The Polyphonic Spree’s Cellist Explains How Playing With That Outsized Rock Band Prepared Her For Life As An Orchestra Member In Hamilton’s Tour Production.
Update on July 9, 2020: Late last week, Hamilton finally made its way out of the theater and into living rooms with a filmed version of the stage show premiering as an exclusive offering on the Disney+ streaming service on July 3.
With the production now again at the forefront of the cultural conversation as a result of that move, we thought now would be a good time to once again share our interview with Buffi Jacobs, the Polyphonic Spree cellist who has spent the last couple of years touring with the production as a member of its 10-piece orchestra. In the wake of our interview with her in 2019, Jacobs had only further hitched her wagon to the theater world, moving to New York City to become a substitute orchestra member on Hamilton‘s Broadway show and lining up similar gigs with Jagged Little Pill and Dear Evan Hansen just as shows began getting canceled over coronavirus concerns.
To that end, we also thought we’d share a little perspective that she offered up to her Facebook page in conjunction with the release of the filmed stage production: “There are so many that are excited about viewing Hamilton on Disney+… and I am so happy for you. It’s a great show and I am glad that this will make so many folks happy during dark times. I don’t want to shit in anyone’s cornflakes, but as you are enjoying the show, take a moment to remember this: Everyone single person on that stage, behind that stage, under that stage, behind the scenes and in that building is currently not working. Please make sure you write your senators and sign the petition to help extend unemployment benefits. It’s not just Hamilton, but everyone that participated in creating the art that helped keep you sane during ‘lockdown’ [who] faces long term unemployment and serious financial hardship. We need people to care and take action!”
Jacobs, of course, has a point: Broadway has canceled all productions until 2021 — and, closer to home, the Dallas Theater Center, Dallas Summer Musicals and Dallas Children’s Theater (just to name a very few of the Dallas-area theater stalwarts affected by the pandemic) have been forced to do the same for the time being, all while exploring streaming and other alternative production models.
Among with local resources and national efforts like The Actors Fund, Jacobs personally recommends supporting the theater workers hurt by pandemic-related job losses by writing their legislators and asking them to extend unemployment benefits through the proposed HEROES Act.
Original story follows.
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You’ve probably heard: Hamilton is in town.
It’s been a long time coming, too. Dallas Summer Musicals first announced the touring show’s arrival in Dallas way back in January 2017. And now — finally, almost mercifully — the hit Broadway show has made it to our city.
That’s been the case for a few days now, actually: On April 2, the production kicked off its eight-show-a-week marathon run that’ll last through May 5 at the Music Hall at Fair Park.
But, again, if this is the kind of news that’s of interest to you, you likely already knew all about it.
What you might not have known, however, is that the Hamilton production that’s coming to Dallas — one of three actively touring entities for the colorblind look back at American history — is bringing with it a familiar face to followers of the Dallas music scene. Granted, it’s a face you won’t necessarily see even if you make it out to one of the performances yourself. But it’s there just the same — we promise.
For the last 14 months or so, Polyphonic Spree cellist Buffi Jacobs has been performing underneath the stage as a member of the 10-piece orchestra in the very same touring Hamilton production that just arrived in Dallas.
For Jacobs, the timing’s been kind of perfect: As the notoriously outsized Polyphonic Spree has taken a bit of a backseat to frontman Tim DeLaughter’s focus on his resurgent Tripping Daisy in recent years, Jacobs has been on the road, working with an even bigger touring production. Better yet, after years of working as a musician not just in area rock bands and chamber groups but also in regional theater productions, Jacobs says she’s relishing in this opportunity.
Or so she said during a recent phone conversation once we learned that this is what she’s been up to of late.
Check out what else she had to say — about how her time in the Spree has informed her time in Hamilton; about how a fill-in gig at Dallas Summer Musicals helped land her the gig; and about what she’s most looking forward to doing now that her tour is bringing her back home to Dallas — in our Q&A with her below.
Can you tell me how you got involved with Hamilton?
It’s kind of a weird story. I can’t remember when it was — maybe about a year before [I joined the tour]. I was on my way home from a gig at a funeral, and I got a call from a friend of mine who plays in Dallas Summer Musicals. She had a family emergency and was like, “Do you have a car? Do you have your cello? Do you have a black outfit?” Long story short, she needed me to fill in for her that night for the show — it was actually when Kinky Boots was in town. So I went over to the theater and filled in, and that’s when I met the music director for that tour, Roberto Sinha. And so I filled in, and I met Roberto that way, and I ended up having to do the rest of the run in Dallas for about two weeks because that family emergency kind of stretched out. So, at the end of that, the thing was done, and I didn’t really think anything would come of it. But then Roberto got in touch with me several months later and said, “I know you have a lot going on, but would you ever consider a tour?” And I said, “Yeah, possibly, if the situation works out.” And I asked which tour, and he said “Hamilton. And it’s a whole process. So be prepared for it.”
Were you familiar with Hamilton at that point?.
I had heard about it. And I knew it was a big deal. But I hadn’t gotten around to listening to the music yet. So I didn’t really know what all I was in for other than that it was this huge success. Then they sent me some excerpts, and I started to listen to the soundtrack as a whole to prepare for my audition and to practice so I could send in my audition video. And I’m sure a lot of other folks were doing the same thing. Then I got a call to set up a live audition via Skype, which I did for Roberto and [Hamilton music director, orchestrator and conductor] Alex Lacamoire. Then, about a month later, I heard back. I’d gotten the gig.
At this point, people are pretty familiar with the cultural phenomenon that is Hamilton. But what are things like on the tour for you, as a musician? What are the shows like?
Well, in the band, we’ve got a drummer, and a percussionist. Then we’ve got a guitarist and a bass player, two keyboard players and four strings. So that’s ten people right there. Plus we have one other keyboard player to help with rehearsals and stuff like that — so there are really 11 of us, but 10 perform on a nightly basis.
I’m obviously familiar with you from your work in the Polyphonic Spree, and I know you gigged plenty beyond that as a cellist, but had you done musical theater stuff in the past?
Yeah. I used to do some theater work around town. And I did a small touring run through Tulsa with West Side Story a few years back. But I was kind of off the radar as far as national tours go.
What’s the overall experience been like?
It’s been an amazing experience. I’m super lucky. From Day One, everything’s been great, just from preparing the music on, and really spending the time to listen to the parts and preparing for the tour and hearing how you fit in and what role you play musically. And the music really is something else.
Hamilton‘s obviously been lauded for its music, but as a working musician yourself, what stands out to you about it?
It’s a fusion of rock, pop and hip-hop — all these genres that I’ve been working in for longer than I’d care to admit. It fuses all of it together. And not only that, but I get to play in yet another rock band underneath the stage, which is great because that’s what I’ve been doing all along. We have to learn to function together in the same way, and we’ve since become a very tight-knit group. And you just have to know each other and show up from Day One like you’ve been playing together for years. And, lucky for us, our group dynamic has been great. It’s really a testament to the producers — they know what they are doing. When they cast the the musicians they are taking care of what they are putting together. There’s a whole bunch of things to consider when doing that. It’s not just about skill; it’s about personality. And they know what they’re doing. They’ve put several of these touring shows together, and they do not sacrifice on quality. They have the integrity of the show in mind in every decision they make.
Has your experience with the Polyphonic Spree informed your approach to this at all? Are you noticing similarities?
Yes! Being able to fit into a large group of people and understand that you’re just one of the many moving parts is huge. It’s all about just checking your ego at the door. It’s not about you. It’s about the show, it’s about the production, it’s about art. And that was a very valuable lesson I learned from being in the Spree. But also just to watch and observe and be aware and read the room — because you’re coming into something bigger than you, where this piece of art already existed. You and a ton of people are trying to put this art together — from the crew that builds the sets and runs the lights and runs the electricity to the musicians to the wardrobe to the management to the actors on stage. It is just a giant team of people trying to put this whole production together for you every single night, making sure it goes off without a hitch. And that’s before we even get into the sound engineers — don’t let me leave them out! It’s massive. But what’s funny is that we all get to know each other.
In the Spree, there would be times where, like, three of us would hang out that maybe wouldn’t normally hang out, but those little groups would be interchangeable. It’s the same way on this tour. We’ve have these little field trips or impromptu hangs, and we get to know new people in the group through these little hangs. It’s easy to be involved. But it’s easy too to be not involved by the same token. Everyone has their lives going on inside of the tour and their lives going on outside of the tour. You can participate or not participate. It’s a very beautiful environment. We’re very lucky. And it’s because, I think, of how everybody was so carefully chosen. There’s absolutely no drama. Everyone gets along. Everyone understands why they’re there. It’s very professional.
It does strike me as funny that the Hamilton band itself is smaller than the Spree.
That’s true! The band underneath the stage is smaller than the Polyphonic Spree, yes. But the greater band — meaning everyone involved — that’s way bigger. What’s cool us everyone has their own unique story. You’ve got a lot of people who are new to this environment, but everyone fits right in. Again, that came from the casting process and knowing who and what to look for. Like, even if people are new to this environment, they knew to look for traits that would work. As for me, I’ve done some of this kind of stuff before, but I didn’t ever think I would do it touring-wise. But it’s definitely been lovely experience. And I plan to stick around for as long as they’ll have me.
So, I know that you’ve been part of this tour for a little over a year now. How much of that has been on the road? Have you been able to come home at all?
Well, I actually sold my condo in Dallas. I knew that this was going to be a big change for me, and I didn’t want to oversee the renting of my condo while I was on the road, so I was just like, “OK, let’s just make it free and clear.” I would still say my home base is Dallas for now, though. I’ve flown home a couple of times — once to see my hairdresser [laughs]. That’s a true story! When you’re on the road and you do a lot of crazy colors in your hair, you don’t really want to trust a stranger with it. I also came home for a one-week vacation and rented out an AirBnB.
I know that it’s kind of worked out where Tim DeLaughter has been focusing a lot on Tripping Daisy during this time you’ve spent on the road, but what does this gig mean in terms of your time with the Spree? Are you still a member?
Oh, I’m Spree for life! I think I missed a few gigs, but there’s a lot of flexibility there, and if they do another record, I definitely plan to be a part of it by taking a weekend or whatever. I mean, we get weekends and personal days like that. And the Spree is really good about asking me about my availability. And I just let them know when I can and can’t be there for now.
Beyond the social aspect, are there other ways in which your Spree time compares with your Hamilton work?
Well, touring with the Spree, we would be somewhere new every day. You’d wake up in a new city, and you’d stumble off the tour bus, look for your coffee, then go load your stuff in, set the show up, do your show, load out and stumble back to the tour bus. So, that’s the Spree.
With Hamilton, it’s different because we have long residencies in each city. Like, in Dallas, we’re there for five weeks. The first couple of days are the biggest part of the process. So, you have travel days where you go on to the next city — and I’m actually driving alongside of the tour because I bring my dogs with me. That was the thing for me: My dogs had to be able to come. So we have travel days, and some people are driving and others are flying, and we get there, and the rest of the travel days we have off. And then there’s the load-in day. We move in all of our stuff and get it all set up, and then we report in. And maybe there’s a rehearsal, although there usually isn’t. Then there’s a soundcheck, where I get my station functioning and make sure my in-ears are all good. Then we have a break, and we do our first show that evening.
Normally, we do eight shows a week. We have an option to choose from corporate housing, or we can do our own thing and get, like, an AirBnb. Sometimes the corporate housing makes sense because they’re often literally right across from the theater. But I like the AirBnb’s because it makes you feel like you’re at home. You can grocery shop. You have a kitchen.
Now, coming to Dallas — you couldn’t have foreseen that when you signed on to this, could you? I imagine you were pretty stoked to find out that you were on the tour that was coming here.
Yes, I was very excited about that! And I am looking forward to being around familiar things, like friends and family. I’m very much looking forward to that — and to just other things, like getting my teeth cleaned and having some doctors appointments, stuff like that.
Are you staying with friends while you’re here? What’s the plan?
No, I actually got a really cool AirBnB in the Lakewood. I’m really excited about it. I can go to The Heights every morning for breakfast. I can go to the Lakewood Landing at night. Plus, I’ll be close to a lot of the Spree fam. And it’s pretty close to Fair Park, too.
Has this stop been circled on your calendar for a while? Are you planning on showing the cast around the city at all?
Oh, yeah! I’ve been actually working on a spreadsheet of all the hangs and haunts around town. But that’s what everybody who’s from a city on the tour does. We all put together a “Hey, check this out!” spreadsheet. I’ve got the Lounge Here on there. Twilite Lounge in Deep Ellum, too. That’s another one of my favorites.
Have people been bugging you for tickets?
Yeah, but only a little. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do! We don’t really get any extra tickets. I just point everyone to the Hamilton app where they can play the lottery. Those are really good seats in that lottery, too!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.