in the arts, it is crucial to remind yourself of that. I will occasionally lose sight of that. You’re deep into a project and you just start kind of having tunnel vision because you have to get the project done. But in the course of doing that you forget that, even if everything goes catastrophically wrong, you’re still going to be okay. Everyone is still going to be okay. Everything is still fine no matter what happens.
"It’s really beautiful when things go right but it is not the end of the world when things aren’t going amazingly. I’m waxing philosophical. There’s nothing more humbling than being home for Thanksgiving and having to remind my cousin what a music director is, you know?”